Scrambling is all about making decisions. And the best one Paddy Withams made was to try it in the first place.
My scrambling experience has been pretty tentative. I rock climb and I hill walk, but scrambling has remained uncharted territory. The line between the two has seemed vague and Iâ€™ve been avoiding some potentially fantastic routes. So in an effort to change all this, Iâ€™ve booked myself into an â€œIntroduction to Scramblingâ€ course at Glenmore Lodge, in the Cairngorms. My hope is to find out more about this mysterious activity and to gain some of the skills and experience necessary to enjoy it.
The Glenmore Lodge shuttle picks me up from the train station in Aviemore on the Friday evening and whisks me up the wooded road towards Loch Morlich and the lodge. Iâ€™ve been to Aviemore, Loch Morlich and the surrounding area many times, but itâ€™s my first visit to Glenmore Lodge itself. Iâ€™ve been expecting a rugged mountain refuge but this proves wide of the mark as Iâ€™m welcomed by a friendly receptionist, who talks me through the lodgeâ€™s numerous facilities and shows me to my room.
A 7:45am next day, breakfast is followed by an introductory talk welcoming everyone to the lodge. People are there for a variety of courses, such as mountain biking, kayaking, first aid, and my own choice, scrambling. We disband to meet up with our instructors for the weekend. For scrambling there are 10 of us, and we introduce ourselves, setting out our scrambling experience as well as our aims for the weekend. This gives us the chance to meet the other scramblers and allows the instructors to split us into appropriate groups.
Scrambling is a broad activity and people have joined the course looking for different things. Some have experience but want to develop more confidence travelling across tricky terrain, whereas people like myself are looking to find out what scrambling is and to gain the basic skills. Because of my rock climbing experience I am put in the slightly more adventurous group.
Along with myself there are Alasdair and Jane, from Edinburgh, who want some extra training to prepare for a Via Ferrata trip in the Alps, and Anna, an employee at the lodge who wants to gain the skills required to tackle some of Britainâ€™s classic scrambles. Most of us feel we donâ€™t know enough about scrambling to have the confidence required to try many routes, and this is something we all want to change. Next stop is the storeroom, where we get everything we need for the day. The store is a great resource and anything weâ€™ve forgotten to bring from home is available to borrow. This comes in useful as the weather is looking colder and wetter than expected so some of us borrow extra layers.
Our route for the day is to be the Fiacaill ridge and it begins with a hike of about an hour from the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Car Park. Itâ€™s nearly mid-May but the lifts are still running and there is still some decent snow coverage. We make our way up through the impressive amphitheatre of Coire an t-Sneachda and, when looking back, we have great views of Loch Morlich and further down to Aviemore. Our guide, Nathan, explains the history of the surrounding landscape and we soon reach the bottom of our proper ascent to the ridge. Just as we turn off the main path we spot a ptarmigan perched on a rock a short distance away. Its black and white plumage is in the process of changing from its winter to its summer look, a change apparently triggered not by temperature but by increased daylight. The birds are quite fearless and this is not to be the last one we see today. Before we go any further we have a bite to eat and put our helmets and extra layers on.
Our first obstacle is a large scree slope and Nathan explains the best way of tackling it. We zigzag our way up the loose rock with a distance in between us that minimises the risks from any dislodged rocks. Normally when on such a slope Iâ€™d be looking for the easiest route up but instead we are put through our paces and led up interesting rock outcrops. The terrain quickly becomes more technical and when we reach a treacherous looking gully we stop and re-group.
Nathan explains how some of the most important aspects of scrambling are judgement and risk assessment. Whilst this may sound like something lifted from a work safety manual these aspects are what essentially differentiates scrambling from other pursuits. Whereas climbers deal with risk by roping up and clipping in, and walkers choose to take no risks at all, scramblers assess risk and accept it in certain cases.
For each notable obstacle, such as the gully in front of us, it is necessary to perform a possibility (how likely we are to fall) and outcome (how bad such a fall would be) assessment. So with that in mind our group makes the collective decision to climb along a narrow ledge and we all cross the gully safely. We gradually ascend the rocky scree slope, encountering various obstacles along the way, until we reach the ridge and are met with worsening weather. It has been showery and gusty lower down, but now that we are higher up and exposed, the wind has become stronger and it is threatening to snow. The further along the ridge we go the more technical the terrain becomes, and the weather worsens until we are surrounded by a sleety blizzard. After teetering along some exposed sections we finally reach a more considerable obstacle and after a thorough risk assessment the group decides to rope up.
Nathan says: â€œMaybe on a dry day we could get up here without a rope but itâ€™s pretty wet todayâ€¦ what do you guys think?â€ We look at each other and pick the safer option. We wait in the snow as Nathan climbs the section unprotected and sets up a belay above, so that he can bear a roped climberâ€™s weight in the event of a fall. We then take turns to climb the cold and icy gully with the protection of the rope and all safely tackle our last major obstacle, despite cold hands.
From here on we manage to move ropeless over the last steep technical sections that lead to the summit and we soon top out by a misty cairn that marks the highest point. The wet gloves that have been protecting our hands from the rock and rope can finally come off and we make our way down the long descent back towards the car park, raising our heads at times to enjoy the view of the ridge emerging out of the clouds, as well as the occasional ptarmigan.
Back at the lodge we change, get some tea and cake and go over the skills and techniques that will be needed for the next day. We spend the Sunday in another area close by, the Chalamain Gap. Here we practise the rope skills used the day before in the wet snow. These include choosing belay anchors out of rocks and boulders, as well as belay techniques that can be used without a harness. Although we are sheltered lower down in the gully, the wind picks up the higher we go and each time we reach the top we experience the 50mph gusts that the weather forecast warned us about. Soon we have worked on a variety of skills and are heading back down to the lodge for tea, cake and a debrief.
After only two days of instruction I already feel confident enough to begin delving into the world of scrambling. For so long I have avoided routes classed as scrambles and fear any mention of rope or equipment outside my rock climbing comfort zone. But in reality it does not take much to get started with scrambling, and once the techniques of judgement and safety have been acquired you open up innumerable untapped possibilities. The great thing about scrambling is the simplicity and ease with which it can be enjoyed. The rope and karabiners that are wise to bring are for the most part a safety precaution, to be used only in unforeseen circumstances. Many scrambles involve fast, untethered movement over exhilarating and rewarding terrain, with the rope acting as a means of emergency retreat.
So if you are a competent hillwalker who shies away from routes marked as scrambles, think again. With a little training you can discover an exciting new world that will make you wonder why you didnâ€™t start sooner.
Glenmore Lodge is offering scrambling courses this year, in various parts of Scotland. For details see their website or call 01479 861256.
This article first appeared in Scotland Outdoors issue 23.