Scrambling is one of the most enjoyable aspects of hill walking and mountaineering as it epitomises freedom of movement over rock, utilising every aspect of the body from your mind to the grip applied by your feet and fingertips. It is however also one of the most dangerous aspects of walking or mountaineering due to the severity and consequences of any mistake, be it a slip or route finding misjudgement.
Scrambling is really soloing (without the use of a rope or other safety items), as there are no safety nets to catch you if you misjudge your ability.
The rope is an essential tool for scramblers and some basic knowledge on the safe use can prove life saving when the weather turns or should someone become injured. A short, light rope of 9mm diameter and at least 35m length can provide an essential emergency tool for ascending short steps or abseiling down tricky ground.
Read the guidebook
One of the most essential skills that a scrambler can develop is the ability to read accurately the guidebook route description and relate it to the rock scramble ahead. This skill will enhance your safety and it can make the difference between success and failure. Many accidents occur because scramblers end up off route, often in poor weather or on ground that is much more difficult, but which would have been avoidable by good route finding skills.
It is always best to work through the grades in any guidebook. Start with something easy that will give you a feel for the author's opinions on grades as these can vary greatly from one author to another. Most of the more classic routes, like Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor, have gained an agreed grade over time due to the amount of traffic that they get, which some of the less well tramped scrambles don' t have. When visiting a new area or climbing on a new rock type it is always a good policy to begin by attempting a route of lower grade than your normal operating standard just to get used to it.
Down climbing is an essential skill to learn. As a rule you should never climb up if you cannot safely reverse back down. Ideally you should be able to down climb at the same grade as your hardest ascending grade. Often down climbing is the only way of escaping situations which otherwise would require self-rescue with a rope or involve a rescue team. If you are at all uncertain, retreating should always be an option. Never be afraid to admit defeat. You can always return another day with a stronger team and some protection gear. Practice down climbing on any of the many indoor walls across the country.
It adds an extra degree of safety to have someone who can initiate a mountain rescue in the event of injury. So it's worth climbing with a companion of similar ability to your own. The experiences of other scramblers can be invaluable in solving many problems that arise during a scramble that you may not yet have personally experienced, whether they are on the same route or a different one.
When companions are unavailable, or if you prefer to travel alone in the mountains, be sure to leave a plan of your route and alternatives with someone reliable. Choose your route to match your ability.
It is important to check every hold on a scramble (as routine) before committing your weight to them, hands and feet.
Retreating may be the wise option but it cannot be taken lightly! Abseiling and down climbing are the most serious aspects of scrambling as they often occur to escape a problem that has arisen, usually in poor weather and when tired. Never rush a descent. Take time to double check and test every anchor and hold, and always back up abseils with another piece of protection.
Good safe practice is achieved through time and experience that should be learned enjoyably on the mountains.
If the weather is bad, it is better to drop a grade and choose a rock type with better frictional qualities (such as granite, rather than the slippery mica-schist found in the Southern Highlands of Scotland). The weather also plays a large part in route finding, making key features difficult to identify and changing the character and seriousness of a route. Getting off-route can be potentially deadly and many accidents have occurred following an initial loss of direction. On most of the classic routes there are plenty of crampon scratches that often indicate the best line to follow. Take time to assess and decide whether retreat or continuing to the summit is the best option. Choose a good day for exploring your limits and new routes.
Good safe practice is achieved through time and experience that should be learned enjoyably on the mountains. Always check the weather and prepare thoroughly before getting on any route. Consider attending a scrambling course that will cover all these issues and give you more confidence to explore the UK's best scrambles in greater safety.