Scrambling is sometimes described as the middle ground between walking and climbing - and for the higher grades in particular, you’ll need some basic climbing skills. Here's our guide to staying safe on the rock.
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.
You’re in the mountains so consider kit including: adequate clothing, a map, compass and guidebook (to find 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.
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.
What rope should I take?
According to scrambling expert Mal Creasey this isn’t as simple as it seems.
“Ropes are getting thinner and it’s no longer just a question choosing 9 or 11mm,” he says. “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.”
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.
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.
For more information on these techniques, see the Mountain Training and BMC handbook Rock Climbing.
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.
“This is a real black art and not to be undertaken lightly,” says Mal. “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 utilised 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 judgment regarding your own and your rope mates’ abilities. However, with practice it can be extremely efficient, and is ideal training for the Alps.”
It goes without saying that both scramblers need to be confident to use this technique.
If you’re new to ropework and are thinking of moving up to Grade 2 or 3 scrambles, we’d highly recommend attending a course before heading out on your own.
Thanks to AMI member David Percy of Outside Experience for his contribution to this article.
COMING SOON: What could go wrong on a scramble? The next article in this series will be 'Scrambling skills: 5 pitfalls to avoid'. Watch this space or follow BMC Walk Talk on Twitter for updates.
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Take a course in safer scrambling - for less: Are you a summer hill walker looking to tackle steeper, more challenging terrain? Want to learn the skills above from experienced guides? These great-value scrambling courses in the spiky mountains of Snowdonia are the perfect way to do it.
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