The Twilight Zone

Walkers are walkers: it’s easily defined. And climbers are climbers: even more distinct. But somewhere between the two there lies a semi-vertical twilight zone; where walkers employ hands as well as feet in order to keep heading upwards. In its simplest form, it’s a steep, rocky section somewhere along the voie normale where the hands are suddenly brought into play, and a few simple climbing moves are needed to keep the show on the road.

But it doesn’t end there, and Scrambling, as this best-of-both-worlds grey area is known, has many dedicated devotees that actively seek these steep and challenging lines purely to add a pinch of excitement to their walking.

The great thing is, as a natural extension of hill walking, it’s something that almost anyone can do. It doesn’t demand a whole host of special skills that need to be learned, and it doesn’t require too much specialist kit either – though a few modifications to typical hill walking gear will make things easier for those starting out. And some basic climbing equipment (and the knowledge of how to use it) will make things safer for those really pushing their limits. 

So what’s in the sack and what’s on their backs? At the easy end, Grade I as it’s referred to; it’s usually possible to flank most of the awkward sections so no specific climbing gear is carried. But a few modifications to a normal hill walking inventory are definitely a good idea, with the particular emphasis on making movement easy and keeping weight down. A good way to look at it is that every extra kilo carried will sap away 10% of the fun.

There are plenty of places where the savings can be made. Heavier waterproofs – wonderfully bombproof in winter – can be swapped for ultra light Paclite or eVENT – which at less than 500g, can spend all day in a pack without placing too much strain on already overworked muscles.

There are savings to be made on the legs too. A pair of good soft shell trousers will stretch enough to enable easy movement, will breathe sufficiently to prevent the scrambler from getting wet from the inside, yet will still hold off some drizzle and the odd shower. And a pair of cheap and very light waterproof trousers can always be carried as a last resort, but these will almost certainly get trashed if they’re brought into action too often.

Boot choice can be a very personal thing, with some preferring to slip on ultra light trainers or fabric boots, after all weight saved on feet is worth so much more than weight saved anywhere else; but others, myself included, go for three-season leather boots that provide support and plenty of stiffness for purchase on those tiny holds. A pair with a good rand will hold up better than those traditional looking plain, full-grain leather.

Scrambling places different demands on packs, and not just weight either, although saving a few grams here will never do any harm. The most important thing is to keep the pack slim, so it doesn’t interfere with arm movement, and to make sure it isn’t so high that it restricts the head – particularly significant if a helmet is worn. Simple back systems keep the weight closer to the back and therefore affect balance less.

One place I’d never try to save weight is gloves. Grabbing and holding on to wet rock means they get very wet, very quickly. It’s worth experimenting with different types including fleece, neoprene and the usual Gore-Tex or eVENT fabrics, but whichever is chosen, it’s definitely worth carrying at least one spare pair, possibly two.

Map, compass, spare layers, first aid kit, emergency shelter or bag, lunch and a flask of something warm is as necessary here as it is when hill walking, and a head torch should be added in winter.

That’s the entry level stuff dealt with. All that’s needed now is a good guidebook or two and a few epic mountain days to start gaining experience.

The big conundrum facing every scrambler is at which point to start carrying a rope. There’s no simple answer. This is when scrambling starts to become climbing and specialist skills and knowledge are also needed before the rope can play any useful part.

But assuming the desire to learn these skills, and it’s outside the constraints of these pages to suggest ways of doing this, then the aspirant scrambler definitely needs to add a bit of basic climbing kit to the Christmas list.

A rope is a good starting place but this is always going to be a compromise. For big routes, where most of it’s going to be pitched, and there’s a possibility of needing to abseil off, then a full length 50m climbing rope is appropriate. But for the easier roped UK scrambles, where just the odd crux pitch needs protecting, a short length – perhaps 20m or 30m, will usually suffice. Obviously it will be used alone, so will need to be around 10mm (single rope), and it’s probably best to go for some kind of dry treatment too.

To go with this, each climber should carry a few tape slings to act as runners and anchors for belays. A selection of 120mm and 240mm will cover most eventualities. And each sling really needs its own karabiner, preferably locking. Each climber should also carry a simple belay device and an HMS style karabiner, which can be used for abseiling too, and a simple Alpine style harness, with adjustable leg loops will be comfortable when worn yet light enough to carry, when it’s not needed.

And finally, a helmet should be considered, especially when scrambling in any sort of gully, or on steep ground beneath others, which is very likely on most three-star UK routes.

Of course, nuts and hexes and other types of protection can be carried and used, but these are most likely to be needed as the routes start to get tougher and longer, and by then, the scrambler will have developed enough experience to have a better idea of what to carry and when.

Disclaimer

Scrambling can be dangerous and even with the right equipment, and when following established safety procedures, there is still an inherent risk involved.

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