A team of three climbers have become the first to complete an impressive challenge in Scotland’s mountains. Known as the Big Hex, the aim is to climb and descend six classic Scottish mountain climbing routes in less than 36 hours.
On September 18 and 19, 2015, Fraser Brown, Robert Hastie and Alan McIntosh (Tosh), from West Lothian Mountaineering Club, took 34 hours and 45 minutes to finish the epic “six-sided” challenge.
In doing so they have also raised almost £3000 for Scottish Mountain Rescue so far, with more money still coming in.
The Big Hex was first thought up by Scottish climber Bobby Motherwell and two friends. They were looking for a challenge similar to the Three Peaks (in under 24 hours) that many walkers have as a goal.
Bobby reckoned that it should be possible to ascend and descend six classic climbing and scrambling routes (hence the reference to a six-sided hexagon), taking in Buchaille Etive Mor in Glen Coe, The Northern Cuillin on the Isle of Skye and Ben Nevis, near Fort William.
The Big Hex routes are:
Ascend North East Buttress
Descend Tower Ridge
Ascend Pinnacle Ridge
Descend West Ridge and Coire a’Bhasteir
Buchaille Etive Mor:
Ascend North Buttress
Descend Curved Ridge
Good mountain experience, technical ability and all-found fitness,as well as favourable weather, are required for success. It is unusual for all these mountain areas to have kind conditions over one 36-hour period.
In 2913, Bobby’s team, the First Footers, managed the full route but they finished 30 minutes outside the challenge time. Since then, five other teams have attempted the Big Hex but weather has hampered completion.
Success in the Big Hex
Luckily for Fraser’s team, this September has offered some very settled weather. Incredibly, during their attempt it didn’t rain.
The trio tackled Ben Nevis first, then travelled to Skye and then to Glencoe.
Fraser says: “I had planned the challenge in 2014 and looked at years of weather reports. I discovered that September was often the driest month and so we set this as our target.
“We had recced the routes on different days during the summer and each time it was torrential rain. So we were prepared for difficult conditions but we were obviously delighted when the weather during the actual challenge was so good. It didn’t rain at all and we had only a tiny bit of drizzle in Glencoe.”
Fraser admits that the weather can make or break the Big Hex. Another team attempted the challenge just a day after the West Lothian team and were stopped due to awful conditions on Skye.
Fraser says: “The other challenges with the Big Hex is the distance between the climbs and the lack of time to sleep. We managed about two hours sleep in all.
“We did the Ben Nevis routes first because these are the most time consuming. Then we did Skye and Glencoe the next day. By the time we reached the Buchaille we were feeling extremely fatigued. We had hoped to do these routes without any ropes, moving fast and light, but we realised we needed ropes as back up because we were so tired by the time we got to Glencoe.”
In fact, Fraser and his team used ropes only a few times throughout the Big Hex. He says: “We are all fairly good climbers and quite confident about the routes. You need to be to complete this challenge in less than 36 hours.
“We took a 60 metre rope with us and all the climbing equipment but we used this only when we felt we needed to. So, on Ben Nevis, for Man Trap and 40ft Corner we used ropes. Coming down Tower Ridge, we abseiled the short sections of Tower Gap and the Great Tower.
“The rest, apart for a short section on Curved Ridge when we were all so tired, we climbed and down-climbed without ropes.”
This is all the more impressive given that Fraser, 36, sustained a bad fall while climbing in Australia around a decade ago, which “put me off climbing for a while”. Having returned to the sport in Scotland a few years ago he then spotted the Big Hex Challenge and decided it would be a great goal.
While Rob, 40, has been climbing for many years, Tosh, 40, came to climbing in the last few years.
Highlights of the Big Hex
Fraser revealed that the night-time walk to the Cuilin on Skye was “absolutely amazing”. He adds: “The sky was clear and the stars were so bright. It was incredible to see. It’s so rare that you get these conditions and we felt very privileged.”
The team also climbed well together. Fraser says: “We got on very well and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a bonding experience and cemented out friendships.”
Difficulties of the Big Hex
Fraser says: “This challenge is a huge undertaking and even in good weather it was very tough. Travelling towards Glencoe for the last climb we all felt so weary. Usually the Buchaille would be our easiest climb but we struggled with tiredness. It’s vital that you can concentrate for these climbs and we struggled with this.”
On the descent of Curved Ridge, the short abseil section proved to be potentially dangerous for Fraser. He says: “We were so tired and decided to abseil a bit of the route. However, as I was on the rope I noticed it was starting to spilt. This made me move very fast; like lightning actually. It wasn’t a good place to be with a splitting rope.”
The midges also proved to be a problem on the Buchaille. Fraser says: “There was a section without wind when the midges were ferocious. However, in the main, we were lucky not to be bothered too much by them.”
Gauntlet is laid down
Having completed in 34 hours and 45 minutes, the challenge is now on for another team to beat this. Fraser says: “I have no doubt that other teams will try this challenge now that they have seen it’s possible. I hope they do because part of the Big Hex is to raise funds for MRT. I am delighted that we are on our way to raising close to £4000 for our vital mountain rescue services.”
Bobby congratulated the team on their “fantastic achievement”. He added: “Not only managed to smash the current record time for Big Hex but they have raised more than any other team for Scottish Mountain Rescue so far.
“The challenge requires a combination of climbing ability, physical and mental toughness and, of course, luck with the Scottish weather.
“The success or otherwise of The Big Hex Challenge is entirely dependant on the likes of the teams who competed at the weekend. It’s their spirit of adventure and generosity to Scottish Mountain Rescue which sets them apart. And we thank them for that.”
“West Lothian Mountaineering Club, through Alan, Robert and Fraser have thrown down the gauntlet to all who follow. Think you can beat them?”
Further details: To enter see The Big Hex Challenge