25 Tips for Safer Scrambling Without Ropes
Most of us find scrambling exciting, yet it's often regarded as being less serious than 'proper' roped climbing. Sure, it's a fantastic way to enjoy the great outdoors, and indeed a number of peaks, even in little Britain, are only accessible by putting hands on rock - think Crib Goch, for instance. For many hillwalkers, the step up from footpaths to graded scrambling is a natural progression, and you can easily get into it without, at first, any pressing need for new gear or skills. But is it really safer than roped climbing? It is at best arguable.
By definition, scrambling routes should be technically easier than climbing ones. However, whereas roped climbers take necessary safeguards every few steps for a potential fall, as well as wearing sticky technical climbing shoes, scramblers often take no more than standard walking gear with big boots. Yet the exposure on scrambling terrain is frequently no less serious than on climbing routes.
Even on the easiest routes of grade 1, you'll be moving through places where one slip could be fatal. This article concentrates on such terrain, the classic scrambling routes on which hillwalkers without a climbing background can often be found.
For some inspirational hands-on routes at the accessible end of the spectrum, see this article: Britain's Best Grade 1 Scrambles
The grading issue
The boundary between hard scrambling and easy climbing is very vague. As a prime example, take the first recorded rock route in the country, the notorious Broad Stand (D) on Scafell. Despite having tricky moves situated in a fatally exposed position, this is classified by some as a scrambling route at Grade 3. However, it is also graded Diff(icult) in climbing guidebooks, and anyone who's done it will agree that it is actually a climbing route. To tackle a mountain route of Diff grade, most climbers would not have a second thought about taking a rope and climbing gear; yet walkers without the appropriate skills and equipment could easily put themselves in harm's way on the same ground. Broad Stand is a case in point, an accident black spot that keeps the local mountain rescue team busy.
To add to the confusion, grading may vary from guidebook to guidebook or to some extent from region to region. Take for instance the East Ridge (Summer) (M) of No match for crag id:"The Inaccessible Pinnacle", the standard and easiest route to the summit of Scotland's most technical Munro. It is usually (and correctly) considered a climbing route graded at Mod(erate), and the biggest hurdle for Munro baggers. However, by definition it is easier than the so-called scrambling route Broad Stand (Diff) - and anyone who has climbed them both would concede it is an awful lot easier (on the way up at least - though getting off the In Pinn is a different story)! So where might all that leave newcomers to scrambling? At best, confused; at worst, in deep water.
For scrambling beginners the moral is to get a feel for things gently and cautiously. Get plenty of grade 1s under your belt before considering the move up to grade 2; and don't think about grade 3 routes until you've picked up some climbing gear and the relevant skills.
A scrambler should never fall
If you are unroped then you cannot afford to fall off. Period. Personally, I recently experienced one of the worst falls in my life - while scrambling, rather than roped climbing. The route was steep, yet was found to be wet and dirty. Near the top, I wasn't sure which way to go, and probably went off-route. The vegetation under my foot suddenly collapsed, and off I fell - tumbling 20 metres into a steep rocky gully. I was incredibly lucky to survive and even to manage to walk off. Technically it was many grades easier than my climbing grade. Yet, the wet conditions on the day and my ballsy approach resulted in a catastrophe, only saved by sheer luck.
I am not intending to put people off scrambling, but I am arguing that scramblers should be well aware of the risks involved and should take necessary precautions. Any outdoor activity involves a risk, after all, and scrambling is of course no exception. The key is to properly understand those risks, and how to mitigate them.
Note that roped scrambling is beyond the scope of this article. Some scrambles at grade 2 should be considered borderline climbs on which technical climbing gear would be a good idea; and as a general rule, all routes at grade 3 ought to be treated as such!
So, here is a list of safety tips for unroped scrambling. It should apply to any level of experience. Remember the risk is always relative to conditions and ability - that is, a beginner scrambler on an easy route may be taking a similar risk to a very experienced scrambler on very difficult terrain!
Safer scrambling without ropes - your 25 point plan
1. As they say, 80% of success is determined before you leave. Prepare well in advance with route planning, packing etc.
2. Choose the right target. Don't jump into a hard route straight away - it may well prove to be beyond your ability. Higher grade scrambles can entail more risk and difficulty than you may think. Hillwalkers should start with the classic hillwalking scrambles - the likes of the CMD Arete, Sharp Edge, the Snowdon Horseshoe or the North Ridge of Tryfan should offer plenty of excitement. Make progress in small methodical steps. As you find your feet in this new more vertical world your comfort level may gradually increase.
3. Buy a few guidebooks. Across the mountain areas of Britain, the established scrambling routes are covered in dedicated guides that offer all the info you need, from the quality and difficulty of each route to detailed blow-by-blow descriptions. These Cicerone guidebooks are a good place to start: Scrambles in the Dark Peak; Scrambles in Snowdonia; Scrambles in the Lake District - North; Scrambles in the Lake District - South and Scrambles in Lochaber
4. Use the guidebook grade only as rough guidance. The actual difficulty of the route on the day often varies considerably, depending on various factors such as the weather, the possibility of wet rock, and whether or not you manage to find the correct line. In addition, as discussed above, the grading system for UK scrambling is as yet rather imperfect.
5. Get fit. In short you must be fitter than most walkers. After all, your chosen way is tougher than purely hands-in-pockets walking routes! Fatigue is at the root of many mishaps in scrambling.
6. Do your homework on escape routes so that you already know the options if things do go wrong. That may often mean retracing the route you have climbed up.
