The Gear Loop is supported by its readers. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

(The Gear Loop) - When it comes to adventure in the Lake District, we seem to spend most of our time trying to avoid getting wet. We invest heavily in high-quality waterproof jackets and pack dry bags for all our spares and trinkets. 

Yet, when a stifling July heatwave sets in, suddenly the idea of avoiding the drink seems ludicrous. While some head out to cool off on a wild swim in one of the many lakes and tarns, others still seek to climb or descend the fells, but in a totally different – and much more watery – way than usual. We give you: ghyll scrambling.

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 1

Ghyll scrambling is the pursuit form of following a mountain stream or gorge, 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 a fell, as you find your way up the mountain’s natural line of weakness, enjoying the accompaniment of the tumbling beck and accessing some pretty awesome scenery.

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 5

Traditionally, the key difference between ghyll scrambling and canyoning is that ghyll scrambling involves upstream ascent, whereas canyoning is the act of navigating downstream using techniques like sliding, jumping, downclimbing and abseiling. However, the two terms are interchangeable these days, with many mountain guides offering canyoning experiences that are named as ghyll scrambling.

What exactly is a ghyll?

A ghyll can refer to either the narrow valley, ravine or gorge through which a mountain stream flows or the stream itself. Generally, if a stream is given the ghyll label, you can expect its ravine to have steep sides and a rocky bed.

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 3

There are plenty of other words for streams in northern England. Most common is 'beck', while 'sike' is also fairly widespread. Confusingly, the streams in some ravines labeled as ghylls are called becks, such as Gunnerside Beck, which flows through Gunnerside Ghyll. Got it?

The word 'ghyll' and many other associated words are Scandinavian in origin. The Vikings left their mark throughout Britain and their names and words crop up all over our mountainous places, such as on the Isle of Rum. Peaks like Trollaval (Troll mountain) and Askival (Ash tree mountain) are a case in point. 

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 7

Similarly, ghyll is another word that is today associated with the fells of northern England but actually hails from the Old Norse word 'gil', while 'beck', 'sike' and 'force' also have their roots in Scandinavia. 

Where can you go ghyll scrambling?

The Lake District is the spiritual home of ghyll scrambling. Much of mountainous Lakeland is formed from hard, 450 million-year-old volcanic rock that has withstood erosion from subsequent ice ages and the relentless pounding of the Cumbrian weather. These are the 'Borrowdale Volcanics' and they include Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and the Langdale Pikes. 

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 10

The water that drains from these great fells has taken advantage of weaknesses in the rock, creating beautiful cascades, rocky gorges, dramatic gullies and deep rock pools – perfect for a bit of watery adventure. 

Of course, the Lake District isn’t the only place this occurs; any mountainous region will have its fair share of watery scrambling lines. However, the quality and variety found in Lakeland makes it the ideal ghyll scrambling arena. Plus, the extent to which tourism has flourished in the national park over the last century means that there are plenty of ghyll scrambling guides for those who want to up the ante with more technical scrambles.

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 2

Scrambling grades explained

Ghyll scrambles are graded in the same way as traditional scrambles and it’s important to be aware that it is a potentially dangerous activity. There are generally three grades given to scrambling routes: 1, 2 and 3, with 1 being the easiest and 3 being the hardest. 

A grade 1 scramble requires the use of hands, features relatively straightforward navigation and typically doesn’t feature terrain where a fall would be fatal. Equipment likes ropes and helmets are not usually employed and the risk of falling in the first place in minimal.

A grade 2 scramble features the occasional move akin to rock climbing, may feature more challenging navigation and stray into exposed terrain where a fall, however unlikely, could be fatal. Many may prefer the additional security of a helmet, and some employ a rope.

A grade 3 scramble has some cross over with easier (around Moderate) rock climbing. Expect sustained periods of technical, exposed ground where a fall would be fatal. Most people would employ ropes and other climbing equipment, though experienced scramblers will solo grade 3 routes. 

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 9

The caveat here is that the difficulty of a ghyll scramble can vary hugely depending on the conditions. Periods of heavy rainfall lead to streams in spate and what is usually an easy route after a dry spell could become a impassable torrent. Freezing conditions can make a ghyll scramble hugely treacherous too. With this in mind, the best time to go ghyll scrambling is during the warmer months and after a dry spell.

