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  • iainthow


Updated: Nov 26, 2023

When does scrambling become rock climbing is a question often asked, and really there is no clear answer - or rather there are several! Scrambling covers the intermediate area between walking and rock climbing, and the lower boundary is easy to define – once you need your hands for progress, you are scrambling. The upper boundary is more problematic, however, and not everybody agrees on the answer.

Aonach Dubh, Glen Coe

Scrambling or climbing? Pete Lamb on A Minus Buttress, Aonach Dubh

One approach is to say that scrambling becomes rock climbing once the interest of the moves become greater than the interest of the situation. Steve Ashton applied this approach for the first Scrambles in Snowdonia guide in 1980, a hugely innovative and inspiring book. His suggested definition gets the 'feel' right but runs into the problem that the boundary varies between different individuals. If you lead E6, say, then the actual moves of a V Diff probably hold no interest for you and are outweighed by "the interest of the situation". Steve Ashton was (and as far as I know still is) a cool-headed soloist, so his guide contains routes with moves of V Diff that are still graded as scrambles. Because his was the definitive guide those routes became established into the scrambling repertoire and this has led to a situation where Welsh scrambles reach noticeably further into the climbing bracket than Lakes or Scottish ones. The West Buttress of Lliwedd or Shark Buttress on Glyder Fach would certainly have been given climbing grades in the SMC scrambling guides, for instance, and I suspect that's true of the recent Lakes ones too. The argument used for Shark Buttress is that the hard move (which personally I think is about 4a) is right next to a very good runner, but that means you are assuming that everyone is using a rope, which makes it a rock climb in my view.


Nicky Gear on the West Buttress at Diabaig, a route with a 'scrambling feel' overall, but bits of it are quite hard and feel like climbing.

A related definition is to say that a route should have a 'scrambling feel', usually meaning that it has sections of 'go anywhere' ground, a wide choice of route or lots of ledges between the tricky bits. This is true of nearly all scrambles, although there are exceptions – Crib Goch doesn't have any of those characteristics, for instance, but everybody would agree that it's a scramble rather than a climb (in summer at least). The trouble with this definition is that it doesn't have an upper limit. There are certainly routes graded HS that have a scrambling feel, Hawkwind on the Filiast Slabs at Ogwen, for instance, or the routes on the East Face of Bristly Ridge, and for all I know there are E1's too.

The most frequently adopted definition is to say that scrambling covers rock too easy for most rock climbers to need a rope. Note that this implies that some rock climbers may need a rope, especially if conditions are less than ideal, and also that hillwalkers might need one whatever the grade. I usually work on the basis that fit and agile hillwalkers with a good head for heights should be fine on Grade 1 scrambles; adventurous ones wanting to push their excitement level a bit should enjoy Grade 2; but non-climbers will probably find Grade 3 scrambles too hard or too scary, and either back off or need a rope.

Scrambling near Gairloch

Noel Williams on Meall Aundrary, Grade 3, not difficult moves for a climber but sustained and high enough for a hillwalker to want a rope.

When I started doing the first version of Highland Scrambles North for the SMC I had a discussion with Noel Williams (who had already brought out the original Skye Scrambles) to ensure that we were on the same page when it came to grading. We both considered that Cicerone's Grade 3S equated to Moderate, on the basis that if a route is both hard enough to merit Grade 3 and is also serious then it deserves a climbing grade. I've had the same discussion with John Fleetwood, the writer of the most recent Cicerone Lakes guides. He treats the "S" as a separate measure from the numerical grade, so you can have a Grade 2S (and he does – Sourmilk Gill in Buttermere). I would simply have put the "serious" bit into the intro (as John also does, of course) and maybe bumped it up a grade.

Scrambling in Torridon

Noel Williams on the crux of Overlooking Rib, Ruadh Stac Beag. One move is Moderate, and high enough up to deserve the climbing grade in my view.

Most experienced rock climbers happily solo Moderates, it's the grade of many descent routes after all, so it's ok for Grade 3 scrambles to have the odd move of that grade, if it's in a relatively non-serious position and not sustained. This seems to have been accepted by all the writers of scrambling guidebooks, although definitions of "non-serious" may vary, of course. Most climbers use a rope for Diffs, but if it's above a big ledge then a move of Diff is OK on a Grade 3 too, in my view. If there are moves of Mod or Diff in exposed positions, or sustained stretches of them, then the route gets a climbing grade of Mod or Diff. This remains true even if the moves are well protected, as if your grade is predicated on using a rope then it's a rock climb. Anything with a move of V Diff or more is graded as a climb, as this is out of the range of most non-climbing hillwalkers.

Scrambling near Gairloch

The author on NW Rib, Creag Mhor Thollaidh near Loch Maree. A Grade 3 scramble that largely consists of a succession of short boulder problems. It would be a climb if the individual sections were bigger. Photo: Noel Williams

For the SMC guides Noel and I ended up with a continuum running Grade 1-Grade 2-Grade 3-Moderate-Difficult, with the possibility that each grade could contain moves from the next one up if they were in a non-serious position. The analogy is with higher climbing grades, where a VS would normally be 4c technically, but could be 5a if it was one well protected move, or even 5b if it was just above a ledge. In the same way a Grade 3 scramble could have a move of whatever you think is the technical grade of a Mod (1c?), or very occasionally even Diff if it's just above a good ledge. Inglis Clark Arete on Creise is an example of the latter, where the final easy corner starts with a complete pig of a mantelshelf. It's at chest height above a big grassy terrace but somebody polished all the holds away. Bloody glaciers!

