Hill skills: Scrambling

Posted by Jon Garside on 05/03/2006
Crib Goch, a popular and classic Snowdonia scramble. Photo: Alex Messenger

Scrambling covers the middle ground between walking and climbing, and provides many memorable days out on the hill, as well as being fantastic training for the Via Ferratas of mainland Europe. It’s essentially easy rock climbing, travelling through some stunning mountain scenery, but such terrain can be very serious and a full range of mountaineering skills can be called on.

Grades

Like climbing routes, scrambles are graded, often from 1 to 3, although the exact scale will depend on the guidebook. All require a degree of rock climbing as both hands and feet are employed, but a classic grade 1 scramble is essentially an exposed walking route, and very popular examples include the north ridge of Tryfan and Crib Goch in Snowdonia. Moving up the scale, grade 2 scrambles will usually include sections where a nervous scrambler would want a rope to protect them, and the person in front (the leader) must feel confident moving over exposed yet relatively easy climbing terrain. Grade 3 scrambles often appear in climbing guides as ‘Moderately’ graded climbing routes (the easiest climbing grade), and should only be tackled by the confident.

Finding your way

It can be hard to locate the start of a route on a large complicated face, and easy enough to get lost once you’ve set off. All guidebook writers have different writing styles and ways of describing features - getting accustomed to that is the first step. If in doubt, think before you climb. A popular route will probably feature plenty of polished rock, so if you suddenly find yourself clambering through the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, then you’re likely to be off route. Reverse, and work things out again. Likewise, most scrambles follow lines of weakness, so put yourself in the mind of the first ascentionist, and try to spy out the easiest line. And although some grade 3 scrambles often involve one or two very exposed and improbable looking sections, these are usually very well described to ensure people don’t go off route.

Equipment

Most walkers shouldn’t require any extra equipment for grade 1 scrambles, well, apart from a head for heights. And after that, how much equipment you take and how you use it is directly related to your confidence. A fledgling scrambler is more likely to need a rope than an experienced climber, so there’s only one rule - employ what makes you feel comfortable. On grade 2 and 3 scrambles it’s worthwhile taking a rope at least 30m long, some eight-foot slings, HMS karabiners and maybe a very small rack, half a dozen large nuts and hexes at most. A harness is only essential if the leader is going to protect themselves on the most exposed pitches.

You need to know how to use this kit before unpacking it at the base of a cliff, so enlist the help of an experienced friend, or consider going on a course.
Wearing stiff boots with a solid edge provides essential support on both small footholds and steep broken terrain. More robust boots also provide protection for your feet from loose rock or when jammed in cracks, for example. Lightweight boots may be more comfortable on those hot sunny days, but their soles tend to have too much flex and are unsuitable for steeper scrambles.

Hazards

One of the greatest hazards when scrambling is loose rock. Routes on big faces often follow weaknesses such as gullies, and these natural funnels collect debris that is easily dislodged. Scrambling on fissured rock may provide an abundance of holds, but such rock architecture is also easily weathered by freeze-thaw winter weather cycles. Always be cautious, as worryingly large pieces of rock may look solid, but can be completely detached from the mountain. Wearing a helmet is a very good idea.

Environment

Many scrambles weave their way through the last refuge of the so-called Arctic Alpines, plants once common during the last ice age. Winter climbers are becoming increasingly aware of the damage they can cause when climbing out of condition mixed routes, and ‘clumsy’ scramblers can cause similar damage. For example, removing an innocent looking sod of earth could wipe out a colony of the Snowdon Lilies. It’s one of Britain’s rarest plants, growing in only a handful of locations, some of which are near to popular scrambles.

Backing off

An unplanned descent off any mountaineering route is generally a serious undertaking, and as a general rule scrambling terrain has more loose rock than a steeper climbing route, so emergency roped descents should only be carried out when all other means of escape have been exhausted. If bad weather or unexpected difficulties halt progress, then instead of descending, it may be possible to traverse onto easier ground.

EXPERT Q&A

This issue the scrambling expert is Mal Creasey. Described as “the voice of god” by Trail magazine, there’s nothing about the hills that he doesn’t know. Mal works as Development Officer for Mountain Leader Training England.

Q. What rope should I take?

A. This isn’t as simple as it seems - particularly as ropes are getting thinner and it’s no longer just a question choosing 9 or 11mm. It’s more a question of half weight or full weight rope and there are several permutations depending on what capacity you’re operating in, your experience, and the level of route. With a confident mate, on a scramble that would normally be well within your capacity, I’d take a light, short rope, probably about 25m of half weight, (a bit less than 9mm these days) on the assumption that it was for emergency use only. But on say, a grade 3 scramble in poorer weather, with someone of limited experience at that grade, or where I had little personal knowledge of their ability I’d probably take 30 m of full weight (10mm) rope.

Q. What’s classic belaying?

A. Classic belaying (body belaying) is the art of belaying without a harness or belay device. Long ago this was how all climbing used to be, but now it’s usually reserved for scrambling, emergencies, and when you want to give a very dynamic belay (e.g. when sitting on a poor snow seat). It’s pretty simple; you take the rope from the live climbing rope (live body on the end), around the waist, and put a twist around the other ‘dead’ arm (next to the used or ‘dead’ coils on he ground). Practice at ground level first though.

Q. How do I abseil without a harness?

A. There are a number of different methods, none particularly comfortable as all require friction to be generated around the body to control descent. My preferred method is the original classic method; a doubled rope is placed around a secure anchor and the abseiler straddles the rope, picks it up and positions this so it will run around under the right buttock, across the body and chest, over the left shoulder and into the right hand. Or you could use the left buttock, across in front of the body and over the right shoulder. Turning slightly sideways on will give a little more comfort and allow a view of where you’re going. Another increasingly popular method is “the South African method”. Supposedly more comfortable but a damn sight more difficult to describe, so I’m not even going to attempt it. Whichever is used, it’s important to familiarise yourself completely, and practise the technique in safe surroundings before committing yourself to the big drop.

Q. What’s moving together?

A. This is a real black art and not to be undertaken lightly. It means two climbers moving simultaneously, generally with a short length of rope between them (about 10m) with the rest tied off around the climbers’ shoulders. Who carries the spare rope depends on the group situation; two climbers of equal ability would normally share responsibility. On a rope of three peers it’d be the first and last guys, and in a teaching setting, it’d be the instructor. The idea is to provide a compromise between the total security of pitching a climb, and the speed of moving un-roped. As you progress, the rope between the climbers is utilized by flicking it over protruding spikes, clipping it to runners, or placing it behind large blocks. It’s crucial that the second(s) don’t introduce slack into the system, and the whole situation requires extremely good judgement regarding your own and your rope mates’ abilities. However, with practice it can be extremely efficient, and is ideal training for the alps.

Q. Are gloves a good idea?

A. Yes. Most scrambles are situated either in shady gullies or high on a mountain. It’s also worth considering a pair of gloves that are suitable for handling the rope, and provide a good grip. There are some excellent ones on the market with a leather palm. Watch out for certain types though as they are virtually impossible to get on over wet hands - a waste of time in the UK.


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