Scramble On!


Story and Photos by Jay Dash


There I was, fingertips gripped on the quartzite rock, heart pumping as if it wanted to burst out of my chest, climbing what felt like a straight vertical wall of rock with no end in sight. I wondered, how did I get to this no fall zone and what had I gotten myself into? I then thought to myself, how does anyone take a selfie in such a precarious position? Scratch the selfie thought, I’ll leave that to someone with more advanced rock skills than me. Back to the task at hand, stop looking down and focus on the rock in front me. Find a good foothold so I can give my fingers a momentary break. These are my memories from the first time I scrambled the West Slabs of Mt. Olympus, the apex of all Wasatch scrambles.


The Central Wasatch Mountains are the home to world class skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking, trail running and a far lesser known activity termed “scrambling”.  Within the adventure community, scrambling is loosely defined as an activity somewhere in between hiking and rock climbing that does not involve the necessity for such gear as ropes, a harness or other protective devices. There are various levels of scrambling depending on the hike. The Sierra Club devised a rating system back in the 1950’s used to define the difficulty of walks, hikes and climbs using classes 1 through 5.  Alpine scrambles typically fall between Classes 3 and 4. I’m not here to define the rankings of the local scramble routes, I’ll leave that to the more experienced veterans of the Wasatch Mountains and their traverses.

While scrambling did not influence my decision to move close to the mountains back in 2009, that choice fell to snowboarding and skiing, it only made sense that we eventually found each other. I spent my 20’s running around the flat lands and small rolling hills of the east coast.  By the time I arrived in the Wasatch M, at the ripe age of 31, my hips had taken a beating from the impact of years of road running and multiple marathons. I attempted to get into trail running to supplement my off-season needs to be in the mountains. Trails turned out to be trickier to run on than flat roads, and that’s without factoring in the effects of the thin air at mountain elevation.  With limited experience rock climbing or mountain biking, I decided trail hiking would be the way I could spend time in the mountains when there wasn’t enough snow to slide down them.

After a few years of hiking and exploring the defined trails of the Wasatch, it was time to graduate to the more classic ridgeline hikes of the range. After all, I wanted to know what it felt like to stand on the peaks that surrounded me all winter long, while I played on and off the resorts within the Cottonwoods and beyond. Pfeifferhorn, South Ridge of Mt. Superior, Devil’s Castle, Lone Peak, American Fork Twins and Mt. Timpanogos were just a few on the initial hit list.  I discovered there were scrambles that linked multiple peaks with names such as The Beat Out, Cottonwood Ridgeline, Wildcat Ridgeline and the WURL (Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup) that made for even longer-term goals. I continued to do my research online, read the beta reports and bug my friends to find out who had done these hikes or who would be willing to go do them with me.

Next up, I invested in the proper gear.  Fortunately scrambling is not a sport that requires expensive equipment to enjoy.  A good pair of trail shoes, the proper clothes for layering, depending on the weather, and a good pack to hold water, food and other necessary gear will basically have one covered.  Did I mention a headlamp yet? I’m not sure there is a more important piece of equipment. The chances of using your headlamp may be slim, but literally can be a lifesaver when needed.  Hey cell phone guy, don’t tell me you’ll just use the flashlight on your phone. That’s all well and good until your phone battery dies, which quite often happens in the mountains. You can trust me on this or tempt fate, your choice.

The last critical step, you’re probably thinking to yourself, I know, it’s to prepare the summit burritos, but contrary to that thought, I would argue it’s checking the weather forecast.  These scrambling hikes are fun and exciting on their own. Adding the element of weather, specifically the chance of a thunderstorm to the equation, can turn an innocent trip in the mountains into a nonfiction adventure story you may or may not be proud to tell, and that’s only if it ends well.  We’ve all read the occasional story of someone disappearing or getting stranded in the mountains and needing a professional rescue. I recall the time two hikers hung out on the saddle of Pfeifferhorn just a few minutes too long admiring the lightning strikes across the valley, only to find themselves hiding for safety underneath large boulders in the Red Pine drainage for over an hour while it poured. During that hour multiple strikes of lightning hit close enough to tickle the hair on the back of their necks. Oh wait… that was my one of my own experiences.  Take it from me, Mother Nature does not care who you are or the amount of time you have had playing in the mountains. Your best chance of scrambling for a long time is to avoid the weather game and plan your adventures when the weather is good.

With the nitty gritty out of the way, let’s get back to focusing on the various scrambles peppered throughout the Central Wasatch.  My suggestion would be to start small and work your way up. By small, I mean to choose routes that are made up of less scrambling and more traditional hiking.  The Pfeifferhorn comes to mind, as it’s a Wasatch classic. It will test you mentally yet involves only a small section of scrambling located between the saddle and summit of the peak.  Regardless you’ll put in work as the route covers roughly 9 miles round trip and almost 4k vertical feet. If you pass this test it’s time to move on to the Devil’s Castle or my ultimate favorite the South Ridge of Mt. Superior.

If you have ever spent time at the ski resorts of Little Cottonwood Canyon, chances are you have locked eyes on the South Ridge. At first glance, the street level view of the ridge can be intimidating as the steep, sharp layers of quartzite rock look like they never end which they eventually do, 2600 vertical feet later.  The beta for this scramble will not provide you with a clear-cut route from bottom to top. Instead, you are left with somewhat of a “choose your own adventure route” with various lines intertwined within each other creating the ability to seek out the spicy sections or to circumvent some of those trickier spots along the ridge.  No matter which route you choose, eventually your nerves will be tested. The quality of rock located on the ridge is top notch and should help calm those nerves one hold at a time. If in doubt stay along the west side of the ridge and enjoy the down canyon views as you ascend towards the peak. Once you reach the peak, sign the registry, and maybe enjoy a burrito while savoring the experience, you can hike call it a day by descending the traditional trail route via Cardiff Pass.  The option to scramble on is also available with a quick jaunt to Superior’s neighboring peak of Monte Cristo.


This brings us back to the West Slabs of Mt. Olympus. A few years of hiking and scrambling around the Wasatch had brought me to this point. The adrenaline filled scramble route that pushes closer towards rock climbing than hiking was the last major scramble left on my list. So I calmly regained my composure and found that next foothold. I proceeded to get through the most difficult section and played catch up to my friends who had continued to set the route above me. That feeling of being “gripped” lasted for almost an hour as we ascended the approximately 1600-foot climb.  The scrambling lightened up as we approached the top of the slabs allowing me to relax a bit more and take in the surrounding views of the mountains and valley. I had lost sight of my friends but could sense the end was near. I made a few more moves before they came back into view. I could see them on top, celebrating the accomplishment, waiting for my arrival. As I topped out, my head entered a space where I could finally relax and appreciate the last hour of excitement offered up by one of coolest challenges in the Wasatch Mountains. My friends congratulated me but warned not to get too comfortable. We were only halfway done.

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