The unforgiving, belligerent rain makes each and every rock greasy. Finding something safe on which to place my feet or hands is proving impossible. The only option for upward movement would not balance a mouse. My partner checks the direct belay above me, meaning I am left suspended, my fingers gripping a tiny fingerhold and the edge of one boot holding all my weight. Above me remains the rest of a Grade 2 scrambling route. Below me is our teacher - British Mountain Guide Nigel Shepherd. I am, of course, thankful for this.
That morning, in the lee of the wind secured by the Idwal Slabs in Wales’ Snowdonia National Park, we pull on harnesses and tie in with a rewoven figure of eight and stopper knot. Climbing is a much slower process than scrambling. Each section of a true climb - known as a pitch - is protected if possible by technical equipment and anchors. Scrambling is not intended to require protection in the same way - it is a faster, more fluid process where direct belays are identified quickly and are much more ad hoc. It has more in common with alpinism than with climbing - a light and fast approach to mountaineering. Protecting every part with the traditional tools of the rock climber would take far too long. Flexibility is key.
Many direct belay techniques don’t utilise technical equipment at all - the shoulder belay and the waist belay use the body, or flaking a rope around rock uses natural features. The former are used to recover a slip on less steep ground. Neither, without more, would hold a fall. Nor would you want to be using them repeatedly on a membrane shell jacket - the fabric would melt from the friction. Far better is a direct belay achieved by flaking the rope around a rock which has been tested for strength. Always test - mistakes would be disastrous. The friction created by the rope around the rock will hold a climber with little strength input from the belayer - it is all about technique. Whether the belayer himself needs to be anchored to the rock largely depends on the exposure or safety of the belay position. Understanding the crucial role friction plays in a direct belay like this is essential. In fact, wrapping the rope around a flake of rock is the quickest way to offer a climber very effective protection. Taking in the live rope without every taking a hand off the dead rope which holds the weight is an essential skill which should be perfect before you start to use it for real.
Scrambling does still take advantage of climbing’s technical equipment, apart from carabiners and harnesses - ‘rocks-on-wire’ look like metal nuts on the end of long, thin pieces of wire and are placed in small cracks to create an anchor. A quick-draw (two snap-link carabiners attached together with a length of dyneema tape) is attached to the wire and the rope goes through the free carabiner. These can be runners or anchors at a belay. It is all about finding ways to anchor yourself to the mountain to protect a pitch.
When the time comes to begin the day’s scrambling, Nigel climbs first, showing us how to look for footholds and handholds. He warns us to take our time and keep calm at all times. Look around and test each hold; don’t rush. I am first up and I begin to assess the wet, greasy rock. I find a tiny shelf on which to place the inside edge of my boot and a spur above it to get my fingers around. I push upwards and grasp my identified handhold half-expecting it to come away in my hand but it is secure. I search again, this time for a place to position my left boot and for another handhold for my right hand. Slowly, but surely, I begin to find a rhythm for the short pitch and make progress. I am looking for a direct belay for your partner all the while. I retrieve a sling, flake it around a rock and attach an HMS carabiner. I take in my partner’s rope until he shout’s “that’s me” (meaning it is tight) and then tie an Italian Hitch into the carabiner. As he climbs, I take in the rope knowing that, should he slip, the Italian Hitch will hold his fall - at the same time, it allows me to take in his rope. Knots are essential to scrambling and the Italian Hitch is perhaps the most fundamental. I assess my position - can I stand without anchoring myself, or do I need to clip into the anchor created by the sling? In doubt, clip in using a carabiner or, more preferably, a clove hitch on your own end of the rope, leaving enough room from where you are tied in to move and still be safe.
Assessing the weather constantly, we decide to head for the Gribin Facet, where we will rehearse abseil skills. The first step is to lower each other down a short, craggy drop - have confidence in your partner and in friction and allow the rope to takes your weight. My partner lowers me from his position at the top after which I pull the rope down to me. Using the same direct belay, I take his weight and slowly feed the rope through in order to lower him down to my ledge. It is entirely counter-intuitive but abseil techniques require trust in the belay and moving past your fear. We set up an abseil anchor for the primary abseil off. Feeding the rope through a belay device clipped into my partner’s harness, he is ready to go.
He abseils first followed by me. The rain is heavy now, and we are eager to get home and warm. It is the end of the first day.
Day two takes us up Tryfan via the Nor Nor Buttress - just a few hundred metres from where we were yesterday. It is a Grade 3 route. The weather is good and it is a fresh, cool day but the rock is still wet.
