Learn how to scramble in 2014!

11 essential tips from Jon Jones, Head of Mountaineering at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Centre

Illustration photo of Learn how to scramble in 2014!

ALL SCRAMBLING IS NOT NECESSARILY at the top of mountains, and if you hill-walk or do a bit of climbing down at your local indoor climbing wall then you are well on your way to tackling some of the UK’s awesome scrambling terrain.

Scrambling tackles the middle ground between walking and climbing which makes it hugely accessible and exhilarating, but can also expose the participant to exposed and serious terrain that requires careful judgement and decision-making skills.

The key question you need to consider is whether you are choosing the right scramble for you or your peers’ abilities in terms of scrambling skills, navigation, guidebook interpretation and on-the-ground route-finding, plus the technical rope knowledge and know-how, if this is called upon.

Before embarking on a scramble there are many roadside options where you can practise and gain confidence in scrambling techniques, like the Scimitar Ridge in Polldubh, Glen Nevis. Before you choose a scramble you must have an understanding of the grading system.

In essence, scrambling is when the hands will need to be used for progress. A simple numerical system is most common (1-3) to indicate the difficulty of a scramble, where most hillwalkers will be fairly happy to tackle a Grade 1 scramble. However, those with little climbing experience may find Grade 3 scrambles too difficult or frightening for them.


Most hill-goers will find this grade fairly straightforward, requiring some use of the hands (generally for balance), taking the easiest route that is obvious to follow requiring straightforward route finding-skills. There may be some exposure but the route will be well ledged, like the zigzags on Gearr Aonach in Glencoe.


Routes of this grade will require more use of the hands, and more decision making skills about route choice will be needed, with fewer escape options. Ledges will not be as big or as frequent and there may be considerable exposure, such as at Wistow Crags on Pillar in the Lake District.


This grade of scramble may well involve some rock climbing skills and technique. All but experienced climbers may prefer the use of a rope in some places, in which case you will need to have knowledge of how to use a rope, place protection and build belays. Route finding may problematical, escape may only be by abseil retreat and exposure will be extreme at times. A typical example is the south ridge of Sgurr Thormaid in the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye.

Some scrambling guidebooks may also include the lower-end climbing grades, i.e. Moderate or Grade 3(S) which both mean the same but involve more sustained climbing, i.e. a series of roped pitch sections that are sustained and in a serious situation, such as the Inaccessible Pinnacle (Grade: Mod) on Sgurr Dearg in the Isle of Skye.


There are many excellent scrambling guidebooks on the market and using one of these, along with a detailed map, will help you plan your objective before setting off. Other considerations you need to keep in mind are the time of year (length of day), hill and weather conditions (scrambling in the wet can be fun if you’re confident, and a good way to make the best of a poor weather day, but remember to drop the grade in accordance to the conditions), plus the fitness and ambitions of you and your peers.

Before you head off, read the guidebook and look at the map to make sure you are completely happy with where you are going and that the conditions on the ground reflect the weather forecast. Once you are on the hill, use the guidebook and map to help you locate the start of your intended scramble.

In some parts of the country there may be a well worn path and large cairn indicating the start of the route, in other parts of the country, particularly remote areas of Scotland, this might not be the case. Either way, be careful in not getting thrown a red herring by following a sheep / deer track into the mist of some remote boggy corrie, meaning that the only scramble you do that day is getting out of the car in the morning!


This is the fun bit! If you are starting out on a scramble for the first time at around Grade 1 then you will find that the route will be open to variation with almost any route chosen possible in ascent and descent. It is more about following the cleanest-looking line, i.e. one with the least amount of vegetation and loose rock and what looks like the most aesthetically pleasing line to follow.

The more challenging the grade, the more obvious the line will be. This is because the scrambling route will always take the easiest line – whether that is grade 1 or 3 or above – and will be less open to variation, an example being the Grade 3 Cneifion Arete on Glyder Fawr in Snowdonia.

When on the route, always look for signs of passage like worn areas of rock, or lighter areas of rock that hold less lichen or moss. As many scrambles are climbed in winter as winter climbs or mountaineering routes, there maybe signs of crampon marks on key sections of the route.


Like I said earlier, scrambling is the fun bit and is meant to be enjoyable. You decide on the level of difficulty and then challenge yourself at your chosen level – just be careful not to over-cook it. Here are some top tips:

[1] Don’t climb up what you can’t climb down.

[2] If the way up is not obvious then you are not on route.

[3] Don’t get too focused on the rock in front of your face, step back and look around.

[4] If you are with someone with more experience make them go first to assess the difficulty.

[5] If you’re purposely setting out to push your boundaries then go with someone of better or equal ability.

[6] If you plan to use a rope then make sure you have the knowledge and know-how of how to use it on scrambling terrain; this might be mini-pitching short rock sections that you lead climb up in the same style as rock climbing on the more difficult sections.

[7] Have suitable clothing and footwear. A stiff scrambling boot is definitely recommended for more serious scrambles.

[8] Always be cautious: scrambling routes often follow natural weaknesses which collect loose rock.

[9] On steeper terrain do not stand below other people, stay to the side until others have passed the obstacle. Wearing a climbing helmet is recommended.

[10] If ‘backing off ’ a scramble then quite often traversing out will get you onto easier ground. However this is not always the case, so having the equipment and know-how to abseil retreat is recommended.

[11] Always make sure that in your group you have a group shelter, mobile phone, whistle, spare jacket and some spare food just in case of getting caught out by the weather or darkness.

A good day’s scrambling is all about proper preparation and planning. Make sure all involved are fit and well, that you have the appropriate equipment and understanding of how to use it and have planned your route with the use of a scrambling guidebook and map. Good luck!