One of England’s grandest and most remote valleys has long suffered from crowds, cars and litter, much of it due to the Three Peaks Challenge. We meet the people spearheading a new effort to get it under control.
Glow sticks. For most people they conjure images of sweaty raves, Shaun Ryder and people in various states of happy intoxication. They are not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a place praised by Wordsworth and heralded for containing ‘Britain’s favourite view’.
Sarah Medcalf from the National Trust was surprised, too. “There were a couple of days this summer when we found them on the path in the mornings,” she says. “People dropped them every few metres to mark the way in the dark. I was horrified.”
So how do containers of poisonous chemiluminescent liquid end up strewn over a Lake District mountain? Adventurous ravers? The answer is that the valley is Wasdale, and the mountain in question is the highest in England, Scafell Pike.
The glow sticks were almost certainly left by a group taking part in the Three Peaks Challenge, where participants try and climb the tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in one bleary-eyed 24-hour push. Sandwiched as it is between Ben Nevis and Snowdon, Scafell Pike often ends up being attempted in the dark. The glow sticks were evidently one group’s solution to the problem of night navigation – a cheaper option, certainly, than hiring competent leaders, but not the best as far as the local ecology goes.
Wasdale is something of a paradox. Hemmed in by mountains on all sides, reachable only by a long and tortuous drive to the western side of the Lake District, it is a backwater by ‘urban’ standards, a place where the wiggly pattern of dry stone walls dates from medieval times and sheep outnumber people by a considerable margin. But for lovers of mountains, Wasdale is a place of world significance. Overlooked by the brooding presences of England’s mountain gods – Great Gable, Scafell, Scafell Pike – it has served throughout history as the inspiration for the Lakes Poets, the nursery of rock climbing, and in modern times produced the legendary farmer and fell runner Joss Naylor. But in more recent years Wasdale’s status as a mountain Mecca has given rise to a dark side – the damage and disturbance caused by the sheer number of visitors, and in particular those attempting the Three Peaks Challenge.
Sarah’s job title is Wasdale Visitor Management Project Officer, but a more informal description might be ‘mess manager’. Her post was created just over seven months ago with the help of the Lake District National Park to help coordinate the Trust’s response to visitor pressures in Wasdale.
It would be wrong to say that all the problems in Wasdale stem from people attempting the Three Peaks Challenge – the valley gets large numbers of ‘ordinary’ visitors too. But the nature of the Three Peaks means its participants often leave a mark out of proportion to their actual numbers.
“You can’t say for definite that Three Peakers have a worse impact than regular visitors”, says Sarah. “But there are lots of factors that can often make dealing with them harder. A lot of people attempting the challenge aren’t regular hill walkers, so they’ve got no idea about how to navigate or what the norms of behaviour in the countryside are. They’re often in a rush when they arrive in Wasdale, so they perhaps aren’t aware of what state they leave things in. The toilets we’ve installed in the car park get very grim a lot quicker than they should – they should be able to keep up with the demand, but they currently aren’t. And then there’s the fact that challenge visitors often arrive at night. I have a feeling people feel less responsible at night, as if they can get away with behaviour that wouldn’t be acceptable otherwise.”
Heavy traffic on Wasdale's narrow roads
Exact numbers of Three Peakers are hard to quantify. “People estimate that there are 30,000 people doing it per year, but it seems to be a figure plucked out of thin air,” says Sarah. “But we do know several hundred people are using our footpaths overnight at weekends from Easter onwards. On the four weeks either side of the summer solstice it can be as many as 500 people every Saturday night. But of course that doesn’t capture people doing the challenge during the day, or people parking elsewhere in Wasdale and using other routes. It’s very hard to get exact numbers.”
Alongside Sarah’s appointment, the Trust has also embarked on a £30,000 overhaul of its facilities in Wasdale, and in particular its car park at the north-east end of Wast Water, Wasdale’s sternly beautiful lake. It has created marked bays for cars and minibuses installed new signs, installed a new tea and coffee hut to allow a staff presence and hired a handful of temporary toilets. The hope is that Three Peakers and visitors generally will gravitate to the new car park and reduce pressure on the settlement at Wasdale Head, a little further up the road, where residents have complained of minibuses disgorging noisy crowds in the middle of the night and people treating their fields as toilets. The work will develop over the years to come, with possible additional formal car parking and the replacement of the temporary toilets with permanent ones.
