With stomach lurching drops either side of you, now is not the time to panic. But you can feel it rising inside anyway. Your vision narrows and your breathing becomes ragged. One slip and it’s all over...
This scenario may be experienced by many people in the outdoors at some point. Starting with mild hikes, the more involved you become, the harder areas you might want to access. And these can often involve scrambling.
And it’s no surprise, as this extra effort often gets you to the best places in the outdoors with gorgeous vistas and epic tales to be told after.
WHAT IS ROCK SCRAMBLING?
Scrambling is the milder form of climbing. Using hands and feet, scrambling is getting up serious inclines in a climbing fashion, but not sheer vertical terrain that requires ropes and climbing gear.
You can consider yourself scrambling when the angle or steepness of the route exceeds that of which you could comfortably just walk or step up and you start to use your hands. This will vary by the capability of each person, their experience, and the route itself.
But make no mistake, while scrambling may seem milder than climbing sheer vertical cliffs, it can often be more dangerous.
The use of ropes in scrambling is often not required, as it can significantly slow the process of movement down. This can lead to people tackling scrambles that are too hard or steep for their limits which can then lead to accidents.
The weather will also play a big part in this danger. As a experienced rock climber myself, there are some easy scrambles I would not do in the rain as the difficulty increases dramatically. Even I would be scared attempting these.
It's no wonder then that many people can get far out of their comfort zone and ability when so many factors can influence a scrambles difficulty.
THE BEST WAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCRAMBLING ABILITY
There is only one tried and tested way to improve your scrambling. Nothing else will boost it as much as this.
The skills learnt in rock climbing, including proper techniques of foot and hand placements, combined with the reduction of the fear of ‘exposure’, make rock climbing the best way to improve your scrambling ability.
After all, scaling vertical cliffs repeatedly makes the less than vertical terrain seem much tamer, right?
One way I noticed this first hand was with the adventure group I ran for 2 years. Taking hundreds of people on hikes, climbs and abseils, what stood out to me was the people who actively made an effort to rock climb. When we would then go out on hikes that had a scramble section, the difference was very noticeable. They felt much more secure and in control. They breezed through it while others had difficulties.
The one other way you can improve scrambling is by actually just doing it. I find this to be not as effective as it takes a lot longer, but in the end, the more you do it, the better you get.
So what about bouldering instead of rock climbing?
Bouldering is the sport of climbing boulders. Typically, you never go very high (under a few meters) and the focus is on very hard boulder ‘problems’ (the route) and the difficulty of these.
The equipment you need is very minimal, just a pair of climbing shoes and some chalk, and a boulder pad in cases where falling off and landing might require one. This makes it quite cheap for anyone to get into.
What bouldering lacks however, is sufficient exposure. Beginners especially will not be capable of climbing hard or high problems so they miss the key experience of getting better with the exposure. Though if you had no convenient chance to rock climb, bouldering is better than nothing and will still help!
KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN ROCK SCRAMBLING
If you take an active approach to improving your scrambling ability, you will be rewarded with a safer experience and access to some amazing places.
Here are some things to remember:
► Learn rock climbing hand and foot placement basics
These are crucial to being able to not only see your options, but to utilize them safely and efficiently.
Using the front of your foot, toes pointed in, drop the heel and use the friction to gain traction. This takes practice and confidence to make it stick.
Point the front of your foot in using the toes. Use on holds like pockets.
Using the inside (or outside) edge of your foot near the big toe. This is also the most common rock climbing foot placement type. Beware of using the outside edge as it is weaker. Use the outside only on wider ledges.
◘ Side pulls
Pull in the opposite direction as the hold is facing.
Not used as much in scrambling but there can be times you need to use a crimp hold for balance. These are small holds using just the first digits of your fingers.
Like a foot smear, these are the same for the hands. Use the whole hand and gain as much friction as possible. Drop the elbow and arm down to gain the best leverage.
Pulling up on a undercling is very secure if the hold is hip level. Inspect the rock to make sure it will hold.
For more detailed information on climbing hold types, have a look at THIS ARTICLE.
► Don’t rush
Always make sure to take your time in sketchy places. When the terrain is easier and a fall not catastrophic, you can mover quicker. When it’s dangerous, move slower and with purpose.
► Test hand and footholds before commiting
Loose rock is a reality in the outdoors. Lessen the risk of pulling a dodgy block and falling by testing suspect hand and foot holds before commiting full body weight to them. Tap the rock. Is it hollow? Treat it with caution. What is it attached to? Always be careful in rocky or scree type terrain, especially alpine areas as the freeze-thaw cycles create lots of choss (loose rock).
► Keep 3 points of contact at all times
Keeping 3 points of contact is a safe way to stay in control. Hanging by one hand and committing everything to that one hold... Never do that when scrambling!
► Use vegetation as handholds carefully
Vegetation like roots, shrubs or even grass can be very helpful. But like rocks, treat them with caution in case they rip out! Keep in mind that in places like rainforests the vegetation can generally be very loose whereas alpine flora is often sturdier due to the windy environment they are in.
► Look around frequently
This is important for several reasons. You need to be able to backtrack, keep awareness of where you are on the route, get an idea of what the weather is doing, and keep an eye out for your team members. Avoid tunnel vision.
► Keep group communication open
Communication is vital to make sure that if anyone is uncomfortable, they can say so and be received in a understanding manner. There have been many accidents when one member of the group felt too scared to say they wanted out, and subsequently fell. Always be honest.
► Research the route
Always make sure to know what you are getting into. Most of the time there are guide books and descriptions available online. And if you are heading into uncharted terrain- you should certainly know what you are doing.
► Know your escapes
While there might always be committing sections on scrambles, you should be aware of what your escape options are. This is where your rock climbing skills can come in handy. Carrying a short length of rope can be helpful but you should know how to use it. Coming down is always where most accidents occur, both in hiking and climbing.
► Know when to climb down backwards
You’ll often see people on their butts when going down steep stuff. There is a fine line for when this works and when it becomes dangerous. There’s no straight answer but you should always tackle hard sections facing the rock. This is more secure and gives you better options on your next move. It will seem counter intuitive or scary at first but with practice it becomes easy.
► Know your limits
Be sure to tackle routes you can handle and in line with your skill and experience level. Ask questions of those who have done your intended trip.
► Know the weather
As mentioned earlier, the weather can often be a make or break event for a scrambling route. What is easy when dry is downright treacherous when wet. Make sure to know the forecast and keep an eye out for changes while on your trip. We often tend to forget the passage of time when our focus is on the next hand or foot hold.
► Know when to turn back (and how to)
If the weather did turn nasty, can you go back? What if someone can’t make it further? Do you have the skills to reverse hard moves? And most importantly, can you make the call even if you might feel like going on but other reasons are more pressing? Don’t be too proud to say ‘let's turn back’. Avoid summit fever and the mistake I once did!
Following these tips will make a vast difference to your scrambling. But nothing as much as practising your rock climbing! Even if you are scared of heights, the best way to overcome a fear is to face it. You’ll learn a whole lot about yourself along the way, and the next time you come up to some steep scrambling, you'll smile and know just what to do!
Happy and safe adventures!