Simian’s Three Peaks Challenge – Our Story of Triumph & Disaster
3rd October 2019
A cold and blustery morning in mid-March, a typical day’s inspections in front of us, on one of Manchester city centre’s myriad of towering new apartment blocks. A mundane site which was well managed, uneventful and coming towards completion and the perfect place for one of SIMIAN’s newest additions, Dean Butler, to get to grips with the basics of his new role of Scaffolding Safety Advisor.
Dean seemed to absorb every moment, from our brief encounters and exchanges with the site team to our many chats with the various contractors around site. He scribbled down notes as we weaved in and out of the labyrinth of underground carparks, staircases and corridors which were home to some of the few remaining scaffolds left on the project, chatting as we flitted between work and non-work related small talk.
Afterwards we sat down to hack out our inspection report in a café across the street from the job, ordered a coffee and some breakfast, and talk quickly drifted from tubes, fittings, load classes and compliance sheets to our own hobbies, interests and what made us tick outside of work.
It was clear from the outset that Dean and I were on the same wavelength, we had read the same books, had listened to many of the same keynote speakers and podcasts and had both consciously engaged in a journey of personal development that had brought us to SIMIAN. We were both goal-orientated and seemed to relish in the prospect of a challenge, and, at some point in the conversation, the topic of mental toughness and resilience arose.
I explained that my own path through life had not been an easy one, and that on more than one occasion scaffolding had offered me salvation. It had kept me out of prison as a misunderstood teenager, pulled me out of two episodes of deep depression after losing my father and stepfather to suicide within thirteen months of one another, and had allowed me to see the world and eventually save for my family home after working in Germany and then the iron ore mines of Western Australia. I felt that my role as an Instructor allowed me to give something back to an industry that had quite literally saved my life.
I spoke of how I’d always wanted to raise funds for a mental health awareness charity, a subject which I felt I had a calling towards and a mission to change the perception of. I mentioned that my mother and sister had recently run the Manchester 10k for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and that their efforts had given me further inspiration to get started.
Within an hour of us sitting down to write our report, which by then was on the ‘to do list’, the idea had been born, and the email sent out. The Three Peaks Challenge was on, and we had half the company on board.
The next few months were a frenzy of fundraising, physical training and organisation. Attempting to get the word of our attempt to climb the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales within a 24-hour period, out to as many people as possible while working full time at SIMIAN and preparing for the physical rigors of the unknown, twenty three miles, 11,178ft of rocky terrain and at least thirty four hours without sleep!
To prepare I’d spend the weekends out walking the hills of Snowdonia and the Lake District accompanied by Dean, Dave Burrows & Mike Dean of SIMIAN, a 5am 2.5 mile run Monday to Friday, before jumping in the car and heading to our CISRS training centre at Dudley college, a roughly 2 hour drive from my home in Manchester, all while my partner Sarah and our two young daughters snoozed.
Once there I would complete a day training Scaffolders and Site Managers in between vlogging & blogging, sending emails and making phone calls, rallying support for our attempt. I’d drive home, hit the gym every other night and do my best to ensure that family life was as unaffected as possible, reading stories, washing dishes and doing what I could to lighten the burden on Sarah, whose support was unwavering.
A balanced meal was on the table every night, a tub of ‘overnight’ oats in the fridge for the next morning and all while staving off morning sickness while pregnant with our third child.
The day grew ever closer, and with the donations total now approaching £500, all of which had been contributed by individuals who had been inspired by our story and message, our plea for £100 slots on our corporate sponsorship shirt was heard.
First by Access Solutions Scaffolding in London, who went in big with a colossal £1,000. Next was Daniel Norton from ScaffMag, who explained that male suicide prevention was a subject close to his own heart and, with his support, the word of our attempt began to spread like wildfire.
Summit Marine Scaffolding from Liverpool, followed by Star Scaffolding in West Bromwich, both offered to double the amount we were asking for. Donations came in from some of the stellar names in the scaffolding industry, such as SpanSet, as well as from close friends Stephen Haslam from CS Haslam Scaffolding Solutions and Carl Agana from Elite Scaffolding Solutions in Manchester. Another good friend, Lee Woods from Woods Scaffolding Ltd along with Amber Scaffolding Ltd from Sussex were also quick to show their support. Unfortunately, a late donation came in from Connect Scaffolding Ltd of Hertfordshire, who with the shirts now in print, narrowly missed out on the final spot, by which time our total had soared to over £3,500! Sorry guys!
When the day finally arrived for us to put boots on the ground, each of us woke at around 7am and made the short journey from either our homes or hotels to SIMIAN’s HQ in Warrington, ready to begin the seven-hour drive to Fort William. Our Driver, SIMIAN’s Nick Vigor was a late replacement for Dean’s cousin, whom we realised a week before the climb, did not have the required classification on his licence to drive the sixteen-seater minibus, hired for us courtesy of SIMIAN.
