Sunday, 29 January 2012

Exposed Scrambling: Grading on a Curve

Some time ago I wrote a short post on the blurring of the line between hillwalking and mountaineering. That grey area is largely occupied by scrambling, which is defined by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland as: " amalgamation of walking and true rock climbing; it is the ascent of steep sections of mountains where hands have to be used as well as feet. It is often done ‘solo’, without the use of technical equipment used in climbing (ropes, harness and protection devices). This is mainly because scrambles are usually part of a longer walk on a ridge or rocky hillside, where speed of ascent is important as part of a long day. However, a scrambler will find him or her self in potentially serious situations, where a trip or stumble would mean a very long fall."

Scrambling grading is not an exact science and there is still disagreement about the precise definitions within the system first used by Steve Ashton in his 1980 book Scrambles in Snowdonia. However, the system most frequently used grades scrambles from 1 to 3S. Each are graded with stars to denote level of interest.

Grade 1: No special climbing skills are required, exposure is limited, route-finding is straightforward and any difficulties can usually be avoided.

Grade 2: There are longer, more difficult stretches of rock climbing requiring a degree of commitment - once undertaken there may be no way back. A rope may well be needed for safety or confidence on exposed sections. Route finding might be more difficult.

Grade 3: Commitment required as escape may be impossible and the harder sections unavoidable. Rope usually required for exposed sections of rock climbing or steep grass where a slip could be fatal. Experience is required.

Grade 3S: Particularly serious and only be undertaken by very experienced scramblers. Exposed passages on steep rock or poor vegetation. Inevitably involves rock climbing and mountaineering skills with the use of rope and other climbing equipment for passage on key areas. Escape is impossible and probably only by means of an abseil.

Most scrambles do not encounter vertical or overhanging ground, a staple of rock climbing, but the hands are vital for support and to negotiate rocky steps. A rucksack, even a UL set-up, will mean a good sense of balance. More challenging and technically difficult scrambles will encounter steeper rocky steps and upper body and arm strength becomes more important. Indeed, when the scrambling becomes more ‘technical’ (you have to look harder for holds; there are less large footholds) then you will be entering the world of ‘graded’ rock climbing, albeit with graded climbing moves no more than those termed ‘Moderate’.

In order to get to grips with scrambling, we went with our alpine guide Nigel Shepherd up to Idwal Slabs and Tryfan in early December last year. I wrote a piece on this for the January 2012 issue of Trek and Mountain magazine so wanted to wait until it was on sale until I posted on the two days of, literally, steep learning. So here it is.

As the rain comes down in a malevolent, horizontal sheets I wonder, not for the first time, what possessed me to be tied to the end of a rope, desperately feeling for a secure foothold on a ledge smaller than my little toe. No other recourse exists - each and every rock is slathered in greasy wet treachery and there is no prospect of any purchase. My only option for upward movement would not balance a 10p piece. And when my partner yells down for me to hold on whilst he checks the direct belay above me, I am left suspended, my fingers curled around a tiny fingerhold and the edge of my boot, precariously balanced, holding my weight. Above me is the lion’s share of the Direct Approach to Senior’s Ridge, the route often used by climbers to descend the Idwal Slabs in Cwm Idwal. When ascending, it is a Grade 2 scrambling route. It is day one of the two day tutorial I have arranged with BMG/IFMGA Guide, Nigel Shepherd.

That morning, after a quick check of clothing and equipment over a cooked breakfast, we had begun with a walk-in to Devil’s Kitchen, at the base of the Idwal Slabs. As we arrive, I find myself gazing down at froth-tipped waves caused by the squally wind on Llyn Idwal. A fine spray of drizzle blurs the landscape. We pull on harnesses and tie in with a rewoven figure of eight and stopper knot. Nigel begins to describe the crossover between climbing and scrambling, as well as the  fundamental and crucial differences. Climbing is a much slower process, he explains. Each section of climbing - the pitch - is protected if at all possible. Technical equipment and anchors are almost always used. Scrambling is not intended to require protection in the same way - it is a faster, more fluid process where direct belays are identified quickly and are much more ad hoc. It has more in common with alpinism than with climbing, he says. Protecting every part with the traditional tools of the rock climber would take far too long. Flexibility is key.

