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Six Rock Scrambling Skills

Use Basic Rock Climbing Movements

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CJ Sidebottom scrambles up a sandstone slab at the San Rafael Swell, Utah.

Keep your weight over your feet and use your hands for balance when you're scrambling up low-angle terrain.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green Six Rock Scrambling Skills

Susan Joy Paul scrambles down easy rock with a rope on Elephant Butte in Arches National Park.

Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green Six Rock Scrambling Skills

Climbers scramble across the Knife Edge on Capitol Peak in Colorado's Elk Range.

Photograph copyright Spencer Swanger

Scrambling over easy rock terrain uses the same movement skills as rock climbing. Many rock climbers actually learn how to climb by scrambling up mountains. They learn about balance and footwork by moving over slabs, by finding holds on steeper cliff sections, and by hopping across loose boulders in talus fields. Later they take those movement skills and use them to become actual rock climbers.

Often when I guide a group of newbie climbers for Front Range Climbing Company, I take them to easy boulders and low-angle slabs and let them scramble around on the rock. Besides making climbing less serious and more about having fun, it also teaches them the importance of balance and using their feet to support their body. It gives them a head start on climbing movement skills when I get them on a rope.

6 Basic Scrambling Skills

Here are six basic climbing movement skills that will improve your scrambling, getting you up more mountains and staying safer when you’re climbing easy rock without equipment.

  • Stay in balance. Keep three points of contact—two feet and a hand or two hands and a foot—on the rock surface at all times. Move only one limb at a time. Stay solid as you move.
     
  • Keep weight over your feet. When you’re scrambling you’re usually on easy rock so you can almost always find secure footholds. Use them to stay in balance. Learn to trust your feet. Use the biggest holds whenever possible.
     
  • Use your hands effectively. Don’t make long reaches. Instead grab handholds no higher than a foot above your head. If you’re scrambling on flatter terrain and don’t need handholds, spread your arms out for balance like you’re walking a slackline. Learn all the basic finger grips so you can utilize lots of different handholds.
     
  • Test all handholds and footholds. Loose rock abounds on scrambling routes. Test every handhold and foothold that you use. Pull down on handholds rather than out. Rap it with your knuckles. If it sounds hollow—don’t use it. Loose rock causes many scrambling accidents. Read all about Loose Rock under Climbing Safety.
     
  • Load your pack correctly. Put all the heavy stuff at the bottom of your climbing pack and close to your back, which lowers your center of gravity and makes you less likely to tip backwards. A waist strap keeps you back from shifting during crucial moves.
     
  • Stay focused. Scrambling is dangerous. You’re climbing easy rock terrain without a rope and a misstep or broken hold or loss of focus could be fatal. Keep your attention on the climbing moves ahead. Don’t get wrapped up in conversations or daydreaming. If you’re out of breath in higher mountains, stop and catch your breath in a safe spot. If you’re gripped by exposure, the gaping void of air beneath you, stop in a safe place and take a few deep breaths. Never be afraid to ask to tie into the rope if you’re having problems.

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