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Three Peaks Challenge Mountain Navigation Problems

Three Peaks Challenge logoAll mountains need to be treated with respect and taken seriously.  Even the easiest routes on the most benign mountain can cause problems, especially in bad weather or poor visibility.

High wind speeds and driving rain can make progress difficult on the mountains at any time of the year, especially if this is coupled with poor visibility.  Communication within and between teams can become impossible in a raging gale. Group safety must always be the top priority on a mountain challenge. Check the forecast and if in doubt postpone the event until the weather improves.

Good navigation is key to mountain safety. The most likely areas for walkers to experience navigation problems on the national three peaks challenge are:-

  • The summit area and upper reaches of the Mountain Track on Ben Nevis

  • The upper sections of the routes on Scafell Pike

Navigation on Ben Nevis in poor visibility is particularly difficult and critical because of the many danger areas surrounding the summit area, which basically is a broad ridge almost completely surrounded by dangerous cliffs and gullies.  Most days of the year the summit of Ben Nevis is in cloud and snow cover remains until late summer.  Note the "safe bearings" dog-leg route from the summit trig point that keeps walkers away from Gardyloo Gully and Five Finger Gully in poor visibility.

The "summer path" across the summit of Ben Nevis goes quite close to the top of Gardyloo Gully, but is quite safe in good visibility summer conditions. The usual recommendation is to use the summer path if the visibility is good and the path is clearly visible, but if poor visibility or snow cover means that the safe route across the summit is not clearly visible, then use the well publicised safe compass bearings and distances as shown on the guide-map.   Unfortunately poor visibility is not uncommon on Ben Nevis and for this reason it is vital to have a good map and compass (and to know how to use them) on the summit of the Ben.

Study the map and guide carefully beforehand and make sure you can use a map and compass properly - this is not the place to learn to map read!

Ben Nevis summit area March 2010  

A few years ago many "spurious" rock cairns were removed from the summit of Ben Nevis, but recently a line of six foot high cairns at 50 metre intervals has been re-built to mark the much publicised "safe bearings" dog-leg route, i.e. not the normal "summer path."  Provided they are not covered by snow in winter (see photo), way-marking cairns can provide useful reassurance in poor visibility, but with or without cairns its still essential to have, and be able to use, a good map and compass at any time of the year on Ben Nevis. 

We would not advise anyone without extensive experience of the mountain to risk being high on Ben Nevis as night falls, however once down to the level of Lochcan Meall an t-Suidhe (the Halfway Lochcan) the path is relatively easy to follow, even in fading light.

The problem with a strategy that involves a descent at dusk is that any delay or unexpected problem means being on the mountain at night.

High on Scafell Pike the routes are all on rock and not clearly marked.  The route from Wasdale is fairly easy to follow in good visibility, but it is easy to take a wrong turn or miss the route completely when the visibility is poor (again, not unusual), especially when descending from the summit.  Navigation errors are quite common here.  The rock cairns on and around Scafell Pike can be very misleading, it is essential to use a map and compass to find the correct route off the mountain in anything other than perfect visibility.  The lower part of the route to/from Wasdale, below the top of Brown Tongue is relatively straightforward to follow, but care is still needed. The two routes from Seathwaite (the Corridor Route and the Esk Hause route) both require particularly careful navigation, especially in poor conditions.

If Snowdon is tackled at night, this too can present problems, even on the Llanberis Path which is probably the easiest route to follow. The area below the summit around Bwlch Glas and down to Clogwyn requires the most care.

Two common navigation errors on Snowdon are:-

a) To miss the start of the PYG Track on Bwlch Glas when coming down from the summit and to continue down on the Llanberis Path.  Alternatively when intending to use the Llanberis Path to take the PYG Track by mistake, or even worse to head for Crib y Ddysgl.  There is a large finger stone on Bwlch Glas marking the top of the PYG Track.

b) When using the PYG Track to climb Snowdon to inadvertently start climbing up towards Crib Goch at Bwlch y Moch instead of continuing on the PYG Track over the twin stiles.  This has led to walkers with insufficient experience on rock getting into difficulties and requiring Mountain Rescue assistance!

Bwlch y Moch on Snowdon PYG Track  

This is Bwlch y Moch on the Snowdon PYG Track, looking over Llyn (lake) Llydaw towards the cliffs of Y Lliwedd on the far side of the Snowdon Horseshoe. The summit of Snowdon is just to the right of the picture and the PYG Track is the lower path which goes more or less straight on over the two side-by-side stiles centre right. The track leading up on the right of the picture heads up towards Crib Goch, which is a tough and very exposed ridge scrambling route to Snowdon.


To avoid causing unnecessary erosion on the mountains please keep to the paths and do not take shortcuts.

All the above needs to be considered carefully when planning a challenge schedule, and also the need to respect the local communities and protect sensitive environments.  The Institute of Fundraising Code of Conduct agreed with the major charities states that teams should not arrive or depart inhabited areas at unsocial hours (originally defined as between midnight and 5AM), so please respect this and try to avoid arriving or departing Wasdale Head or Seathwaite at a time that could disturb the local communities.

The Mountain Navigation page contains plenty of information on basic navigation techniques using map, compass and GPS.  A useful and practical guide to completing the Three Peaks safely is part of the 2018 Challenge Team Pack.

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