A guide to scrambling

Scrambling takes walkers away from the path well trod and into the adventurous realm of the climber. It’s literally a hands-on approach to scaling a peak. We’ve rounded up a range of the very best scrambles from around Britain, with something for even the most faint-hearted of hikers to enjoy

The Cobbler - Ben Arthur

What is scrambling?

A scramble is any ascent that involves using your hands as well as your feet. What differentiates it from climbing proper is the fact that the hands-on stuff isn’t usually sustained throughout. Scrambling does not offer the adventure of climbing without the danger. Climbers are well protected by ropes and slings, helmets and harnesses, but scramblers have little security if they fall.

What equipment do you need to scramble?

Grade 1 routes shouldn’t need any more than you’d take on a hill walk, though you’d be well advised to go light and wear protective, rigid-soled footwear. Harder scrambles might require the occasional precaution of a rope belay and even a helmet to protect against dislodged rocks falling from above. A good guidebook is essential for outlining the often vague routes in detail and warning of potential dangers.

How do I know how difficult a scrambling route is?

Scrambling grades are subjective and vary with the seasons. The grades mentioned here refer to summer conditions only:

Grade 1:

walks with elements of clambering, within the capability of experienced hill walkers. Routes can be exposed but you shouldn’t need technical equipment.

Grade 2:

some technical pitches, longer and steeper stretches and easy climbing. Only suitable during better weather. Some rope techniques might be useful.

Grade 3:

likely to involve elementary rock-climbing sections demanding proper protection. Tackle only in dry conditions, when you’ve learned a few basics of rope protection, belays and abseiling. Some refer to a fourth grade –

Grade 4 or Grade 3S

– the domain of confident, equipped climbers.

Recommended scrambling routes

1) Hall’s Fell Ridge, Blencathra, Cumbria

SCRAMBLING STATS: Blencathra’s sale made headlines recently, but no change of ownership can alter the fact that this beloved mountain is blessed with two of England’s finest scrambles. The Grade 1 Hall’s Fell Ridge offers knife-edge exposure and, if things get too hairy, a softer alternative is never too far away.

BEST APPROACH: From Scales, just off the A66 (NY343269), a track traverses the fell west to Gategill, from where the Hall’s Fell path strikes north, then northeast. The rocky ridge crest will deliver you to the very summit of Blencathra (868m/ 2,847ft). An exhilarating return would be by Sharp Edge – with arguably greater exposure and strictly for fine weather – and Mousthwaite Comb.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland by Dan Bailey (£17.95, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852845391).

2) Aonach Eagach Ridge, Highland

SCRAMBLING STATS: Grit your teeth for this Grade 2 scramble! While much of the Aonach Eagach (meaning ‘the notched ridge’ in Gaelic) is a high-level hike, its multiple technicalities are enough to bring many to a grinding halt. Chimneys need climbing, pinnacles test your nerves, narrow ledges threaten to tip you off, and exposed drops leave your feet dangling over hundreds of feet of fresh air. The only escape is retreat, but finish it and you’ll have added two Munros to your tally: Sgor nam Fiannaidh (967m/3,173ft) and Meall Dearg (953m/3,127ft).

BEST APPROACH: From the parking space west of Allt-na-Ruigh (NN170568), scramble up and over Am Bodach, the descent of which is an early challenge. After 6km/4 miles of westbound, adrenaline-pumping thrills, you’ll find yourself on Sgor nam Fiannaidh. The safest descent is northwest over the Pap of Glencoe to Glencoe village, 11km/7 miles from the start. You’ll need to arrange transport at either end.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scrambles in Lochaber by Noel Williams (£12.95, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852842345).

Mark Sunderland Photography - Gordale Scar

3) Jack’s Rake, Pavey Ark, Cumbria

SCRAMBLING STATS: Vying with Striding Edge (see page 29 of the magazine) as the most popular Lakeland scramble, Grade 1 route Jack’s Rake is a diagonal tear in the cliffs below Pavey Ark above Langdale. Much of its initial course follows a trough into which water cascades on wet days – I liken it to scrambling through a mossy shower – though the final stages are steep and the sensation of exposure is huge.

BEST APPROACH: From the New Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale (NY295063), follow the streamside path up Stickle Ghyll to Stickle Tarn, from where a trail across screes leads to the start of the scrambling route.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scrambles in the Lake District, Volume 1: Southern Lakes by Brian Evans (£14, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852844431).

4) Argyll’s Eyeglass, Ben Arthur, Argyll & Bute

SCRAMBLING STATS: Nobbly, jagged Ben Arthur – commonly known as The Cobbler – in the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, is the most striking of the Arrochar Alps, and the short Grade 1 and 3 scrambles on its top are among the most audacious and satisfying features of all the routes listed here. To stand on the true summit you must first thread yourself through a rock window – Argyll’s Eyeglass – before hauling yourself onto the blocky perch (supposedly a traditional test of manhood for chieftains of the Campbell clan). Much bigger scrambles abound on the mountain, but for many the Eyeglass will be quite enough.

BEST APPROACH: From the parking area near Succoth (NN294049), west of Arrochar village, a zigzagging mountain bike track ascends to the Allt a Bhalachain and past the Narnain Boulders, before forking left to cross the stream up into the corrie beneath the hill’s three summits. Ascend to the bealach between the north and central peaks, and bear left for the Eyeglass.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: 100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains by Ralph Storer (£5.99, Sphere, Kindle download).

