Tap…………………. tap……….. tap……. tap…. tap… tap tap tap tap…
Rain drops the size of what sounded like golf balls pounded the roof of the minibus, growing in frequency and ferocity. The rain was being propelled through the dark stormy night of Wasdale Head by the increasingly wild winds, whilst the red tail lights of other minibuses parked up waiting for their teams of ‘Three Peakers’, glowed ominously as I peered through rain obscured windscreen. The minibus silent but for the sound of our driver catching some much needed sleep, the red glow and occasional flash of a head torch darting between the buses was a reassuring sign that we weren’t alone.
The FWC Three Peak Challenge was well into its 17th hour at this point. Having bagged Ben Nevis earlier that Saturday the ever fearless and determined team of 26 ladies and 5 mountain guides set off into the Lake District blackness, equipped with their rucksacks, kit and a huge amount of what we had come to call, the FWC spirit, together we CAN achieve anything. This belief amongst the team had bonded the girls from the moment the drivers of the three minibuses turned the key to their engines at 6am the previous Friday morning. Weaving their way north up the motorways of Great Britain, the minibuses filled with chatter swinging from fits of laughter to cautious admissions of nerves, fears of failing and worries about the weather.
0207 and the radio crackled into life. A strained voice battling the 65mph gusting winds confirmed a team had summited and were descending back to the minibuses! Relief as gradually similar messages filtered through finally followed in the early hours of Sunday morning by a message I will never forget… “get the minibuses fired up we’re 30 minutes outside of camp!” Get in! The girls were nearly back. As the minibuses whirred into life, engines were revved to pump the heat through to the interiors, and the boiler was fired up to heat water for the ration packs. The rain eased and the wind dropped just enough to allow the boiler to do its job and get the brews on. It was as if Scafell Pike had kept its worst for our summit attempt, wanting to test the girl’s rallying cry that together we really could achieve anything.
The sight of blue cylumes and bobbing head torches in blackness signaled the arrival of the first team back to the car park. As names were ticked off and dashes to the toilets made the air was filled with tales of extreme weather conditions, winds knocking girls off their feet, rain reaching parts of us which would normally have remained dry and visibility which was considered non-existent at the best of times. “Dulux hasn’t even discovered that shade of black!” one girl giggled as she described the view from the top and rang her soggy socks out beside the bus. Hot drinks were administered, wet kit peeled off and the realisation of what the girls had been through crept slowly through the team like an autumnal dawn break.
As the buses meandered at pace over the tumultuous and somewhat heart stopping roads surrounding Wasdale the adrenaline-fuelled chatter took a more reflective tone and the niggles, chaffing and muscular weariness took their place at the front of the queue to let their presence be felt. Soon a silent sleepy hush filled the buses. The message came through at 0603. After a detailed analysis of the latest Snowdon weather forecast and a recalculation of the timings, the guides and Heather had made the decision to suspend the challenge and not proceed to Snowdon. Had Scafell Pike won? Halting us in our attempts to complete the National Three Peaks by draining our ticking clock to a point which prevented us from reaching our goal? No. Three minibuses of forces wives, tired and soggy relinquished their consciousness to the comforts of sleep. Safe and in relatively good spirits, they had summited the craggy peak of Scafell Pike despite what she threw at them and they were travelling home. A mutual respect between the mountain, with its power and might and that of the forces wives’ resilience and sheer determination to succeed had been established.
The buses pulled into the Lancaster services and the girls grabbed a hot drink and caught up with each other’s experiences of the night before. What had we all learnt? As Heather invited everyone to share their experiences of the night before, what they had learnt and what had stood out, stories of friendship and support emerged. Girls literally guiding each other blind through the blackness, a friend’s hand squeezed tight in reassurance that despite the horrific weather and conditions ‘it was ok. We will be alright’. The lack of sleep and exertions of the night before had left emotional defences useless and the odd tear crept down the ruddy, windswept cheeks of those gathered. Even the steely, invincible grit of the mountain guides had been softened and was replaced with broad smiles of pride and the odd ‘strong’ fist bump!
What had we learnt? Realising that each of us had depths to our personality and resilience reserves that we didn’t know existed our thoughts turned to the technical and more practical side of our experience; including but not limited to:
1) Undergarments… “cotton kills!” one girl exclaimed as she told how her under garments had become soggy with the rain and had uncomfortably chaffed. “I won’t be wearing my racer-back bra again, but going for a more traditional sports bra next time” another confirmed after explaining that it had pulled on her neck and chaffed against her day sack throughout the challenge.
2)“I’m never wearing drawstring walking trousers again!”… fits of laughter erupted as this person humorously explained that she had nearly lost her trousers to gravity half way up the mountain.
3) “Buy nice or buy twice!” the girls nodded, as it was agreed that the walking poles that had been purchased for the challenge weren’t really up to the task and like a good pair of walking boots, poles too were as personal and specific to the user!
4) The art of layering up for the challenge and day-sack organisation were discussed. Finding coats were too warm but necessary but having no intermediate layer left some of the girls in a dilemma… however now with a cast iron excuse to buy more kit post challenge!
5) It was unanimous that a multitude of Dry sacks, in different sizes and colours would enable one to compartmentalise kit into easy to grab smaller bags to aid the quick turnaround times between the peaks…. The learning points emerging were hitting a note with everyone gathered!
One final team photo, hugs and promises to “keep in touch, see you at the challenge” and the three minibuses departed the services, each bound for home.
There are few situations that truly warrant the word incredible. A word so flippantly used in today’s language, used alongside amazing, awesome and remarkable to describe everyday events. Scafell Pike had made sure that she had etched herself into the permanent vaults of everyone’s memory that night. She wanted to be the mountain to be remembered and talked about over her two sisters that weekend. A truly incredible night of sheer determination and will power that will be talked about for years to come by those amazing girls over glasses of fizzing prosecco and no doubt repeated by their awesome, brightly clothed mountain guides over a pub pint!