Planning your first scrambles can feel overwhelming at first, but the process can become easier to digest if we apply a solid framework. And like most things, we learn and develop a little every time we venture out, eventually becoming as routine and important as making your lunch! Below is a framework to aid gathering relevant information and how we apply this to planning our day, helping us make decisions at the right times in key places.
Over the years, racking up my own experience, I believe that the 'Be Avalanche Aware' model works well in any adventure sport, I use and teach this for planning a day whether paddling or in the mountains, summer and winter. It is split into 3 areas:
Planning, Around 80% of the decisions will be made, before even leaving the house!
Where do we intend to visit? What type of rock will we be scrambling on? Is it exposed to the conditions? What is the forecast? (MWIS & Met office Mountain and you can use summit forecasts for most areas now also on the Met Office app) Who am I going with? What is our back up plan? What kit do we need to carry? Is there still a chance of snow on the route? What information can we get from the guidebook - approach, the route and descent. Sources of information:
The SMC guidebooks Highland Scrambles South/North are some of the most up to date guides available.
FATMAP is becoming increasingly popular and is a great resource giving an excellent 3D overview of the route and being able to drop pins for 'key places', download the route for offline use. It also has some great planning features which we'll look at in our example. This can all be done on the free version.
Journey, Around 15% of decisions are made on the journey to the scramble
Are the conditions as forecast? Is it wet underfoot? What is the wind speed, direction? Is everyone in the team moving well? Physically and mentally. Do we have all the equipment we require? Has anyone forgotten anything and do we need to alter our plans?
These are places that dictate what you will do when you get there. Places that need to be highlighted during the planning phase that we're expecting to encounter throughout our journey, we need as much information of what and how the group will manage this key place i.e. areas highlighted in the guidebook of escape routes or committing sections, areas of technical scrambling, abseiling. Thoughts about these areas could be;
Do we rope up? Do/can we bypass due to challenging conditions on the day, can we escape safely to easier ground? Are we committed at this key place? What is the back up plan?
If the above system is used it can make the process of planning the day more manageable and seem less daunting, breaking it down into manageable bite size chunks.
Risk assessing and managing
At the core of this process is assessing risk and planning accordingly, particularity during the journey and at key places we want to do this efficiently to keep us/group moving, keeping people warm if the conditions are less than favourable. A solid system works well is probability vs consequence.
Basically, what is the chance of it happening? probability 1 - 5 and if it did happen, how serious would it be, consequence 1 - 5.
1 being lowest risk/probability and 5 being the highest chance/consequence.
This can help to build a mental scale on whether the risk can be managed safely or if we need to adjust our approach to the risk i.e. lets rope up, the probability hasn't reduced but the consequence has (if we have the skills to deploy and manage the rope safely!) or if possible route change to an easier line, probability has went down and potentially so has the consequence.
Throughout the day there are three areas that will affect my decisions, people, terrain and the conditions. These are the dynamic factors that will affect my decisions, giving me a process to work through and dictate whether we complete the route, turn back at our key place before we become committed, scramble off the rope, move together or pitch a section. An example could be that we might scramble off the rope, if, people are moving well, the terrain is straight forward and the conditions are dry with light winds. But... on a different day on the same terrain, if people aren't moving well and it's wet, I will apply different tactic to managing people, being roped up on easier sections and being very prescriptive on the route for hand and foot placements while taking things slower to help when and where needed, always thinking about time management and that we might need to alter our plan, reminding ourselves of any contingency plans we had during our planning phase.
An important point to remember is that we are all human, and we will make mistakes, and that's OK. To be able to develop and become more efficient, and effectively safer while developing our skills and confidence in scrambling terrain is that we need to learn from our days in the mountains. What worked? What didn't? It's inevitable that you will have some moments that feel a little close to the wind, just make sure and accept and learn from them.
Plan, Do and Review is a great model to learn more about your decision making each time you head out, as the conditions, environment and people will always be slightly different, so there is always something new to learn.
So let's look at an example in action, applying the above framework to planning a day on the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe, first of all we want to check for some details of the scramble from the resources above, a good guidebook will provide most of the info you need, then I will check out some of the websites above for other details. Lets look at the bigger picture, where is it located in the glen? Where do we park to start and finish, is it the same carpark? From what we can see from the general picture in the guide book is it's located on the north side of the glen, somewhere between Meall Dearg and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, let's dig a little deeper on page 271.
If we split the day into three sections, approach, scramble and descent we can check what important information we need for each of these three areas during our day. Let's start with the information for the approach, in the guidebook we have a grid reference for parking and some notes on walking on a faint path to the summit of Am Bodach, during the ascent there are some options of contrived scrambling en route, read the description below:
So now we have the approach sorted now let's look at the scrambling part of the planning. The guidebook mentions "head west, easy at first, to a steep descent, probably the crux* of the route. If you're going to have second thoughts have them here"
*crux refers the the hardest technical/exposed section of the day
This has just become our first key place, we need to make a judgement call on the conditions and people to whether we commit or turn back. If we look at the map closely we can see that just past Am Bodach there is a black line (cliffs/buttress) and two contour lines missing between the index contour lines (darker brown) representing a drop in height that is too steep to show the relief on the map. In this case two lines are missing between the summit of 943 to the first index (thicker/darker) contour line and 2 lines the next index contour between 900 mtrs and 850 mtrs. And if we look at the FATMAP using the gradient feature this confirms that the same area is the steepest section just after Am Bodach.
The next part of the description tells us that there is some scrambling right then left past some blocks etc, we don't need to retain this at this point during the planning phase as we will struggle to retain this level of detail, but use it more as an aid to figure out where and when our key places are. After the scrambling the guidebook mentions about reaching the summit of Meall Dearg via an easy ridge, detailing that there is a possible escape route to the north, although a very long walk back to the car! Details of the committing section of the ridge follow between Meall Dearg and Stob Leith with some notes on key features along the journey. These aren't prescriptive enough to mark on the map, so knowing that these sections are to be encountered between the two peaks is the best we can do. During the journey phase we can start to 'tick' these sections off one by one to confirm route finding.
Assuming everything goes to plan on the day, we now need to look at the descent options. The guide book mentions that you can descend south, straight down from the summit Sgorr nam Fiannaidh on loose ground and steep grass. If a longer but easier on the legs and feet option sounds more appealing you can head to the Pap of Glencoe and follow the path down from here as described in the guide. Important information that is stated, "The path down beside the Clachaig Gully used in days of yore is now horrendously loose and well worth avoiding"
The blue lines are a very rough guide to the descent options from what has been described in the guide but if we look again at FATMAP we can see that there seems to be an established path to glen.
Remember as part of the planning to leave a route of where you intend to visit and what your plans are for the day, what you plan to do if conditions aren't favourable and what time you plan to be off the mountain. And remember to check in once off the mountain! Many people have been found by mountain rescue in the pub or the local chip shop...
As a whole this is a lot of effort on the planning side of a day in the mountains, but from experience many days that have turned into epics are usually due to poor planning and underestimating what is expected or our own skills. As mentioned earlier this process will become more straight forward and slicker with practise.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Happy scrambling and we hope to see you in the mountains!