Big Hex - a Scottish Climbing Challenge

© Douglas Nicholson

Site user Bobby Motherwell describes the first successful completion of a climbing feat he dreamed up with his mates. The Big Hex Challenge is a fundraising effort on behalf of the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MRCofS) - and anyone's free to have a go for themselves. Do you fancy your chances?

It was many years ago that we sat together in a cold bothy somewhere in northern Scotland – I cannot remember where - and hatched a plan to develop a "3 peak type challenge" for climbers. Fuelled mostly by whisky and enthusiastic climbing tales, we came up with Big Hex. It didn't have a name then, and I don't think we were really sure that any of us would ever get down to actually doing it, but it was our project and we revelled in long protracted discussions about its feasibility.

The rules are: Climb and descend six classic routes on three Scottish Mountains within either a 36 hour, 48 hour or 72 hour period. Sound simple?

High on Ben Nevis, first of the three mountains  © Ken Harris
High on Ben Nevis, first of the three mountains
© Ken Harris

So here we were, Eric Horne, Kenny Harris and myself finally, after all those years, making our first attempt at the Big Hex Challenge. Starting on The Ben we'd go up Northeast Buttress and down Tower Ridge; then over to Skye for Sgurr nan Gillean's Pinnacle Ridge and West Ridge; and finally back to Buachaille Etive Mor, climbed via North Buttress and descended by way of Curved Ridge. We hoped to fit that little lot into the 36 hour slot. And so it begins...

Monday 24th June

Eric and I set off from Howwood around 6.00pm, picking up Kenny en route to Fort William. I had booked tonight's accommodation at Alan Kimber's Bunkhouse "Calluna" and our accommodation on Skye the following night was at the Slig Bunkhouse. We arrived at Calluna in time to drop off our stuff, claim our beds and head down to the Fort for a couple of pints – 'not too many remember, we are supposed to be taking this seriously'. We were greeted at the bunkhouse by the man himself, his voice instantly recognizable as "Norman Collie", the short role he played in the Triple Echo TV production of The Edge (A History of Mountaineering in Scotland) where he re enacted some of the classic climbs which Norman Collie and John McKenzie put up in Skye in the golden age of climbing, and in full period costume. I was tempted to ask him to say 'Fine climbing John!', but I don't think he'd have appreciated it.

We picked up some chips on the way back from the pub and headed home; we would regret them in the morning.

The view from Mountain Rescue

big hex boxout  © Douglas Nicholson

"Scottish Mountain Rescue Teams are proud to provide a world-class voluntary search and rescue service 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year" says Jonathan Hart, Chair of Scottish Mountain Rescue (MRCofS). 

"I am deeply grateful to all of the teams and other partner responders who continue to provide a vital public service for Scotland's local communities. The support of the Big Hex challenge is a most welcome source of fundraising as it comes direclty from the Scottish climbing, scrambling and hill walking community, and enables folks to raise funds whilst they are out doing what they enjoy and revelling in the great Scottish outdoors."

"Every little bit helps. It costs about £40-50K a year to maintain an active Scottish MR team. We do get support from the Scottish Government (for which we're grateful): it's a grant contribution of £312K against annual running costs of approx £1M nationally for our 27 teams. In addition we need support to fund our National coordination functions and all donations are very warmly welcomed."

"After a winter of bad press re mountain safety and access issues in the Scottish mountains the Big Hex Challenge is a great antidote to all that negativity, and a celebration of getting out there, doing it, and raising cash for Scottish MR. Fabulous...bring it on!"

Tuesday 25th July

I dozed restlessly to surface around 5.45am. Eric and Kenny soon followed. We had agreed that an early-ish start from North Face car park would give us the best of the weather. A dry morning was forecast with cloud and wet moving in during the afternoon. We agreed to start at 7.00am, so to achieve the 36 hour category we'd need to complete our challenge by 7.00pm the following day.

Setting off for the North Face car park the chips were beginning to negotiate our collective digestion systems. It was finally happening. I don't know about the others, but I was a bit apprehensive. I also had the words of my son Louie ringing in my ears from a phone call, he was crying 'I miss you dad, and I love you'. This was going to be tough.