We pull on harnesses and tie in, before taking in some coils across our chests and tying them off. The initial moves will be tricky and my partner leads. The exposure is far greater than it was yesterday, even at this early stage of the route - we are already 700m up on the sheer east face of Tryfan. The buttress of the Nor Nor groove is very different from yesterday’s route. On any scramble, you should be acutely that this is not a game. Every single foothold should be meticulously sought, each handhold gripped tightly. As my partner reaches the top of the short pitch, he takes out a sling and places it over a flake of rock to protect my ascent.
The next crag above us has vertical drops from it on all sides and very shallow foot and hand holds. It is not quite smooth, but the shallow ribs across it will hardly take a boot. I watch to see where he places his feet and hands, and run the route through in my head. When there is protection set up again for me I begin to climb. In fact, I am able to find better purchase than I expected - the friction on my boot, pressing down as much of the rubber sole into the rock as I can (‘smearing’), is good enough. Momentum carries me forward and I reach the end of the pitch.
The next pitch has far more in the way of handholds, but I have to use another technique where I actually find my large feet are a boon - the ‘boot jam’. Wedging my boot in a crack in between rock, I am able to use this instead of a ledge or shelf. The wind is limited today - were it not, this would be an almost impossible route. Always assess the weather.
In fact, this is exactly how the rest of the Nor Nor buttress continues. Exposed, steep sections which we protect with rocks-on-wire wedged into cracks, slings and Italian Hitches or simply rope flaked around rock. Always move swiftly but carefully, protecting where you can. At the top of the buttress, below the north ridge of Tryfan, we eat, before stowing the rope and scrambling the rest of this classic without protection. It’s probably no more than Grade 1.
The Scrambling Grading System
Grade 2 and 3 scrambling requires knowledge of areas more commonly associated with climbing - ropework, knots, belays, anchors and moving together. The equipment required is technical and knowing how to use it is essential to safe movement on these harder routes.
Scrambling grading is not an exact science and there is still disagreement about the precise definitions within the system first used by Steve Ashton in his 1980 book Scrambles in Snowdonia. However, the system most frequently used grades scrambles from 1 to 3S. Each are graded with stars to denote level of interest.
Grade 1: No special climbing skills are required, exposure is limited, route-finding is straightforward and any difficulties can usually be avoided.
Grade 2: There are longer, more difficult stretches of rock climbing requiring a degree of commitment - once undertaken there may be no way back. A rope may well be needed for safety or confidence on exposed sections. Route finding might be more difficult.
Grade 3: Commitment required as escape may be impossible and the harder sections unavoidable. Rope usually required for exposed sections of rock climbing or steep grass where a slip could be fatal. Experience is required.
Grade 3S: Particularly serious and only be undertaken by very experienced scramblers. Exposed passages on steep rock or poor vegetation. Inevitably involves rock climbing and mountaineering skills with the use of rope and other climbing equipment for passage on key areas. Escape is impossible and probably only by means of an abseil.
Learn the Ropes
Knots are essential skills: particularly the Italian (Munter) Hitch, the Clove Hitch, the Rewoven Figure of Eight and the process of taking in coils. Learn to tie all of these, as well as tying into a harness with a stopper knot, automatically and with gloves on.
Taking in the rope as the climber ascends, and paying it out during a descent is also an essential skill. The live rope leads to the climber. The dead rope leads away from the belay. One of your hands must be on the dead rope at all times. The following simple, yet mechanical, process provides control of the dead rope at all times:
Pull the dead rope towards you with your dead rope hand;
Slide your live rope hand down the live rope and then cross over, keeping the live rope in your hand, and take the dead rope in the same hand, just below your dead rope hand;
Slide your dead rope hand up towards the belay;
Let go of the dead rope with your live rope hand;
Repeat until safe.
It is a process that takes some practice so that it can be done with either hand, and reversed to protect a descent. It should be used whether it is a direct belay with a rope wrapped around a rock, or an Italian Hitch through a carabiner on an anchor.
Reading to gain a basic understanding of the principles is advisable and some good beginner and intermediate texts are outlined below:
Shepherd, The Complete Guide to Rope Techniques, Frances Lincoln 2007
Adby and Johnson, Hillwalkers Guide to Mountaineering, Cicerone 2003
Scrambling boots require a rigid sole like the Scarpa Manta
A comfortable harness is essential such as the Black Diamond Alpine Bod
Helmet like the DMM Ascent.
Robust gloves with good grip - Skytec Argon are cheap and cheerful
Slim, 35 litre rucksack - Crux AK-37 is ideal
Head torch like the Petzl XP2
Quickdraw - at least one, preferably 3 or 4
Belay device like the Petzl Reverso 3
Dyneema Slings - at least 3 120cm - DMM do good ones
Carabiners - at least 4 screwgate carabiners, 2 should be HMS - DMM Aero HMS are good
Drybags for technical kit and dry clothes - try Podsacs or Alpkit
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