From Rambler to Scrambler

Group picking our way up Old Snowy.

by Sue Griffith
Photos by Sue Griffith

Do you love hiking but crave a little more challenge? Is the specter of ropes and harnesses keeping you from reaching summits? To get a taste of what climbing is all about, you might want to start with a scramble.

The term scrambling is highly subjective and means different things to different people. Experience, trail conditions, and fitness can make one person’s scramble another person’s climb. Though most agree it falls somewhere between hiking and climbing, the Yosemite Decimal System provides a more precise standard: Class 2 (simple scrambling, with possible occasional use of hands) and Class 3 (scrambling; hands are used for balance; a rope might be carried). Scrambling is often a hiker’s next step toward climbing and typically means leaving the maintained trails, navigating a steep slope, or slogging through talus and scree—or any combination of these. For me, it means getting my hands dirty, my knees bruised, and a huge sense of accomplishment.

Scrambling is often associated with non-technical summits but don’t be fooled—all un-roped climbing carries risk. Be smart and know your limits. Do not underestimate the effort required simply because a route is called a scramble, rather than a climb. Turn around if you feel unsafe and bear in mind that what goes up must come down—don’t put yourself in a position where the trip down is trickier than the scrambling up and might possibly exceed your abilities.

Listed below are three of my favorite scrambles. While they all offer non-technical summits, each is strenuous and none should be attempted without appropriate skills and conditioning. Need more inspiration? Check out Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon—Best Nontechnical Ascents.

North and Middle Sister from South Sister

South Sister

Camp at the trailhead and plan on an early start to tackle this six mile route up a 10,358 ft. stratovolcano. After following a pleasant forest trail to a high plateau, get ready for a steep climb as you scramble up loose cinder and scree to the crater rim. Once on top, the views of the Cascade Range and beyond will make you forget the pain of getting there.

Looking north from the top of Old Snowy.

Old Snowy Mountain

Nestled in the center of Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness, this 7,930 ft. extinct volcano is a popular summer hike, rewarding climbers with 360 degree views on a clear day. While primarily a long, 14 mile round-trip hike through beautiful scenery, the last mile or so leads you along a steep, exposed ridge with plenty of loose rock. Be cautious. At one point you will need your hands and solid footholds to continue up. This is a strenuous climb but determination, stamina, and a bit of scrambling will get you to the top for those spectacular views!

Kings Mountain Summit

Elk/Kings Loop

Plan to do this rugged coastal hike after a period of dry weather, as wet or muddy conditions can render it nearly impassible in spots. I like to hike the full ten-mile loop, but if pressed for time, you can eliminate more than three miles by using a shuttle car and skipping the relatively flat, but lovely, Wilson River Trail segment. Heading counterclockwise from the Kings Mountain trailhead, prepare to get dirty as you leave the Wilson River Trail and scramble up a steep, sometimes rocky, trail to the Elk Mountain summit. Sign the register and enjoy the views then continue down an even steeper trail—roped in one particularly tricky spot—before climbing again to the Kings Mountain summit and possibly better views. For an extra treat, time your outing to coincide with the spring or summer wildflowers.

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