Starting out in scrambling

Starting out in scrambling

This article explores the main issues when starting out. Amongst other topics it covers route selection, training, information sources and weather, together with some top tips to increase your security and safety whilst scrambling.

Scrambling is a natural extension of hill-walking and mountaineering. it means using both hands and feet to negotiate rocky terrain on ridges and easier buttresses on the mountains of the British Isles. Scrambling lies at the easier end of rock climbing. As it usually involves soloing (no rope) this has serious implications in the event of a fall. You rely on skill, judgement and self-confidence for safety.

the routes scramblers normally choose are liberally covered in big holds for hands and feet at a nice angle


However, the routes scramblers normally choose are liberally covered in big holds for hands and feet at a reasonable angle, allowing steady and secure upward movement.

Most people are introduced to scrambling through a club or friends, but others come to scrambling with their interest piqued by magazine articles and books that offer stunning photographs that are difficult to ignore, and an enticing alternative and progression from hill-walking. When starting out scrambling it is important to consider the skills involved in descending, such as down-climbing and retreating using a rope.

In recent years scrambling has become extremely popular. Weekends on the classic scrambles can be exceptionally busy, which may be reassuring if you are beginning to explore, but traffic jams are common and solitude is only guaranteed during the week, and in winter, when most of the scrambles become much more serious under a cloak of snow, making routes graded winter climbs. They are best avoided in this snowy state unless you have an appropriate level of skill and experience to tackle them. Remember that snow can appear in July in Scotland - so watch the weather.
Easy! © Maygutyak
scramblingKey skills

Some people are lucky enough to be shown the technical skills of rope work and practical climbing skills through friends, especially during the early stages when a rope might be used to protect more difficult sections, offering a great insight into what scrambling entails. Others, who wish to advance quickly and in greater safety, should consider attending one of the excellent scrambling courses available from guides, instructors and centres around the UK.

Any quality course should cover the following basic skills:
Remember that snow can appear in July in Scotland - so watch the weather
  • Climbing techniques - up and down
  • Basic and advanced rope work
  • Retreating or abseiling
  • Packing - essential items
  • Weather
  • Route finding and guide books
  • Judgement and ability
  • Rock types
Guidebooks

There are many guidebooks covering all the mountainous scrambling areas of the UK, which are available in all good bookshops and climbing shops. They contain excellent information on quality routes at a variety of grades. The grade of a route indicates the length (perhaps 100 metres to over 1000 metres), severity (consequences of a slip / steepness) and the time or commitment needed to successfully complete a route. Always select an easier graded route to begin with, especially if visiting a new area for the first time or climbing on a new rock type.

Guidebooks also provide information on flora and fauna, geology, history and give in depth descriptions on the routes. The route description should be accompanied by indicative route diagrams and photographs to clearly show the line of ascent. The difficulty is often interpreting the descriptions that may describe more than 100 metres of the route in one sentence. Careful interpretation is required to identify the main features being described and matching them with the actual rock route above. 

On the rocks
Never assume, always check from a distance, when below and while on a route, as the features can often seem different as you get closer
Different rock types present a variety of different challenges. Gabbro on the Isle of Skye is very frictional and rough, but its counterpart basalt (also found on Skye) is appallingly slippery when wet due to its smooth, frictionless properties (created as this volcanic rock cooled very quickly, prohibiting crystal growth). Choose your route carefully, if there is any prospect of wet weather opt for a rock with better frictional properties.

When the weather is poor, route finding can also be a huge problem as the features and character of the ridge can be lost in the cloud, making orientation very difficult and the way ahead uncertain. As you gain experience, you'll make better judgements on route direction - often by following the line of least resistance (the easiest route). This takes time, as the easiest line is rarely obvious. On the most popular scrambles, crampon scratches are usually present and clearly mark the best line of ascent and descent.

If you knock a rock down by accident, it is very important to shout 'Below!' loudly and clearly

It is well worth speaking to other who have already attempted and completed the route and can offer valuable information on the route such as interesting features, short cuts and escape routes. It is vital to leave a route card or plan with someone reliable who will contact the services if you do not return by an allotted time. Remember to check in with this person when you are off the hill.

When you are on a scramble, always check and ensure the solidity of every hold at all times. A good thump with the heel of the hand works well. Never commit your weight to a hold without testing it and make sure that you are holding something solid before doing so in case the hold breaks off! If a lump is pulled off, place it securely out of the way where it will not fall. If you knock a rock down by accident, it is very important to shout 'Below!' loudly and clearly to warn everyone beneath you to get out of the way. You have a huge responsibility to others to ensure at all costs that rock is never knocked off - so be careful!

All the gear
 
It's sensible to wear a helmet © alephcomo1
helmetIt is always worth wearing a helmet. Accidents, by their very nature, are unpredictable. You cannot account for others' carelessness and or rocks falling. A helmet provides some protection from bangs and bumps often caused by standing up and hitting low roofs! There are many lightweight models, similar to cycle helmets, on the market now and they leave little reason not to have one.

The other important item kit item is a good pair of scrambling boots. Generally, anything with a good sturdy sole is adequate, especially if they have good edges at the toe and outside of foot to provide support when standing on small holds and rock edges. Some excellent specialist footwear is available and is highly recommended if you intend doing a lot of scrambling (e.g. Scarpa, La Sportiva). Good fitting leather gloves (gardening or tractor gloves are ideal) provide excellent protection from the rough rock of places like Skye whilst maintaining maximum dexterity and low cost. Save your expensive Gore-Tex and Windstopper gloves for the winter.

Before it goes pear-shaped

If you find a route more challenging than expected, consider retreating rather than becoming too committed, or get the rope out. Don't leave either decision too long, or either action may prove tricky if you're precariously balanced on a small or overly exposed ledge.

Preparation

The advent of indoor climbing walls has meant that many practical skills can be learned in warmth and comfort

The advent of indoor climbing walls has meant that many practical skills can be learned in warmth and comfort. Go to the local indoor wall and practice climbing (and down climbing) as often as possible. This will undoubtedly improve your confidence and fitness and allow you to tackle harder scrambles.

Thorough preparation will eliminate most unforeseen challenges, although there will be times when you're facing the unknown. It is at these times when the mountaineer should shine through to make rational and safe decisions. Aim to be self-reliant at all times, and use your skills to extricate and save yourself from tricky situations before they become too dangerous.

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