"The 40ft Corner was wet. We stood looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity, each hoping the other would volunteer to lead"

By 8.15am we were at the CIC hut. North East Buttress and Tower Ridge still had some clag hanging over them, but it did look to be lifting. We refueled and set off to find the start of North East Buttress which can be problematic in poor visibility. We followed the base of the buttress round and up to the point where you can just about make out a goat track which leads across to the ridge proper. The rock was wet in parts and slippery. We made our way carefully and slowly across, realising that the route was going to take some time. We gained the ridge proper and got geared up. Harness, helmet and gear were all removed from the rucksack, leaving just the rope for its appearance at the Mantrap. Our combined recollections of the route should have seen us fly up it, however at the very start we were not entirely sure which way to go, with apparently three options available. I was rather apprehensive of the route I had chosen due to the wetness of the rock, however after Eric and Kenny had assessed the other options, it was clear that it was indeed up the chimney I had started on. My confidence at this point was not at an all time high. We moved up carefully and slowly, knowing we did not have to make record time on this part of the challenge, but that rain threatened later. Rain on the way down Tower Ridge did not appeal. Eventually we arrived at the Mantrap.

Crossing Tower Gap  © Bobby Motherwell
Crossing Tower Gap
© Bobby Motherwell
Descending off the Great Tower  © Bobby Motherwell
Descending off the Great Tower
© Bobby Motherwell

Eric set up a belay as it was obvious that we would not be soloing it. I volunteered to lead. I had lead it the last time and fallen off it once before, finally succeeding at the second attempt; I wanted to make amends. It wasn't to be. I made an almighty hash of it. Some very positive belaying (ahem!) from Eric saw me through the initial move and a bit of faffing got me up and over it. I set up a belay and took the guys up. Now came the real problem. Eric confirmed Kenny's worse fears, the 40ft Corner was indeed wet. We stood looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity, each hoping the other would volunteer to lead in the wet. Kenny took the initiative. It has to be said he made great work of it in damp and treacherous conditions. Before too long we were up and and on the summit at 12.20pm along with what seemed to be the entire population of Fort William.

With no time to stop, and each of us dispatching gaseous remnants of last nights chips onto the summit plateau, we headed round to pick up the descent onto Tower Ridge. If only we could find it. Again our memory betrayed us. We descended into what we thought was the top of the ridge. It wasn't. What followed was easily the most scary descent and traverse we would encounter. Damp, loose and broken wet rock led down to the top of Tower Ridge. We made our way down towards the Gap and it was apparent that the rock was getting drier as we went. Eric arrived at the Gap and made the airy exit onto the ridge. He took us both up and we prepared for the descent down to the chimney before the Eastern Traverse. I abseiled cagily down to find a landing spot immediately above the hole leading into the chimney. Eric arrived and looked down. 'That looks soakin!' he said. He was right. And slimy!

"The boulder - easily a couple of tonnes - started sliding slowly towards him"

Eric abbed down and checked that the rope would still run free. It did, and Kenny and I followed him. We skirted the Eastern Traverse and began a more straightforward descent down the little tower. It was certainly drier now and with the main difficulties over, we were all feeling a bit more relaxed as we were almost onto walking ground. Still, concentration had to be maintained, we were well aware of that. We made our way down to the right just before the Douglas Boulder and onto the scree which would bring us round and out at the CIC. It was at this point we were reminded of how costly fatigue and lack of concentration can be. Whilst crossing a steep scree slope, Kenny managed to dislodge some scree which was supporting a huge boulder immediately above him. The boulder – easily a couple of tonnes – started sliding slowly towards him. Kenny desperately put both hands on the boulder and together they slid down the slope, Kenny below. He disappeared from our sight. Fortunately, he and the boulder both came to a halt at the same moment. A lucky escape. Had he stopped sliding before the boulder, the consequences didn't bear thinking about.

We made our way down to the CIC and on towards the car at the North Face Car Park. We had completed the first leg. We arrived at the North Face Car park at 17.30pm. It had taken us 10 hours and 30 minutes.

