Running the Yorkshire Three Peaks

With 2020 casting a shadow over our running aspirations across the year, we were looking forward to fitting in a good adventure day over the Christmas break. The criteria were; it being somewhere hilly and a place that we’d not been before. I had meant to be taking on the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge with work colleagues over the summer for charity – a 25-mile hike over the three highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales; Pen-y-ghent (694m), Whernside (736m) and Ingleborough (723m) within 12 hours – until covid had other plans and we were forced to postpone. We usually venture to the Peak District or the Lakes to run – Yorkshire isn’t somewhere we tend to consider, despite only being an hour away – but, as we were throwing ideas around for our big Christmas expedition, we thought what a great idea to go and run the Yorkshire Three Peaks!

As the day approached, the whole of the country got a blanket of snow and our challenge was looking a tad more challenging than we’d originally thought! Still feeling confident and eager, we borrowed a map (OL2), brushed up on our compass skills and packed every piece of winter running kit we own, stopping shy of crampons. Carb loaded and alarms set for 6am I had that wonderful warm feeling of apprehension you get the night before a big race! Luckily, the following morning the roads weren’t too bad, and despite the heavy fog on the motorway the van got us safely to Horton-in-Ribblesdale just after sunrise, ready to tackle our first peak Pen-y-ghent. You can attempt the peaks in whichever order you want, clockwise or anti-clockwise. The majority of blogs we’d read leaned towards an anti-clockwise approach from Pen-y-ghent, then Whernside and finally Ingleborough. With no prior knowledge of the area, we went with this suggestion and we were so happy we did (more on that later)!

All wrapped up and ready to go!

Pen-y-ghent: the climb up Pen-y-ghent was short, but steep. This may be the smallest of the three mountains, but I’d say it was the most technical with a short scrambling section about two thirds of the way up. The sun was still low but trying to shine through the snowy mist creating an amazing pink haze which only got prettier the higher we got – it may have been -3˚ but it was looking like it was going to be a beautiful, clear winters day and our spirits were running high. What should have been an easy scramble was made more difficult given how frozen all the rocks were! It took a while, but we managed to find a clear line amongst the sheets of ice. We were just thankful we were climbing up and not down – which is reason number one why the route was better this way around. We reached the summit in around 40 minutes and the views did not disappoint!

Icy scramble up Pen-y-ghent
Hazy views across the Yorkshire Dales on the climb up Pen-y-ghent

Not wanting to hang around and lose body heat, we headed through the gap stile to left of the summit and followed a well-marked path off the other side. The run down was fantastic! The ground was good, and we picked up some speed as we descended with the view of Whernside ahead. From Pen-y-ghent summit to Whernside summit it is around 11 miles, which is quite a slog! Another reason to tackle the challenge this direction, as I imagine the distance would become quite tiresome on worn out legs. The path was good for a while and then we hit a series of farmers fields and icy tracks which were a bit harder to navigate. We kept the impressive Ribblehead Viaduct in view and came up on Whernside at around the 3-hour point.

Whernside & Ingleborough in the distance

Whernside: this was the easiest climb – a slow winding route that loops you around and up over the ridge line. As we began the steady incline, the sun shone brightly and the whole vista looked like a winter wonderland. Having never skied or lived anywhere with much snow, this was honestly unlike anything I had ever seen! Munching away on our sandwiches, we attacked some sketchy icy sections before a slow, careful run to the trig point signalling Whernside summit – wahoo, two peaks in the bag! The route down was fun at first, but the compacted ice on the stone steps made the final decent more of a skate. We took a line adjacent to the main path on the grass and made it down safely, although my legs and knees were starting to feel the burn by the time we were back running on the flat. With Ingleborough clearly in view ahead, the distance in between these two was much shorter than Whernside and Pen-y-ghent. It was around 2pm now and the sun was starting to creep back towards the horizon – although we had headtorches in our packs – we knew we needed to push a little harder to get up and over the final peak if we wanted to get back to the van in daylight.

Whernside: a winter wonderland
Not ideal running conditions up Whernside!
Heading for Whernside summit

Ingleborough: with the sun behind the mountain we were starting to feel the chill. Nathan pulled out some Christmas cake he’d packed which lifted the mood as we trudged diagonally across a series of frozen farmer’s fields. There was a few hundred metres of steep steps up ahead which we’d gathered by now would-be mini-ice-rinks (third and final reason why this was the best direction to do the route)! With careful foot placement and use of handholds, it didn’t take us too long to haul ourselves up the final accent. The last section to the trig point was an out-and-back and with the dusky sky the views from the summit plateau were so beautiful and rewarding. After taking in the last of the epic scenery, we retraced our steps and veered off right to start the decent back towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. It was about 4 miles down, which on tired legs felt like an age! We arrived back at the van around 6 and a half hours after we’d left – feeling cold, tired but so, so grateful for such a magical day and our love and ability to enjoy running so much.

Final push up Ingleborough
Ingleborough summit
Yorkshire Three Peaks completed – heading back to Horton-in-Ribblesdale

As we drove home friends and family messaged about the latest government tier 4 announcement and our gratitude increased ten-fold knowing this might be our last trip out for a short while. Someone very wise once told me, the further you put yourself out on a limb, the greater the reward and it couldn’t be more true! Let’s hope for many more running adventures in 2021 x

Runners high on Pen-y-ghent summit!

Anyone looking to plan their own Yorkshire Three Peaks adventure – this website has an eBook was really useful for tips on parking and route finding.

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