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The Yorkshire Dales Challenge

This week, Nadia El-Awady discusses the trials and tribulations of hiking.

Ever since I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2008, I've been in love with hiking. I love the challenge involved in pushing yourself farther than you thought your legs could go, higher than you thought your lungs could breathe, and harder than you thought your body could take. I love being in the midst of nature with little more than some snacks and my wit to sustain me. Hiking is one of the most exhilarating and exciting activities I have ever engaged in.

Climbing Pen-y-ghent in the Yorkshire Dales. Photo credit: Colin McFadden

Wherever I go, I do my best to look up the local hiking options. It has become an integral part of most of my travels. Luckily, my husband enjoys hiking even more than I do. So when he started acquainting me with the area he lives in in the UK, the Yorkshire Dales were top of the list.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park was established in 1954 and covers an area of 1,762 km in the north of England. In the west of the Yorkshire Dales lie three of the area’s highest peaks: Pen-y-ghent, Whernside, and Ingleborough. Hiking the three peaks in less than 12 hours is a popular challenge for avid hikers living in the region. It involves a 39km-long walk and 1,600 meters in total of ascent and descent.

Any day of the week you will find hikers climbing one of the three peaks. Each climb and descent takes somewhere between 2 – 3 hours. Climbing one of the peaks is a brilliant way to spend a Saturday afternoon. On a clear day, the views from the summits of these mountains are stunning. The area is comprised of a limestone landscape with heath, grassland, and bog areas all around.

Colin had already taken me to hike Whernside last summer and Ingleborough in the beginning of November. I told him I really wanted to do the three-peak challenge. An Egyptian hiking buddy of mine was coming to visit mid-November and we agreed it would be fun to do it then.

Climbing Ingleborough in early November. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Colin had only done the three-peak challenge in the summer. He had done it several times so he knew the route well. He was slightly concerned about conducting the hike in the winter when the days are very short and we have only nine hours of sunlight. We agreed that we should be able to push ourselves hard and finish the hike in about ten hours (instead of the average twelve hours in the challenge). This way we would need to hike only the last hour in the dark. Colin said the last part of the trail was clear and it shouldn’t be a problem.

We parked our car in the very small village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. You are meant to walk a complete circuit that starts where you parked your car and ends there. The difficulty lies in the fact that there is no public transportation in the area and once you start your hike your only option is to go forward or to retrace your steps backward in order to get back to your car.

We began the hike up Pen-y-ghent at 7am. It took us about an hour to climb the 694 meters to the top. We met several climbers who were doing the same three-peak challenge but who had an earlier start. They were already on their way down. We summited, took a quick picture at the top, and immediately started on our way down. We wanted to catch up with the other groups. Colin, a sturdy Scotsman who has done a lot of hiking on the Scottish Munros and in the Yorkshire Dales, is a man who believes in using his instinct while out in nature. Compasses, maps, and GPSs are for sissies, I’m certain is his sentiment. Colin believes in sniffing out the trail. And as our leader for the three-peak challenge we depended solely on his sense of smell to find the ill-marked trails of the Yorkshire Dales.

And the mud begins… Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Colin followed the route he was used to taking while hiking the three peaks during the summer. None of the other groups were anywhere in sight. It was strange because we weren’t that far behind them. We found ourselves jumping over one muddy puddle after another. And as we continued further, the muddy puddles turned into muddy pools. The pools then began to coalesce. As we continued forward, it became more and more difficult to find narrow enough areas in the mud for us to jump over. Eventually, each of us began falling into the mud. First it was only a foot. Then the muddy areas became so wide that a whole leg would get caught in them. It was becoming clear that these were mud pits. I had seen nothing of the sort before. I asked Colin, “Are these bogs?” “Yes,” he confirmed.

