Road To The Celtman Triathlon17/06/2020
Winter Climbing Gloves27/09/2021
TEN TIPS FOR SCRAMBLING ON SKYE
AUTHOR | STEVE HOLMES
The murky ground between rock climbing and mountaineering is known as scrambling, which can be described as extreme walking that requires the use of hands to make progress. The terrain is often steep and exposed and typically undertaken without any specialist equipment.
Our team specialises in guided scrambles and teaching participants to become self-sufficient ‘scramblers’. The majority of our work takes place on the Skye Cuillin Ridge which is known for the most challenging scrambles in the UK.
Research is the starting blocks for any adventure and a cornerstone for a productive time on the Cuillin Ridge. A guidebook such as the SMC ‘Skye Scrambles’ is a great book. Inside you will find detailed information on geology, flora, wildlife, weather, historical notes and of course lists of incredible scrambles on Skye. Anyone aspiring to a full Cuillin Ridge Traverse should also invest in the SMC ‘Skye the Cuillin’ as it provides additional information on difficult sections of the ridge. There is also a ‘Skye Ridge’ miniguide published through RockFax to complete the Skye scrambling literature.
Alongside books, the internet has hours of reading and viewing available before you step foot on the island. Google maps can help you decide where to stay ensuring you are in proximity to the mountains. Portree and Broadford have amenities but are on the fringe of accessibility to the Cuillin. Portnalong, Sligachan and Carbost are ideally situated and have pubs that serve hearty food and offer easy access to GlenBrittle and the mountains. ‘The Glen'(Brittle) itself is idyllic but can be problematic when trying to get phone reception to check weather forecasts or arrange meetings.
Hiring guides is, for some people, an expense outwith their budget. And whilst guided scrambling on Skye could enhance the experience many people prefer to be independent and have their adventures. Professionals are still willing to help with your planning and can be contacted for information in the research stage.
Getting to know the Cuillin Ridge is the most important tip on this list. A little time spent on easier scrambles and walking the simplest Munros is time well spent. Approach to your chosen route, especially in poor visibility, will be the longest part of your day as the terrain is complex and paths often fizzle into the scree or disappear over steep edges. Getting to know the approach, descents and crucially for aspiring traverses; where to get water can make your trip to the Cuillin so much more enjoyable.
If time is tight and the conditions unsettled have a list of scrambling routes at a lower altitude with easy access and quick descents to beat the worst of the weather. Routes such as ‘The Spur’ on Sgurr an Fheadain and ‘Window Buttress’ in Coire na Banachdaich are excellent for escaping windy conditions.
Practice. Understandably, scrambling is hard to practice unless you have mountains on your doorstep. However, nearly all cities have climbing centres and everyone should buy a short length of rope and master your knots. Now not all scrambles require anything more than a hand on the ground for assistance but to maximise your time in the Cuillin mountains a basic set of mountaineering and climbing skills are essential.
Tying a figure of eight, clove hitch and Italian hitch are indispensable for scrambling. Taking rope coils, abseiling and placing climbing protection is particularly valuable for moving efficiently over more technical terrain.
When it comes to choosing equipment it’s important to think about weight, safety, useability and efficiency. Considering the weight of a climbing rope is the heaviest pieces of kit we carry, it is important to get it right. Now, most scrambles on Skye do not require a rope longer than 40 meters but that knowledge has only been obtained by research, reconnaissance and the skill set to use it safely. At 40m rope in experienced hands is also very useable and efficient but used by a less experienced party can cause safety issues due to low skill set and knowledge. The overriding feeling about rope length is 50m can do everything a 40m can and a 600g increase in weight will provide more options in less experienced hands.
The diameter of a single climbing rope ranges from around 8mm to 11mm. Skinny ropes are great for crossing glaciers and simple ice climbs where there are no edges to create abrasion. The Cuillin is the opposite with extremely sharp and often loose rock littered everywhere. A trade-off between weight and useability is sensible where a 9-10mm rope diameter is both sturdy yet reasonable light.
