The 5 biggest pitfalls to avoid when scrambling

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 25/06/2015
Benighted on a long scramble - not as fun as it looks.

You’ve got the box-fresh scrambling gear, the guidebook and a basic grasp of ropework - so what could go wrong? Here’s our run-down of scrambling’s major pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. Loose rock

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.

2. Straying off route

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.

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.

3. Disturbing the 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.

4. Gnarly weather

Greasy rock and plenty of exposure makes scrambling a much trickier prospect in poor weather - so should you attempt it at all? “Absolutely,” says National Development Officer for Mountain Training (Wales) Bryn Williams. “Working as a full-time mountaineering instructor taught me this,” he adds. “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."

5. Getting benighted

If you’re new to scrambling, it’s scarily easy to misjudge the time it might take to complete a route. You can usually get a good idea from the guidebook - but most guides will assume reasonable scrambling and route-finding ability. All it takes is for one of your party to freeze, or for your leader to take the wrong line, and you could be looking at an extra few hours on the hill. Some of us (ahem) have been known to find themselves benighted on mountaintops having underestimated a route. To avoid this scenario, leave yourself plenty of time to make mistakes.      

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.

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