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(The Gear Loop) - Is there anything more liberating than getting your hands on rock and actually climbing a mountain? We are not talking about hauling a load of rope uphill and spending hours stood belaying a climbing partner. We are talking about moving fast and light, exploring, unencumbered, independent, across thrilling mountain terrain. We are talking about scrambling.

So, what is scrambling? Well, as soon as you require your hands to aid your progress across rocky terrain, you’re scrambling. Many of the UK’s finest hikes contain the occasional little scramble, where a slab or a chimney of rock suddenly stands in the way of the path you were ascending. If you’ve spent any time at all in the British hills, you’ll be familiar with the odd scrambling move.

However, when that kind of terrain becomes more sustained, it can really feel like you’re climbing a mountain. This is where you get named scrambles, routes that are sought out specifically and have been graded for difficulty, with everything from easy scrambling, which is really just an extension of hiking, to harder scrambling that is basically rock climbing in all but name.

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Many of Britain’s finest mountain days have a scramble as their headline act. Helvellyn via Striding Edge. Snowdon via Crib Goch. Ben Nevis via the CMD Arête. You get the picture. A good scramble adds a frisson to the day. It could be the spectacular traverse of a razor-edged ridge or a thrilling climb across a rake or up a gully.

In this feature, we explore scrambling in all its glory. We delve into scrambling grades, reveal the best places to scramble in the UK, dive into a bit of ghyll scrambling and consider what kit a self-respecting scrambler needs. To kickstart your scrambling journey, you could also take a peek at our guide to the best grade one scrambles in the UK feature.

Scrambling grades explained

Compared to climbing grades - where "Very Difficult" is actually relatively easy for most rock climbers – scrambling grades are easy to understand. Before we go into the details, it should be stressed that a grade allocated to any given scramble is subjective and variations by region can occur. 

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Debate about grades given to popular routes continues to this day and different kinds of scrambling can feel easy or hard to different people. Some excel on narrow ridges, while others like gullies and chimneys, with a preference for scrambles that feel more like climbs.

Also, the conditions present on the day will change the difficulty of a scramble. For example, Blencathra’s Sharp Edge in the Lake District is straightforward on a dry day but extremely treacherous after rainfall. Seasonality has a huge bearing too. Bristly Ridge, a grade one scramble in Snowdonia, becomes a grade two/three winter climb under snow and ice.

As a general rule, scrambles are best left for warm, dry days unless you have prior experience and are confident in your ability. Attempting a new scramble in poor conditions is a recipe for trouble.

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Grade one scrambles

The easiest grade of scramble; a step up from adventurous hillwalking. You can expect to use your hands to aid progress, navigation to be straightforward and any dangers to be either avoidable or unlikely. Any steeper sections should feature easy handholds and foot placements. 

Classic grade one scrambles include Helvellyn’s Striding Edge, Tryfan’s North Ridge and the CMD Arête on Ben Nevis.

Grade two scrambles

Grade two scrambles are a step up from grade one, featuring moves more akin to rock climbing. You can expect navigation to be more challenging, difficulties to be less avoidable and the routes requiring more commitment, with fewer escape options. Confident scramblers tackle grade twos without climbing equipment, though some might consider wearing a helmet, as they often explore terrain where a fall could be fatal. 

Classic grade two scrambles include Glen Coe’s Aonach Eagach, Liathach’s Am Fasarinen Pinnacles, the Forcan Ridge on the Saddle and Cam Crag Ridge on Rosthwaite Fell.

Grade three scrambles

The toughest cookies, grade three scrambles overlap with easy rock climbs. Expect long sustained sections of difficult and exposed scrambling where a slip could be fatal. Many choose to wear helmets and employ climbing techniques, though expert scramblers often attempt grade threes without equipment. 

Classic grade three scrambles including An Teallach’s Corrag Bhuidhe Pinnacles, Buachaille Etive Mòr’s Curved Ridge, the Cneifion Arête in Snowdonia’s Glyderau and St Sunday Crag’s Pinnacle Ridge.

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Britain’s best scrambling locations

For sustained scrambling routes, a large amount of exposed rock is required, which is why there are very few scrambles in somewhere like the Brecon Beacons.