Gain experience of graded scrambling and what that might personally mean for you. It is all relevant, some people will require more ‘rack’ or can take less than the suggestions listed below.
Typically a difficult scramble such as ‘West Ridge’ of Sgurr nan Gillean requires a belay plate and carabiner, three screw gate carabiners, one prusik per person, four mid-size nuts on wires, two or three mid-size camalots, three quickdraws, one 240cm and three 120cm slings. Instructors will often take much less as their knowledge and skillset are greater, but using this as a baseline for scrambling on Skye, adding and subtracting rack depending on the route will keep you in good stead.
The Cuillin Ridge is where gloves go to die! Honestly, do not spend a lot of money on ‘waterproof’ gloves, the rock is so sharp it will cut through the fabrics easily. For years we have recommended a hard-wearing set of gardening gloves but recently a few brands have produced a similar style of glove that fit much better. The Black Diamond Dirt Bag Glove, Marmot Basic Work Glove and Decathlons Leather Alpinism Glove are all reasonably priced and very durable. Having two pairs allows rotation to dry them off.
In very wet weather we recommend the ‘Showa 282’ fleece-lined chemical glove, known locally as a ‘west coast glove’ they look like marigolds but are much tougher and waterproof, unlike the £100 offering in the gear shop.
Whilst scrambling on Skye you will often find yourself bent over keeping close to the rock so it is important to have a pack that sits against your body. Mesh back panels that allow ventilation are super for long treks but lack stability when moving dynamically. If you are planning to invest in a technical backpack then a slim, simple design with minimal cords and straps will be suitable. We recommend backpacks such as the Arcteryx Alpha FL, Black Diamond Speed Zip 33 and Millet MixT 25+5.
Historically helmets have been controversial for scramblers who prefer the freedom to climb without hindrance and travel as light as possible. These days helmets are so light there is no excuse not to wear one, and with the rise in numbers in the mountains it is becoming more important to protect our greatest body part. The head and particularly the brain is what makes you, you. We recommend lightweight foam and hybrid construction such as the Black Diamond Vector and the Petzl Sirocco.
Boots or shoes? Boots provide the greatest protection from sharp rocks, water and dirt. However, I would argue that shoes provide the knee with better mobility as a heavily strapped ankle inside a boot means the knee is called upon to do movements the ankle usually would. A happy medium would be wearing a specific approach style shoe that free’s up the ankle joint to move how it is supposed to but provides some stability and protection on uneven ground. We recommend Scarpa Zodiac GTX, Scarpa Mescalito Mid GTX and the La Sportiva Boulder X Mid GTX. A more sturdy but still light boot we recommend is the Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD.
Possibly the biggest weight saving per item is in a harness. It is reassuring to have a harness with huge straps and padded leg loops such as the Petzl Corax (480g) but consider the harness will be worn the entire time on the ridge but probably used less than 20% of that period. In other words, a comfortable yet minimal design with very little padding and maximum freedom of movement is appropriate for scrambling on Skye. We recommend lightweight but very functional harnesses such as the Petzl Altitude (150g), Blue Ice Choucas Pro (140g), Black Diamond Vision (224g) and the Black Diamond Zone (300g).
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about scrambling and mountaineering our Scrambling Course could be right up your street. If you would like to enquire about a Cuillin ridge guide we would also love to hear from you. Summer mountaineering not your thing? Check out our blog – What to pack for Scottish Winter Climbing.
Synergy Guides deliver guided climbing and mountaineering on Skye, Ben Nevis and in the mountains of Glencoe. We also offer instructional courses and bespoke adventures for larger groups.
About the author
Steve Holmes owns Synergy Guides, he is a fully qualified Mountaineering Instructor and holds the WMCI (MIC) award. He spends most of the spring/summer on Ben Nevis and the Isle of Skye. You can read more about him here.