Perhaps it was the 4 a.m. wake-ups, the grueling uphill marches, or the mild altitude sickness that flashed into my head every time I hit 13,000 feet; I never caught the 14er bug. I understand why so many people seek to bag all 53 of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, also known as 14ers, but whenever I hiked with friends, I wanted something to break up the monotonous up and down rhythm. The answer came when I tried my first class three scramble on the Kelso Ridge.
What is scrambling?
As the name suggests, scrambling is a blend of hiking and climbing. On a typical scramble, you will need to use your hands to help you ascend a peak, but because the climbing consists mostly of simple maneuvers, and because of the lack of opportunities for rock climbing protection, most people go without a rope.
Scrambling is the type of climbing you likely excelled at as a kid, whether it was on trees, rocks or a jungle gym. The difference comes when you add the high exposure of a knife-edge, route finding difficulties, and standard Colorado mountaineering challenges, like rockfall or lightning, which can turn any alpine ascent on its head.
Class 3 versus Class 4
Scrambles are ranked by difficulty into class three and class four routes. If you’re new to scrambling, get plenty of practice on Class 3 terrain before you move to Class 4 routes, where climbing is often harder and mistakes have even higher consequences. Definitions for class three and four terrain can be muddy. All high peaks can be dangerous and falling whether from 30 feet or 2000 will have massive consequences.
14ers.com describes class three terrain as “Scrambling or un-roped climbing. You must use your hands most of the time to hold the terrain or find your route. This may be caused by a combination of steepness and extreme terrain (large rocks or steep snow).”
Class four terrain is more challenging. “Handholds and footholds are required for upward or downward progress. Rope is sometimes used on Class 4 routes because falls can be fatal. The terrain is often steep and dangerous.”
If you seek to climb all of Colorado’s fourteeners, learning to travel is class three and four terrain is essential; 19 of Colorado’s highest peaks have class three and four routes.
How do I prepare for my first scramble?
If the idea of exciting climbing and exposure makes your stomach tingle or your palms sweat, don’t worry, that’s natural. While exposed climbing is dangerous, and certainly not for everyone, the challenge is part of the fun. How should you prepare to tackle your first route?
One of the best ways to build comfort with exposure and see if you like the idea of Class 3 climbing is rock climbing. Going to your local climbing gym can help to learn basic techniques that will improve your movement outside. A good rule of thumb when scrambling is to always keep three points of contact on the rock, and to test hands and footholds before committing. Colorado’s high peaks are notorious for loose rock. Outdoor climbing will offer even more practice. Since climbing up is always easier than going down, you may want to practice down-climbing while on belay.
If you plan on tackling a Class 3 route on one of Colorado’s high peaks, it’s a good idea to get experience on easier routes first. Remember there are no easy fourteeners. Gain confidence on well trodden trails, get a taste for vertigo on difficult Class 2 trails, and before any climb, do your research.
As mentioned earlier, difficulty ratings are subjective. Routes are rated based on their hardest sections, so while one route may have several short sections of Class 3 climbing, another route may have miles of sustained scrambling.
Route finding is an essential skill when scrambling. Routes usually follow the path of least resistance, but that path isn’t always clear. Many hikers have died after taking wrong turns or looking for ways to bypass hard sections and getting “cliffed out.” Find a good guide book, read online trip reports, study and carry a map, GPS and route photos. Given the higher consequences on Class 3 routes, going with a partner is even more important. Route finding is easier when you have someone to talk through challenges with.
Finally, it’s always easier to go up then down. If you have to retrace your steps, you should be comfortable down-climbing each section you ascend. If you’re not comfortable from the get go, turn around. Start by finding routes that have easier paths down. For example, the Kelso Ridge is often climbed, but rarely descended since an easier trail exists.
If you want more advice, go with a guide or try taking a scrambling class. Organizations, like the Colorado Mountain Club, put on clinics to help people become more familiar with scrambling techniques and better at route finding.