What equipment do you need?

This depends on your approach to the activity and the grade of your intended scramble. For lower grade ghyll scrambles in the warmer months, you should be fine in what you would normally hike in. It might be worth investing in some water shoes that are also suitable for the trails, as they’ll give you better grip on slick rock and dry faster than standard hiking footwear. Oh, and don’t forget your action camera!

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 11

If you’re eying up grade 2 or 3 scrambles, you may want to consider a helmet and climbing equipment, depending on your scrambling experience and confidence. For routes that entail getting wetter, such as those that involve jumping into pools, a wetsuit is a good idea, particularly during the colder months.

Generally, if you sign up to a guided experience, the provider will equip you with a harness, wetsuit and buoyancy aids, as their number one priority will always be your safety.

Now get the gear

AstralWhat is ghyll scrambling? Product photo 2

Astral TR1 Junction

squirrel_widget_6789054

The Astral TR1 Junction is a shoe that can take to the hiking trails and perform superbly during watery adventures.

Grippy, lightweight (at 730 grams per pair), comfortable, breathable and fast drying, they’re ideal for ghyll scrambling.

The shoe’s G.15 high friction rubber outsole features aggressive 5mm lugs, giving you excellent traction on both rugged trails and wet rock.

Black DiamondWhat is ghyll scrambling? Product photo 3

Black Diamond Half Dome

squirrel_widget_12853963

If you are eying up the higher grades, you may want to consider a climbing helmet. As one of the best value options out there, Black Diamond’s Half Dome has you covered for all manner of climbing and scrambling activity.

It’s highly useable, featuring plastic clips for a head torch, or action camera, attachment. Its hard plastic shell is also highly durable, which means it will last you for years – barring any significant impacts, of course.

Sea to SummitWhat is ghyll scrambling? Product photo 1

Sea to Summit Dry Sack Set

squirrel_widget_12853964

Including 4-litre, 8-litre and 13-litre roll-top closure sacks, this a great value bundle for keeping your kit dry on watery adventures, as well as for general hiking use.

Sea to Summit’s lightweight sacks are made from 70D nylon with fully taped seams, with a hydrostatic head of 10,000mm. More than enough to keep the drink out.

ghyllscrambling.co.ukWhat is ghyll scrambling? photo 4

Tips from the pros

We spoke to Chris Brown from ghyllscrambling.co.uk to get top tips from a ghyll scrambling professional. Here’s what he had to say:

"Traditionally Ghyll scrambling is the skill of ascending a ghyll without getting too wet. However, in recent years, with the advent of specialist canyoning wetsuits and equipment, using gravity to descend has become the popular option, working your way down the river using a combination of abseiling, sliding and jumping. Here are our top tips…"

1: Start on dry scrambles: As with any sport or activity, it’s important to start within your abilities and build your confidence and competence. Dry scrambles are a good place to start and you can tackle some of these alone with kit you probably already have.

2: Get a guidebook: Scrambles in the Lake District has some great, non-technical, dry (ish) routes for beginners to tackle on their own or have some fun studying a map and finding your own secret spots. Just be sure to check on access rights first. Stickle Ghyll in Langdale is great beginner venue that requires little experience and can be escaped at any time.

3: Shoes, shoes, shoes: Having the right footwear can make all the difference in terms of having a successful adventure in the ghylls. Something with soft rubber is best, this could be an old pair of approach shoes or trail running shoes, so long as they have good support. 

4: Wear a helmet: They may not be the coolest looking things but they’re cooler than ending up in hospital with a bonked head. If you only have one piece of kit, make it a helmet!

5: Go with a pro: Once you're ready to graduate into the wetter, more vertical ghylls and canyons, it’s time to bring in the pros. It's important to go with someone who has the knowledge, skills and equipment to, literally, show you the ropes and keep you safe. This could be an organised trip with a professional guide or even with a friend with experience in the sport.

Chris is an experienced UK Mountain Leader and RCI Climbing Instructor who runs ghyllscrambling.co.uk – the Lake District's Ghyll scrambling and canyoning specialists. They have watery adventures for all types of groups and ages.

Writing by Alex Foxfield. Editing by Leon Poultney.