Route finding

Route finding

This article highlights the main features to look for in good guidebooks and offers some advice on using and interpreting them effectively. The article also explores the need for accurate route finding, which is greatly assisted by good guidebook descriptions and offers some practical advice to help you stay on route when scrambling.

Today there is a wide variety of top quality scrambling guides covering the length and breadth of the UK. More often than not, your main difficulty will be deciding which area or route to tackle next. Some people are so obsessed with one area, such as Skye or the Lakes, that they rarely climb in other locations. Others seek solitude and search out remote scrambles that offer peace and tranquillity while adding a greater sense of adventure and seriousness, quite often the result of long and awkward approaches. Others prefer the armchair approach, possessing and knowing every detail of every guidebook available, preferring the security of using someone else's experience to guide them.


If you're new to scrambling it's actually a good idea to attempt routes right across the country

Personally, I prefer to take an approach that encompasses all of these obsessions. If you're new to scrambling it's actually a good idea to attempt routes right across the country - and many guide books now offer selected classic routes in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland - rather than focussing in depth on one specific area. In order to progress quickly and safely to some of the harder scrambles, this broad base of experience gained in different locations with different rock types, various weather conditions and variety of challenges will provide the best base to move on to greater things.

However, if your free time is restricted to weekends these selected guides that cover the best routes in the country can be seem like bad news: you can guarantee that on good days these routes will be excessively busy, which brings other serious pressures and problems. If you are trying a slightly harder scramble than normal, then at least help may be at hand during the weekend rush. Weekdays often offer the best opportunities to experience these routes in peace and avoid dangerous jams or frustration but you need to be entirely self sufficient and capable of extricating yourself from all possible challenges. You need to be sure of your ability and technical skills before attempting a route. Never underestimate length and difficulties of any route. A good working knowledge of methods of safe retreat is highly desirable for your own use and often for the assistance of others around you that have been a little less sensible with regard to their ability. 

Guidebooks

The most useful guidebooks keep descriptions short and concise, and are well supported by good quality photography that clearly shows the nature of the route and highlights its course. Look for guidebooks that contain information on accommodation, travel details, access issues, useful contact details, geology, flora and fauna and points of interest about local history. Whatever the content, the best guidebooks for the hill need a durable and waterproof cover. Ideally, the book should be of a size to fit neatly into the chest pocket of a waterproof top or the cargo pocket on scrambling trousers.

hand holds © ueuaphoto
The main skill in using guidebooks is absorbing the author's written route description and matching it to the topography of the ground ahead. Often 100m of ascent is described in only a few words, so it is important to be able to quickly identify key features like chimneys, cracks and corners. Some guidebooks use continental terminology (such as 'diedre' meaning 'corner'). There ought to be a glossary in the back of the book, but it's worth learning the main words to save a lot of confusion and time in the future.

A few guidebooks give a good estimate of time the route will take, but where they do it is probably best to estimate that any route will take at least a couple of hours longer than the suggested time - to allow for any problems such as poor weather, route finding difficulties or fatigue. If you use books from the same author on a regular basis, you will soon get a good idea of the author's interpretation of the route, degree of difficulty and speed of ascent.

It is good policy to buy a quality guidebook cover, which not only prolongs the life of the book, but also speeds up the process of reading and finding the route description as the best covers provide page dividers. The best covers also have methods of attaching the guidebook to the harness if required quickly and in an awkward position. Often, the description alone is all that is required and carrying the extra weight of whole guidebook is ridiculous. Photocopy a number of different information sources and laminate them back-to-back on one sheet, this is light and slips easily into a pocket. The only drawback with this is that other route options are then limited, as the descriptions have been left at home. It's always worth having an alternative or two and taking them along them with you.

Keep a good written record of dates, your climbing partners and the conditions - it is surprising how quickly the memory fades and if you have any aspirations to gain some future mountaineering awards, you will be pleased with this resource. Write the details beside the route in your guidebook, so that it's a quick and accessible reference.

Route Finding

When the weather is good, route finding is usually reasonably straightforward but in the cloud or mist following routes becomes much more difficult. Gain some experience on the more straightforward ridges in poor weather before venturing on more extreme scrambles. Any route can quickly become a grade or more harder if the rock is wet, when extreme care is required.

Break the route into manageable sections. Find the main features in the description or look for obvious places to stop, like ledges, where the next part of the description can be read in safety. Main features are best identified and observed from a distance, as once below a route perspective foreshortening causes these features to merge in with the rest of the route and become less distinct. As you ascend, make a mental note of the ground covered and look for possible escape routes - this can be vital if the weather closes in and retreat becomes necessary - as well as keeping close track of your progress with respect to the guidebook description.

Always allow plenty of time to complete the route, and get an early start. This will give you time to deal with any unforeseen challenges and also reduces the risk of falling rocks hitting you from parties above on the route. Aim to be self-sufficient at all times and use your experience and judgement to get you out of difficult situations.

Talk about routes with people who have already done them. They can often give very useful tips and hints on difficult sections, how to overcome them and possible escape routes in difficult conditions. Many good lessons can be learned from others' epics, although some people's stories are enough to persuade you to hang up your boots and take up flower pressing instead - some tales have to be taken with a pinch of salt!

Down climbing  

Never ascend ground, especially without a rope, unless you are sure you have the skills to retreat back down

Never ascend ground, especially without a rope, unless you are sure you have the skills to retreat back down. Retreating with a rope will always be safer as long as suitable anchors are selected and thoroughly tested. If you are in any doubt at all, it is always good policy to follow the easiest line. This skill improves with experience and often on scrambles, there are many more holds available than at first inspection. Some sections can appear intimidating and require a steadier head, but you should never be afraid to take out the rope.

Route-finding skills are learned and developed through extensive experience. If you aspire to great things on bigger, more difficult scrambles then confidence with your route finding skills is fundamental. There are some excellent courses available throughout the UK that focus on these skills and they are highly recommended for anyone unsure of their ability level and skill set or if you want to progress quickly to the next level of competence.

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