UK Scrambling Advice
Some UK scrambling advice for British hillgoers; “Space below your boots, not another fleece or rucksack in sight, adrenaline pulsing through your veins. This is why most of us head off the well beaten track. For many, the first taste of scrambling is generally a tentative foray off onto some rocky ridge, probably an unintended navigational error…”
The excitement and exposure grabs us, or is it perhaps the chance of a wee exhilarating scare? Once you have scrambled near the edge, those well-trodden paths are never the same again. This self indulgent risk taking conveniently provides most with a good fishing story over a drink in the local boozer.
What is scrambling?
In the UK, scrambling covers a wide remit. On the whole it allows steeper ground to be taken, involving the use of hands for balance. A scramble is what a rock climber might call ‘easy’ or ‘moderate’ climbing ground; in fact, many of our popular scrambles in the UK where first recorded as climbs over a Century ago. Some still appear in rock climbing guides e.g. Cniefion Arete in North Wales and the Aonach Eagach Ridge in Glen Coe. So, a scramble can be merely be a steep walk with occasional use of the hands for balance, or a full blown mini expedition involving the same ropework and equipment as climbers.
Around the UK, many of our rugged mountain ridges provide fantastic airy scrambles. Although the technical difficulties are generally lower than on graded rock climbs, it must be understood that scrambling can be every bit as serious – due to the fact that big drops often encountered along the way and you may be moving unroped, or poorly protected in the case of a fall.
If the scrambler is experienced and has good movement skills over the ground, they can feel totally in control – this experience counts for a huge amount, as not only has the person got to cope with the exposure and the climbing, but also with whatever the elements have to throw at them. Rain, wind and cold can transform solid rock and dry vegetation into an unreliable medium to pull and push on – thus making a huge difference to the difficulty and seriousness of a climb.
Scrambles can be classified into three grades. A word of warning: grades can vary in difficulty between mountain regions, mainly due to historical development – so it’s wise to be conservative when visiting a new area!
On grade 1 or easy scrambles, you can generally either tackle a tricky step, or skirt the difficulties and reach the same point above by a more meandering route. This makes them generally less committing, with more escape options.
On grade 2 terrain, one or two sections will be either exposed, or poorly protected, or involve an unavoidable single route option which may be better protected by the use of a rope. This makes these scrambles a more serious proposition, for which a degree of skill and experience are required. If still climbing unroped, you need to adopt the same attitude and commitment level as if you were ‘soloing’ on a rock climb – ie total control over your movement and absolutely no errors!
Grade 3 scrambles have sustained sections, which may be graded rock climbs. Generally they will involve short-pitched ground using ropes and rock climbing equipment, so in order to climb them safely, you need to have both rock climbing equipment and the skills to use it properly.
Planning and Route Finding
Sound planning and route finding are imperative for a safe day out. Initially, chose the right scrambling objective for the whole team, not just the most experienced individual! Guidebooks will give you a head start, then a local map (preferably 1:25,000) to plan your route through the mountains.
While approaching your scramble, take stock of the whole objective. Remember that once you get engrossed on your ridge or face, it will be difficult to see ahead – so pick out and remember any obvious landmarks from a distance e.g. the Cannon on the North Ridge of Tryfan. These features will help you keep your bearings whilst on the climb. Also, remember to look for escape routes, just in case things don’t pan out as you first thought.
Once on the scramble, following paths and worn rock will generally point you to the easier steps – it’s best to only attempt tricky steps that you feel you can confidently climb back down. Most popular scrambles that appear in the guidebooks will have some previous signs of travel, so if you are looking for the easiest way, take care of probing onto virgin ground: it’s always worth exploring round the corner first, in order to see if you can locate the well worn route. If in doubt, avoid loose rock, lush vegetation and watercourses – as these can increase the objective hazards.
Best UK Scrambling Advice
Don’t go alone – experiencing the hills on your own might have that romantic edge, but for most, operating in teams offers safety, experience and camaraderie. Working as a team can reduce the seriousness of a tricky step by careful spotting, grabbing and fielding.
Spotting needs to be as close to the individual as possible. This shadowing of the body by the braced spotters hands will not always stop a serious fall, but may at least ‘splat’ the person back onto the rock, enabling a chance at re-gripping things. Always aim to support the body to keep the head off the ground. On loose ground a helmet is always a sensible idea.
Once over a tricky section, offer others advice and if need be give support by grabbing. Gripping a shoulder strap or jacket tightly can help prevent a slip becoming a fall. The grabber should always be well braced and balanced, others can help by holding the grabber in a form of chained boat race. The grabber should avoid linking hands with the scrambler, as it will reduce their grip and balance and possibly pull both off. It’s best to practice as a team in a non-serious position first.
When spotting becomes useless, a rope can be invaluable. For attempting grade 2 or 3 scrambles, rock climbing equipment is probably useful, if not essential, for most mere mortals.
To use such equipment opens up a huge can of worms for the non rock climber: basic rope work and use of leading equipment is best learnt from an experienced climber, who can help teach the importance of anchor selection and appropriate rope systems to protect the climb. Better still, learn from a professional on an outdoor rock climbing course.
Rock climbing skills may conjure up restraint or lost freedom, but in the end they can provide extra essential skills and experience for moving over steep ground.
Scrambling is about enjoying a challenge, coupled with the exhilaration of dramatic scenery. Experience and knowledge of appropriate skills help reduce the risks. Most importantly, only commit to going up something you feel you can get down! Scramble on.