Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

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AAdamsPDX
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Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by AAdamsPDX » October 1st, 2015, 10:34 pm

After our adventures on and around the JMT this summer, I've been reading Steve Roper's book Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country. New bucket list hike, big time!

However, I'm realistic enough to know that we need a lot more practice with off-trail travel (especially scrambling in rough areas) before we're ready for an adventure like that one.

I know a lot of you do considerable off-trail travel. Here are a few questions: how did you learn to do this safely? Do you have any favorite books or websites that taught you a lot? Or did you just learn by doing?

What tips would you have for someone wanting to build their skills with class 2 and 3 scrambling? Do you have some favorite local routes that are both off trail and that entail some scrambling, and that would present a fairly benign intro to someone with long-term hiking experience but not a lot of experience off-trail?

Clearly I understand there are risks to any adventure - by "fairly benign" I mean something that is on the lower-risk end of the spectrum, given some common sense and basic outdoor skills like reading topo maps and using a compass! Also, I realize I've posed a lot of questions here. Chime in on anything that interests you most, and thanks in advance for any guidance!
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by Peder » October 1st, 2015, 10:58 pm

Obviously many things can be learned from books, whilst other skills, such as finding the easiest route through terrain, is only acquired through practical experience.

I learned my skills through mountaineering and obviously participating in a mountaineering class would give a lot of skills and probably also lighten your wallet! Unless you wish to climb Mt Hood and the like, I would suggest simply doing some of the "classic" off-trail hikes: Munra Point, Ruckel Ridge, Rock of Ages, etc. That should quickly give you some route finding skills and confidence away from Forest Service maintained trails. My only advice: Never climb anything you are not certain you can descend.

Most years (not this one :( ) I have an invite for the Whittier traverse, joining such a hike would obviously be an easy way to get a few pointers.
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by jessbee » October 2nd, 2015, 6:14 am

Agreed with the above poster. Also, get yourself out and about with people who do have the experience and learn from them. When I was getting started back in New Hampshire, there was a really active hiker message board where people would organize trips all the time. I got connected to some older, wiser folks and accompanied them on many adventures. That experience was way more meaningful than anything I picked up from a book.

Most of us love sharing what we know with people who are eager to learn so feel free to reach out to others and get yourself invited on stuff you want to do.

I found the Wallowas to be great for off trail scrambling because the visibility is so great, you're not deep in a forest where you can't see anything.

And once you learn how to rock climb, class 2 and 3 is a piece of cake ;)
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by Koda » October 2nd, 2015, 7:03 am

I learned by just doing. I do think basic bouldering, class 3 scrambling skills and map and compass navigation are essential. In my experience its not common, but you will eventually find your bearing blocked by a terrain feature such as a small cliff band that does not show up on the topo maps. The better you get at map reading the less that happens but its always inevitable.

years ago I did a few trips with a friend that was an avid rock climber over at Smith Rock and did some basic easy climbing and bouldering. I’m not really into it but some fundamentals stayed with me and occasionally have served me well off trail in more precarious places. Occasionally Ive gone to the bouldering gyms for a session to keep it up but haven’t for a while.

My biggest advice though is to learn old school map and compass navigation instead of using a gps. Bring the gps, track your adventure if you want but leave it in your pack, force yourself to learn compass navigation. The biggest skill in off trail navigation is routefinding and using the gps does not give you the intimate knowledge of reading the terrain compared to the map.
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by VanMarmot » October 2nd, 2015, 8:31 am

To add to what Peder and Koda said, I'd suggest:

(1) If you don't find Munra Point particularly challenging then something like the Mazamas basic mountaineering course might not appeal. But, if not, then it's a good way to learn new skills, gain some confidence, and meet new people. A little spendy but nothing like one of courses offered by one of the guide services.

(2) Learning basic map & compass and trail reading rather than just trying to blindly follow the gps, especially XC, is IMHO an essential skill. In 3 hikes to a certain local small wilderness area, we've run into 5 people, only one of whom had a map, all of whom were on a trail, and all of whom were basically lost. REI (and others?) offer M&C courses from time to time and something like that would be a good investment.

Otherwise give yourself time to build toward more challenging XC/scarmbling adventures and ALWAYS be prepared to turn back if the going gets wierder than your current comfort level. There's no dishonor in a thoughtful retreat and another try at a better time.
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by adamschneider » October 2nd, 2015, 9:00 am

If you want a place to practice scrambling, I recommend The Labyrinth, just east of Coyote Wall. (But go in the winter when the poison-oak is less rampant.)

