A very common question is how to find the route on scrambles – or at least the ‘right’, ‘best’ or ‘safest’ route. It’s something that I’m asked frequently, either by people on my own courses or by other scramblers in the vicinity.
The experienced eye instinctively knows what to look for on the route. It’s almost like having signposts or paint on the rocks. By contrast, a newcomer finds it all rather confusing. All they see is a mass of grey/brown and nothing obvious to tell them which way might be best – or worst.
Here, then, are some of the common clues to look for on a scramble. But be careful not to take any of them too literally in isolation – this is about forming an overall picture based on a ‘cluster’ of clues.
Clues for the best route on scrambles
One feature of many of the most famous rock climbs, scrambles or mountain routes is that they follow a compelling natural line up the mountain or cliff. An elegant long ridge. An imposing corner. A seemingly blank wall. A deep crack or chimney.
You should of course read the guidebook carefully, but the right route is likely to follow the most obvious, natural compelling line.
Sometimes this will be the obvious line from start to finish – as on Striding Edge. At other times, on a scramble there may not be a single natural line. In these cases the best scrambling route can find its way through complex terrain but always linking up individual sections that are themselves good natural lines.
If it looks as if it will be fun to climb, challenging but not too difficult, then that’s a good sign.
Clean rock is another good indicator that you have found the right route on your scramble. This means that you are climbing on the main bedrock of the mountain, with no loose boulders or loose detached chunks. There will be not much in the way of vegetation. The passage of countless scramblers will have worn that away long ago. The same applies to loose, gravelly pebbles which will also have been knocked off years ago.
If we are looking for clean rock, then what are we not looking for? Generally we would be avoiding areas of loose boulders and scree. We avoid areas that are excessively grassy or covered in heather, especially if there are steep moves. Vegetation never makes good handholds and the ground underneath it will be prone to collapsing rather than supporting your weight.
Closely related to the topic of clean rock, is ‘polished’ rock. The analogy is pretty clear. This is rock that has not only been inadvertently ‘cleaned’ by countless pairs of boots, but has actually become smooth to the touch. Sometimes it can be polished to a very high sheen, too! But it’s certainly a potential indication that you have found the right route on the scramble.
Polished rock will be very smooth to the touch compared to nearby rock and this is not due to nature. It may well be a slightly different colour too, sometimes lighter and sometimes darker. But it isn’t actually a different type of rock.
Take care though. Polished rock will be less grippy than the neighbouring rock at all times. It can even be so polished that it actually becomes slippery, like glass. What’s more, when it rains, wet, polished rock can be like ice.
Another clue to look for on scrambles is scratches in the rock. It’s always fun to tell kids that this is where the leopards and mountain lions sharpen their claws. But the truth is a bit more mundane.
The scratches are the tell-tale mark left by the crampons of winter mountaineers following the scrambling route in winter.
This has nothing to do with poultry, and is all about ‘chickening out’.
Over many years, some people have not quite had the courage or confidence to take the proper line, especially on long narrow ridges. They ‘seek safety’ by taking a line just below (sometimes quite a lot below) the natural ridge line and following parallel to it, but lower down.
This isn’t always necessarily wrong, and in very strong wind it may be a sensible option, but…
The very existence and location of a ‘chicken path’ is often in contradiction to following the natural line on clean rock (see above). The ‘chicken path’ often traverses the fragile, grassy slopes of the flanks of a ridge rather than the solid rock on its crest. If the ‘chicken path’ runs out, as it does on Sharp Edge on Blencathra (for example), then you have a much trickier, scrappy and dangerous climb up to the crest of the ridge.
‘Never say never’, but generally it’s better to be brave and stay on the ridge and avoid the chickens below.
It can be tricky to find the best route on scrambles, but these five clues might help, along with careful use of the guidebook and any other reliable information you can find online.
A final word of warning, however. Several of these clues (clean rock, polish and scratches) simply mean that a lot of people have been there before. They don’t always mean that these have people have gone the right way – they may all have made a similar mistake. Nor does heavy traffic mean that this is your route. Take care that you are not straying onto a harder route than you had intended.