We packed the car poorly – it reminded us of our climbing holiday in Colorado many years ago where the baggage seemed to take over the car – and headed for Skye to meet up with Dougie Nicholson who was coming to take some pictures on the Skye and Glen Coe leg tomorrow. The midges were waiting to greet us on our arrival at the Slig bunkhouse along with the lovely girl who runs the place. She handed us the pass codes for the room and the front door and asked what time we would be leaving?

'Around six I think' I said.

'You going up there?' she asked tilting her head towards the Cuillin. We nodded. 'You guys are nuts, there's a rescue on at the moment – my husband is away to it, he's in Mountain Rescue.'

I don't know about Kenny and Eric but I felt a sense of pride that we were doing something to help, albeit in a very small way.

A quick shower and change saw us at the Sligachan Inn for beer and crisps where Dougie caught up with us. Thankfully, we left early to our bunks, as it could all have gone wrong at that point.

Wednesday 26th July

Pinnacle Ridge in profile  © Douglas Nicholson
Pinnacle Ridge in profile
© Douglas Nicholson

My inbuilt mental alarm went off at 3.30am. It has a habit of doing that when it hasn't been subdued by beer or whisky. I got up, faffed and went back to bed. I got up again at 5.00am to start getting sorted. The plan was to leave the Sligachan at 6.00am to give ourselves a chance to be back at the car for mid day. Dougie and Eric soon followed, whilst Kenny made the most of his bed. Dougie fought outside with the midges for a while – I offered him my midge hood which he gratefully accepted; he'd need it more than us if he was going to stay in the corrie taking pictures. We packed and left for the long drive to The Slig – across the road.

We set off at 6.10 for the gentle walk in, all feeling surprisingly loose considering the previous long day on the Ben. And I certainly felt much looser from the results of last nights beer and the Fort William chips. The weather was looking fine, some clag hung over the top of the peaks on Pinnacle Ridge but we concluded that it would burn off as the morning passed. With only one minor mistake on the path – we walked past the section which takes you up into the corrie – we arrived at the bottom of the buttress around 7.50am. We readied ourselves for the climb and said cheerio to Dougie, who's catch us up on the abseil from the West Ridge chimney.

The start of the first pinnacle is relatively straightforward once you find it, and following the line of least resistance sees you on the crest quite early and enjoying some outstanding scrambling on rough Skye gabbro. It was cold and there was a slight breeze offering unwelcome wind chill. We soon opted for gloves. As we climbed we became more relaxed and I was really enjoying the morning.

The weather never improved, instead deteriorating into mist with some smirly rain to hinder our route finding on the last two pinnacles. It is however a glorious route. From memory, I had always thought that after the abseil from the third pinnacle the job was done. However, as was proved on the Ben yesterday, my memory can no longer be relied upon!

The big Hex team start up Pinnacle Ridge  © Douglas Nicholson
The big Hex team start up Pinnacle Ridge
© Douglas Nicholson

A wrong turning at the top of the next pinnacle, the Knights Peak, saw us down climbing on some slippery, sloping basalt to regain the goat track which would take us down to a final steep saddle which linked to Sgur nan Gillean. A few awkward rising moves found us on easier ground which curved around onto the Bhasteir face of Sgurr nan Gillean. The mist cleared momentarily to allow us a view of the West Ridge, our descent, and we were thankful for it. As we moved down, we caught sight of Dougie, who coincidentally was sitting just at the bottom of Nicolson's Chimney! We reached the descent chimney and set up an abseil from the tat attached to the rock.

All off safely, we started the long descent down the scree path en route to the Slig.

We arrived at the car at 12.25pm. Our time for this leg was 6 hours 15 minutes. We were 25minutes later than we had anticipated. The combination of clagged peaks and damp rock sections had slowed us down. It would all depend now on how we fared on the Buachaille.

We packed the car – sorry, we stuffed the car full of our gear, dressed ourselves for the next part of the challenge and headed off.

We had anticipated an approximate time of four hours to do the Buachaille Etive Mor leg, up North Buttress and down Curved Ridge. It's a route I've done fresh in under three hours before, however tiredness we knew would come into play after a long day on Ben Nevis and a morning in Skye. To give ourselves a chance at the 36 hour slot we had to be at the car park at Lagangarbh at 3.00pm for a finish before 7.00pm. We were pushing it. Still, we had decided from day one that nothing would compromise mountain and/or road safety, and what would be would be.

