Table Mountain scrambling – 14 January 2021

A discussion about Table Mountain hiking is not complete without the topic of scrambling. Failure to recognize this important component, and familiarize yourself with the extent of its meaning, could get you into trouble on the mountain.

Scrambling can be defined as the grey area between hiking and climbing. And there are many shades of grey. It involves the use of hands to negotiate steep terrain – and the meaning of steep here includes vertical. On certain Table Mountain hiking routes, the scrambling verges on easy climbing: tricky moves over big drops that necessitate the use of a rope. On other routes, it amounts to little more than awkward step-ups on steep, rocky terrain that forces you on all fours.

Scrambling is tricky to grade in terms of difficulty. Several things factor into the difficulty level of a particular scramble, and I will touch on these below. What’s important to appreciate are the variables, both in terms of the actual scramble and the abilities of the hiker. For anyone to be in a position to advise on the severity of scrambling on a particular route, he or she needs to know how the average hiker experience that scrambling – not how they experience it – and also the characteristics of the scrambling on that particular route (see below).

The difficulty of Table Mountain hiking routes is graded A through to C, A being the easiest and C the hardest. But it’s not that simple. Routes are graded according to their technicality only, not physicality. Technicality means the difficulty (trickiness / awkwardness) of the hardest move or sequence of moves required to negotiate the route’s scrambles. Therefore, an A route can be more difficult physically than a B route.  Route grading is prone to subjectivity and misinterpretation and should only be used to give you a rough idea of what to expect. Just because you were comfortable on one particular B route doesn’t mean you will be happy on others.

It’s the two sets of variables combined with the ambiguity of the rather antiquated grading system that often get hikers into trouble, both through their own ignorance or that of a friend’s, who made a route suggestion and gave a subjective assessment of the route’s difficulty. Just because Getrude thought the route was easy doesn’t mean that her boyfriend won’t find it terrifying. Or just because Harry experienced the route as an epic adventure doesn’t mean his friend or brother or colleague will experience it as anything other than traumatizing. What feels like hiking to one person, feels like climbing to another. And what’s exhilarating to some is terrifying to others.

Now let’s look at the 5 factors that influence the severity of a particular scramble.

  • Technicality: difficulty of the moves required to get up the scramble
  • Exposure: height above the ground, actual or perceived
  • Consistency: how many difficult moves in a row
  • Rock quality: loose / friable rock is scarier, making the scramble harder mentally
  • Rock surface: sandy and / or wet rock is harder to climb

The grading system only factors in #1. If you don’t make use of a Table Mountain guide, you find out the rest along the way – and it’s not always what you had hoped for. But there is even more that the grading system fails to take into account: the amount of scrambling on a particular route. Some routes involve only 10% scrambling, others 50%. There are other nuances that also play their part, like your height: some moves are harder if you’re short.

With the exception of one route (Platteklip Gorge), all Table Mountain hiking routes (about 65 in total!) involve scrambling to some extent. Scrambling often involves exposure to heights, too some degree of severity, but not always. For the adventurous hiker, routes involving considerable scrambling (generally referred to as scramble routes) not only provides adventure and challenge, but also a more intimate experience of the mountain. India Venster ranks as one of the best scramble routes on Table Mountain, involving intermediate scrambling on clean and sound rock, and tackling an imposing part of the mountain while offering stunning views. But there are many other scramble routes to choose from, some more remote, others involving more scrambling, trickier scrambling or more exposure to heights – or a combination of these.

For those averse to heights or who don’t like scrambling, routes like Skeleton Gorge and Kasteelspoort (12 Apostles) – both much nicer than Paltteklip Gorge, but more strenuous – involve minimal scrambling and exposure to heights. The nature of Table Mountain’s rugged terrain means that it’s practically impossible not to scramble at some point on the ascent. But since scrambling encompasses many levels of difficulty, it’s possible to keep it to a bare minimum.

Scrambling constitutes fun to one person and adversity to another. Making use of a Table Mountain guide ensures that you get the level of scrambling suited to your abilities and preferences. Even if you don’t know your ability and preference in this regard (not uncommon), an experienced mountain-guide can make a huge difference. Over the years, I’ve introduced thousands of hikers to the joys of scrambling.

© Riaan Vorster: