Scrambling With Children
Personally I’m rubbish at football, have no interest in gaming and I am hopeless with music. But I do love the outdoors and all that comes with it, from wild-camping, mountain biking, climbing and scrambling with my children!
Scrambling is so much fun: it makes climbing a mountain seem so effortless and easy when compared with walking. And children are natural climbers, so scrambling seems such a natural way to get your kids up a hill or mountain.
But, scrambling is potentially the most dangerous mountain pursuit: with scrambling comes risk. If you’re not sure about which route to choose for that day, or you’re not sure about how to find it or how to follow it you can end up on dangerously steep ground that you’re unable to escape from. So taking your children scrambling requires a huge degree of responsibility.
My lad enjoying the airy delights of Crib Goch in Snowdonia
What age can kids go scrambling?
With scrambling, as with any outdoor activity or adventure, age has nothing to do with it. Your kids are already old enough to go scrambling. (Likewise your grandparents are not too old either!) As to whether your kids or grandparents can do it and want to do it is another question altogether. In the outdoors we have three key variables to line up: people, the terrain and the weather. People are people, but depending on what experience they’ve had determines how best they can be accessing the outdoors safely. Similarly, if you choose the right route for your first scrambling adventure and go when the weather is good, these factors too become bigger considerations than simply a chronological number.
Mucking around on Sampson’s Rocks in the Lake District
My daughter loving her first scramble up Crowden Clough in the Peak District
Practice makes perfect
Ideally, before you take your kids scrambling for the first time in their lives they will have developed and honed their climbing skills on safer ground.
Hopefully your children’s climbing experience has evolved over the years, and those neural pathways are well and truly established. Adventure playgrounds, tree climbing at the park, time spent at the local climbing wall pulling on plastic, and simple clambering over real rocks outside will all have helped your children develop intuitive climbing skills from the outset (agility, balance, coordination etc). What you don’t want to be doing when you head to the mountains for the first time, is worrying about your child’s ability to actually climb the rock.
So as early as possible, let your children start exploring the vertical world around them. Encourage them to see trees and walls as an extension of their playgrounds and quickly their climbing brains, abilities and confidence will grow!
Time in recce is seldom wasted
When you first take your children scrambling don’t pioneer new routes with them! Make sure that the ground you’re covering is ground you know like the back of your hand. Know where the route goes, know the hazards (and how you will manage them), know the tricky bits and know where you can escape the route. Know where your children might need a bit of extra support, know where you will need to position yourself at these moments, know where they (or you) might climb out of sight! Essentially, know before go. Work completely in your comfort zone and this way you can completely turn all your attention to your climbing child.
If we thought through all the variables behind every decision we have to make in life we’d be in a state of paralysis by analysis. (And that’s why I never ask my youngest what he wants for breakfast!) For example if you need to do a five mile drive across town you won’t explore all the pro’s and cons of different route choices, instead you’ll likely just go the way you’ve always gone. This is because your brain makes decision making into a simpler process by making decisions based upon a bank of past knowledge/performance. Psychologists call this the application of heuristics.
And for most day to day decisions this is fine. But, when we’re in a mountain environment we need to be careful about being a bit more considered in our approach to what we do. Just because when we last did a route it was fine, might not mean it will be fine today. The ground may have changed significantly, the weather is likely to be different, the people you’re with will be different: we can’t make judgements based on familiarity alone. Human nature dictates that if we see other people doing something then it becomes legitimised as being ok or … safe. We also know that this is what sheep do and we must try to think independently. Sometimes we make a decision and then refuse to back down no matter that a disaster is looming in our faces. Or, the weather might be ace and such scarcity of opportunity means we decide to go out and take greater risks. (More here on the topic).
So, my advice to you here is, when they sound, hear the alarm bells. If you start having self doubts when scrambling with your kids, hear those doubts. Think about who’s agenda you’re trying to fulfil and try to remain focused and objective in your decision making. The mountains will always be there another day!
With this in mind let’s talk about helmets, kit and ropes …
Jocelyn sporting a helmet whilst scrambling on Tryfan in Snowdonia
Some routes dictate that you should wear a helmet regardless of the fact that you’re scrambling with children. Often this might be because there’s an increased chance of loose rock above you, or the likelihood of slipping over on wet rocks means there’s a fair chance you’ll lose your footing. With kids who are still perfecting their movement skills and whose heads are still not quite hardened likes yours or mine, helmets are even more worth considering. As ever, there’s no hard and fast rule, but whatever decision you make in this regard, do make it a considered decision.