But Sarah emphasises that the task is as much about communication as infrastructure. “We emailed about 90 transport and adventure companies who provide Three Peaks packages to let them know about the new arrangements,” says Sarah. “Some have been brilliant and really responsible – one even gave us a £400 donation because they recognise what they’re doing has an impact. But others have been silent. Of the companies we contacted, only about a quarter got back in touch.”
So have the new changes made a difference? “There have been much fewer problems this year,” Sarah says. “We’ve definitely had fewer complaints from residents. But it is going to take time. The biggest challenge is getting the message out to the public about the Three Peaks so that people think about the environmental implications before attempting it. I would like there to be a sort of public consciousness about it.”
Coupled with this increased communication effort has been a change in tone and emphasis. In years gone by the approach of organisations like the Trust – and the BMC – to the Three Peaks has been one of straightforward deterrence. Whatever the moral merit of this approach, it plainly hasn’t been successful – the popularity of the event continues to mushroom year on year.
“People in the past have just said ‘we wish people didn’t do it’, but now we’re trying to change that” says Sarah. “You’ve got to recognise that people are going to do it anyway, so we’re trying to be more positive and proactive. Part of this approach is emphasising there are ways of doing fundraising events that don’t have an impact; saying the Three Peaks isn’t the only answer, there are other things you can do.
“Having said that, we also think there are certain things that could be really great about doing the Three Peaks. What if people doing it thought about the places they were in, and learned about them? What if they gave some sort of pay back to the conservation charities? What if they used public transport? What if doing it became a springboard to a love of the mountains generally? The Three Peaks isn’t just a problem; it could also be an opportunity.”
And what is the BMC doing to help? We're on the brink of several new initiatives aimed at managing the effects of visitor pressure in the mountains, including producing written guidance for organisers of big groups and challenges, organising a visitor engagement event in Wasdale on August Bank Holiday, and hosting an access conference on 9 October on the theme of challenge events events in the uplands and the dilemas they bring.
If you are involved in challenge events in the uplands, come along to this conference. We would like to hear from you in order to shape our future policy and guidance. More information is below.
Click here for the National Trust's guidance on doing the Three Peaks Challenge from Wasdale.
EVENT: BMC access conference October 9 2014: Challenge events in the uplands
This year's BMC access conference is set to look at the cost and benefits of challenge events in the outdoors, including the Three Peaks Challenge, and how these can be managed. It will be held at the Rheged Centre in Penrith on 9 October.
The registration fee for the conference is just £30 per delegate for BMC members and £40 per delegate for non-members. BMC membership costs just £14.97 for the first year when you sign up by Direct Debit.
For more information on this event and how to register, click here.
READ MORE: Done the Three Peaks Challenge and want to take on more mountains? Get into hill walking with these BMC resources
New Hill Walkers Booklet: A comprehensive introduction to the skills, equipment and know-how you need to walk in the mountains. Download the booklet for free
Hill Walking Essentials DVD: Follow Fredelina and Ben as they learn essential skills and techniques for the British mountains. Buy it now in the BMC shop.
Safety on Mountains: Your essential guide to safe hill walking. Available to buy in the BMC shop.
COURSES: Learn from professionals
BMC Active Outdoors: Want to learn all the skills you need to be a confident hill walker at a bargain price? The BMC's Active Outdoor courses include 'Head for the Hills' courses, affordable hill walking weekends for beginners at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia.
Hill and Mountain Skills: The BMC's partner organisation Mountain Training has just launched its new Hill and Mountain Skills Courses. They aim to equip you with the basic knowledge and safety skills required to participate in hill and mountain walking in your own time and are run by providers all over the UK.
TWITTER: Follow the BMC's hill walking Twitter feed: @BMC_Walk