7. Make an early start. It always takes longer than you think. With an early start, you are more likely to finish a day before the weather goes downhill or the sun sets. Plus, on popular routes, you can beat the crowds and are less likely to be delayed by queuing.
8. Make sure to pack precautionary kit such as a group shelter, waterproofs and a headtorch. Take a mobile phone for emergency use, and make sure it is well charged and stored in a waterproof bag. Ideally you may want to go light, but absolute lightness is not always absolutely right. Scrambling usually involves more risk of injury or benightment than walking, and so by definition you have more of a chance to need that gear.
9. On rocky ground there's always a risk of stonefall, or of banging your head in a fall. Even on easier routes it's often worth putting on a helmet. I said put on, because merely having one in your rucksack does not count (you may laugh, but that is what a friend of mine did - he brought a helmet, and then carried it in his sack all the way while scrambling). Photos of helmet-less scrambling in this article are not examples of best practice!
10. Let your family or someone reliable know where you are going, and the estimated time of return.
11. Plan for the toilet well ahead. It can be not only awkward, but also hazardous, in scrambling terrain. If a call of nature comes during scrambling nonetheless, then make sure to get the priority right: your life is more important than the feeling of embarrassment (ladies, especially). Toilet-related affairs are ranked high as a cause of accidents in the mountains.
12. Gill (or ghyll, or gorge) scrambling can be great fun, but be warned that gill scrambling, though usually classified as scrambling in the UK, can be a quite different discipline from normal rock-scrambling, and more akin to canyoning. The detail is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that before venturing into all but the easiest gill scrambles it is highly recommended to do some research on appropriate skills, equipment, courses and instructors.
13. When crossing a stream, a rock underwater, washed by regular water flow, is often more secure and safer than a damp rock just above the water, the surface of which may be mossy and extremely slippery. I have seen many walkers, including myself, who tried to keep a dry foot and then ended up getting their entire body drenched, as a result of slipping and falling into water!
14. Get the navigation right - that means both getting to and from your scramble, and ensuring that you stay on the correct route while on the hands-on stuff itself. Route finding in scrambling terrain is an acquired skill, so take your time, double check the guidebook description regularly, and keep thinking. Keep an eye out for clean, polished rock or other signs of passage ahead, and beware of straying onto loose or steep vegetated ground. Scrambling routes are often way easier and safer than the ground immediately to each side, so if you do wander off-route, you may well have a more dangerous, less pleasant time.
15. Scrambling in wet conditions or high winds can be very dangerous, while the presence of snow or ice turns even easy scrambles into genuine winter mountaineering routes. Wait for calm, dry conditions; at least until you're experienced enough to make that judgement call sensibly.
16. Be vigilant to any changes in the weather when on the route, and to the passing of time. It is very easy to have tunnel vision during scrambling, as your attention narrows to the immediate problem ahead of you.
17. Remember to maintain three points of contact, always. Upward progress should be considered and methodical, so stay in balance and don't go for any crazy lunging moves.
18. Never rush in scrambling terrain.
19. Before pulling or stepping on a rock, first make sure it is solid by banging it with the butt of your hand, or trying to give it a wobble. If there's a hollow sound or any discernible movement then treat it with circumspection. Patches of suspect rock and the occasional loose block are encountered on almost every scramble, and even on the best travelled routes erosion is an ongoing process.
20. Make very sure not to kick any loose rocks off. They can easily hurt or kill anyone underneath, whether that's your partner or someone far, far below whose presence you weren't even aware of.
21. Be patient and never make someone in front of you hurry. Such an action would put her/him at risk; and also consider what would happen if they got flustered and fell on to you!
22. Communication within your group is vital. Never leave a group member behind; everyone must be within sight. Make sure every one knows, and is happy with, what they are doing. If anyone is not, then do consider an alternative.
23. Be brave. Have the courage to turn back or escape, when things don't go as planned.
24. Unless you carry the appropriate gear, ie. ropes and climbing protection (and have the skill to use them), or unless you know for sure the safe way out, do not clamber up something that you cannot reverse back down. Remember that if you go off-route, or the weather turns bad, or the scramble simply proves too much, you may need to come back down the way you have climbed up. Many people have ended up calling for a rescue after progressing irreversibly, and getting themselves cragfast. In this situation getting resued is probably a best case scenario, but it is very much down to you not to get yourself into this sort of situation in the first place. Allegedly, climbing legend Joe Brown has never climbed something he could not reverse in his entire career!
25. If you want to progress from the grade 1 hillwalkers' scrambles, through the grade 2s and into grade 3 terrain, then it is high time to learn about rope work. Getting familiarised with the safety gear and skills is a prerequisite for a long and healthy life. Hire an instructor, book on a course, or at the very least get a reliable experienced pal to help show you the ropes. Many years ago, scrambling was also my route into climbing. After a few experiences of getting scared to death on unroped scrambles, 'proper' climbing suddenly seemed way safer!
About Masa Sakano
Highland-based mountaineer Masa Sakano took up mountain sports in his native Japan, before discovering the joy of bolt-free climbing in both summer and winter, and the attraction of signpost-free hills, soon after moving to the UK. He is always struggling to make the right balance between play and work; the former tends to win...
'Just like everything in life, mountain activity is never risk-free' he says.
'However, with suitable knowledge, it is usually possible to reduce the risk without hampering the excitement or joy.'
To help promote the science of safer climbing, Masa, formerly a professional physicist, has set up a website: saferclimbing.org