Oh, and also Horsethief Butte, northeast of The Dalles on the Washington side. It's a scrambler's paradise, and there's not too much poison-oak there.


As for navigation, I'll admit that I DO rely pretty heavily on my GPS unit (I almost never bring paper maps), but I also always have my smartphone, which works as a backup GPS unit. And before I go out into unfamiliar terrain, I load the relevant topo maps onto both my phone and my GPS. The chances of both of those failing is pretty much nil.

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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by AAdamsPDX » October 2nd, 2015, 9:27 am

WOW! You guys are speedy. Thanks for all the responses so far. (And I'm looking forward to more.) :D
adamschneider wrote:If you want a place to practice scrambling, I recommend The Labyrinth, just east of Coyote Wall. ... Oh, and also Horsethief Butte, northeast of The Dalles on the Washington side.
Thanks for the suggestions!
VanMarmot wrote:... something like the Mazamas basic mountaineering course ...
How long have I lived in Oregon and I didn't think of the Mazamas?! Great suggestion. Basic is fine. Even if they review things I/we already know: I've never taken a class (in anything), no matter how basic, where I didn't pick up some new pearl of wisdom.
VanMarmot wrote:Learning basic map & compass and trail reading rather than just trying to blindly follow the gps, especially XC, is IMHO an essential skill. In 3 hikes to a certain local small wilderness area, we've run into 5 people, only one of whom had a map, all of whom were on a trail, and all of whom were basically lost. REI (and others?) offer M&C courses from time to time and something like that would be a good investment.
I'm always amazed (first) by people who can get lost on trail and (second) by people who don't carry map/compass. I definitely need to brush up my compass skills, though: almost always, when I'm on-trail I can find my exact location on a map just by looking at the topo, so I rarely need to even use the compass. But the trail itself is giving me lots of clues at that point - twists, turns, and major landmarks that the trail has passed recently. Too easy.
Koda wrote:years ago I did a few trips with a friend that was an avid rock climber over at Smith Rock and did some basic easy climbing and bouldering. I’m not really into it but some fundamentals stayed with me and occasionally have served me well off trail in more precarious places. Occasionally Ive gone to the bouldering gyms for a session to keep it up but haven’t for a while.
This confirms one of the things I was considering: taking a basic climbing class, just to make sure we understand the basics.
Koda wrote:The biggest skill in off trail navigation is routefinding and using the gps does not give you the intimate knowledge of reading the terrain compared to the map.
I don't even own a GPS, except the simple apps on my phone that have worked well so far (just for double-checking position, occasionally)! One of the things I love about hiking and backpacking is that there is always some skill I can get better at, and I'm looking forward to more map/compass work!
jessbee wrote:... get yourself out and about with people who do have the experience and learn from them. ... Most of us love sharing what we know with people who are eager to learn so feel free to reach out to others and get yourself invited on stuff you want to do.
One of the things I love about this forum! Everyone loves sharing info. And I look forward to some future hikes with you all.
Peder wrote:Obviously many things can be learned from books, whilst other skills, such as finding the easiest route through terrain, is only acquired through practical experience. ... I would suggest simply doing some of the "classic" off-trail hikes: Munra Point, Ruckel Ridge, Rock of Ages, etc. ... My only advice: Never climb anything you are not certain you can descend. Most years (not this one :( ) I have an invite for the Whittier traverse, joining such a hike would obviously be an easy way to get a few pointers.
Thanks for the specific suggestions! I would love to tag along on a Whittier traverse: maybe next year?!
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by Lurch » October 2nd, 2015, 9:51 am

I'd pitch in along the same lines as all the others.

Relearn how to walk - Cross country travel is far different from leisurely trail hiking, it takes awhile for people to get their "sea" legs.. Forest legs? You need to be comfortable enough walking with the gear you'll be carrying to be able to look where you're *going*, not just staring at your feet to figure out how to take your next step.

Navigation - This is on ALL sorts of levels, and varying degrees of importance or technical requirements. GPS is handy, but being able to use an actual map is important. A decent compass and the knowledge of how to use it, both on the map and in the real world. Understanding of coordinate systems, you're pace/dead reckoning, and of course terrain association and route finding skills.

Survival - I would also strongly recommend you have multiple contingency plans. Bugout plans for if you get misplaced or the route is slower than expected. Plans for injuries, unexpected overnights, and clear documentation of those plans and timelines left with someone you trust, just in case. If you're seriously concerned about a specific route it wouldn't be a bad idea to take a nice selfie at the trailhead and kick it to a loved one. You'd be surprised how much information SAR teams can gain from that, equipment you're packing, clothing, trailhead info etc.

