Photo Credit: Photo by Spencer Jones
The Three Peaks Challenge In The UK Was A Lesson In Navigating Failure And Grief
Are you familiar with The Three Peaks Challenge? It entails climbing the three tallest mountains in Great Britain in as close to 24 hours as possible, including travel time.
Why, oh why, would I want to partake in such insanity? Earlier this year, my favorite aunt died of pancreatic cancer, and I wanted to honor her memory in a unique way. She knew I liked climbing tall buildings, but I couldn’t find any tower climbing events for pancreatic cancer awareness. The Three Peaks Challenge was the perfect alternative, and the funds I raised would go to Pancreatic Cancer UK.
I could do this. I knew I could. Right? For my aunt, and all those impacted by that terrible cancer.
But life thought I needed a dose of humility. Stairs aren’t mountains. Just because you can do one pretty quickly doesn’t mean you can do the other. I thought all my tower climbs and a handful of mountains counted as sufficient conditioning. It helped, sure. But there’s no way to gain mountain climbing experience other than to get on those peaks as often as possible.
“Be bold, start cold!” our guide, Sam, told us before we began our ascent of Ben Nevis in Scotland. While in motion, it’s easier to put layers on than take them off. At 4,413 feet, Ben Nevis is the tallest peak in Britain, and he’ll treat you to all four seasons if he feels like it. Rain, sun, and at the very top, hail, and snow. Not to mention the winds, which could knock a grown man on his backside, or off the mountain altogether.
Sam, a straight shooter with military discipline, was honest about the perils of Ben Nevis. People wandered into the mist and fell to their deaths. If the wind got too wild, we would have to come down. But I wasn’t anticipating having to do that at the 950-foot mark.
I had fire in my heart, but it wasn’t enough. One minute we were climbing together, the next, the others pulled out of view. At one point, Sam paused to tell me, “You really have to want this.” And I did, more than anything. But I didn’t have the speed of the other guys. The guide didn’t have to explicitly tell me to go back down. I knew there were time constraints and it wouldn’t be fair to hold back the other climbers.
As I headed to the Visitor Center, the idyllic scenery was something to behold. I hadn’t been to Scotland in over twenty years, but I never forgot how striking it was with its green valleys dotted by little houses and grazing sheep. The sound of water trickling between rocks. And strangers were so considerate; saying “good morning!” and “you alright?” in that typically British way.
The others came down in a few hours. Seeing my disappointment, one of the climbers presented me with a gift- a rock from the summit. He brought me rocks from Scafell Pike in England and Snowdon in Wales, too. He said, “You have to promise me that one day you’ll get your own.”
And he had no idea how badly I wanted that.
We needed headlamps to guide us in the darkness at Scafell Pike. It was quite steep, and you could hear the rush of the river to your right, but couldn’t see it. I managed to keep a swift pace, only to turn back and sit in the van with our friendly driver, Brian. I felt like I could cry, but the tears wouldn’t fall. A short walk in the rain cleared my mind, but when it really started to come down, I returned to the vehicle and listened to music.
It was still dark when we arrived in Wales early Sunday. Sam asked me, “What is your plan?” If I decided to climb Snowdon, there would be no option to exit. None of the businesses nearby were open yet and our driver would be meeting us at a different place from where he dropped us off. I couldn’t risk being stranded so I stayed seated.
I was happy the guys finished the challenge, but I was also bitter. I’d traveled from the other side of the world and didn’t summit a single mountain. On the drive back to my hotel in Manchester, my mind began to spiral. I was a failure and an embarrassment. I had fallen short of my plan to honor Aunt Cynthia. And that hurt most of all.
I made an Instagram video in my hotel room explaining how I felt about the challenge. When I joined my family near London, they showed me so much love and said I should be proud of myself for even trying.
During my last days in Britain, I spent as much time in Aunt Cynthia’s garden as I could. It would be the last time, as the house was going to be put on the market. While sitting on her bench, I looked around and reflected. I felt her presence in every blade of grass, in every flower, and even the butterflies and bees. I missed her terribly. But she wouldn’t want me to spend too much time moping, and if I was really serious about tackling those mountains again, it would require lifestyle changes.
Now that I’m back in New York, I’ve kicked my plan into high gear. I’ve cut out alcohol temporarily to aid in weight loss. My diet is cleaner. I’m incorporating as much mountain climbing into my schedule as I can before snow sets in. I’ll run hills in the park and train indoors to stay conditioned. 2023 will be my year of redemption.
Sometimes, I like to read messages my aunt sent on WhatApp in her final years. They remind me of her love and support, which transcend death.
On October 3, I wrote to her, though I knew a response would never come.
“Your absence is so palpable. I wish you were here. I wish I hadn’t delayed my UK visit for ten years. That was precious time we could have gotten together. I’m sorry I didn’t quite finish the mountain climbing challenge. But I will be back to try again. I’ve got to do it. For you.”
Related: Traveler’s Story: I Climbed Gros Piton in St. Lucia Twice In 4 Days To Test My Mental And Physical Limits