Travel UK Activities: Scramble for a taste of freedom

The best way to get off the beaten track is to go your own way - and you don't need to be a rock-climbing expert.
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Light streams up the valley from the distant Menai Strait while cloud glowers overhead, locked to the tops of the mountains. The Devil's Kitchen, a deep river cleft in steep rock, is a boiling centre-piece in the semicircle of cliffs. From our stance there is also another, more relevant view, that of glistening wet rock a few feet in front of and above us. There is no obvious way up, and not much evidence of man or beast having come this way before. It is decision time.

Going back is one of the options; pressing on regardless is another; getting out the rope, a third. There is no right or wrong choice, rather a judgement depending on the weather, the time of day, people's ability and, most important, their inclination: not liking the look of something is one of the most fundamental warning signs you can experience in the mountains. As Martin Doyle of the Plas y Brenin mountain school in north Wales told us at the start of our scrambling course, instructors can tell if someone is not feeling happy with the situation: "You are usually shaking, or starting to cry."

Assuming that you don't reach that point, a good day's scrambling involves many of the subtle decisions involved in a large-scale mountain journey, compressed into the space of a few hours.

Exactly what constitutes a scramble is hard to define; having to use your hands more or less sums it up, though one man's scramble may be another man's cliffhanger. It is certainly about going up mountains without using a footpath or a full-on climbing route, and relies for safety on a confident, careful and, for the most part, unprotected approach. This means choosing routes that are well within your capabilities and knowing when to back off and find another path.

The moment you leave the marked paths to find your own way to the top, you head for real adventure by adding uncertainty to the outcome. Quite simply, you may not get there, so route-finding starts from the moment you first clap eyes on your hill. A compass is hardly relevant here. A long-range appraisal of the mountain, weather permitting, gives you a mental map of the area to relate to the ever-changing view as the slope looms closer and your perspective becomes restricted. But don't be put off by this overview: everything tends to look much steeper and more challenging than it really is and even an apparently precipitous route has fissures, ramps of vegetation and natural pathways that may go undetected from a distance but reveal themselves close up, like the hidden alleyways in a city.

The danger of following your nose is that it leads to dead ends, and, worse still, to the kind of cul-de-sac that beckons you on and makes itself apparent only once you've come some way and can't easily turn back. Now the rules of engagement shift: if you can just get up the next section, it looks as though there may be a simple way onwards. But the immediate obstacle is steep, with few handholds, and the rock is wet. On the other hand, it is quite short and looks worth a try, particularly if the next person in line can "spot" you, standing close in with arms outstretched to prevent a slip turning into a fall as you start to climb.

Suddenly you are making moves you thought were reserved for real climbers, but without being on the comforting end of a strong rope.

The higher you get and the more exposed you become, the less inclined you are to take risks, but by degrees you learn to relate the warning signs - particularly that giddy feeling that makes you want to sit down on top of the ridge - to the true level of danger, and adjust your attitude accordingly. If you see that there is any chance of falling a long way, it is time to find another route, or get the rope out.

In keeping with the fluent, free-moving nature of scrambling, appropriate rope-work tends to be simpler and quicker than that used for modern climbing. Minimal hardware and no harness keep things light, but reduce the reliance that can be put on a rope, bringing scrambling closer to the roots of climbing, where the rope was something of a token gesture. But carrying a rope and sufficient gear to know that you can always abseil down out of trouble, and to allow the more timid or sensible members of a group to be roped safely up the hardest sections, can be enough to give a whole group more confidence and freedom.

In contrast to the allure of danger and the buzz that some people get from risking their necks, most others benefit from knowing that this is one scramble they can complete without breaking any eggs.

Fact File

UNLIKE EITHER walking or climbing, scrambling doesn't use defined routes, which immediately ups the environmental stakes: you may find yourself on previously untrodden ground, even in popular hill-walking areas. Consequent sightings of rare flora can be half the fun, but not if you tread on and kill what you came to look for. On a more positive note, at least you don't contribute to erosion of already overused paths. On busy days in the hills, scrambling can be the only way to escape the crowds.

Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre (01690 720214,, runs scrambling and related mountaineering courses. For experienced walkers, a scrambling or climbing course is an ideal way to get to grips with basic rope work, while general walking experience is a good basis for scrambling. Guides and mountain schools in most hilly areas of Britain can be located through local tourist offices or the Yellow Pages and will be able to provide relevant instruction even if they do not have a standard scrambling course.

Despite the free-ranging nature of scrambling, there are guide books - notably Scrambles in Snowdonia and Scrambles in the Lake District (Cicerone Press) - to the UK's main scrambling regions which can be used in conjunction with standard OS 1:50,000 maps.