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Mountain Scrambling in Cumbria and Snowdonia

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The beauty of British mountains, apart from their obvious natural beauty, is that, relatively speaking, they are not very high. A journey from valley to summit can be completed by an averagely fit person in somewhere around two hours. This makes for easy access to some of the island's most enjoyable adventure playgrounds. What they lack in height they can make up for in ruggedness. Enjoying that ruggedness is what scrambling is all about. There now follows a tiny glimpse of what the higher grades of scrambling can entail.

If you Suffer from Vertigo Look Away Now...

A glance down at your right boot. The outstep rests on a two inch wide lip of rock. Below the remainder of the boot is 300 feet of vertical fresh air, and then a fearsome collection of rocky pinnacles. In a moment you are going to swing your left boot over the abyss, to the next foot hold, jam your left hand into an inviting looking jug hold, then push and pull yourself upwards in a single flowing motion to bring yourself to the sanctuary of a two-foot wide ledge, and then to, what looks like from here, far easier climbing territory.

You're taking too long pondering this one. If you start thinking about it... Go!

This is called exposure; you are just discovering what the 'S' in Grade 3S means. It means serious.

Mountain Scrambling?

The easiest way to get up a British mountain is to take the well established path that thousands of walkers have used before. This is called (rather dismissively) hill walking. The most difficult way is to climb via crag or sheer face. This is called rock climbing. Somewhere in the hazy hinterland between the two is one of the purest and most exciting of all outdoor pursuits - mountain scrambling.

Scrambling is a very basic and sometimes very dangerous form of mountaineering. Basic because there is just you and the mountain. You are not weighed down with a harness full of clanking hardware. Dangerous because, usually, you are not protected from falling. Of course, if you feel like being roped up to climb scrambling routes, then by all means learn the techniques and climb away; but the essence of scrambling is the exhilaration and freedom experienced by climbing without aids.

The Grading System

Climbing magazines and scrambling guide books grade their described routes in four categories.

  • Grade 1 - A rough climb or exposed walk. The occasional hard step where you will certainly be required to use your hands. Route finding will be obvious. Ropes will only be required by the extremely nervous.

    Prime examples in the British Isles are Jack's Rake on Pavey Ark, Langdale, Cumbria, England, and the highly popular and much traversed Crib Goch near Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) Gwynedd, Cymru (Wales).

  • Grade 2 - The scrambling is more difficult and longer. A rope may be advisable. A wide experience of scrambling is required. Route finding can be difficult, and escape from the route, also, may not be easy.

    Great Carrs Buttress, Weatherlam, Cumbria, England, and Clogwyn Y Person Arête, near Yr Wyddfa, Gwynedd, Cymru, are fine examples of grade two climbs.

  • Grade 3 - More pitches of simple rock climbing on which rope protection is strongly advised, for safety. Dry conditions may be essential. Skills in rope work are required because of lack of escape routes.

    The Slab and Notch (Pillar Rock) Ennerdale, Cumbria, England, and Sentries Ridge, Mynydd Mawr, Gwynedd, Cymru are examples of Grade 3 routes. Sets the adrenaline rushing just seeing the names.

  • Grade 3S - S is for serious. S is for severe. S is for safety. Only mad people climb 3S's unprotected. These were classed as rock climbs not so many years ago, but as the technical skills required for rock climbing rose higher and higher, these routes fell out of rock climbing guides and into scrambling guides.

    Two demanding 3S climbs are Honister Crag, Honister Pass, Cumbria, England and Cyfrwy Arête, Cadair Idris, Gwynedd, Cymru.

Safety

A beginner should never start on anything other than a grade one climb. These climbs will give you enough 'heart in mouth' moments, to tell you whether or not you wish to go further up the scrambling ladder.

A group climb is the safest way to go. Solo climbing is for the brave, but foolhardy.

Be patient with the weather. Wait for good conditions. Rain increases the chances of a slip. If you must get to the heights on a rainy day, take the walkers' path up. A high, gusty wind on an exposed ridge can fry the nerves of the most experienced climber. Leave it for another day. A trickle in a gully on a dry day can turn into an impassable torrent after a few hours of rain. Dry, calm days are scrambling days.

Snow and ice transform even a grade one climb into an Alpine climb. These conditions are for highly skilled and experienced mountaineers only. Build a snowman instead.

Equipment

  • Map and Compass - The Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 series for navigation. Most outdoor pursuit shops will have scrambling guide books that describe well tried routes.

  • Torch1 - For signalling in an emergency.

  • Whistle - Can help rescuers to find you if you are hidden from general view.

  • Swiss Army Knife - Small, light, emergency equipment.

  • Body-sized Polythene Survival Bag - Could save your life. Believe it.

  • Mobile Phone - For contacting Mountain Rescue after a fatal or disabling accident, not because you are tired and fancy a lift off the mountain. This has happened.

  • First Aid Kit - It is recommended that anyone who regularly climbs in the mountains should enrol on a basic first aid course.

  • Rucksack - They catch on crags, they're awkward, they stop you turning around in confined spaces. Try to find one as compact and streamlined as you can.

  • Waterproof Clothing - Mainly for when climbing in dank, dark, slimy gullies.

  • Helmet - You know it makes sense. Any reservations about whether it looks cool or not are far outweighed by the sheer protection they provide from kicked or falling rocks, unseen overhangs, and head injuries sustained in a fall. It should carry the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) label of approval.

  • Rope - A kermantle rope with dynamic qualities, ie, able to stretch and absorb the energy of a fall. It too should carry a UIAA label. 9mm diameter and 36 metre long is the optimum size. It can be doubled up when protecting a leader fall. A 15m climbing pitch can be climbed in safety or it provides for a 15m emergency abseil. If you are coming across pitches outside these parameters, then you are rock climbing, not scrambling, and you should know better.

It cannot be stressed enough that anyone tackling a grade 2 or higher climb should be fully knowledgeable with ropework techniques. Books dedicated to this subject alone can be found in most outdoor pursuit shops.

1Flashlight in American English.

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