Scrambling - Hiking Safely In Rocky Terrain
By Steven Gillman
scrambling to the the summit of Mount Bushnell, I sat on a boulder
that was cracked down the middle. Five seconds after my usual summit
photo of my bare feet hanging over the edge, the left half of my
rock fell loose. I watched as it bounced down the mountainside. I
took out my crackers and continued to watch. The rock, and the
others it had collected along the way, stopped about 500 feet below.
I'm glad I chose the right side of the rock to sit on.
Later, scrambling down from the top, I slipped. I
got a bruised leg from one rock, and a gash on one hand from another
- the one that kept me from tumbling down the mountainside. The
irony was that I rarely ever have a bad slip when hiking and
climbing, and I had just stopped a moment earlier to take some notes
on "safe scrambling" for this article. I guess the first safety
lesson is to concentrate on the task at hand and take your notes
Scrambling, according to one dictionary, is "an
ambiguous term - somewhere between hill-walking and rock climbing."
It is a necessary part of hiking and backpacking in the mountains
unless you are content to stick to the trails and always be looking
up at the peaks. I'm not. I like to be looking down at everything
from time to time. Since not all mountains have easy trails to the
top, this sometimes means crossing long stretches of rock.
Of course, rock isn't a problem by itself.
Sometimes it is solid and sloped gently, so you can hike across it
easily. Other times, as on Mount Bushnell, it is loose, and mixed
with almost vertical stretches which require your hands as much as
your feet. Here are some tips for making this kind of scrambling a
little bit safer.
1. Beware of pulling rocks loose. You can use the
rocks above you to steady yourself on steep parts, but try not to
put much weight on them unless absolutely necessary. Remember that
when they come loose, you are below them. More than one hiker has
pulled a rock down upon himself with fatal results.
2. Big is better. When crossing loose rocks, try
to step on the larger ones. They are less likely to move, and when
they do move, they usually do so more slowly.
3. Stay away from each other. If there are two or
more in your group, don't travel directly below each other on steep
slopes. The rock that one person knocks loose will aim for the next
in line. Keep some distance between you, and if ascending straight
up, do so parallel to each other, ten feet or more apart.
4. Know your abilities. In particular, consider
whether you'll be able to climb down the rocks you are scrambling
up. Down is always more dangerous and usually more difficult.
5. Head for the grass. If you have a choice of
routes, stick to those where the rocks are mixed with patches of
grass. They are usually anchored more solidly here.
6. Learn to read the rocks. With experience you'll
get a "feel" for which rocks are more likely to break loose, and
which slopes are more easily climbed. Speed up this learning process
by paying attention as you scramble, making rules as you go, like
"these kind of boulders are slippery," and "that type of rock breaks
7. Avoid wet rock. It's bad enough to have every
second rock you step on move under your foot, but it's downright
treacherous when they are slippery too. Wet usually equals slippery.
Be aware of the surface of the rocks you are crossing, and whether
it might rain before you get back down to the trail.
8. Use a walking stick. If you'll be doing a lot
of scrambling, you may want to consider using a walking stick
instead of trekking poles. When I consider the number of times my
walking stick was wedged between rocks or holding my weight the
other day, I'm not sure that a trekking pole would have survived. A
good walking stick can help with balance, reduce knee-strain, and
take a lot of abuse.
Copyright Steve Gillman. To get a free book on
Backpacking (And Wilderness Survival Tips), as well as photos, gear
recommendations, and a new wilderness survival section, visit:
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