OFF-PISTE IN THE MOUNTAINS: AN INTRODUCTION TO ALPINE SCRAMBLING
What is alpine scrambling exactly? In many ways, it’s hiking on expert-mode, existing in the liminal space between a pleasant afternoon amble in the woods and a hardcore alpine climbing sufferfest. Some avid scramblers define it as hiking that requires the use of hands, but not ropes. Elements of a good alpine scramble may include off-trail navigation of rocky ridgelines and basic climbing moves. If you’re familiar with the Yosemite Decimal System, alpine scrambling will generally be rated Class 3, although more challenging routes could include Class 4 or even easy Class 5 terrain. For the serious hiker with a good base level of fitness, alpine scrambles are a great way to get off the beaten path and push your personal limits. Knocking off a few rigorous scrambles is also a great way to dip your toe in the water if you're interested in mountaineering and alpine climbing but have limited experience, or if you’re an experienced climber looking for a fun and fast day-long outing in the backcountry.
One of the great things about alpine scrambling is that most routes pack a lot of adventure into a single day outing and allow you to access terrain that doesn’t get many visitors without spending a week toiling away under a 70lb pack.
Another upside of scrambling is the minimal need for gear. If you're an old hand at hiking, you've probably got most of what you need. Some things you may want to add to your kit are a helmet to protect from rock fall on steep ascents, and an ice axe if you'll be traversing snowy slopes. The terrain is explicitly not "climbing" terrain, so a rope and harness aren’t usually necessary, though they can provide peace of mind on exposed terrain if you know how to use them.
The other piece of the puzzle is navigation. Most, if not all, scrambles will be off-piste, so research your route before leaving home. Additionally, make sure you pack a topo map and compass, and learn how to use them before you head into the hills. Many routes will be well-worn or otherwise self-evident, but tracking your progress on a map will go a long way to making sure you come back safely.
If the thought of a challenging day-long adventure up scree-covered slopes and windy ridgelines has elevated your pulse, here’s a list of scrambles across North America to get you started.
Mt Yukness, Yoho NP: Find an extra slice of solitude in Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Mount Yukness towers over Lake O'Hara, a pristine alpine area with a quota system that guarantees a crowd-free experience. Reserve a campsite or day-use seat on the shuttle bus out to the lake. Once there, the scramble up to the northwest peak of Mt Yukness serves up views of the lake below and rugged summits all around. More info
SE Ridge, Mt Wilcox, Jasper NP: For a route that requires less advanced planning, scrambling up Mt Wilcox in Jasper National Park is an excellent option. After taking in the views along the internationally renowned Icefields Parkway, leave your car at the Icefields Centre or the Wilcox Campground and get ready for a half-day scramble with an approach through a wide-open mountain pass and a scree ascent to the summit. More info
West Slope, Mt Agassiz, Kings Canyon NP: A classic scramble in the Sierra Nevada mountains, this ascent up Mt Agassiz is a half day's drive away from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The West Slope avoids overly technical climbing so it's a great route to cut your teeth on and leads to stunning views from the peak. More info
Huntington Ravine Trail, Mt Washington, New Hampshire: If you're an East Coast hiker looking for something a little more challenging, Huntington Ravine is a good bet. Large boulders and a Class 3 traverse keep out the riff raff, but watch out if there’s been rainfall recently: Things can get slick. More info
Wildcat Ridge, Mt Olympus Wilderness, Utah: String together a series of named and unnamed peaks on the outskirts of Salt Lake City with this ridgeline scramble. Beginning on a busy street, you quickly find yourself in spectacular wilderness. More info