A Beginner's Guide to Scrambling
Many years ago, when I was a young man in my twenties, a mate introduced me to scrambling. I had no clue what it was or what it involved, but he was a good lad and it was a weekend in the Lake District and so it sounded like the sort of lark I'd enjoy.
We cut our teeth on the infamous, though in reality, very friendly, Striding Edge that led us to the summit of Helvellyn. It went so well that we were in fact back at our car by lunchtime. Idly flicking through his guidebook my mate then suggested we tick off one more route to make best use of the daylight remaining that day: and so off we went to St John's in the Vale for a grade 3 epic named Sandbed Ghyll.
I had no idea what I had agreed to or what lay ahead, but what transpired was three or four hours of near death scrambling up a Lake District ghyll, which to make matters worse was in spate at the time. Once established on the route, we were committed, and while my mate blithely led the way I felt every perilous step would be my last. I confess, I was terrified the whole way up, wondering what on earth I was doing on such a route*.
This is not the baptism by fire I would recommend for newcomers to this great sport, and so now I'm a bit older and wiser I have some pearls of wisdom to share with those just starting out.
(*For what it's worth, we went out and did a lovely grade 2 scramble the next day and I loved it!)
What is scrambling?
Scrambling lies in that grey area between hillwalking and rock climbing. At its most basic, scrambling is where you venture off the easy paths and get your hands onto rock. While using all four limbs, and trying not to fall off anything, you'll be figuring out the easiest route ahead, and judging the holds for looseness. A steady head for heights is required on even the easiest routes. It's a full mental and physical workout!
A scrambling route might follow a defined ridge line (think Crib Goch or Sharp Edge); it could take you up the rocky course of a stream (they're not all as hard as my Lakeland ghyll initiation); or it might find a line of weakness up a big mountain crag (Jack's rake is a prime example).
Scrambling, at least in the easier grades, is not quite technical enough to be considered rock climbing proper, and for the easier grade 1 routes the moves aren't too hard and you shouldn't ever need a rope or any of the equipment needed for rock climbing other than in an emergency. At the higher end of the scale, harder scrambles blend into rock climbing, and are generally treated as climbs, often with all the climbing gear.
Scrambles are graded 1 – 3, with grade 1 scrambles being at the easier end of the spectrum.
- Grade 1: Normally these are easy to follow and to climb. If you're having a bit of an epic these routes shouldn't be too hard to escape from. That said, escaping from classic grade 1 routes such as Tryfan's North Ridge or a traverse of Crib Goch could prove difficult and more dangerous than sticking to the route.
- Grade 2 scrambles will involve some harder moves and will in general be more committing. Inexperienced scramblers who may not be so confident at height or not so sure-footed may prefer some of the moves to be safeguarded by a rope (and that will entail having a more experienced partner to manage the rope!).
- With grade 3 routes you should expect the whole shebang! Go out anticipating that the route may be hard to find, and will definitely be hard to climb. Expect to need to rope up for the crux sections.
Grade 2 and 3 scrambles tend to involve a lot of decision making the whole way and so particular care and judgement needs to be exercised on this ground. This is mountaineering, not walking. Learn how to do it before committing to harder scrambles, by gaining a solid bedrock of the easier routes.
First time - go with a mate (but maybe not my mate)
The first time you decide to head out for a scrambling adventure I suggest that you go with someone that can show you the way. Scrambling involves so many skill-sets that you really don't want to be taking them all on in one day. Hence find an experienced mate, or join a club outing, or hire a guide for your first outing. This way you need not worry about choice of route, navigation, weather or the route finding.
In everyday life your brain makes decision making into a simpler process by referring back upon a bank of past knowledge and experiences. Psychologists call this the application of heuristics.
For most day to day decisions this is fine. But when we're in the mountains we need to be careful about being a bit more considered in our approach to what we do. Some examples for the budding scrambler include:
- Human nature dictates that if we see other people doing something then it becomes legitimised as being OK or …safe. We also know that this is what sheep do and we must try to think independently and make informed decisions for ourselves.
- Sometimes we make a decision and then refuse to back down no matter if a disaster is looming in our faces. For example the weather is turning for the worse or daylight is dying, but your over-commitment to the goal means that you want to just keep going.
- Those days when the weather is just perfect for a certain given route might lead us to deciding to do it - even though it is beyond our ability. Here the heuristic trap is the scarcity of opportunity leading us to make a rash decision.
There are other heuristic traps - but these are the ones that you're likely to fall foul of as a novice scrambler. And remember, just because nobody died doesn't mean you made all the right decisions in any one day!