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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by AAdamsPDX » October 2nd, 2015, 9:41 pm

Lurch wrote:Relearn how to walk - Cross country travel is far different from leisurely trail hiking, it takes awhile for people to get their "sea" legs.. Forest legs? ....

Navigation ...

Survival ... multiple contingency plans... Bugout plans for if you get misplaced or the route is slower than expected. Plans for injuries, unexpected overnights, and clear documentation of those plans and timelines left with someone you trust, just in case. If you're seriously concerned about a specific route it wouldn't be a bad idea to take a nice selfie at the trailhead and kick it to a loved one. You'd be surprised how much information SAR teams can gain from that, equipment you're packing, clothing, trailhead info etc.
Again, great advice. Based on our experience in the Sierras, even on-trail, I can start to imagine what you mean about relearning how to walk. The trails there were more demanding than we are used to (especially when we weren't on the PCT/JMT) and it took us a while to find our rhythm. I can see this being magnified to the nth degree when off-trail.

Navigation: I hear everyone, loud and clear! :D

Survival: Even when we're on-trail I'm pretty obsessive about contingency plans. As I'm moderately OCD, it's just how I think. Still, when we bugged out because of smoke, we realized we didn't have paper maps for all of the "escape" routes, and relied on a digital map for the last leg of our hike out. As it was on-trail and a fairly clear-cut straight trail at that, we knew it was pretty low-risk. But it was a lesson learned and not a situation I plan to find myself in again! (Maybe if we'd had two different digital devices, as adamschneider says he does, I would have felt more comfortable. At least we had backup battery chargers!)

The tip about sending a pic of yourself at the trailhead is a great one. Thanks for the point of view of a SAR team!
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Re: Safe Scrambling and Building Off-Trail Confidence?

Post by Charley » October 3rd, 2015, 4:37 pm

Great question and great responses. This is a topic close to my heart, because most of my favorite "climbing" trips have been off trail scrambles in the Cascades with a friend or two: no ropes, no tools, just sturdy boots and good maps. I feel like these kinds of experiences are the heart of mountaineering.

I'll add some thoughts:

1. Go to a rock gym and get a belay card. The skills are fun to learn and belayed climbing is typically easier on your joints than bouldering (though bouldering is DYNAMITE fun if you have the wrists and fingers for it). Being able to balance comfortable on your toes while maneuvering on slabs is the numero uno climbing skill that transfers to scrambling.

2. Strengthen your ankles: practice balance on uneven or wobbly surfaces at home. (Try standing on one foot with your arms up in the air and your eyes closed, and you will engage the muscles that stabilize your ankle, thus building strength and balance).

3. I recommend the Bond book, though it's relatively light on scrambles within a day-trip distance of Portland (because there aren't many):
http://www.amazon.com/75-Scrambles-In-O ... 0898865506

The Goldman book is good for ideas, too, though I recommend seeking out more beta than she supplies (her directions are possibly intentionally vague, which is how some people like it):
http://www.amazon.com/75-Scrambles-Wash ... 0898867614

Finally, don't let the climbing focus of this book deter you: Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide is chock full of mountains that are class II and III (Volume I has the mountains nearest Portland):
http://www.amazon.com/Cascade-Alpine-Gu ... 0898865778

4. Here are some trips that are nearby that might interest you (Some of these are easy and some are hard or exposed; I trust you can figure out an appropriate progression from easier to harder):

Silver Star Area:
Sturgeon Rock and Pyramid Rock are the biggest of several scramble-able rocks in the area

Goat Rocks Wilderness
Old Snowy Mountain
Ives Peak
Gilbert Peak

Southern Washington
Lemei, Bird, Sawtooth Traverse
Mt St Helens
Mt Adams via south ridge
Little Mt Adams via NW Ridge

Oregon Cascades
Tomlike Mountain (Easy scramble, long hike from Columbia)
Munra Point
Pinnacle Ridge Pinnacle and Barrett Spur (just did this one yesterday and it's fun, though not very long)
Mt Yoran
Mt Bailey
Diamond Peak
Cowhorn via west ridge
Middle Sister via southeast ridge

Mt Rainier National Park has a TON of mountains that are class II and III. Most are about 3 hours driving away: doable for avery quick overnight trip, or, if your drive fast, a day trip. PM me if you're interested in some info.

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