This potential banana skin should have served as an omen for what was to come, but elated to have found a last-minute replacement without whom our challenge would have been derailed before it had even begun, and eager to get some miles under our feet, we set off on our ascent of Ben Nevis.
The weather was horrendous, humid and warm with intermittent spells of torrential rain, making visibility and sightseeing a virtual impossibility early on in our attempt. This wasn’t too much of an inconvenience for me, I had packed light, had dry clothes back on the bus and knew that the clock was more important than soaking in the beautiful views which would have otherwise been available.
The Three Peaks Challenge demands a pace of five hours for the first mountain and four hours for the second two, with no possibility of us making time up on the roads as our minibus was limited to 68mph, and would need to be driven much slower than that on the narrow country lanes of Highland Scotland. That to me meant that the only variable within our control was our own speed. Or so I thought.
As we climbed it became clear that Iain Corcoran, our Business Development Manager, was in some discomfort and struggling with a sprained ankle. Myself, Dean, Mike, Tommy Jennings and Dallas Cooper were all slightly ahead of the five-hour pace with Dave and Jamie Lyons just behind and helping to push Iain on.
As the gap became more pronounced, I decided to run the five minutes back down to see if there was anything I could do to assist. Iain was having some trouble with his ankle but was moving in the right direction, hampered by a backpack which was at least three or four times the weight of my own. We swapped, and I set off back to the front which was by now some ten minutes jog uphill. We made the summit with enough time to take a few pictures and headed back down, where we passed our teammates who were still plugging away. We hit the bottom just inside of our five-hour target and waited for signs that the others had made it.
Six hours after setting off, the second group staggered back to the bus, injured, fatigued but ready for another climb just six hours later after a long drive and whatever sleep we could manage. The setback had cost us, but we were still in the fight. An hour is a lot to claw back on a walk, but I had already made my mind up weeks before, that even if it meant sprinting up the final mountain in my trainers, wearing just my shorts and t-shirt I would do everything in my power to make the twenty-four-hour deadline. I’d even packed routine jogging gear, just in case!
As we drove, each of us trying desperately to find a comfortable position to sleep in, we heard whispers from the front seats. Ruth, Nick’s wife who had selflessly offered to co-pilot him during the night-time driving was becoming concerned. We opened our eyes and saw that a thick fog was limiting visibility to just a few feet. She needed a decision and as we slowed, she turned back and said the words we were all dreading, “can somebody make a call here?”
As much as we all wanted to push on out of bullish determination, we knew that doing so could well jeopardise all of our safety. Ruth had done the right thing, and without exception, we all agreed that pulling into a layby to re-assess would be the correct decision.
An hour and a half passed; it was late so the roads were quiet but as we sat on that pitch-black layby, we began to notice traffic thundering past. Did they know something we didn’t? Another decision was made, we’d creep our way forwards and at least attempt to get to the next safe place to pull over.
What could have only been 200 yards later the fog had lifted, we had perfect visibility and were motoring towards Scafell Pike. We had been sat in a cloud!
Exasperated, but able to find humour in our setbacks we arrived in the Lake District at around seven am, some two and a half hours off the pace. Wearily, we got out of the bus, laced up our boots and set off hopeful of clawing back at least a few precious minutes.
Unfortunately, it became apparent that Iain’s injury had worsened and that walking even on the flatter terrain was sending shockwaves of pain through his ankle which were now etched into the expression on his face. The twenty four-hour challenge had been dealt a terminal blow, and it was decided that we would now have to settle for a finish outside of the deadline. I still held onto hopes of the improbable but not impossible scaling of Snowdon within the time frame, even if it meant that the descent would lie outside of the 5pm finish line at Pen-y-Pass. But for now, it was agreed that we would be able to absorb the views, take some photographs and enjoy the experience free from the constraints of the ‘drop-dead time’.
We took it all in, got up and down unscathed and in good spirits, exchanged some handshakes and man hugs back at the minibus, where we enjoyed a bacon sandwich and a coffee before heading for the last leg of our journey. None of us could have anticipated what came next.
A head on collision was tailing traffic back for miles in either direction. The small rural lanes of the Lake District were clogged for as far as the eye could see, with many motorists now sat outside of their vehicles on the roadside waiting for the emergency services to clear the wreckage. As we desperately tried to find enough 4G signal for a reroute, the fate of our mission became clear. Not only would it be impossible to beat the clock, but the third and final mountain would be too far away and too long a drive for our driver to safely undertake after yet another hour and a half of lost time.
