Hiking, scrambling and bouldering – your questions answered

Continuing our brand new monthly blog series, writer and hiker Phil Thomas shares the trade secrets of his passion: the Great Outdoors. He lives in North Wales and spends most of his spare time writing or walking in the hills with his girlfriend and their crazy Patterdale terriers.

Phil will be sharing his knowledge of the practical side of walking with real life tips than can help you enjoy the mountains more and maybe even save you if you get in a spot of bother. This week, it’s time to take your walks to the next level as he answers your questions on hiking, bouldering and scrambling.

On any weekend in the year – and throughout the summer weeks – Snowdonia is an adventure playground for thousands. People find ever-more inventive ways to enjoy the great outdoors and you’ll find challenges of all kinds just by exploring the terrain.

Hiking is probably the most popular overland activity but two other activities – scrambling and bouldering – bridge the gap between a good walk and full-on, rope-and-helmet rock climbing.

Scrambling routes are usually described in guidebooks with a grading, but what do the grades mean and what can you expect on the ground?

This blog describes the differences between hiking, scrambling and the UK grading system, bouldering, and where you can find the best spots to try them out in Snowdonia.

Hiking in Snowdonia

There is no official definition for when a walk becomes long enough to be described as a hike!

Some people believe a walk becomes a hike if a hill climb is involved (so that’s pretty much any walk in Snowdonia, then!), while others just say it’s a walk in the country, rather than an urban setting.

Whatever you think, one thing is obvious – Snowdonia is made for hiking. All you need is your own two feet, a good level of fitness, some walking poles (they can help take the strain off your knees), a map and a sense of adventure.

In terms of making a distinction between hiking and scrambling, things are a bit more straightforward.

You need to use your hands for scrambling. If you’re using your hands for hiking, you’re doing it wrong! If you’ve ever been on a hike and had to use your hands to haul yourself up over some rocks, technically you are scrambling too.

The best hikes in Snowdonia?

Any of the main routes up Snowdon (our favourites are from Rhyd Ddu and the Watkin Path), the Glyders or Y Garn via Devil’s Kitchen in Cwm Idwal, or for a little more off-the-beaten-path, Elidir Fawr, Carnedd y Filiast and Mynydd Perfedd horseshoe, circling Marchlyn Mawr reservoir.

If you can manage a linear route, striking out from Carnedd Filiast and following the high ridge that includes Mynydd Perfedd, Foel Goch, Y Garn, both Glyders and another Foel Goch before dropping down to Capel Curig. The Nantlle Ridge west of Snowdon is also pretty special!

Scrambling: what’s involved

Scrambling involves moving over rocks, using your hands and feet to navigate your way over steep terrain.

It typically means you are more exposed to steep drop-offs, so you need a steady nerve and a head for heights. In effect, scrambling is easy rock climbing. Start with the easiest rock terrain and you’ll likely find scrambling a different challenge to hiking, and a whole lot of fun.

What do the grades mean?

The key to deciding if scrambling is for you is to try the easier routes first, and for this you need to know the grading system.

Grade 1 scrambles are the easiest. You will need hands and feet and there will be some exposure, but generally ropes and helmet are not required. While hands are always required, exposure can vary.

The very popular north face of Tryfan is classed as a Grade 1 scramble, as you need to use your hands to reach the summit. There is exposure, but depending on the route you take you can limit that feeling of being on the edge!

The same cannot be said for Crib Goch, which features a high level of exposure however you tackle it. Yet the main path is a Grade 1 scramble – so understand that even within the same grade, scrambling routes can vary considerably.

One of the key skills to learn in scrambling is navigating your route, looking for hand- and foot-holds.

It’s important, for example, because Bristly Ridge’s Grade 1 scramble becomes a Grade 2 in parts (Bristly Ridge is a route up Glyder Fawr, scramblers often combine it with Tryfan’s north ridge).

Equally, alternative routes up Crib Goch vary from Grade 1 to Grade 3. So as your skill and experience improves, you can choose to find more difficult routes up so-called easy Grade 1 scrambles.

Grade 2 scrambles blur the lines between scrambling and rock climbing because it’s usually advisable to have protection.

This means less experienced scramblers (and those of a more nervous disposition!) would want a rope to protect them, and the person in front (the leader) must feel confident moving over exposed yet relatively easy climbing terrain.

Unlike Grade 1, we’d always recommend taking a scrambling course before attempting a Grade 2 scramble.

That advice goes for Grade 3, which some guidebooks confusingly refer to as moderately-graded climbing routes (the easiest level of true rock climbing).

Being roped up is to be expected on some sections and you will need confidence and of course, a head for heights.

One of the most popuar Grade 3 scrambling routes in Snowdonia is the Cneifion Arete above Cwm Idwal and Glyder Fach’s Dolmen Ridge.

You can book scrambling courses through The Rock Climbing Company and Snowdonia Adventures.

What is bouldering?

Bouldering involves climbing small cliffs or boulders, often no more than 4 or 5 metres in height, with no ropes or equipment.

As a result there is little issue with exposure. Instead, you need to use agility, strength and your brain to reach the top, and that’s where the adrenaline rush kicks in.

Bouldering can be done in indoor climbing centres, but there are plenty of spots throughout Llanberis Pass where you can try the sport.

The best introduction is through a course. Plas y Brenin offers climbing indoors and outdoors. Also take a look at  North Wales Rock Climbing and Beacon Climbing Centre, just a few miles from our hotel.

Whichever way you prefer to use your hands and feet, Snowdonia is an adventure playground just waiting to give you a really great day out.

Next time, we go back in time with part two of the ‘Reading the Historic Landscape’ mini-series. Phil will be explaining how stones – standing stones and stone circles – tell the story of our ancient land. 

Images courtesy: Scramblers in action! Copyright Peter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Crib Goch, By rockabilly_girl (Flickr: Crib Goch ridge) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons