Scrambling (also known as alpine scrambling) is a method of ascending rocky faces and ridges. It is an ambiguous term that lies somewhere between hillwalking and rock climbing. It is often distinguished from hillwalking by defining a scramble as a route where hands must be used in the ascent. Less exists to distinguish it from climbing, with many easy climbs sometimes referred to as difficult scrambles. A distinction can be made by defining a climb as any ascent where hands are used to hold body weight, rather than just for balance.
The Mountaineers climbing organization defines scrambling as follows:
"Alpine Scrambles are off-trail trips, often on snow or rock, with a 'non-technical' summit as a destination. A non-technical summit is one that is reached without the need for certain types of climbing equipment (body harness, rope, protection hardware, etc), and not involving travel on extremely steep slopes or on glaciers. However, this can mean negotiating lower angle rock, traveling through talus and scree, crossing streams, fighting one's way through dense brush, and walking on snow-covered slopes."
Although ropes might be necessary on harder scrambles, sustained use of rope and belay probably counts as climbing; typically, the use of ropes in scrambling is limited to rappelling or for basic safety uses other than belays up a vertical face.
While much of the enjoyment of scrambling depends on the freedom from technical apparatus, unroped scrambling in exposed situations is potentially one of the most dangerous of mountaineering activities. For this reason most guidebooks advise carrying a rope, especially on harder scrambles, which may be used for security on exposed sections, to assist less confident members of the party, or to facilitate retreat in case of difficulty. Above all, scramblers are advised to know their limits and to turn back before they get into difficulties.
Many of the world's mountaintops may be reached by walking or scrambling up their least-steep side. These routes are not always obvious, but mountaineering books generally mention them; they are often used as the safe and easy way to descend from a more difficult route. A more extreme version of scrambling is rock hopping which entails jumping from one rock to another, often without the protection of a rope.
Ridge routes are especially popular in the United Kingdom, including Crib Goch leading to Snowdon mountain top, Bristly Ridge on Glyder Fach, Striding Edge on Helvellyn and Sharp Edge on Blencathra in the Lake District as well as numerous routes in Scotland such as the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe. Many such routes include a "bad step" where the scrambling suddenly becomes much more serious. The bad step on Crib Goch for example, involves only 20 feet or so of climbing, but the position is exposed and those not accustomed to exposure might retreat at this point. The rock face here is well polished by countless boots, and might seem dangerous, but there are many "jugholds" which offer firm support. The way beyond to the ridge proper is then easy scrambling, and the ridge itself offers interesting diversions either onto a safer path below or via crags with a very high level of exposure. By contrast, the traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye demands use of a rope at one point at least, and is not for the inexperienced scrambler. The ridge routes of Liathach and Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross are easier to traverse but are extremely exposed. Descent from such ridges is very limited, so once committed, the scrambler must continue to the end. An Teallach to the north offers excellent scrambling, although the route to the mountain from the road is long. By contrast, Stac Pollaidh is close to a small road, and the peak offers delightful scrambling. It includes a bad step to add some spice to the adventure. It lies further to the north, in Sutherland. A good starting point for budding scramblers is the guides by W A Poucher, which describe the many walking and scrambling routes in the British hills.
Many easy scrambles in good weather become serious climbs if the weather deteriorates. Black ice or verglas is a particular problem in cold weather, and mist or fog can disorient scramblers very quickly. The problem of hypothermia occurs in rain as well as mist owing to the cooling effect of precipitation. Since good weather is the exception rather than the rule in the British mountains, scramblers normally go equipped with a waterproof jacket and other protective clothing as well as emergency supplies of food and drink. A high resolution map is also an essential accompaniment so that the route can be followed with accuracy, and escape envisioned via recognised paths in the case of bad weather or injury.
A guide recommends the ten essentials, and a companion, for any scramble, along with leaving details of the planned trip and a return window with a responsible person who may contact a rescue team. Where snow conditions exist, a helmet, ice axe and the knowledge to use it, are also recommended.
In the U.S., scrambling is Class 3 in the Yosemite Decimal System of climb difficulties. In the British system it is Easy with some of the harder scrambles incorporating moves of Moderate or even Difficult standard.
Some guide books on scrambling may rate the routes as follows:
- easy — generally, just off-trail hiking with minimal exposure (if at all) and perhaps a handhold or two. UIAA Class I.
- moderate — handholds frequently needed, possible exposure, route finding skills helpful. UIAA Class II.
- difficult — almost constant handholds, fall distance may be fatal, route finding skills needed, loose and downsloping rock. Less experienced parties may consider using a rope for short sections. YDS class 3, 4, and possibly 5.
In the UK, scrambles are usually rated using Ashton's system of either Grade 1, 2, 3 or 3S (S for serious), with the grade being based around technical difficulty and exposure. The North Ridge of Tryfan in Snowdonia, or Striding Edge on Helvellyn in the Lake District, are classic Grade 1 scrambles. At the other end of the scale, Broad Stand on Sca Fell is usually considered Grade 3 or 3S. Note that some of the older Scottish guidebooks used a system of grades 1 to 5, leading to considerable confusion and variation over grades 1, 2 and 3 in Scotland.
- See Terry Adby and Stuart Johnston, The Hillwalker's Guide to Mountaineering, (Milnthorpe:Cicerone, 2003), ISBN 1-85284-393-4, pp.62-65 for more on defining scrambles.
- The Mountaineers. FAQs on Alpine Scrambles. Retrieved on 2008-01-15 from http://mountaineers.org/seattle/scramble/FAQ.htm.
- The Mountaineers, Freedom of the Hills, (The Mountaineers Books, 7th Ed. 2003), ISBN 978-0-89886-427-4
- Steve Ashton, Scrambles in Snowdonia, (Cicerone Press, 1992), ISBN 1-85284-088-9