Freedom and Flow

With Highland Scrambles North off to the printers, we’ve been reflecting more on this unique pursuit which offers so much for hillwalkers and climbers alike. 

To celebrate the guidebook’s upcoming release, we asked Mark Chadwick – IFMGA Mountain Guide – to explain what’s so special about scrambling and how to get into it.

Holds arrive one after the other and you lose yourself in a sea of rock. The terrain isn’t so challenging that it slows you down, but it’s enough to distract you from the physical effort of the ascent, as you become absorbed in the intricate route-finding and encounter obstacles that require careful negotiation. Switched off from everyday cares but mindful that you need to concentrate on this complex terrain, you’re tuned in to the potential danger of loose holds and the odd slippery rock, but immersed in the joy of moving freely across and upwards. You bask in the solitude of the scramble and its challenges, far from the throng on the tourist path. There is no paved route here, just subtle indications about where to go. The exposure as you reach the top of Carn Dearg buttress is exhilarating, and you move delicately over the narrow, exposed ridge to eventually arrive triumphantly on the summit of Carn Dearg. With Ledge Route now in the bag, you can battle the queues for the summit trig point, or slip quietly down The Ben’s southern slopes and be channelled into the narrow, rocky arete of Carn Mor Dearg, grateful to leave the melee behind and find solitude once more.

There are few roadside scrambles in Scotland, and the majority require a good repertoire of hillwalking skills before they can be tackled safely, especially in inclement weather or when the visibility is poor. High on the skills list is the ability to navigate safely in the mountains. This includes being able to interpret contours, understand how steep, rocky ground is represented on a map and some compass skills.

It goes without saying that clothing and footwear should reflect the mountain environment, and the stability and protection afforded by a good pair of walking boots shouldn’t be underestimated. Although many people now take to the hills in lighter-weight approach shoes, the comfort of these can be offset by the lack of toe and ankle protection they offer on loose, unstable terrain.

When it comes to scrambling, the elephant in the room is whether to wear a helmet. For some, it compromises the sense of freedom and flow and feels like a hindrance. But modern helmets are so light and comfortable that you often don’t notice you’re wearing one and, in my professional opinion, you should consider wearing a helmet if you’re planning to scramble at any grade, as the nature of the activity can leave you exposed to rock coming down from above (especially if you’re following a route below other hill users), or even the unfortunate event of taking a fall yourself.

As part of your planning, you should also consider carrying a rope, even on relatively straightforward routes. Soloing is the ultimate in speed and efficiency, but you can pay the highest price if things go wrong. Unless you’re scrambling well within your capabilities then having a suitable length of rope and potentially some climbing gear, including a harness and small rack, can be a good idea, even if you don’t need to use it on the day.

The ultimate safety net, though, is your ability to maintain contact with the rock and move surefootedly with confidence and a cool head. This only comes with experience, practice and progression through the grades to understand your limits. The old ‘three points of contact’ adage is a good one to adopt on challenging terrain.

The initial time spent planning a day out scrambling is well spent delving deep into the relevant guidebook with several cups of tea to make sure you select the right route to suit the prevailing conditions and your own level of ability and experience. Scottish Mountaineering Press’s latest series of guidebooks contain high-resolution maps that show you how to find the route, and good-quality topos to show you the way up it. Although you’ll get a flavour of the scramble from the route description, the devil is in the detail. Is the rock type lichenous mica schist, which is better saved for a dry day? Does the aspect mean you’ll be in the sun or the shade? How tricky is the route finding, and where are the most challenging moves? These specific nuggets of information are invaluable to help inform your day.

Highland Scrambles North route pages

Some of my best memories of being in the mountains have involved scrambling, either for myself or with clients. A personal highlight was sea paddling from Elgol to Rum solo and then running the Rum Cuillin on a perfect blue-sky day, with not another soul in sight, save a fast jet flyby overhead. Professionally, helping people achieve lifelong dreams of tackling the Skye Cuillin or Tower Ridge on The Ben, seeing the effort it takes to get there and the pleasure of completion, is a privilege. These are often bucket-list routes that folks don’t have the confidence or experience to undertake themselves, and it’s always worth considering if the route you’re dreaming of is beyond your current capabilities, and whether you should hire a guide to help you. Enlisting a qualified professional as safety back up can help you achieve those just-out-of-reach routes and bolster your skills and confidence for future mountain adventures.

Lead image of Iain Thow – author of Highland Scrambles North and South – climbing Ledge Route on Ben Nevis. © Noel Williams.

Author biography

Mark Chadwick is a WMCI and IFMGA Mountain Guide based out of Aviemore.