With this in mind let's talk about helmets, kit and ropes.
Should I be wearing a helmet?
Some routes dictate that you should wear a helmet regardless of your skill or experience level. Often this might be because there's an increased chance of loose rock above you, (often in gullies), or the likelihood of slipping over on wet rocks means there's a fair chance you'll lose your footing (ghylls). If I am headed out on a traverse of a popular easy hands-on ridge such as Striding Edge or the CMD arete, I won't bother with a helmet. But if I'm headed up Sinister or Dexter gullies on Bristly Ridge for example, or I'm on Jacks Rake in the Lake District scrambling beneath lots of climbers above me, then I will take a helmet. I know that often I am the exception - most people never wear helmets on Jacks Rake - but then I'm aware of heuristic traps!
What about ropes?
As a mountain leader I always carry a rope when out with a group in the mountains. However I carry this not to facilitate the day's plan but to facilitate an escape should the need arise. Typically in my 30 years of leading people in the mountains I have only ever needed a short line to short-rope someone off the hill because something has happened not to plan. One example of this was a client who suffered an injured knee on a traverse of the Welsh 3000s, and using the rope helped me get him off the mountain without him falling.
For grade 1 scrambles you should not expect to need a rope at all. For harder routes a rope and associated hardware should be carried, but as important as having a rope to hand is having the skills that go with it. In essence, ropes are no substitute for experience and knowledge. If you're going to do routes that may need a rope, learn the skills first.
One of the great things about scrambling is that if you're already a keen hillwalker then the chances are you don't need to buy any further equipment to get started out on the easier routes. That said, on mountain scrambles, I prefer to wear approach shoes that are designed for climbing/scrambling. They're lighter on my feet and stickier on the rock than traditional walking boots. In time you'll want to start building up a small library of guidebooks and also get that helmet as mentioned above! In essence, go light, but be prepared as you would for any day on the hill. Later on, when you start considering grade 2 and 3 scrambles, you should have a better idea of the other gear you'll need.
Think carefully about your first route choice
There are some great grade 1 scrambles that you will be drawn to (especially if you ask the masses on social media for their opinion - always an iffy move since you've no idea of the competence of those doing the recommending). Take care though to choose routes for your first forays that are not overly committing, that are easy to find and that are easy to follow. This is especially so if you're headed out on your own.
For your very first outing, steer clear of committing routes that allow for no escape. Routes like Crib Goch for example are sustained and offer no escape to the side - once you're up there, you'll either have to retrace your steps, or keep going to the end.
Secondly, choose for a first route one that is easy to find and to stick to. Tryfan's North Ridge in Snowdonia is a favourite for many, but it's so easy to wander onto challenging, exposed grade 2 territory. Again I suggest that this is a route best saved for a day when you are more experienced in route-finding, and have more confidence and skill with your climbing.
Thirdly - don't choose routes just because they're obvious and easy to find. Another honeypot classic is Sharp Edge that takes you up to Blencathra in the Lakes. Personally I have been up this numerous times in all weathers and I have come to the conclusion that it's always greasy and never that rewarding. Save it for a dry day when you need a quick fix and you've already got a few routes in the bag!
Go scrambling in good weather
When you're headed to steep ground the chances of coming a cropper are greatly increased if the weather isn't just right. For me, wind combined with rain often rule out scrambling. My rule of thumb is that if winds exceed gusting speeds of 25mph then I will rule out any scrambling where I am responsible for those around me. Look at the weather forecast and also consider the direction of wind as well as the speed and force. Lower speed winds that are across your path on an exposed ridge could be really dangerous for the scrambler.
Five Grade 1 Routes to Get You Started
These routes have been selected on the basis that you are likely to be new to this activity and so with a view to keeping things as simple as possible here I have selected five routes that should be easy to find and easy to follow. They are all great routes – though arguably better routes are to come!
1 - Pavey Ark via Stickle Ghyll and Jack's Rake
Many people have heard of Jack's Rake – which must be one of the best scrambles in the Lake District, but almost no one approaches it via an ascent of Stickle Ghyll. Most people walk beside this ghyll without realising the fun there is to be had ascending it! The key to ascending this ghyll is to look for adventure and excitement but not to take on the sections that might be a bit beyond the scope of your skills. Don't overly worry – try it – you can always escape from it at any time by side stepping onto the path.
Once you come to the tarn at the top you will quickly see Jack's Rake scratched diagonally onto the ark of rock that is opposite you. Your first reaction will be to take a gasp and question your marbles. But as you get closer you'll see that it really is very doable. Follow the obvious rake and love it love it love it all the way to the top!
