Scrambling Skills

I’ve always enjoyed a bit of scrambling when out walking, but never really known much about how to do it. A few years ago I climbed Tryfan in December with a group of experienced climbers, in sub-zero conditions, howling winds and snow and ice, and was petrified, especially when the younger members of the group thought it was funny to throw snowballs at me while I was negotiating some very exposed sections. So when I saw that Will4Adventure was offering a scrambling weekend in the Lake District, I jumped at the chance. I’d met Will a few weeks previously, when I’d joined one of his free walking weekends in the Peak District, and had learnt that his wife makes excellent flapjacks (see my previous post on this), so that was good enough reason to go on the trip. Well, there were a few other good reasons too: mainly that I liked Will and his general philosophy, and thought he was an excellent leader. Obviously, he’d also told me how great his scrambling weekends were (and not just because of the flapjacks), and I’d believed him. You’ll be hearing more about the importance of the flapjacks in due course (assuming you keep reading). He’d also offered me a lift to the Lakes with him, and I’d been given a voucher for Christmas for money off one of his trips, so I really had no reason not to go.

Having done many trips with other adventure travel companies before, I wasn’t at all worried about spending the weekend with a bunch of strangers. But I wasn’t really sure how tough the trip would be, or how difficult the scrambling would be, since I’d no idea about grades. Will had assured me that if I’d managed Tryfan, I’d be fine. Once again, I believed him.

I set my alarm for 5am on the Saturday morning, and as usual, woke up with slightly nervous anticipation a good 30 minutes early. I wasn’t worried about the trip itself, but just silly things like whether I’d packed the right gear, which boots I should use, what the weather would be like and so on. Oddly, my biggest worry was whether Will would think I was a numpty for packing too much stuff, so I crammed my tent, sleeping bag, thermorest, clothes, food and overnight gear into one small bag, foregoing luxuries such as an alternative pair of shoes for the evening (hoping that my boots wouldn’t get wet on the first day or I’d be scuppered). I could wear my walking boots to the pub, and to visit the facilities (aka patch of grass outside my tent) in the middle of the night. I have no idea why I worried about such a thing, as I’m pretty sure Will couldn’t have cared less, but that’s the kind of person I am. Normal people would just worry about whether they were going to fall off the rocks and break their neck.

At 9am we arrived at our meeting point, and soon the rest of the group appeared. We were 9 in total, with Will and another guide, Rich. plus 4 men and 3 women (including me). I worried that everyone but me would be superfit, and indeed they probably were all fitter than me, but not significantly enough to be a problem. When we were issued with helmets, I wondered if I’d underestimated the difficulty (aka scariness) of the scrambling, but it turned out to be just precautionary, and more for the danger of rocks falling on our heads from above than anything else. After some boulder hopping in the river, which we all managed without falling in (though we had put on helmets just in case!) we soon approached our first scramble, up Stickle Ghyll. That had sounded fairly innocent in the trip description, and (unusually for me) I hadn’t googled it first. I’m not sure if that was a good idea or not, but I was quite shocked when we stood at the bottom and Will announced that we were going straight up it, right through the waterfall!

Stickle Ghyll

Stickle Ghyll

 It was actually the water that scared me the most. Had it been dry, I’ve have been happier, but climbing on wet rock seemed very dangerous, even if we did have helmets and a safety rope. I definitely wasn’t going to go first until I’d seen how it was done. Some of the others were equally nervous but opted to get it over and done with before they had time to think about it.

It's a long way up!

It’s a long way up!

As I watched them climb, I realised it wasn’t really that hard. I just had to not think about the water. It turned out to be actually fairly easy, once you got the hang of it and blocked out the water streaming down onto your head and up your sleeves. First challenge over and I was by now eager for much more!

A face of determination!

My face of determination!

 The next challenge was Jack’s Rake, which is an iconic Langdale scramble up to the top of Pavey Ark. It can look quite daunting, as it’s very exposed with a sheer drop down the left hand side.  However, my first view of it didn’t scare me, since with my (lack of) sight, I couldn’t really tell how hard (or not) it was, although it did look awfully steep! Sometimes it’s a blessing having restricted vision!

