Hill skills: how to protect scrambles

Posted by Alex Messenger on 17/01/2013
Rope up: it's the crazy Cneifion Arete. Photo: Tom Hecht

Are you sorted for your scrambles, or do you think a skinny single comes from Starbucks? Time to rope up with David Percy.

What is scrambling?

Scrambling is a strangely British pursuit – in other countries it’d just be called mountaineering – occupying the middle ground between walking and climbing. It involves moving over slightly technical mountain terrain in airy positions, often when you’ll need to use your hands. On easier scrambles (such as the classic grade 1 ridges of Crib Goch or Sharp Edge) only the most nervous scrambler would need rope. But if you get a taste for it then you’ll soon need to know your bowline from your belay.

Grades

Scrambling grades vary across regions but are generally:

Grade 1: relatively straightforward with most difficulties avoidable.

Grade 2: use of the rope may be necessary at times to safeguard a tricky step.

Grade 3: use of the rope is to be expected for several sections, which may be up to about Difficult in rock climbing standards.

If you've done a little climbing or a few easy scrambles then venturing onto something a bit more difficult can be very rewarding. It's worth having a few tricks up your sleeve to help your day flow well whilst still keeping safe.

Speed vs safety

The rope-work methods you choose will depend on your personal ability, where you are, the weather and conditions. On easier ground in favourable conditions you can choose a very fast method of covering ground, such as moving together or even soloing. But if you’re on tricky ground, the rock is greasy, it's raining or blowing a gale then you may need to use the rope in a full-on pitched climbing style. To some degree, the old adage ‘the leader never falls’ applies when scrambling: many of the difficulties are in more serious situations than, for example, a climb graded Difficult at Stanage.

Equipment

You’re in the mountains so consider kit including: adequate clothing, a map, compass and guidebook (to fi nd both the scramble and a safe descent route) and a head torch in case you're late off the hill. As well as a helmet, harness and suitable mountain boots, you need a light rack and a rope, as you may need to make some belays and pitch the occasional short difficulty.

WATCH our scrambling skills playlist on BMC TV:

What rack?

In terms of a scrambling rack for grade 2-3 routes, start with the following:

  • A small set of wires
  • A couple of hexes or cams
  • 6 long extenders
  • 3-4 120cm slings with HMS krabs (useful for Italian hitch belays)
  • A nut key and belay plate

After a few forays you can decide whether to pare the rack down further (for example by using only odd size wires and just three extenders).A ‘skinny single’ full rope is best: less than 10mm diameter but 50m or 60m long. This gives a good compromise between weight and durability, and allows a retrievable 25m or 30m abseil should you need to retreat. It's also worth taking some ‘tat’ (a 3-4m length of full-weight rope and a knife to cut it into shorter lengths) to make belays if you need to retreat.

Belaying techniques

You can use a variety of belay techniques to protect scrambles:

Direct belays: run the rope around a solid spike or block to create a fast belay.

Italian hitch belays: using a sling and Italian hitch is a quick belay method. Make sure you know how to safely pay out and take in the rope.

Indirect belays: the typical rock climbing belay; anchor yourself to the rock using a selection of gear, then use a belay plate to provide a secure belay.

Body belaying: if your anchors are questionable then you may need to combine them with a body belay and a sitting braced stance. Some of the second’s weight will go through your body, and not be fully transferred to the anchors, offering your belay some protection – at the sacrifice of some of your own comfort! In some cases a braced stance may be all you can find: good luck and keep the rope very snug.

Belaying the leader: if you need to belay the leader, attach yourself to a solid anchor and use a belay plate to pay out rope. Make sure you know how to lock the plate off effectively.

Moving together

The fastest way to scramble is soloing – there’s no protection but the ultimate speed – and it’s reserved for easy ground and confident scramblers. The slowest method is to individually pitch each section. A common compromise is to move together – this offers an elementary level of protection whilst still moving relatively quickly. To enable this you need to shorten the rope using coils. When scrambling the steps are often fairly short, so 15m between you should be enough to cover most eventualities, with the rest of the rope securely coiled between you. With the rope shortened, you both move at the same speed and clip the rope to runners between you, stopping every now and again to restock the leader with gear. If necessary, you can drop coils to lead a longer pitch. It goes without saying that both scramblers need to be confident to use this technique.

Descent

If it all goes pear shaped, you may need to retreat from the scramble. This can be a tricky business. You may be able to scramble down or you may need to abseil, so make sure you’ve practiced this before you go.

Are you ready to scramble?

Scrambling offers some fantastic days out in the British hills. But, as with any other aspect of mountaineering, if you don’t have the knowledge then consider finding a competent instructor or competent friend to teach you the necessary skills.

AMI member David Percy holds the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate and runs his own instructional company, Outside Experience, based in Snowdonia. He provides a range of outdoor courses including scrambling and mountaineering skills.

EXPERT Q & A

Bryn Williams is National Development Officer for Mountain Training (Wales). As well as instructing, Bryn is also an active member of the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team.

Q. Can I take my child scrambling?

A. There are many scrambles suitable for children, but consider your child’s ability and previous experience. Have they done some hill walking? What are they like with exposure? Scrambling is a natural progression from hill walking but, before tackling roped activity on graded ground, it may initially be worth having another adult there to help on belays. Spend some time on non-committing scrambling terrain before embarking on the classics, and practice basic skills such as climbing calls and attaching to belays.

Q. Do I need a helmet for scrambles?

A. Many grade 1 scrambles are done without a helmet. As a rule of thumb, I use a helmet once I’m on ground where I’m planning to use a rope. Personally, I wouldn’t take a helmet on Crib Goch but certainly would on a roped ascent of Cneifion Arete. Remember that wearing a helmet doesn’t remove the risk – identify what risk you’re trying to minimise with a helmet and think about what other actions you can take to avoid the risk.

Q. Can I scramble in the rain?

A. Absolutely! Working as a full-time mountaineering instructor taught me this. Choose popular routes, where the rock is a bit more solid and the slime has been worn off. Avoid the vegetated and more ‘face’ scrambling routes, and stick to ridges where there is good drainage – and probably easier navigation.

Q. Is scrambling for climbers or walkers?

A. The natural progression for walkers is going into grade 1 scrambling terrain. But once ropes are used then its mountaineering with slimmed-down rock climbing techniques – requiring a huge amount of judgment which only comes from experience. The higher scrambling grades are climbing terrain, so I advise clients from a hill walking background to learn some technical rock climbing skills first.

Further Info

READ MORE: Tips and safety guidance for scrambling

GO ON A COURSE: Learn scrambling from professionals

  • BMC Active Outdoors: The BMC's Active Outdoors courses include  affordable scrambling weekends for beginners at the famous Plas y Brenin mountain centre in Snowdonia. A great way to learn about the skills and equipment you need.

Safety on Mountains

For new and experienced hill walkers, Safety on Mountains is packed full of advice to help you get the most out of your walking. Available in the BMC shop.

AMI

The representative body for professional mountaineering instructors. www.ami.org.uk

Read more hill skills articles.

 


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