Beleaguered, we headed back to Warrington to accept the inevitable, the mood on the bus was sombre as supportive messages from colleagues Susan Russell and Steve Odger started to hit our group chat. They had also been taking part in the walks, but over two days, and even their attempt had been hampered by the nationwide yellow weather warnings. Everyone was reassured that circumstances were beyond our control and that we had still raised thousands of pounds for a worthy charity.
Those messages were comforting, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that if I could just get to Snowdon, if I could be at the foot of that mountain by eight pm then it was still possible to hit the summit before sunset.
I told the group of my intentions, one by one they each tried to talk me out of my decision. I’d be alone, it would be dark and even if I could manage the terrain and conditions, I’d still have a two and a half hour drive back to Manchester at the end of it all, after what would have probably been thirty six hours or so without sleep.
They were right, and I knew it, but my mind was made up, I had to finish. I had spent too long training, and had taken too much money from those wonderful people who had backed and believed in me, and I now saw finishing as the perfect metaphor for overcoming any of life’s adversities. This would be my message of hope, my way of inspiring anybody who would read or listen to our story, and, with determination I made the call.
I’d been texting back and forth with Sarah throughout the drive back, she was aware of the overwhelming setbacks and, as I explained my intentions to continue to her, I was astonished by her response.
She explained that she knew there was little that she or anybody else would be able to do to talk me out of it. “Once you’ve made your mind up,” she said. “Nothing is going to stop you from doing it, so just go for it!” She made it clear that she had her reservations but also wished me luck and told me how proud she and the girls were of me and with that, I prepared myself for the drive to Snowdon.
As our bus neared Warrington, another text message came through. My Mother had been texting Sarah for updates who had described the situation to her. They shared the same sense of apprehension; they were proud but uncomfortable with me going it alone and had hatched a plan for a designated driver to assist. My phone lit up. My older brother Joe was at home, and was not only going to drive me to Snowdon, he was going to scale it with me!
We met at SIMIAN HQ, packed the car with a few supplies, including head torches belonging to Tommy & Dave. Dave had been crucial to the survival of the attempt, he had helped Iain through his injury, driven the bus for periods during the night to allow Nick to rest and now, with his head torch in my brothers car, myself and Joe were off to finish the job.
The sun was beginning to set as we arrived at the foot of the mountain, the torrential rain had cleared and we were ready for the final push. Joe, a couple of years older than me, reasonably fit but not accustomed to hill walking, downed two huge cans of an energy drink, hoping that it would keep him alert and give him a boost before tackling the 3,560 ft ascent. We joked that this was probably not the best pre-climb nutrition but regardless, driven to beat the sunset, and setting a blistering pace considering the circumstances, we took off.
As daylight began to disappear and darkness crept in, we looked on as the summit and even the shape of the mountain disappeared into the same kind of dense fog that had paralysed our minibus the night before, on our drive through the Highlands. The head torches did virtually nothing to illuminate the narrow paths which were still slippery from the downpours earlier in the day. We marched on for what must have only been another three or four hundred yards, beyond the narrow pass, and there we were, standing face to face with the railway line, and only a matter of minutes away from the trig point.
Elated, we began thundering towards our destiny and at almost eleven pm, nearly forty hours after blast-off, our mission was complete! I was stood in pitch darkness, at the highest point in Wales, with the only other human being alive who could have possibly understood how much it all meant to me -my older brother.
There in the darkness, nearly ten years to the day since we lost our Dad, we shared a hug and let the magnitude of what we’d just achieved sink in. Although the one and a half-hour path back down would put us seven miles away from the car park at Pen-Y-Pass, the feeling of euphoria was palpable. Even the prospect of that two-hour walk uphill in the darkness was not enough to dampen our spirits. As we walked and joked, our legs cramped and seized, our feet blistered and our energy faltered until, in the distance we saw head torches.
“You guys must have driven here?” I said to the two young men who were out bouldering and preparing to bed down for the night. “Yeah, car’s over there…” came the reply from the youngest of the two. “Boys…” I said to the lads, after explaining what the hell we were doing out there at two am on a Monday morning on a national speed limit road in Snowdonia, “I’ve got a fiver to my name!” “Do us a favour, put this towards your breakfast in the morning and take us to Pen-Y-Pass…” A ten minute drive for them, or another forty-five minute walk away for us.
Like a true hero the young man agreed and that was that, we climbed into the boot of his knackered Ford Escort, which had had it’s back seats removed and bedding lay out across it, got back to the car where I cracked an ice-cold Peroni and pondered the future.
I learned more in those forty-five hours than I had about myself in the previous four or five years leading up to them! There were still nine more challenges to plan (more on those another time!) and, with a new-found confidence, I looked forward to adding to the total, which now stands, at £4,354.03 + £371.25 Gift Aid. I plan on getting back on those mountains in September, this time to claim a finish inside of the twenty-four-hour deadline. But for now, at least,
Anyone wishing to show their support to this superb charity, can do so via our just giving page!