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What is scrambling?

For many people, scrambling is that really fun category of walking that borders on rock-climbing without the need for stacks of technical equipment or know-how. Some define it as the moment when you have to take your hands out of your pockets to get yourself up a bit of rock. Others will argue that the need for hands has to be fairly sustained, and there has to be a bit of vertical exposure thrown in, for the route to become a genuine scramble. It doesn't really matter - if it feels like a scramble, then to you it is.

In route guides, however, there's a need for a common understanding of the difficulty of a route and the seriousness of the undertaking. So a grading system for scrambles has developed over time.

These scrambling grades are very broadly defined and the application of them in guides is inevitably somewhat subjective. What's more, some people will find a Grade 1 scramble very challenging, especially if they don't have a particularly good head for heights. Others will waltz along it, wondering what all the fuss is about.

In some respects scrambling, which falls between straightforward walking and rock-climbing, is the most dangerous activity of all. Rock climbers can fall off with relative impunity because they have ropes to arrest the fall (at least in theory) and they wear helmets to ward off falling boulders. Scramblers generally have neither. So although scrambing can be great fun, it should be undertaken with care and a degree of knowledge. As with any route, if you get a point where you are unhappy there is no shame at all in turning back; mountain rescue teams would far rather you did this than pick up the pieces later.

So what do the grades mean? The following will give you a broad idea:

Grade 1:
A straightforward clamber with little routefinding difficulty and generally no need for a rope. Exposure is not usually that great, though this grade is applied to some quite exposed routes like the traverse of Crib Goch near Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). Most of the way you can pick your own line and work your way round difficult sections, but there may be the occasional crux where you have no option but to use your hands. Bear in mind that in winter these routes can change character completely and become very serious undertakings.

Grade 2:
More difficult, generally longer and with more routefinding challenges. A rope may be useful at some sections for security, as the holds may be smaller and exposure greater. Escape from the difficult parts may not always be possible. For Grade 2 scrambles you will need some technical skills - they should not be undertaken by a novice without an experienced guide.

Grade 3:
By the time you get to Grade 3 you are really rock-climbing, albeit at a relatively easy standard. A rope for protection is required and you will need the technical knowledge to use it. There will be a number of difficult, exposed sections of considerable length. An escape route may not be available for the entire route. In anything other than dry conditions a Grade 3 will be a very serious mountaineering challenge.

Some guides have a further Grade 3(S), where the 'S' stands for Serious. In the past these were considered proper rock climbs and have only fallen out of that category as technical standards have risen. Basically, if you are having to ask what a Grade 3(S) is, you're not equipped to do it.