The Yorkshire Three Peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside are notoriously done as a challenge in which you climb all three and walk the 25 mile route in under 12 hours. Perhaps it was this level of exertion that had stopped me from visiting the area. But in need of a final big stomp and taxing hills as pre-Kilimanjaro training, I thought it was time I tackled them ..... over two days. Given the lack of daylight hours in winter, I felt this to be the more sensible option instead of getting lost in the dark.
I'd walked in the Yorkshire Dales as part of the Coast to Coast. My impression was that of rolling green hills, bubbling rivers, lots of stone walls and derelict stone barns. It was pretty and gentle. The Three Peaks bit of the Yorkshire Dales National Park is nothing like that. It's dramatic, stark and vast, with pockets of picture-book prettiness like the Ribblehead viaduct in between. It's a place that absolutely should be on your bucket list to visit.
The challenge route typically starts in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, goes up Pen-y-ghent first (694m), then onto Whernside (736m) and ends with Ingleborough (723m) to wipe you out. It can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise and you can also be started in Horton, Chapel le Dale or Ribblehead, all of which have accommodation.
We decided to base ourselves in Horton, arriving on the Friday night so we could head off bright and early on Saturday. Our plan was to go in reverse, taking in Ingleborough and Whernside, catching the train from Ribblehead back to Horton-in-Ribblesdale in the evening, and then climbing Pen-y-Ghent directly from Horton the next morning, skipping the long trudge between Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside. This would give us time to get back and collect kids from long suffering friends.
But in hindsight, we could have done this a lot better. At just over an hour and a half from York, we could have got there for 9.30 and saved ourselves the cost of accommodation for the first night (and the breakfast disaster the following morning - more below). We could have parked our car in Horton and climbed Ingleborough and Whernside, staying at the Station Inn at Ribblehead overnight. It offers B&B rooms, plus it has bunk barns and camping as options. The staff we met were friendly, the food is hearty and it is right on the Three Peaks route meaning you don't have to divert and add extra miles. On day two, we could have walked to Pen-y-ghent, climbed it and returned to our car. You can also catch a train from Horton as it's on the Settle Carlisle line.
In Horton-in-Ribblesdale there are two pubs - The Golden Lion and the Crown. Choose the Crown. We made the mistake of choosing the Golden Lion. The staff could not have been less friendly. The 'continental breakfast' (which is all you can get if you want an early start) was four plastic tupperware boxes of stale cereal, a jug of milk and some artificial orange juice. No tea, coffee or toast. The second morning we were there, we'd arranged for the Full English for 8.30, the earliest they will serve it. Except they didn't. No-one turned up. So I would avoid it and choose somewhere else to stay. There is a pub in Chapel le Dale - The Old Hill Inn - which gets good reviews. And the Station Inn mentioned above is another option depending on where on the route you want to break.
Each of the peaks has one side that is steeper than the other. If you're going anti-clockwise starting with Pen-y-Ghent, you hit the steep bit on the way up with a more gentle descent. Whernside has the gentler ascent and a very steep down, while Ingleborough has a very steep ascent and more gentle descent. Obviously these are all reversed if you do them in a clockwise direction. Whichever way you do it, you are going to have at least one very steep ascent and one very steep descent. There are also plenty of flat bits and more gradual inclines and declines in between.
The route is signposted but I would strongly recommend taking an OS map and compass too. When we walked, we were hit with a blizzard and we could easily have got lost without our map and compass as visibility was non-existent. In fact the trig point on top of Ingleborough was just 4 metres from us when it finally became visible through the snow.
Should the clouds clear, the views from the top are breath taking (as is the climb to get there), and it makes all the huffing and puffing worth it.
There were a few challenging bits. The climb up Pen-y-ghent going up the steep way from Brackenbottom, was particularly tough because the snow the day before had iced over. There is a section where you need to scramble up boulders, which when icy, didn't give a very firm grip. Similarly, the steep descent down Ingleborough (bearing in mind we did it clockwise so we had the steep bit going down) was tough on the knees, while the slog up to Whernside was particularly unrelenting with a climb that never seemed to end.
Pen-y-Ghent was the busiest of the three peaks, Ingleborough the least busy but that may have been due to the weather which hit at the time we climbed.
Ingleborough and Whernside above. Pen-y-ghent below
What to take
You will need proper waterproof walking boots for this walk and I'd strongly advise gaiters too. I used walking poles and found they helped both on the ascents and descents, as well as keeping balance in the icy patches. Definitely take layers, including warm stuff, hats, gloves and snood, plus waterproofs. The weather at the top of the peaks can be pretty fierce so it's best to have everything you might need.
Take plenty of water and a thermos of hot tea is very welcome on a cold winter's day. You will need a packed lunch as you are out for a fairly long time with few (any?) places to get a bite. The Station Inn serves food all day, but most other pubs seemed to only open after 5 or 6pm in winter.
Don't forget a camera for the incredible views!
I wouldn't recommend walking this on your own in winter. It gets properly fierce up there, so for safety, I'd go with others and at least someone who can read a map. You will need a reasonable level of fitness to get up the hills. For a girly weekend, it would be great, starting in Horton, staying in Ribblehead or Chapel le Dale, and returning to Horton the next day. Don't expect luxury accommodation. The pub rooms will be very basic and the food more filling than gastronomic. But you just need a place to lay your head, a hot shower, a warm meal to refuel and a glass of wine or beer after a big walk. And you'll certainly feel as though you've been away for a lot longer than a weekend.