The Nissan Leaf carts Steve Cropley and his collection of climbers around the country while they take on the Three Peaks Challenge.
It wasn’t even our idea. There we were, chipping away at the familiar walls of the Autocar salt mines, when a bloke called Dominic Vizor, one of Nissan’s 8000-odd employees in the UK, came up with the idea of a Nissan-Autocar team doing the celebrated Three Peaks Challenge and using a Nissan Leaf for the 470-mile journey it entailed.
Vizor’s plan fell on unexpectedly fertile ground. Hacks are known for sedentary pursuits such as typing and sitting in cars but, as luck would have it, editor Matt Burt is oddly partial to running up hills for sport. So he needed minimal encouragement to start hand-picking a team to ascend the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales – Ben Nevis in the Grampian Mountains, Scafell Pike in the Lake District and Snowdon in north-western Wales. Our team would be driven between them as quickly as possible in our Leaf long-term test car.
The hill-walking hard nuts who invented the Three Peaks Challenge tend to stipulate that entrants must complete the task in either 24 or 36 hours but, at the outset, we reckoned a time in between the two was most likely, given the lingering scarcity of fast chargers for battery cars north of Edinburgh and Glasgow and the consequent need to drive our Leaf with restraint to extend its range.
Why choose an electric car at all, many of our friends and family wondered. Why not take a nice, long-legged diesel like everyone else who has ever done the Three Peaks?
We had three good reasons. First, it’d be a good story. As far as we knew, no one had done it. Second, electric cars are indisputably coming, and fast. Charging points may still be scarce in remoter Scotland, but 10 years ago there were none at all. Third, we liked the challenge and we liked the car. Quiz anyone who knows the Leaf and two things soon emerge: that the car is unfailingly smooth, quiet, convenient and comfortable and, compared with others, it is impressively roomy and efficient at moving both people and gear.
Still, preparation was clearly needed – not just packing boots, maps, water, wet-weather gear and the all-important talcum powder but also doing some serious route planning. I’d already done a couple of Leaf trips from home to the top of England and established that, for all the official claims that our new, longer-range 30kWh Leaf could do 156 miles on the New European Driving Cycle – a governmental purveyor of falsehoods if ever there was one – the safe range at a 60mph cruise was about 110 miles.
Even then, in adverse conditions (headwinds, long gradients) you had to be prepared for will-it-conk agonies in the last few miles. In the planning at least, a nice, round 100 miles made sense for each leg, keeping 10 in reserve.
While I planned, the team assembled: Burt, photographer Luc Lacey and Nissan’s Lucy Goss would be the hill runners, your humble servant would be Leaf driver and head of electric charging, and Nissan’s Annie Jones would drive the Nissan Navara we decided was necessary for support. I’d heard on the Leaf grapevine that if you ran completely out of juice, towing your Nissan in regeneration mode would revive the battery with surprising speed. I bought a stout tow rope.
Deciding where to drive was easy. Half an hour on the net of trawling others’ experiences made it clear that the Google Maps route was correct: from Fort William (near Ben Nevis), we’d drive the A82 to Glasgow’s northern outskirts, then use the M82 and A82M to carry us south-east to Carlisle, before taking the sinuous A595 west to the picturesque, singlelane approach road to Wasdale Head (from which you walk to Scafell Pike). That would complete the first 259-mile leg, requiring (as far as we knew) two half-hour stops for recharging, provided the Leaf was ‘full’ at Fort William.
Scafell Pike conquered, we’d continue on the A595 south to the M6 until it linked with the M56 and A55 to carry us west, until we dived south again on the A470 to Betws-y-Coed and Snowdon. That leg was 214 miles. I figured we’d do it with just one stop in good conditions.
The route was simple, but planning the charging stops wasn’t so obvious. We needed fast chargers, so I spent Sunday afternoon with the Ecotricity and Chargemaster apps – and the excellent Zap-Map as back-up – and with my paper maps spread out on the dining room table, measuring distances and assessing charging stations. I selected four optimal stops and a bunch of alternatives in case the plan went wrong. As I should have known it would…
We flew to Inverness on the Monday morning on a breezy/ cloudy/sunny day, and then drove the 65 miles to Fort William to be united with the fully charged Leaf and begin. The plan was for the runners to meet a professional guide, Rich Pyne (richmountainexperiences@ outlook.com) in the Camanachd car park at 4pm, returning at about 9pm. Then our two-car, fiveperson équipe would head south, driving and battery-charging through the night to avoid traffic, arriving at Scafell Pike at about 4am.
The climbers would then do their stuff again over five hours and be back at the car by 9am. Then we’d drive/charge for six more hours to Snowdon (arriving 3-4pm), whereupon the climbers would be in action again for another five hours. If it all worked, we’d be sipping champagne in Snowdonia at 8-9pm. Then we’d head back to London in the Navara. Time was tight, however. Burt and I were irrevocably due at work on the Wednesday morning…
In the Camanachd car park, Pyne seemed impressed with the level of our walkers’ preparation and optimistic about their chances of returning by 9pm. But in the mountains, things go wrong. First, it was harder than expected. Second, it was the darkest night of the month. Third, our party encountered a distressed climber who needed hours of help, with the result that our intrepid Autocar-Nissan mountaineers emerged from the car park’s pitch blackness at 11pm, in a pretty exhausted state.