First glimpse of Jack's Rake

First glimpse of Jack’s Rake

Again, we were advised to put our helmets on, mainly for the fear of falling rocks, and there ensued much debate as to whether it was necessary or not. In the end, we convinced each other that it was, and everyone donned their headgear for fear of being the one person without a helmet who was unlucky enough to get hit! We were taught the value of teamwork here, and how to help each other out with suggestions of hand and footholds, or even just pointing out ones which hadn’t worked! It turned out that the easier routes were the more exposed ones, so we were left with a choice. At most points, there were some alternative options, hence the grade 1 nature of the scramble. I really got into my stride here and could have gone on for hours. I loved the mental challenge of forging my own route and searching for good holds on the rock, not to mention the physical challenges of seeing how far I could stretch and twist, and whether all that upper body work in the gym had paid off (it had!). Did I mention that I also had a broken finger? That made things a little more challenging, as I had to try to use only my thumb and palm of my right hand for support, which limited me a bit more. I have a suspicion that having limited sight can sometimes be quite an advantage, not just because I can’t see how scary the drop is, but also because I’m used to compensating with my other senses, so feeling around for hand and footholds seemed perfectly normal to me, as did testing my weight and the security of the hold before committing. My impression was that other people sometimes find it difficult not to just rely on sight alone for such things. Either way, my sight didn’t seem to hinder me that much.

The views from the top, however, were breathtaking, although it wasn’t something you really wanted to think about until you reached relative safety!

Views from Jack's Rake

View from the top

The two guides, Will and Rich, were excellent. They were always on hand to advise and help if needed, but didn’t interfere too much and let us work things out ourselves. I’d have hated them being too hands-on, but at the same time it was reassuring to know they were always there.

Will (and Monty the dog) were always on hand to help

Will (and Monty the dog) were always on hand to help

After this, it was more or less all downhill from then on (both literally and figuratively), and we were back in Coniston with plenty of time to put up tents and then get to the pub for a few well-earned drinks and to get to know the rest of the group better.

The next day was a rather different affair weather-wise. It had rained most of the night (luckily my tent is solidly waterproof despite its hobbit-size, and so we had passed a very comfortable night).

My bijou tent (on the left) in the grounds of the Holly How YHA

My bijou tent (on the left) in the grounds of the Holly How YHA

 It drizzled solidly pretty much all day, although luckily there wasn’t much wind except on some exposed areas. This was a much longer day, however, and I think we were all feeling a little tired and jaded after the previous day’s exertions and with the grimmer weather. However, the scrambles were again fabulous, and we experimented a bit more with different techniques. Certain members of the group were determined to use their knees at every possibility, which was rather frowned upon, while the rest of us were determined to fall over at every possible opportunity (luckily only on the grassy downhills rather than the rocks!). One member of our group was determined to use every possible body part at once on a particularly challenging rock.

scrambling6

We had some more wonderful scenery en route, which Monty enjoyed as much as anyone.

Monty surveying the landscape

Monty surveying the landscape

And there was plenty of camaraderie on the way up.

scrambling8

As well as on the rest stops.

Fun over lunch in the emergency shelter

Fun over lunch in the emergency shelter

 I’d never thought of using an emergency shelter just to have lunch in before, but it was definitely worthwhile to get out of the wind and rain for a proper rest. Another top tip. More on emergency shelters and their uses in another post. After lunch, we came to the Old Man Slate Mine, which was pretty spectacular.

Old Man Slate Mine

Old Man Slate Mine

From there, it was a long hard slog up to the top of the Old Man, which unfortunately we had to abort 3/4 of the way up due to a medical problem. However, given how tired we were and the cold and rain, it seemed no one was too unhappy about that! More about that in another post, but suffice it to say that more lessons were learnt by everyone, proving that even problems can be productive learning environments.

All in all, a great learning opportunity, many laughs, new friends made and another top experience from Will4Adventure (who are not paying me to write nice things about them, incidentally). I’m getting more addicted to scrambling around on rocks (or maybe just wearing such a fetching piece of headgear as a climbing helmet), so I doubt it’ll be long before you’re reading about my first proper experience climbing…..

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