He begins to demonstrate various direct belay techniques which don’t utilise technical equipment  at all - the shoulder belay and the waist belay. Both are used to recover a slip on less steep ground. Neither, without more, would hold a fall. Nor would you want to be using them repeatedly on a membrane shell jacket - the fabric would melt from the friction. Far better is a direct belay achieved by wrapping the rope around a rock. Test the rock first, he admonishes repeatedly. You need to be absolutely sure it is safe - there will be a lot of weight on it and a mistake would be disastrous. As I lean backwards on a shallow slope until the rope is taking all of my weight my partner verifies that, with the friction created by the rope around the rock, he can hold me with just two fingers. Whether the belayer himself needs to be anchored to the rock largely depends on the exposure or safety of the belay position. Understanding the crucial role friction plays in a direct belay like this is essential. In fact, wrapping the rope around a flake of rock is the quickest way to offer a climber quite effective protection. Perhaps the most essential skill we learn is taking in the live rope without every taking a hand off the dead rope which holds the weight. It requires a mechanical, metronomic mindset I do not possess and I have to keep practicing until it becomes second-nature.

Nigel pulls out some curious items from his rack - they look like metal nuts on the end of long, thin pieces of wire. I have seen them before and to me they represent the arcane world of real climbing, a world I do not yet understand. They are called ‘rocks-on-wire’ and are placed in small cracks to create an anchor. A quick-draw (two snap-link carabiners attached together with a length of dyneema tape) is attached to the wire and the rope goes through the free carabiner. These can be runners, Nigel explains, or anchors at a belay. It is all about finding ways to anchor yourself to the mountain to protect a pitch.

When the time comes to begin the day’s scrambling, we head off to the base of the chimney which marks our route to Senior’s Ridge and Glyder Fawr. Nigel climbs first, showing us how to look for footholds and handholds. Take your time and keep calm, he warns. Look around you and test each hold; don’t rush. Easily said, I muse silently. I am first up and I begin to assess the wet, greasy rock. Eventually, I find a tiny shelf on which to place the inside edge of my boot and a spur above it to get my fingers around. I push upwards and grasp my identified handhold. I half expect it to come away from the mountainside but it is secure. I search again, this time for a place to position my left boot and for another handhold for my right hand. Slowly, but surely, I begin to find a rhythm for the short pitch and I am up. Look for a direct belay for your partner, Nigel tells me. I retrieve a sling, flake it around a small rocky prism and attach an HMS carabiner. I take in my partner’s rope until he shout’s “that’s me” and then tie an Italian Hitch into the carabiner. As he climbs, I take in the rope knowing, or hoping rather, that should he slip, the Italian Hitch will hold his fall. Knots are all about friction too and the laws of physics have my respect. When my partner reaches me, Nigel tells him: assess the position - can you stand without anchoring yourself, or do you need to clip into the anchor created by the sling? If you are not sure, either clip in using a carabiner or, more preferably, a clove hitch on your own end of the rope, leaving enough room from where you are tied in to move and still be safe.

After two more pitches, identifying direct belay opportunities and protecting each other’s ascents, we stop for lunch not far from Senior’s Ridge. The rain has become ever more aggressive and we suspect that, once we are able to assess the weather above us, our plan to quickly bag Glyder Fawr may well be scuppered. After another short, wet climb, we reach level ground and stare upwards, watching the cloud sweep across the ridgeline: the wind on Glyder Fawr is savage. This is another essential skill in hillwalking which is thrown into particularly stark relief when scrambling - assess the weather constantly. We skirt round to see if it gets any better but dusky clouds mean the light is failing too. 

Nigel decides to head for he Gribin Facet instead, where we will rehearse abseil skills. I have abseiled before so this is not new, but the weather adds a new dimension to the cauldron of learning. The first step is to lower each other down a short, craggy drop - having confidence in partner and friction whilst the rope takes your weight entirely. The rock is so wet and smooth there is no other way to descend. We find a suitable rock around which to flake the rope. My partner lowers me from his position at the top after which I pull the rope down to me. Using the same direct belay, I take his weight and slowly feed the rope through in order to lower him down to my ledge. It is entirely counter-intuitive but abseil techniques require trust in the belay and moving past your fear. Controlling the dead rope is, in fact, quite easy. Our abseil route proper is nearby and Nigel sets up an abseil anchor. Feeding the rope through a belay device clipped into my partner’s harness, he is ready to go.