Because children are always growing we tend not to invest in their kit as much or as richly as we might in our own! Consequently your children probably are not getting the same benefits from their clothing as you are from the technical delights you’ve got wearing. Also, children are far more susceptible to the cold than adults: they are more likely to plummet into hypothermia than we are. To that end be sure when scrambling in ghylls or near water to have spare clothes ready in a dry bag. Hot drinks and sugary snacks are also good energy sources for your kids to metabolise energy into heat following a good soaking!
Maybe it doesn’t need saying, but if you think you may need a rope, you’ve probably chosen the wrong route in the first place. If you’re a confident and experienced climber, multi-pitch climbing is easy compared to say doing a grade 3 scramble. On a climb, pretty much you’re always roped up: there’s no decision making needed in this respect. When you’re scrambling on tougher terrain, as well as having good technical rope and climbing skills, you need to be able to read the ground and know the abilities of the people you’re with. It’s an acquired art that comes with experience. With kids in tow the responsibility here is really ramped up. So if you are questioning if you need a rope for a route, either you need more experience/training, or the route is totally inappropriate. In essence, ropes are no substitute for experience.
Steer clear of routes that are committing
My kids are all confident at height and have a good background with climbing but, there are still routes I would steer clear of. Routes that offer your children a chance to escape should things not be working out so well are the best ones to head for. For their first scrambles, routes that have short-lived interest also work well.
My general recommendation is to steer clear of ridges in particular. Routes like Crib Goch for example are sustained and offer no escape once you’re up there. (That said, pictured at the top of this page is my 7yo lad on Crib Goch and he was lapping it up!) Jack’s Rake in the Lake District is an awesome route, but if you need to escape it with your kids then you have the recipe for a disaster. Tryfan’s North Ridge in Snowdonia is a favourite for many, but it’s so easy to wander onto challenging, exposed grade 2 territory, so again I suggest that this is a route best saved for another day.
Some routes I recommend considering as early forays are Crowden Clough in the Peak District, Stickle Ghyll and Striding Edge (both in the Lake District) and possibly the Y Gribin Ridge in Snowdonia.
Who will you go with?
If you’re planning on scrambling with children sometimes it’s a good idea to have another adult come along too. Often when leading people scrambling, having two leaders works really well. One of you can go ahead and offer advice from above about what handholds work best, or to make sure that your charges don’t charge off too quickly and into trouble up above! Also, having someone beneath a novice scrambler gives them confidence that there is someone there to catch them and that makes them more certain (and safe) on their feet. But, be careful who you choose to take along. My missus has an excellent head for heights, and while she’s a great one to have with the kids on a mountain adventure, she won’t ever watch them abseiling off a cliff or over a bridge. Essentially have someone along who won’t be a liability in their own right!
Only go in good weather
When you’re headed to steep ground the chances of coming a cropper are greatly increased if the weather isn’t just right. For me, wind and rain often rule out scrambling. Anything that means my hands are going to get wet touching rock usually means the day will be pigging miserable without me needing the additional worry for my life or those about me. My rule of thumb is that winds that exceed gusting speeds of 25mph will rule out a day scrambling where I am responsible for those around me. Look at the weather forecast and also consider the direction of wind as well as the speed and force. A wind gusting at 15mph across your line of climb can lift a small child off the mountain altogether.
Scrambling is fun
Scrambling is exciting, it’s airy, it’s exposed, it’s exhilarating, and most of all it’s simply a GREAT way to ascend a mountain. Also it is so important to allow our kids to have adventures, to experience a bit of fear and to allow them to grow through these experiences. It’s also important for us as parents to step outside our own comfort zones and to grow some of our own confidence and trust in our kids. There is no reason not to take your kids on a scrambling adventure: just make sure you go prepared for the day and you’ll all have a great day to remember!
If you have never tried scrambling, make plans to do so now! As well as being exciting, airy, exposed, exhilarating, and a GREAT way to ascend a mountain, it’s also extremely addictive.
Recommended Scrambling Guide Books
North Wales Scrambles: a guide to 50 of the best mountain scrambles in Snowdonia
Scrambles in Snowdonia: Snowdon, Glyders, Carneddau, Eifionydd and outlying areas (Cicerone Guide)
Scrambles in the Lake District – South (Cicerone Guide)
Scrambles in the Lake District – North (Cicerone Guide