To prepare yourself for your first scramble, it’s best to read multiple trip reports, route descriptions and look at maps. 14ers.com has a great tool for searching routes by difficulty. However, there are many routes that fall short of the 14,000 ft mark, and are therefore less popular. Buy a guidebook that includes Class 3 and 4 hikes and use it to find routes that appeal to you.
Best beginner scrambles Colorado
(Click map image to view the full Caltopo Map with all the beginner scrambles. Please not routes on map are rough-estimations, use them to find trip ideas, but consult guide books, other route maps and GPS information.)
Father Dyer Peak East Ridge
Father Dyer Peak sits in the Tenmile Range with close access from Denver, Colorado Springs or Breckenridge. After reaching Lower Spruce Lake, from the Spruce Creek Trailhead, hikers will gain the Northeast ridge and proceed to the summit. The ridge offers exposure, some Class 3 moves and opportunities to skirt some of the harder sections below the ridge.
The East Ridge of Pettingell Peak is a great scramble to get your feet wet. The trail for this high 13er is right off I-70, at the Herman Gulch Trailhead. The route follows the trail to Herman Lake, at which point scramblers leave the standard route to gain the ridge to the Northeast. Once on the ridge, hikers will have a fun time ascending. Some of the moves offer easier alternatives to the sides. Pettingell Peak is great since it has an easier descent option on the East face returning to Herman Lake.
Kit Carson Peak
Due to its length, this route may work best as an overnight trip. From Crestone, hikers will navigate towards Willow Lake, then climb up the North-East Face of Challenger Point, a 14er in its own right. From the Challenger Peak, pay close attention to navigation as the route curly-kews to the summit.
Mt. Sneffels Southwest Gully
The main gully route on Sneffels offers the easiest path to the top. Watch out for loose rocks other climbers may kick down. Be sure to bring a helmet on this one! At the top, ascend through a series of notches to the summit. Make sure to descend the proper gully.
Kelso Ridge offers a more challenging alternative to top of Torreys Peak. From the Grays and Torreys trailhead, climbers ascend the standard route, then branch off to the West after passing Kelso Mountain. Kelso Ridge can be crowded. Give other climbers space, and watch for rockfall. The end of the scramble offers a short knife-edge that is best crossed using the classic butt-scootch technique to saddle the ridge.
What do I need to get started?
Rockfall is a more serious concern when traveling below other climbers or in steep, loose gullies. A light-weight climbing helmet can help protect against small rocks other climbers may kick down. Because rockfall is so dangerous, it’s essential to test holds and avoid kicking dislodging rocks onto climbers below. If you do happen to send a rock of any size flying, turn around immediately and shout “Rock!” to alert other parties.
Although trekking poles can help on any trail, they are even more handy on loose rock. A pair of ski poles will do the trick, but it can be nice to collapse them, and throw them in your pack when you start to use your hands. Check out this budget gear guide to see our recommendation for a pair.
Shoes are a personal thing. Some people prefer stiffer hiking boots, while others prefer more flexible, light-weight trail runners that are great for climbing rock slabs. If you’re looking for a scrambling specific shoe, approach shoes, which often have the same rubber soles that come on climbing slippers, make a good choice. While you should definitely gain experience scrambling in dry conditions first, if there’s any chance of lingering snow, make sure to bring proper traction equipment.
Colorado Peak Climbing Essentials
Just because you may be moving onto harder terrain, doesn’t mean you can throw peak climbing basics out the window. It’s vital to bring proper layers, food and water, a first aid kit and sunscreen.
Guide Book Suggestions
- Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs by Gerry Roach
- Colorado Scrambles: Climbs off the Beaten Path by Dave Cooper
- Telluride Trails: Hiking Passes, Loops, and Summits of Southwest Colorado by Don Scarmuzzi
- A Hiker’s Guide to Scrambling Safely by Tom Morin