Top tips for this day … It's worth considering wearing helmets for this day. The ghyll scramble can lead to a slip, and Jack's Rake takes a line that is below popular climbing routes where loose rock and gear may fall down upon you. Also consider going on a week day when there are fewer people about.
On Jack's Rake you will feel safest against the wall – but actually the open scrambling on the left of the rake is usually the easier ground to take – though very airy!
If you have any doubts about your head for heights don't start this route – once you're on it, you will be committed to seeing it through to the end.
2 - Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete
Never again walk up the tourist's trail to summit Scotland's highest mountain: it's the biggest thing in these isles, so have an adventure ascending it.
There are many ways to have an adventure on Ben Nevis but for the aspiring mountaineer cum scrambler this is a brilliant place to start. And to be fair, on a summer's day this route won't really need you to get very hands-on with the rock, it is barely more than a walkers' route, but the grand sweeping arc of this ridge that delivers you to the summit of the UK is an excellent place to start scrambling!
3 - The Bell & Levers Water Beck, Coniston Fells
The Bell is a great little route/crag for cutting your teeth on. It's low in altitude and so it doesn't get so battered by the weather, the rock is generally solid, and the holds are good. Care is needed however with the route-finding since it's not always obvious. In essence if it feels a bit 'necky', or wrong, it probably is wrong. That said, one of the things that make this a good introductory scramble is that it is easily escaped along the way.
This scramble is perfect if you're looking for a quick blast up the rocks maybe before getting on the road to head home. In fact it's only fault is that it's over too soon! If however you're looking for a longer day on the hills, a natural continuation would be to connect this route to Levers Water Beck. This latter scramble is a bit scrappy and not particularly sustained in interest, but if you're there anyway – you may as well give this grade 1 scramble a go anyway. From the top of that you can continue up the zig zags and bag the Old Man of Coniston!
4 - Helvelyn via Striding Edge & Swirral Edge
Its bark is far worse than its bite, and that's why I recommend on an early foray to head to the Lake District for this classic round of famous ridges.
For a novice, one great thing about Striding Edge is that for a large part you can tame the ridge by taking the path that runs alongside the ridge proper (you don't want to do that though, it's a shame to miss out). There is a tricky down-step to take, but so long as someone is below you guiding your feet this should be fine. The ridge leads you to England's third highest mountain, Helvelyn, and then you can choose to walk off down one of the many paths on offer or, even better descend via Swirral Edge. At first sight this might look a bit necky – but so long as there is no snow at the top, actually it's fine!
5 - Y Lliwedd (or Snowdon) via an ascent of Y Gribin
This is perfect for a bank holiday weekend with a view to bagging a great route whilst avoiding the crowds.
Y Gribin is another great little gem, easy to find and easy to follow yet overshadowed by its mighty neighbor, Crib Goch. There's rarely anyone on this ridge-line and that only makes it all the better! Y Gribin offers easy scrambling up a broad-backed ridge which brings you out at a col between two more broad easy ridges. Turn right and you'll be at the summit of Snowdon inside the hour. From here I like to head down the South Ridge of Snowdon and pick up the Watkin path down to the road. Alternatively steer clear of the hordes and choose the easy ground that will take you to the summit of Y Lliwedd on the left. This option makes for a slightly shorter day and so is a good one to do maybe before the drive home.
And one for the kids...
Crowden Clough in the Peak District - really easy, pleasant (though short-lived) scrambling that leads you to the heights of Kinder Scout. Best done on a hot day with your kids in tow. Bring spare clothes for them, they'll get wet.
Scrambling is fun
Scrambling is exciting, it's airy, it's exposed, it's exhilarating, and most of all it's simply a great way to ascend a mountain and have an adventure. Go prepared and you'll have a day to remember!
Some scrambling guidebooks
Snowdonia: Mountain Walks and Scrambles (Rockfax)
Scotland's Mountain Ridges (Cicerone)
Scrambles in Snowdonia (Cicerone)
Scrambles in the Lake District – South (Cicerone)
Scrambles in the Lake District – North (Cicerone)
Scrambles in the Dark Peak (Cicerone)
Highland Scrambles South (SMC)
Highland Scrambles North (SMC)
Skye Scrambles (SMC)
About Will Legon
Will Legon of Will4Adventure works professionally in the outdoors as a mountain leader and a climbing instructor, taking people walking, climbing and scrambling in the hills and mountains of the UK.
He also runs courses aimed at improving scrambling skills, and learning to lead - rock climbing know-how that's essential to take on harder scrambles safely. For info see here