5) Gordale Scar, Malhamdale, North Yorkshire

SCRAMBLING STATS: You won’t find Gordale Scar in any scrambling guide: the only exposed, hands-on stuff is brief, the ascent minimal, and most publishers wouldn’t consider it worth the ink. As an introductory scramble, though, it’s grand and it is set in one of Yorkshire’s most spectacular valleys. That you have to haul yourself up a small waterfall – and risk a soaking – is part of the fun.

BEST APPROACH: From Mires Barn, just south of Malham (SD899626), head east past Janet’s Foss, then follow Gordale Beck upstream into Gordale Scar’s deep limestone gorge. The path beyond leads up to Seaty Hill, from where quiet roads head west. Near Water Sinks, the Pennine Way will guide you south, over equally spectacular Malham Cove and back to the village.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: The Yorkshire Dales: South And West by Dennis and Jan Kelsall (£12.95, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852844851).

6) Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mòr, Highland

SCRAMBLING STATS: “When you asked if I fancied some scrambling, I thought you meant like Striding Edge, not the north face of the Eiger,” was how one pal reacted halfway up this terrifically exposed, Grade 3 route to Buachaille Etive Mòr, high above the vastness of Rannoch Moor. Still, he managed without a rope, as should any confident, fit walker with a head for heights and an authoritative guidebook to help overcome the confusion of routes.

BEST APPROACH: Park at Altnafeadh (NN220563), cross the River Coupall and fork left beyond the hut at Lagangarbh to reach the foot of the Buachaille’s north face. Refer closely to your guide to identify the correct ascent up the left wall of Easy Gully: a mistake could cost you dearly. Much of the route is worn and obvious, though you’ll encounter a few bad steps before reaching Stob Dearg, the Buachaille’s main summit.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scotland’s Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (£18.95, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852844691).

7) Crib Goch, Snowdon, Gwynedd

SCRAMBLING STATS: Crib Goch is the thrilling highlight of Wales’ finest trek: the full-day Snowdon Horseshoe walk. Though not technically difficult, the Grade 1 route is exposed – wavering confidence has caused many a walker to freeze in their tracks – and escape routes don’t exist. It’s popular, and a clear day might see hundreds tackle the rocky spine before continuing over Carnedd Ugain (1,065m/3,494ft) and onwards to Wales’ high point, Snowdon (1,085m/3,560ft).

BEST APPROACH: The Pyg Track leads from Pen y Pass car park (SH647556) into Bwlch y Moch, and the route ascends directly up Crib Goch’s nose. Numerous lines allow you to scout around for one that suits. The knife-edge section carries you between east and main summits before descending to Bwlch Goch. Crib y Ddysgl offers more hands-on stuff, en route for Carnedd Ugain and the rest of the Horseshoe.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scrambles & Easy Climbs in Snowdonia by Jon Sparks, Tom Hutton and Jerry Rawson (£12.95, Grey Stone Books, ISBN 978 1902017013).

Buachaille Etive Mòr - Omer Ahmed

8) Wilderness Gully East, Chew Valley, Greater Manchester

SCRAMBLING STATS: The Chew Valley’s rain-lashed gritstone is a far cry from the hard volcanic rocks of the Lake District and North Wales. This Grade 2/3 route onto the peaty moorland is similarly different, but these moors behave like mountains and fatal winter avalanches have occurred.

BEST APPROACH: From the car park by Dove Stone Reservoir (SE013034), head east along the Chew Road track towards Chew Reservoir. Wilderness Gully East lies about 500m west of the dam wall. Once you’ve ascended, head to the dam and track back west along the valley’s north rim, for a gripping scramble down Charnel Clough.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scrambles in the Dark Peak by Tom Corker and Terry Sleaford (£12.95, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852846749).

9) North Ridge, Tryfan, Conwy

SCRAMBLING STATS: Tryfan has a reputation for being the only Welsh hill that can’t be scaled without clasping hand to rock. This Grade 1 route is an exhilarating, exposed experience, yet the rock is friendly and the climb almost ladder-like in places. Test your nerves further by leaping between the Adam and Eve, the twin rocks blocks adorning the summit.

BEST APPROACH: The fun starts almost as soon as you leave the A5, just a few hundred yards from Llyn Ogwen’s eastern car park (SH661602). Once the ridge is gained, the braided route barely deviates as it heads almost due south for the summit, reached after a glorious two-hour, 600m/ 1,969ft full-on scramble.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scrambles in Snowdonia by Steve Ashton (£12.95, Cicerone, ISBN 978 18528).

10) Striding Edge, Helvellyn, Cumbria

SCRAMBLING STATS: This dramatic rock spine is a Lakeland icon on which many will have enjoyed their first – and perhaps only – taste of scrambling. The popular and dramatic Grade 1 route to the summit of Helvellyn is an airy summer thrill. However, in winter it offers a serious mountaineering challenge.

BEST APPROACH: Leave Glenridding (NY386169) along Mires Beck to scale Birkhouse Moor for Hole-in-the-Wall, from where Striding Edge leads to Helvellyn’s summit. Many add scrambly Swirral Edge, to create a walk that encircles Red Tarn, before returning to Glenridding via the tarn’s outflow and past Greenside Mine. Swirral could be avoided by detouring over Whiteside and zigzagging steeply down, to accompany Glenridding Beck into the village.

ESSENTIAL GUIDEBOOK: Scrambles in the Lake District, Volume 2: Northern Lakes by Brian Evans (£14, Cicerone, ISBN 978 1852844639).

WORDS: John Manning

IMAGES: Gordale Scar by Mark Sunderland Photography, Buachaille Etive Mor by Omer Ahmed, Homepage image by Phil & Pam Gradwell