Pointy mountains aren’t just a thing of the Alps – we have plenty of them here in Britain. Here are six of the best places to go for a weekend of nerve-testing scrambling.
Scrambling is often defined as the hazy middle ground between hill walking and rock climbing; anything where you have to use your hands to make upward progress or the terrain is simply very exposed. For those with sure footing and a head for heights, scrambling can offer the best of both worlds by combining the adrenaline buzz of climbing with the unfettered freedom of hill walking.
Britain’s geology and geography makes it one of the best places in the world for scrambling. Our mountains are relatively small but they cut quickly to the chase, allowing you to get amid airy arêtes, rocky ridges and gaping gullies within a short time of leaving civilisation. Some places are veritable scrambling utopias, where the surrounding mountains are packed with possibilities for hands-on-rock, heart-in-mouth moments.
Here are our six favourites. But before we get on to them, a word of warning. There is a popular misconception that scrambling is a milder and less dangerous version of rock climbing - ‘climbing-lite’. In reality scrambling can be actually be the more serious activity, mainly because people typically attempt it with less protection than rock climbing or none at all.
We would recommend learning to climb to at least V Diff level or taking a scrambling course before attempting serious scrambling of Grade 2 or above. This article on coping with fear of heights also contains some important safety pointers.
6. Patterdale, Lake District
Striding Edge: A great walk, but a tad busy. Pic: Stewart Smith / Shutterstock
The Lake District has more than its fair share of plump, grassy hills and chocolate box cutesiness, but its rockier, wilder upper echelons boast some classic scrambles, including the most famous in the UK.
Arguably the place within striking distance of the best scrambling is Patterdale. Striding Edge is the nearest a UK scramble gets to being a household name, and the link-up with the summit of Helvellyn and Swirral Edge is one of Britain’s best walks, but on sunny days and weekends also one of the busiest.
Quieter, though definitely not one for beginners, is Pinnacle Ridge on St Sunday Crag, a Grade 3 scramble that is one of the longest, most engaging scramble-climbs in the Lake District. And Patterdale is not too far from Blencathra, home to the classic and breathtakingly exposed Sharp Edge.
5. Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, West Highlands
The Carn Mor Dearg Arete in its winter cover. Pic: N Mrtgh / Shutterstock
At first glance it might seem there are only two ways to climb Ben Nevis; to trudge with the tourists up the Mountain Track to the summit, or approach the mountain as a climber from the other side via the fearsome North Face. But closer inspection reveals a grey area between the two and some incredible scrambling opportunities.
The Carn Mor Dearg Arete is a breathtaking aerial walkway connecting Ben Nevis to its neighbouring mountain, and unlike the crowded ‘tourist’ path, does full justice to the experience of climbing Britain’s highest mountain. Imagine Striding Edge but twice as long and 600 feet higher in the sky. That vast North Face isn’t solely the preserve of climbers, either; check out the magnificent Ledge Route.
4. Torridon, North West Highlands
A deer on Beinn Alligin, Torridon. Pic: Matthew Dixon / Shutterstock
Torridon has a near-mythical status among UK mountain lovers. Having toughed out nearly 1000 million years of tectonic upheaval, Torridon’s hills look every bit their age, arcane monsters rising sheer from the sea striped with layers of primeval sandstone and quartzite.
Even the ‘easiest’ Torridon Munro, Beinn Eighe, involves a touch of scrambling, but even more formidable are Beinn Alligin and Liathach. The latter is one of the most intimidating, impregnable sights in Britain, and the traverse of its summit ridge involves negotiating the airy pinnacles of Am Fasarinen (‘The Teeth’), where the combination of height, exposure and sublimely terrifying setting is enough to make grown men gibber.
3. Ogwen Valley, Snowdonia
Scrambling on The Cannon Stone, Tryfan. Pic: Carey Davies
Where else in Britain does is awesome mountain spectacle more accessible than in the Ogwen Valley? The glacier-carved amphitheatre of Cwm Idwal, the surreal spiky landscape of the Glyders and – most of all – the unreal Tryfan represent the kind of sublime splendour you might expect to find at much higher altitudes in other countries, but here in North Wales you can wander into them within minutes of leaving the A5 lay-by.
Tryfan could have been purpose-built for scrambling, an angular fastness of split and shattered rhyolite and one of the few peaks in Wales with no way up it that doesn’t involve placing your hands on rock. The North Ridge is the classic but there are plenty of other routes elsewhere on the mountain. Bristly Ridge on neighbouring Glyder Fach is another archetypal Snowdonia scramble, though perhaps a bit more challenging than its Grade 1 suggests.
2. Glen Coe, West highlands
Buachaille Etive Mor from Rannoch Moor. Pic: Adrian Pluskota
Amazement and terror go hand in hand in Glen Coe.
This is a realm of mountain giants. The great buttresses of Bidean nam Bian frown down on man and motor alike on the A82 as if they were ants. The north east face of the much-photographed Buachaille Etive Mor, a perfect pyramid of sheer mountain meanness towering above Rannoch Moor, is impregnable-looking at first glance but on closer inspection reveals Curved Ridge, an adrenaline-pumping Grade 3 scramble. Then there’s the Aonach Eagach, six miles of tortuous knife-edge ridge representing one of the most impressive mountain days you can have, well, anywhere.
Nothing is done by halves in Glen Coe, but the reward for taking on those mountain brutes are experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime.
1. The Cuillin, Skye
Skye's Cuillin. Pic: Peter Dedeurwaerder / Shutterstock
Who is this, who is this in the night of the heart?
It is the thing that is not reached,
the ghost seen by the soul,
a Cuillin rising over the sea.
- Sorley Maclean
The Cuillin are legendary. More Alps than Albion, with a jaggedness that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chamonix Valley, they make even the most fearsome mountains of the British mainland seem tame by comparison. Difficult, exposed and unforgiving, the usual rules don’t apply here; the volcanic rock, for example, sends compasses haywire, while rain, having no earth to sink into, streaks straight down the slippy gabbro in lethal cascades. The famous Inaccessible Pinnacle is the only Munro summit that requires a graded rock climb. H.V. Morton wrote: “Imagine Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ frozen in stone and hung up like a colossal screen against the sky. It seems as if Nature when she hurled the Cuillin up into the light of the sun said: ‘I will make mountains which shall be the essence of all that can be terrible in mountains.’”
Scrambling in the Cuillin is less a choice than a necessity, with no routes into its upper strongholds not requiring at least a bit of it (try Sgurr nan Gilean, the Southern Cuillin or Am Basteir for starters). The Dubh Ridge is a long, slabby scramble starting from right within the wild heart of the Cuillin at Loch Coruisk. Whatever you attempt, experience and knowledge of ropework is strongly advised, as even on ‘easier’ routes it’s very possible to lose your way in the jumbled rock and get more than you bargained for, and once committed to the upper reaches of the Cuillin escapes routes are difficult and few and far between. If in doubt, hire a guide.
WATCH our scrambling skills video series:
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