Breaking the Hex

3 07 2013
Ben Nevis - North East Buttress and Tower Ridge from the CIC Hut

Ben Nevis – North East Buttress and Tower Ridge from the CIC Hut

It was many years ago since 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. Fueled 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 the feasibility of such a challenge.

And so here we were, Eric Horne, Kenny Harris and myself finally, after all those years, making our first attempt at the Big Hex Challenge.

I have documented the events below for posterity and also as an informative narrative for those who will follow us. I will spare you the description of what Big Hex actually is as It has been laboured by myself on this very blog and anyway, anything you need to know about it and how to get involved in doing Big Hex and raising funds for Mountain Rescue Committee for Scotland can be found at http://www.bighex.org

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.

Walking in to Pinnacle Ridge on the Skye Cuillin on Day 2

Walking in to Pinnacle Ridge on the Skye Cuillin on Day 2

And so it begins…..

Monday 24th June

We set off from Howwood around 6.00pm Eric and I, we picked up Kenny from Kilbarchan in a carefully packed car and set off for 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 didn’t. I don’t think he would 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.

Tuesday 25th July

I woke around 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep, my own snoring had woken me up around an hour earlier and a sound sleep had been broken. I dozed restlessly and finally surfaced 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. This being the starting point, if we were to achieve the 36 hour category, we would need to complete our challenge by 7.00pm the following day.

Packed and ready, we set off for the North Face car park, the chips were beginning to negotiate our collective digestion systems.

And so it begins.... The start of Big Hex

And so it begins…. The start of Big Hex

We set of at 7.00am. 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 I got from him whilst in the pub the night before, he was crying “I miss you dad, and I love you”. This was going to be tough.

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 proving slippery. We made our way carefully and slowly across. It was at this point that we realised that this would be a slow and careful ascent on damp rock. 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 to us. 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, we knew that we did not have to make record time on this part of the challenge, but we were aware of the forecast which threatened rain later. Rain on the way down Tower Ridge did not appeal to any of us. Eventually, we arrived at the Mantrap.

Approaching the infamous Mantrap on N E Buttress

Approaching the infamous Mantrap on N E Buttress

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.

The 40ft corner on N E Buttress

The 40ft corner on N E Buttress

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 decent into 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 descended. Eric arrived at the Gap and made the airy exit onto the ridge.

Climbing out of Tower Gap on the descent down Tower Ridge

Climbing out of Tower Gap on the descent down Tower Ridge

He took us both up and we prepared for the decent 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. And indeed he was right. And slimy!

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 in weight – started sliding slowly towards him. Kenny desperately put both hands on the boulder and together they started sliding down the scree slope, Kenny below the huge rock, feet sliding down through the scree. 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 stay at the Slig Bunkhouse with us and take some pictures on the Skye and Glen Coe leg tomorrow. We stopped at the Co-operative in Kyle of Lochalsh for some sandwiches, a much need intake of sugar and salt from Coke and Walkers Tomato Sauce crisps, then we headed on to the Slig. The stretch of the legs between the supermarket car park and the shop itself was a warning of how stiff the legs might feel should we reach out target of Glen Coe the following night after a long morning on Skye.

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 head to our bunk, as it could all have went wrong at that point had another beer been bought.

The Skye Cuillin from Sligachan

The Skye Cuillin from Sligachan

Wednesday 26th July

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, had some breakfast, coffee and started packing my stuff away and getting my rucksac sorted. The plan was to leave the Sligachan Inn car park 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 may need it more than us if he is going to stay within the corrie to take pictures. Eric decided that it may be time to waken Kenny, so he did. We packed and left for the long drive to The Slig – across the road.

Pinnacle Ridge and the West Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean

Pinnacle Ridge and the West Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean

We set off at 6.10 for the gentle walk in. We all felt surprisingly loose considering the long day on the Ben the previous day, 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 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, we would catch up with him again on the abseil from the West Ridge chimney.

Preparing for Pinnacle Ridge

Preparing for Pinnacle Ridge

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 the 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.

Moving up the first pinnacle

Moving up the first pinnacle

The weather never bettered any during the course of the morning, and deteriorated into a 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!

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.

The abseil off West Ridge

The abseil off West Ridge

All off safely, we started the long descent down the scree path on route to the car park at the Slig Inn.

Walking out from Pinnacle Ridge

Walking out from Pinnacle Ridge

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 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 4 hours to do the Buachaille Etiv Mor leg of up North Buttress and down Curved Ridge. A route which I have done fresh in under 3 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, we had to be at the car park at Lagangarbh at 3.00pm for a finish before 7.00pm to fit the 36 hour slot. 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.

The mad faff at Lagangarbh, Glen Coe

The mad faff at Lagangarbh, Glen Coe

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. I was also convinced that a successful completion of the challenge was 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 strength I normally had in 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!

Making a meal of the first granny stopper!

Making a meal of the first granny stopper!

We passed the next granny stopper easily, giving it more respect than the first one proved helpful, 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.

Taking a rest before the chimneys on North Buttress, Buachaille Etive Mor

Taking a rest before the chimneys on North Buttress, Buachaille Etive Mor

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 that my strength was waning, both in my arms and my legs. 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, this would fall into the 48 hour category.

The descent down Curved Ridge still had to be done, we moved with purpose and with care and in relative silence. I think we were all mentally tired.

We stopped at the waterslide to take in some water. Shattered.

At the waterslide.....

At the waterslide…..

“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 was 20 hours and 30 minutes.

It is the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. We all learned a lot about ourselves, about the preparation and the importance of timing your days, relying on good weather forecasts, the impact a 3 man team has on the time taken to do it, the mental stress and concentration required, and also the physical effort required – 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 6 of Scotland’s most outstanding mountain routes, on 3 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?

Big Hex - Scotland's Climbing Challenge

Big Hex – Scotland’s Climbing Challenge

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One response

1 02 2014
mountaincoward

Well unfortunately I’m not up to the standards required to do ‘The Big Hex’ but I enjoyed reading about it and I particularly enjoyed your photos as they are of places I’m not likely to reach. The Tower Ridge gap one is particularly good…
Carol.

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