He abseils first, knocking off the 30m in double quick time. I am rather more ungainly but also get down safely. The rain is heavy now, and Nigel joins us, eager to get home and warm. An RAF Tornado uses the valley walls for low-flying practice and we are actually above it. It is the end of the first day and we are tired but happy. Steaming tea beckons.

Day two takes us up Tryfan via the Nor Nor Buttress. It is a Grade 3 route. The weather is good - for the first time in a long time, the sun breaches the cloud and it is a fresh, cool day. As we stroll along the Heather Terrace, I realise the wet, greasy rock of yesterday has not been much affected by the sun. When we start scrambling, I will still need to be extremely cautious in foot placement.

We pull on harnesses and tie in, before taking in some coils. The initial moves will be tricky. My partner leads whilst Nigel watches. The exposure is far greater than it was yesterday, even at this early stage of the route. We are already around 700m up on the sheer east face of Tryfan. The valley below looks staggeringly far away. The buttress of the Nor Nor groove is a very different proposition to yesterday’s route and I feel acutely that this is not a game. Every single foothold is meticulously sought, each handhold gripped with the strength of a miser holding onto his coin. As my partner reaches the top of the short pitch, he takes out a sling and places it over a flake of rock before protecting my ascent. 

As I see what the next stage requires, my eyes grow wide in astonishment. The crag above us, jutting out impossibly from the mountainside, is cursed with vertical drops from it on all sides and seems to have little in the way of foot or handhold. It is not quite smooth, but the shallow ribs across it will hardly take a boot. My partner shrugs to me and slowly follows Nigel up the slab. I watch assiduously to see where he places his feet and hands, and run the route through in my head. Eventually, there is protection set up again for me and I begin to climb. In fact, I am able to find better purchase than I expected - the friction on my boot, pressing down as much of the rubber sole into the rock as I can (‘smearing’), is good enough. Momentum carries me forward and I reach the end of the pitch. I risk a glance down and realise just how exposed the section was. Nigel is full of smiles - he’s loving this.

The next pitch has far more in the way of handholds, but I have to use another technique where I actually find my huge feet are a boon - the ‘boot jam’. Wedging my boot in a crack in between rock, I am able to use this in lieu of a ledge on which to place my boot. I take care not to get my boot stuck and head upwards. On occasion I need to use knee and shin for stability - not recommended. They are bruised and battered as I write this. The wind is limited today - were it not, this would be an almost impossible route.

In fact, this is exactly how the rest of the Nor Nor buttress continues. Exposed, steep pitches which we protect with rocks-on-wire wedged into cracks, slings and Italian Hitches or simply rope wrapped around rock. We move swiftly but carefully, protecting where we can, always under Nigel’s watchful eye. Once we reach the top of the buttress, below the north ridge of Tryfan, we eat, before stowing the rope and scrambling the rest of this classic ogre without protection. I don’t jump from Adam to Eve - I feel I’ve ridden my luck for the day already.

Reading to gain a basic understanding of the principles is advisable and some good beginner and intermediate texts are:
Shepherd, The Complete Guide to Rope Techniques, Frances Lincoln 2007
Adby and Johnson, Hillwalkers Guide to Mountaineering, Cicerone 2003

And below is an Amazon Associates affiliate link to purchase the books I suggest you might want to read. I get paid a few pennies if you buy any these books through this link - if you liked the post, it's a great way to show you care and you get a great book too!


  1. Inspiring.  Keep it up.  I feel we will loose you from the amateur world to the professonal publishing world soon.

  2. Robert, thanks for the compliments. I would hope to combine both amateur and professional writing - my blog has been the catalyst for a great many new friendships.

  3. Maybe my problem with scrambling is this.  If you need a rope then go rock climbing with all the kit and grippy rock shoes.   But thats my own view.  Well done Maz.  Good read.  

  4. It's all about alpine Martin. To do PD routes you need scrambling skills and that's not necessarily rock climbing - moving fast and together is very different to rock climbing but rope is still needed. Glad you liked it. Watch this space for for more features in well known magazines in the next 2-3 months...