How long is it since you stayed awake all night? For me, it had been years, and I’d been worrying about having to drive all night while the others slumbered in shifts in the other cars. Luckily, our charging regime would require stops every 90-120 minutes, which I reckoned would help, and it did. Despite the fears, I was still feeling okay when the sky began to lighten many hours later. But first there was work to do. Our original, optimistic plan was to squeeze 124 miles out of the Leaf and make an Ecotricity charging point on the M74, just south of Glasgow. That proved a fool’s errand, as I should have known it would.
Our ruse to avoid traffic was scuppered by all-night trucks on Scotland’s one and only arterial road south from Fort William, all of which travelled at 45mph on a single lane. You couldn’t overtake because you couldn’t see well enough. Then around Glen Coe, we started seeing deer everywhere – big ones, standing proud right beside the road.
Fear of collisions limited speed, too, although the animals rarely moved as we passed. Worst of all was my poor awareness, on this moonless night, of the rise and fall of the road, so my plan to gain speed on downgrades and concede it going up died there and then. It must have cost us 10% of range.
A fruitless stop at 88 miles at an inert Balloch charging point hardly helped, but as we flailed about, Zap-Map came to the rescue at 110 miles, finding us a slow charger in outer Glasgow just as various Leaf warning lights began flashing their unwillingness to proceed. The car slowly swallowed about 50% of free charge and we were off again, heading for an Ecotricity-Roadchef fast charger near J4 of the M74, where it took one of the new £6-a-throw charges to reach 98% in 32 minutes (as the invoice sent to my phone makes clear). By then it was 4.30am.
On we forged, now on the motorway, cruising at up to 65mph behind the quicker trucks. Any more than that, especially without assistance, and the stored charge falls quickly. The mountaineers slumbered as Annie and I drove, but it was patently clear we weren’t going to reach Scafell without another electric tickle and, anyway, the climbers would need feeding up for their next exploit. So we pulled up to another Ecotricity pump, this time at Gretna with 200 miles on the odometer, with an easy 65 miles to run.
It was now 7.30am and our schedule was shot to pieces. By now, our team was supposed to have scaled Scafell Pike and be halfway down. Still, we forged on and made the Pike, or at least the welcoming hotel at its base, by 9.30am, and I set about charging the car (via a cable through the window) while the others blearily made themselves ready for more mountaineering.
Shamefully, I found a room and took about three hours’ shut-eye while they scrabbled over hill and dale. By 1pm, they’d bested Lingmell, a smaller peak in the shadow of Scafell Pike’s daunting scree slopes, but with time and the magnetic lure of lunch in a warm pub working against them, our climbers decided against striking out for the big prize.
Nevetheless, there was still considerable elation in the camp despite rain, fatigue and an awareness that our plans were in ruins. Must have been the endorphins. The elation continued over lunch, even as we realised the major plan was lost.
To meet immovable appointments in London the next day, there was simply no time to soldier on to Snowdonia. Arrogantly, perhaps, we’d given ourselves no time to make mistakes. We’d started at the wrong time of day, driven the Highlands too slowly and consequently run out of that most precious of all commodities: hours. Even if we jumped in the Navara now, at 2pm, we would still hardly be back in the Smoke by midnight. That decided it: we parked the Leaf at Snowdon – for collection later – and set off south in our doughty double-cab Nissan pick-up.
I was sorry to leave the Leaf. It had been faithful, and great to drive, and entirely true to its parameters. It was I, its custodian, who had messed up. It had every right to be displeased with me, but as I parked it where it could be easily collected, it felt as docile and obedient as ever.
We reached London at midnight and were soon tucked up in our various beds. Viewed with cold logic, our exploit was an abject failure. But doing it by Leaf turns out to be perfectly viable if you prepare more wisely – as we intend to prove in the future.
Are we nearly there yet?
“Only seven more corners to go,” chirrups mountain leader Rich Pyne as he pauses to allow us to catch him up and then catch our breath. I follow his gaze, vainly trying to pinpoint the top he’s referring to as he tries to motivate us onwards to the top of Ben Nevis via the well-trodden Mountain Path.
We’ve been trudging for three hours and I hope we’re reaching some kind of final push to the top. The corners Pyne is referring to mark the completion of a section of a steep, zig-zagging path.
The route up has taken its toll on my short legs and rusty joints. It’s also surprisingly mentally taxing, reading the terrain and focusing on where you’re putting your feet.
Then all of a sudden, every sweaty step is worth it: we reach the final section to the 1345-metre summit and the gradient relaxes. It’s windy and cold, but the roof of the British Isles is, astonishingly, bathed in late evening sunshine. I want to linger, but we’re behind schedule, so after a few photos near the abandoned weather station, we begin retracing our steps.
I’m not much fun when I’m knackered. Pyne has seen it all before and offers gentle encouragement as I grumble and stumble all the way back down to the end of our 10.5-mile trek. In darkness, I collapse into the back of the Leaf for some shut-eye while Steve ferries us to Cumbria via myriad charging points.
The hum of the electric motor helps me to drop off, but I wake up frequently to glance at the Leaf’s battery indicator. Range anxiety has infiltrated my sleep.
At the base of Scafell Pike, the disappointment of abandoning is tinged with secret relief, because I suspect I would have seriously struggled. As is often the way with such challenges, though, as the muscle ache diminishes I begin to yearn for a second attempt. Much like the Leaf, I could do with a longer range from my energy stores…