Basic Rock Scrambling Skills

What You Need for Safer Scrambling

Two backpackers enjoy climbing and scrambling on the many summits of Sauk Mountain, Washington.
Christopher Kimmel / Getty Images

Scrambling is simply climbing an easy rock face or mountain without a rope or other technical climbing gear. Scrambling lies between hiking and technical rock climbing. Perhaps the best way to differentiate it from hiking is that you use your hands for balance and pulling up when you scramble. It's sometimes called rock scrambling or alpine scrambling.

Difference Between Scrambling and Climbing

The difference between scrambling and climbing is more difficult to define. One man’s scramble might be another man’s climb. An easy climb like the Third Flatiron in Colorado might be defined as a scramble, even if a rope is used.

Most climbers will usually bring a short rope along on a scrambling route in the mountains because it might be needed for safety. For example, if one of the team members becomes anxious from exposure or the weather turns nasty and the rock gets treacherously wet. One distinction between scrambling and rock climbing is that scramblers usually use handholds for balance whereas climbers use them to hold and pull body weight.

Take a Basic Class to Learn Skills

Scrambling is not just aimlessly climbing unroped over rocky terrain. That’s a recipe for disaster. The beginning scrambler, someone just getting started in mountain travel and climbing, should take a class from a group like the Appalachian Mountain Club or Colorado Mountain Club in basic climbing skills or hire a private guide to learn those skills.

8 Basic Scrambling Skills

A competent scrambler needs to have basic mountaineering, climbing, and hiking skills. These include:

  1. Rock climbing skills, including using a rope for a belay, setting up a natural anchor, rigging a short rappel, and evaluating the terrain.
  2. Mountaineering skills, including snow travel, self-arrest with an ice axe, avalanche awareness, and mountain safety.
  3. Navigation skills to find your way in the backcountry without the use of a GPS unit and the ability to use a map and compass.
  4. The 10 essentials are always carried and the scrambler knows how to use them.
  5. Selects and carriers proper equipment, including appropriate clothing, boots, and food for the season and knows how to find and purify water.
  6. Recognizes mountain hazards, like lightning and loose rock, and knows how to avoid them.
  7. Knows and uses route finding skills. Scrambling involves route finding. You need to find the easiest route through cliff bands or along ridges. If not you might need to use a rope for safety.
  8. Practices a wilderness ethic and leaves no trace of his passage on the land.

Scrambling is Dangerous

It’s important to recognize that scrambling can be very dangerous. Scrambling accidents and fatalities occur in America’s mountain ranges every year. While it’s great to enjoy the freedom of climbing without gear and a rope, there is always the potential for accidents just ahead.

Accidents usually occur from falling rock and unroped falls. Know your limits. Watch the weather. Don’t climb beneath or above another party. Always wear a climbing helmet. Turn back before you get into problems. And never be afraid to break out the rope if you or your partners feel at all nervous or scared.

Do You Need a Rope?

Climbing ropes are sometimes necessary on harder scrambles, depending on weather and snow conditions. A competent scrambler develops the judgment to decide whether it’s prudent to bring a rope on an alpine scrambling route.

Ropes are often used on scrambling routes for rappelling and retreat, belaying over short steep cliffs, and assisting inexperienced climbers on exposed dangerous sections. If you’re ever in doubt about bringing a rope, then bring it. It could save your life.

Great American Scrambles

There are lots of great scrambling routes in America’s rough mountain ranges. Here are a few of the best ones:

  • Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney, California.
  • East Arête on Mount Russell, California.
  • Crestone Traverse between Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, Colorado.
  • Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata Peak, Colorado.
  • Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak, Colorado.
  • Knife Edge Ridge on Mount Katahdin, Maine.
  • North Guardian Angel in Zion National Park, Utah.
  • Southwest Ridge of Borah Peak, Idaho.
  • East Face of Teewinot Mountain, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
  • Cabezon Peak, New Mexico.