Monday, 1 August 2011

When does a steep hike become a scramble?

On the hike to Sparrowhawk Tarns, we encountered a very short section of rock that required us to use our hands. The question arose of whether it was scrambling or not. My answer was, "That depends. If the thought of scrambling scares you, no. If the thought of scrambling doesn't scare you, yes."

Although I'm sure my answer didn't instill confidence in my qualifications to be leading a hike, it's the best I could do. Ask 100 scramblers for a definition of when steep hiking turns into scrambling, and you'll get 100 different answers. While most of us can identify a moderate or difficult scramble when we see it (considerations include how often you have to use your hands, if you fall whether you'll get hurt bad, get hurt real bad or get so hurt you'll be dead) you'll find considerable disagreement over what constitutes an easy scramble.

In his book Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, Alan Kane defines an easy scramble as "easy hiking, much hands in pockets stuff, little exposure, no maintained trail. Not surprisingly, easy scrambles are not really scrambling at all but are mostly off-trail hiking."

Although Kane's easy, moderate and difficult ratings don't exactly follow the UIAA or YDS ratings, they're the most useful if only because you can actually make sense of them (apologies to the UIAA and good people of Yosemite). Back in the day when I was a but a kid trudging up Heart Mountain in running shoes and blue jeans, most of the things we call scrambles today were called steep hikes. In fact, there was only hiking and climbing. Need to use your hands? Steep hiking. Need to use a rope? Climbing. It was simple.

All too often, I hear people say they'd like to try scrambling but aren't sure if they're ready. Don't let the word "scramble" intimidate you. If you can do a hike with significant elevation gain, you can do an easy scramble. Then go to work on Monday, tell everybody what you did on the weekend, and figure out for yourself how to explain what a scramble is.

Mountains, mentorship and [insert something else that starts with M]

This weekend I led two trips. On Saturday, we did a moderate scramble up Little Hector, which isn't so little. Steep right from the start, it had a little of everything: hands-on scrambling, route finding to gain the ridge and again to get up the final rock band to the summit, scree slogs up and scree slides down, and amazing views from the top of the Hector Glacier below and mountains that stretched beyond the horizon. On Sunday, we did a moderate hike up to the Sparrowhawk Tarns. Again, it had everything you want in a hike: grand views once we got above the tree line, a mix of terrain that included rubble heaps and soft alpine meadows, and amazing little lakes hidden at the back of the cirque.

Most importantly, both had good groups to share the mountains with. On Little Hector we had a mix of ages (from 21 to 40-something) and experience (some making their first summit, some taking the next step from easier scrambles to more advanced, and some more experienced scramblers). On the Sparrowhawk Tarns hike, we ranged from people in their 20s to those of us in our 40s, advanced beginner to experienced hikers, and people from Canada, Spain, Japan and India.

Growing up, this is how we learned. The mountains were a form of apprenticeship and mentorship. There were no introductory hiking or scrambling courses. We didn't even call scrambling "scrambling". They were just steep hikes. More experienced hikers took those of us with less experience onto trails and we learned by watching what they did and listening to what they said. We made some mistakes, got lots of scrapes and bruises, but we absorbed some of their knowledge and developed our own connections to the mountains. As we progressed and gained more experience, we passed on our knowledge to those coming up behind us with less experience. And as we got older, we realized that we were learning as much from them as they were learning from us.

That's what made these two  hikes so good. On Little Hector, a couple people set new personal records for how high they'd climbed. I relearned some things that I'd taken for granted by watching them. At the Sparrowhawk Tarns, one hiker gained the confidence to commit to going on her first scramble. Others gained more confidence descending over rocky terrain. I was reminded of how fun it was to just take off my pack at the objective and explore. I even found half of a geode, scuffed and imperfect compared to polished specimens you find in the souvenir shops on Banff Avenue, but that's what the real mountains are all about. Scuffed and imperfect, they'll teach us a lot if we listen.
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