We arrived safely at Lagangarbh and started the final leg at 3.45pm. We had 3 hours and 15 minutes to to do it.

"Success looked inevitable. Until that is, we came to the first granny stopper on North Buttress. Where had the normal strength of my arms and legs disappeared to?"

With such a short walk in, and with some significant experience between us of this ascent and descent, we were thankful that this was the final leg of the challenge. I must admit that at this point I was both physically and mentally drained. But I was also convinced that success looked inevitable. This optimism and the significant improvement in the weather lifted our spirits. Until that is, we came to the first granny stopper on North Buttress. Where had the normal strength of my arms and legs disappeared to? What was normally no more than an awkward step and pull up, was now a Font boulder problem! We struggled over it and moved on, each of us I am sure noting that the rest of this route, and particularly the exposed chimneys, may prove more testing than normal. Thanks goodness for the positive dry rock!

The Granny Stopper on North Buttress  © Douglas Nicholson
The Granny Stopper on North Buttress
© Douglas Nicholson

We passed the next granny stopper easily, giving it more respect than the first, and then we were on the route proper. The long wonderful chimneys loomed. I entered the grooves first and moved up with Kenny and Eric following.

It was like playing the last leg of a cup tie at home. I knew this route so well and I was comfortable on it. I also knew that there was a steep difficult section looming above. When we reached it, I could feel strength waning. I hesitated, made a move, hesitated then broke out onto the big spike, pulling with all my strength to establish my feet on the wall to the right. I had struggled, but I made it. Eric had watched me intently and wisely opted for a more delicate but less strenuous route to the left of the chimneys. Kenny followed him, by now his ability to raise his body weight on one leg was doubtful. We met up at the base of the final chimney, climbed it and exited onto the platform above Slime Wall. A series of small rock bands followed which saw us to the top. We traversed along and down into Crowberry Gully. We were now on the descent of Curved Ridge.

Mixed emotions followed. We knew now that the major difficulties on all routes had been overcome, there was just the down climbing of Curved Ridge to go. Barring any disaster we would undoubtedly succeed, however we were later than we thought. We knew that we would not be at Lagangarbh by 7.00pm. This would not be a 36 hour completion, it'd fall into the 48 hour category.

The descent down Curved Ridge still had to be done, so we moved with purpose and care and in relative silence. I think we were all mentally tired. We stopped at the waterslide to take in some water. Shattered.

'OK, lets go' said Eric. 'Lets make Lagangarbh by half seven.'

And we did. The final leg of Big Hex had taken us 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Our total time for the challenge was 36 hours and 30 minutes. Our total combined climbing time for all routes, car-to-car,  was 20 hours and 30 minutes.

Big Hex is the toughest thing I have ever done. We all learned a lot about ourselves, about preparation and the importance of timing your days, relying on good weather forecasts, the impact a three-man team has on the time taken to do it, the mental stress and concentration required, and also the physical effort – particularly by three guys in their fifties! Was it fun? In hindsight yes. Will I do it again? Who knows? I said I would never do another marathon, and I did.

We had climbed and descended six of Scotland's most outstanding mountain routes, on three of our country's most beautiful mountains, all in just over 36 hours. We had finally done it, after all the years of planning, after all the wondering if we would ever get around to do it, after all the doubt that anything would ever come of it. We had finally broken the Hex.

"It was on everyone's lips, we just gave it a name'"Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

Big Hex: who's next?

Looking out over Rannoch Moor from The Buachaille  © Bobby Motherwell
Looking out over Rannoch Moor from The Buachaille
© Bobby Motherwell

I have documented the events above for posterity and also as an informative narrative for those who will follow us. Some thanks are due to the following people for all their help and assistance:

Alfie Ingram (MRCofS), Andy Rockall (MRCofS), Jonathan Hart (MRCofS), Alan James (UKClimbing), Alan Halewood, Alistair Humphreys, Douglas Nicholson (our photographer), Steven Ireland, Peter Dorrington, Sue Riches, and our wives, families and friends for all their support.

Most importantly to the kind people who donated over £500.00 to our bid and to Mountain Rescue in Scotland. Thank you all.


If you'd like to take on your own Big Hex Challenge visit the website here for details.



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