It was fun at first. Colin and I held hands and jumped over a particularly large muddy pit. We fell in at its edge. We were still holding hands and we were both face down in the mud, our lower legs deep in the muddy pit. We laughed hysterically. We held onto the sturdy earth in front of us and pulled ourselves out. Mud and water seeped into my hiking boots. Mud fully covered my rain jacket and snow pants. For a few moments while I was face down in the mud, the smell of it made me think that this wasn’t mud after all. We were knee-deep in shit! But somewhere information stored in the back of my head from years ago told me that bogs smelled like shit but they were just mud. We continued on. We came across a large boggy area. We couldn’t find a way around it and the jumps were too wide for us. Colin jumped anyway. He fell waist-deep into the pit. “I’m stuck! I need help!” he called out to Muhammed and me. There was nothing we could do. There was nowhere for us to jump to in order to get closer to Colin without falling into a muddy pit ourselves. I got as close to him as I could and stood watching him helplessly. Right in front of him were the bones of a dead animal; most probably a sheep that got caught in the bog and was unable to get out.Colin did everything he was supposed to do in this situation. He did not panic. He slowly lay down on his stomach to increase the surface area of his body on the muddy pit and began to ease out one of his legs. It was very hard work. It looked painful. He managed to pull one leg out and then used that as a lever to pull his other leg out. He crawled on his stomach until he reached more solid ground. Somehow he managed to jump back to where Muhammed and I were standing. We all looked at each other. We were muddy from head to toe. We were wet. Our feet were muddy and wet. And we were still at the beginning of the hike. “This doesn’t look like it’s going to work,” Colin said. I agreed. We’d have to abort the hike. But we had no choice but to push forward and find a road. None of us wanted to head back into the bogs we had just barely managed to free ourselves from.

We walked on. The path became less muddy and more clear. We finally seemed to be heading in the right direction. Then finally we saw people. We were relieved. As we came closer we noticed that none of them were as muddy as we were. We spoke to the first group. We discovered that we had taken what is known as the shortcut. Everyone else had taken a longer but drier route. Colin’s strong Scottish sense of smell had led us straight into the bogs.

By this time we had all agreed that we might as well try to finish the hike. We caught up with the other groups and passed them, so we were on track in terms of time. We all had wet feet. But we agreed that it should be all right as long as we kept moving. The worst that could happen would be that we get blisters on our feet and they get a little cold. We were going to move forward.

The road to Whernside, known as the “roof of Yorkshire”, was long. When we reached its bottom, sometime just after noon, we stopped for a quick sandwich and some tea. We then pushed forward and reached its 736m summit in a bit less than two hours. It was rainy and misty for most of the climb. Picture again at the top and we were on our way. The climb down from Whernside was rough, steep and rocky.

On top of Whernside. Photo credit: some random dude
We began the climb up the last and, in my opinion, the most difficult of the three peaks, 723 meter Ingleborough, just after 3pm. It was a very steep climb and we were spent. We pushed hard and reached the summit just after 4pm. It was getting dark and it was raining. None of us were looking forward to the hike down. We managed to get down the roughest part of the mountain while there was still some light. But soon we had to take out our headlamps. Colin promised that the trail back to our car would be clear. It wasn’t. Even with the headlamps we found great difficulty making out the trail. Mud had gathered everywhere and the trail seemed to disappear because of it. We walked through the mud. By now normal mud was nothing to us. As long as they weren’t deep pits of killer mud, we couldn’t care less. Our feet were already soggy. Nothing worse could happen. It did. We lost the trail. It was nowhere to be seen. It was dark. It was rainy. We had no map. No compass. No GPS. We moved forward, the only logical direction to move. We saw the headlamps of another group of hikers far behind us. They were moving in our general direction. We also eventually saw town lights far ahead of us. We needed to keep moving in that direction. We slowed down significantly. We found a stone fence across our path and couldn’t find a way around it. We took a large part of its length either way. Nothing. The other hiking group caught up with us. Together, we decided to move to the right. Eventually we found a door in the fence that allowed us to get to the other side. “This is like a video game,” I thought out loud. Eventually, the trail appeared under the light of our headlamps. Colin, Muhammed and I rushed forward. We just wanted to get to our car and take off our wet socks. We crossed a train track and found ourselves walking into town. “Hallelujah!” I rejoiced. A few minutes more and the sound of Colin’s car beeping in response to a click on his key made us jump for joy.
Spent on top of Ingleborough. Photo credit: Colin McFadden

We had hiked the Yorkshire Dales Three Peaks in exactly 12 hours despite getting lost in the bogs once and getting lost in the dark a second time.

“Colin, next time I want to hike the three highest peaks in the UK!” I said, already looking forward to my next challenge. “Absolutely,” he replied. “But we’re definitely not doing it in the winter,” he warned. We had all learned our lesson.

It was an exceptional hike, but not one to be done in the winter, especially if one lacks strong navigational skills and the tools to go with them.Next weekend I’ll be taking a course on navigation. I’m not putting myself in that situation again!


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