I like to think of scrambling as an activity that lies in the grey area between hiking and climbing - and a rather extensive grey area at that! But the definition could vary significantly between you and your training buddy as each individual’s skill level, confidence and appetite for risk will determine whether they perceive their movement to be just a challenging hike, an exciting scramble, or a dangerous climb requiring a rope. Regardless of the specifics though, it is important to make sure you are comfortable with your capability to handle your situation.
That brings us to the question, “Why go scrambling?”
Firstly, because it is fun! But if you are not comfortable with your ability to handle the terrain you’re on, you will likely not be enjoying it either. The second reason is that as an avid trail runner you will, at some point, inevitably find yourself faced with a section of rock that needs to be negotiated using more than just your feet. This is where scrambling happens so naturally as you thoughtlessly engage all four limbs to successfully move up or around the obstacle. Whether it is climbing a Drakensberg pass, needing to scramble up a steep gully or waterfall, or traversing Kloof Corner up towards Table Mountain, being confident and efficient at scrambling could one day be the difference between tagging your peak or not!
The next question you may be asking is “But am I able to scramble?”
And the answer, and best part about scrambling, is yes - anyone can do it! Unlike rock climbing where specialty gear is generally required and instruction is recommended, all you need for scrambling is your favourite comfy trail shoes and a sense of adventure. Oh, and a good head for heights will definitely help too!
In order to scramble safely, however, there is one key factor I’d like to focus on in this article, and that is: awareness. Although there are several different types of awareness, I feel that the following three can be best applied in the world of scrambling.
- Situational Awareness -
Situational awareness goes a long way while moving in the mountains, especially when scrambling over very technical terrain. Always knowing where you have come from, where you currently are and where you are going is extremely important. It might sound obvious but suddenly finding yourself halfway through a steep, technical section of rock and unable to continue upwards, and also unable to down climb, is, well... going to leave you scrambling!
- Self Awareness -
Be mindful of your movements. Move slowly. Be conscious in your actions.
I know this sounds contradictory to the definition of scramble (“to move quickly or awkwardly”), but by taking small steps and keeping your weight centrally over your feet you will have more control over your centre of gravity. Ultimately, you will be able to move more efficiently over the technical terrain if you are cautious and self-aware. You should also be cognisant of your own physical and mental limits, and only push them if you have a feasible escape route planned. If at any point you are no longer having fun, you are probably scrambling up, over or through too-dangerous terrain.
Basic rock climbing skills are obviously a major benefit in scrambling too. They teach you a good amount of self-awareness, the art of shifting body weight in the vertical plane, as well as using your hands in coordination with your feet. Knowing a few different “hand holds” (climbing jargon for hand positions suited to variously shaped rocks) is another valuable skill. Rock climbing also teaches you to deal with exposure (that feeling of having no protection in a potentially harmful situation) and being accustomed to this will make you feel much more at ease with scrambling on steep or rough terrain.
- Environmental Awareness -
Mountains are an ever-changing environment where knowledge, experience and understanding of the environment could be life saving. Short of this, simple environmental awareness can go a very long way. For example, a normally easy scramble in dry conditions could rapidly become impassable with rainfall. Paying attention to the weather is the most basic but probably most important survival tool in any mentally and physically challenging outdoor adventure.
Testing hand and foot holds before committing your full weight to them is another good scrambling habit. Tap the rock to hear and feel if it is solid, especially while scrambling in the Drakensberg where the basalt is not as solid as, say, the Magaliesberg quartzite. If you are scrambling with others, tread quietly and lightly so as not to dislodge a rock onto a partner below. And the same applies when you are following. Be aware, and wary, of the people above you and possible dangers that might just come tumbling your way.
Also be conscious of the “line” you choose. I like to think of it as following the path of least resistance.
Also be conscious of the “line” you choose. I like to think of it as choosing the path of least resistance. Try to study difficult sections of terrain from a distance so that you’re better able to maintain your situational awareness throughout the scramble. As your experience grows, so will your ability to quickly assess and decide on the best path to navigate the section of rock or scree ahead of you.
To conclude, scrambling is simply a fun way to move. Its meaning to you will evolve with your skills and experience, and eventually it will give you the freedom to venture up mountain passes, gorges and ridge lines that you would never previously have dreamed of exploring. To me, scrambling is just like hiking and climbing - a form of movement in the mountains which is much more about the journey to the summit than the summit itself.