Three adjacent routes on Buachaille Etive Mor provide a good illustration of the logic. Curved Ridge, North Buttress and Crowberry Ridge Original Route all have one move of Moderate (or whatever you consider the equivalent technical grade to be) but whilst the move on Curved Ridge inolves stepping up from a nice ledge with no exposure, the one on North Buttress is ten feet up or so, and a fall would definitely hurt, while the one on Crowberry Original is in a position where a fall would almost certainly kill you, and is on less-than-obvious holds where it would be easy to miss the best ones. For me that makes them Grade 3, Mod and Diff respectively.

Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe

Jamie Hageman just above the crux of Curved Ridge. The route is no 'one move wonder' but the crux move is much harder than anything else on it.

As for the grading within scrambling, when I've been on the hill with my more adventurous hillwalking clients I usually reckoned that they would be ok with Grade 2 routes, the Liathach traverse, for instance. I always carried a rope for that but I never actually needed to use it. Nearly all of them would have been very unhappy if I had taken them up a Grade 3 though, and when I took people along An Teallach I always insisted on roping the Bad Step (which I reckon is Diff, altough it's sometimes given Mod). On Stac Pollaidh I used to leave the decision up to the clients themselves. Some didn't want to do the final tower and waited at the cairn, others wanted a rope for it, but most were ok to solo because although it's quite hard technically the awkward bit is at ground level and the rest is inside the chimney groove so doesn't feel exposed. It's also one of those rare routes that is easier to descend than climb (The crux of A' Chir is another).

Stac Pollaidh

Gary Mooney on the crux move, Stac Pollaidh. Quite a tricky move but one that non-climbers often find ok because of the lack of exposure.

All grades are inevitably only approximations, but this is even truer for scrambling grades than climbing ones, as there is often a huge choice of route, so the standard can usually be altered to suit differing abilities or conditions – on occasion you can miss out entire buttresses and still feel that you have completed the route! That definitely isn't true for rock climbs, and there are times when a nearby climber or your second will tell you that a particular hold is out of bounds. One of the things I like about scrambling is that you can use anything you can get to as long as you start at the bottom and end up at the top. If you don't like the look of a section then go round it (which you almost always can). Of course you can always make a route harder too if that's what you feel like doing.

Cioch na h- Oighe, Arran

Bill McCrae demonstrates that you can find climbing options even on an easy scramble like Arran's Cioch na h- Oighe.

Rock climbs, on the other hand, often have a definite crux move, and if you dodge that then you haven't done the route. By comparison there are almost no scrambles where you have to do a particular move. I once mentioned breaking off a hold on one of the Liathach scrambles to an experienced climber and was asked whether I upgraded the route afterwards. This demonstrated a fairly fundamental misunderstanding of scrambling, as there are almost always plenty of alternative holds available and you are perfectly at liberty to use any of them. I do know of one route where you now have to walk round a particular outcrop as a flake has broken off (or do a 5a boulder problem), but as it's 3 metres of a 200 metre route it doesn't affect the overall feel of things. I can only think of one example where if a certain block disappears then the route will be much harder than scrambling. It's Diamond Edge on Bidean, which would be no great loss! By comparison there are hundreds of rock climbs where the loss of a hold has changed the grade.

Scrambling in Torridon

Noel Williams on Ketchil Buttress, Maol Cheann Dearg, a Diff if you tackle it directly, but zigzagging around gets it down to Grade 3.

The most fundamental difference is that scrambling and climbing use different approaches. Climbs tend to tackle challenges directly, while scrambles usually look for the easiest way up a feature. This of course means that some climbs can be converted into scrambles by using a little deviousness. Dividing Buttress on Beinn a' Bhuird or Ketchil Buttress near Lochcarron are examples, definitely rock climbs if taken direct but scrambles if you dodge the crux sections. The ethic is a bit like a traditional mountaineering one, where the aim is to get to the top of a peak and minor variations are neither here nor there. In that sense scrambling is "baby mountaineering", as one of my friends once described it.

Scrambling in Knoydart

Nicky Gear on Cannonade, Knoydart, Grade 3 to V Diff depending where you go. The most logical line is Moderate and it's quite sustained, so this one is a climb for me.

In the end of course, all that really matters is that you enjoy whatever you end up doing and don't trash the place, it doesn't matter what you call the activity. You can treat a climb as a scramble by soloing it or do the reverse by using a rope on easy rock. Or you can apply a mountaineering ethic and move together, with perhaps the odd pitch. Just be aware of the risks associated with the choice and make the decision on the basis of your experience, the state of your head and conditions on the day.

Scrambling in Knoydart

Nicky Gear starting Cannonade. This was the original start, rightly graded Diff but it is easily avoided.

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18 oct. 2023

Completely agree with that Pete, it's that sense of freedom and possibility that is the main attraction of scrambling for me too, along with that sense of flow that you get when you're going well. It's not quite the same when you have to stop and belay.


Peter Duggan
Peter Duggan
18 oct. 2023

Interesting topic, Iain, to which I'd just like to respond that I love scrambling (which I think can include sections of graded Mod or even Diff in some circumstances) perhaps most of all mountaineering activities for what I see as the 'unfettered freedom of the hills'. But agree the character and consequence of many Mods and Diffs makes them climbing even when done ropeless.

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