The UK’s biggest concentration of scrambling terrain is on Britain’s youngest and arguably most spectacular mountain range: the Isle of Skye’s Black Cuillin. As the exposed remains of an ancient volcano’s magma chamber, the naked gabbro and basalt found here makes the Cuillin a scrambler’s paradise. However, the outings here can be long and difficult for a beginner.

Snowdonia is a mecca for low-grade scrambles, containing plenty of ideal grade one ground for beginners to get stuck into, as well as many more difficult classics, too. The Glyderau range – which literally means ‘heap of stones’ – is particularly blessed with scrambling terrain, with Tryfan, Glyder Fach and Cwm Idwal all boasting more routes than you can shake a trekking pole at. Tryfan North Ridge is perhaps the best grade one scramble in the UK.

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Back in Scotland, other regions bestowed with scrambling gold are Glen Coe, Torridon and Assynt. Glen Coe is home to the iconic Aonach Eagach, thought by many to be the finest ridge traverse on the British mainland and a wonderful grade two scramble. There are plenty of other superb routes in the region too. 

To the north of Glen Coe, Ben Nevis is better known for its climbing than its scrambling, but there are also a couple of excellent low-grade routes here.

Torridon’s famous trio of Beinn Eighe, Liathach and Beinn Alligin offer some of the most spectacular scenery in the UK and some fantastic scrambling routes, too. To the north of Torridon, on the cusp of a region known as "the Great Wilderness", mighty An Teallach and its Corrag Bhuidhe Pinnacles provide an unforgettable traverse. 

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Further north is Assynt, a region of charismatic nunataks – peaks that protruded above the glacial ice sheet during the Ice Age. When the ice melted, it left behind a region of isolated monsters that tower over a lochan speckled landscape, such as the iconic Suilven. The scrambler’s mountain here is Stac Pollaidh, an accessible rocky fist with a unique character.

Britain’s most popular national park, the Lake District has its fair share of scrambles too, though the terrain here is less rocky than in Snowdonia and many Highland regions, so they tend to be less sustained. Classics include the ridge traverses of Striding Edge and Sharp Edge and the atmospheric Jack’s Rake in the Langdale Pikes. 

The Lake District is also home to its own unique, watery scrambling heritage…

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Ghyll scrambling

Ghyll scrambling is the pursuit of following a mountain stream or gorge upwards, using the rocky bed of the ravine to progress. Like a traditional scramble, you can expect to use your hands as your pick your way upwards. Easier ghyll scrambles are a hugely liberating way to ascend, as you find your way up the mountain’s line of weakness, enjoying the accompaniment of the tumbling beck and accessing some pretty awesome scenery.

Some ghyll scrambles can just form part of a longer day in the mountains and don’t require any specialist equipment beyond what you’d already be hiking in. More technical routes can often the main objective for the day in themselves, perhaps requiring specialised clothing and equipment. The grading system works in exactly the same way.

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The spiritual home of ghyll scrambling is the Lake District, though the pursuit is just as alive in Wales and Scotland. Ghyll is a northern English word that’s derived from Old Norse. Unsurprisingly it has not been adopted by the locals in Snowdonia or the Highlands, where the pursuit is more likely to be called gorge scrambling.

Now get the gear

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Petzl Meteor helmet

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Sleek and lightweight, Petzl’s Meteor is an excellent choice for scrambling adventures. Designed primarily with climbing, mountaineering and ski touring in mind, this versatile helmet protects you from side, front and rear impacts. Large vents give you excellent ventilation too, so you won’t overheat when crunch time comes.

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Salewa Mountain Trainer Lite

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A superbly nimble approach shoe that excels on rock, Salewa’s Mountain Trainer Lite is a great fit for scrambling use. As well as being lightweight, it offers your feet a shield against abrasion thanks to a rubber toe cap and TPU film protection. Climbing shoe-style lacing allows you to tighten things up for precise moves on rock.

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Inov-8 Venturelight Mid Hoodie Full Zip

Striking a balance between warmth and breathability, Inov-8’s new Venturelight Mid Hoodie is ideal for dynamic adventures on rocky terrain. It features a textured hexagonal inner knit, which wicks moisture away during those hard ascents, while also trapping warmth – crucial when things slow down on more technical routes. Plus, it is woven from 92 per cent recycled polyester, scoring a tick in the sustainability stakes too. 

£110 | Buy from Inov-8

Writing by Alex Foxfield. Editing by Leon Poultney.