Scrambling: move expertly on steep trails

Mountain runners Robyn Owen and Pierre Jordaan share their tips for safe and confident scrambling.

The fuzzy line between trail running and mountain climbing that gets you to the summit, scrambling requires its own skillset. Mountain guide Robyn Owen and endurance runner Pierre Jordaan prepare you for future scrambling missions.

Scrambling Robyn Owen TRAIL 34
Robyn Owen sussing out a spicier variation to one of the scramble pitches on the Suidfront route up the Jonkershoek Twins (Pieke) on a golden evening in 2019. photo Mike Owen

Robyn’s Top Scrambling Tips

1. Don’t be a hero

The stereotypical trail runner tends to be slightly brazen when it comes to risk and somewhat lacking in respect for the mountains. I’ve been there and have danced a little close to the edge before. There is no room for ego when you’re playing in arenas with real risk.

You should be aware of the potential consequences, and make a conscious decision to accept the risks because you believe, that here and now, the personal rewards make it worth it.

For me the rewards are great; a long scrambling route in big mountains is my favourite way to spend a day.

2. Check the weather forecast

You want to know what to expect when you head out. Cold, rainy, misty or windy conditions can add exponentially to your challenge.,, and are the sites we use most frequently.

Pay close attention to elevation when looking at the forecasts. It can be a still hot day in the valley with gale force winds and sub-zero temperatures high on the mountain ridges.

Modern weather forecast models are generally very good within 24 hours. However, the mountain weather rule remains: expect the unexpected.

3. Learn to read and decipher route descriptions

It’s not as easy as you think at first, and in the initial excitement of setting of up a route it is very easy to “make it fit” until it doesn’t.

The process goes: Read, look at the picture, look at the mountain, think, read it again, look harder, think again, find some unmistakable features to match up, check it again, and so on. It does get easier with practice.

Scambling Nothemba Mfolozi by Liz Brash TRAIL 34

4. Sharpen your eye for cairns

Cairns are human-built piles of stones. On scrambling routes there generally isn’t a trail, but key points are often marked with cairns. A cairn means a human has been here before. It doesn’t necessarily mean that human was doing what you are wanting to do and that you’re in the right place, but they’re often a big help.

Don’t build cairns indiscriminately, especially not if you’re not 100% sure that you’re actually on a correct route. Actually, unless you’ve done the route at least five times before rather don’t build cairns at all. It makes things much more confusing for those coming after you.

5. Keep your senses (and wits) about you

Look around, appreciate where you are and what you are doing. Feel the joy in the interesting movements that the route demands of your body. Enjoy the heightened sense of awareness that being in such a setting puts you in.

Don’t get complacent or blaze when you get tired. Make good decisions.

6. What goes up doesn’t necessarily go back down

Climbing down is always harder than climbing up. When you’re exploring the safety rule is: don’t climb up anything you wouldn’t be comfortable climbing back down. Unless you have a safety rope and know how to use it, or you are confident that you will find an alternative easier route down, rather err on the safe side.

7. Tread lightly

Robyn owen shot by andre gie TRAIL 22
photo Andre Gie

When scrambling you are generally leaving the main trails and moving into more pristine and less disturbed parts of your parks or wilderness areas. With this privilege comes a higher level of responsibility to be mindful of and minimise your impacts on the potentially sensitive environment.

Stay on main trails as far as possible on the approach, don’t break plants, don’t feed animals, don’t mark rock or trees with paint or scratches.

Robyn Owen was the first woman to run a sub-five hour Retto at Otter African Trail Run. Robyn was on the cover of TRAIL 22. She is a mountain guide, with her husband Mike, at

Pierre’s Three Essential Types of Awareness

Scrambling is fun! But if you are not comfortable with your ability to handle the terrain you’re on, you will likely not be enjoying it.

At some point you will probably find yourself faced with a section of rock that needs to be negotiated using more than just your feet. This is where scrambling happens naturally, as you engage all four limbs to successfully move up or around the obstacle.

Scrambling Pierre Jordaan TRAIL 34
Pierre Jordaan missioning up a difficult scramble on some amazing Magaliesberg rock. photo Nicolette Griffioen

Whether it is climbing a Drakensberg pass, needing to scramble up a steep gully or waterfall, or traversing Kloof Corner up towards Table Mountain, being confident and efficient at scrambling could one day be the difference between tagging your peak or not!

Scrambling is simply a fun way to move. Its meaning to you will evolve with your skills and experience, and eventually it will give you the freedom to venture up mountain passes, gorges and ridgelines that you would never previously have dreamed of exploring.

To me, scrambling is just like hiking and climbing – a form of movement in the mountains which is much more about the journey to the summit than the summit alone.

In order to scramble safely, there is one key factor I’d like to focus on: awareness. Although there are several different types of awareness, the following three can be best applied in the world of scrambling.

1. Situational Awareness

Situational awareness goes a long way while moving in the mountains, especially when scrambling over very technical terrain. Always knowing where you have come from, where you currently are and where you are going is extremely important.

It might sound obvious but suddenly finding yourself halfway through a steep, technical section of rock and unable to continue upwards, and also unable to down climb, is, well… going to leave you scrambling!

2. Self Awareness

Be mindful of your movements. Move slowly. Be conscious in your actions.

Ultimately, you will be able to move more efficiently over the technical terrain if you are cautious and self-aware. You should also be cognisant of your own physical and mental limitations, and only push them if you have a feasible escape route planned.

If at any point you are no longer having fun, you are probably scrambling up, over, or through overly dangerous terrain.

Basic rock climbing skills are obviously a major benefit in scrambling too. They teach you to shift your body weight in the vertical plane, as well as use your hands in coordination with your feet. Knowing a few different holds (hand positions on variously shaped rock) is another valuable skill.

Rock climbing also teaches you to deal with exposure (that feeling of having no protection in a potentially harmful situation) and being accustomed to this will make you feel much more at ease with scrambling on steep or rough terrain.

Scrambling safety Rachel Manyathi by Thania Dout TRAIL 34

3. Environmental Awareness

Mountains are an ever-changing environment where knowledge, experience and understanding of the environment could be life saving. Short of this, simple environmental awareness can go a very long way.

For example, a normally easy scramble in dry conditions could rapidly become impassable with rainfall. Paying attention to the weather is the most basic but probably one of the most important survival tools in any mentally and physically challenging outdoor adventure.

Testing hand and foot holds before committing your full weight to them is another good scrambling habit. Tap the rock to hear and feel if it is solid, especially while scrambling in the Drakensberg where the basalt is not as solid as, say, the Magaliesberg quartzite.

If you are scrambling with others, tread quietly and lightly so as not to dislodge a rock onto a partner below. And the same applies when you are following.

Be aware, and wary, of the people above you and possible dangers that might come tumbling your way.

Also be conscious of the line you choose. I like to think of it as choosing the path of least resistance. Try to study difficult sections of terrain from a distance so that you’re better able to maintain your situational awareness throughout the scramble.

Pierre Jordaan scramblingAs your experience grows, so will your ability to quickly assess and decide on the best path to navigate the section of rock or scree ahead of you.

Pierre Jordaan has multiple mountain running podiums, including Ultra-Trail Drakensberg 160km, The Beast 50km, and Mnweni Marathon 38km. He is a coach and mountain guide at Mountain Abandon.

This article was originally published in TRAIL issue 34.

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