Imagine what it would feel like to hike up or down a slope covered in marbles. That is what it feels like to hike along scree.
Scree refers to loose pebbles on a slope. Talus, a related term, is a slope with bigger rocks and boulders. In common use, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, though many distinguish the two: scree is the loose stuff on a slope whereas talus is the slope itself. Most outdoors enthusiasts would agree that scree is loose, smaller rocks and pebbles that we do not like to be on (like walking on marbles). Talus is a slope with bigger rocks that may be stacked on each other in a way that hiking on them is stable, although their uneven surfaces increase the risk of a sprained ankle if you don’t have high-ankle boots or aren’t paying attention to your footing.
The cause of scree and talus is periodic rockfall from adjacent cliff faces. Water gets in cracks, freezes, expands and breaks down the rock, which falls in smaller pieces that create a slope or gully full of rock pieces. Some of these rockfalls knock other rocks below loose, which can cause a full-scale rock slide that can be quite destructive – and loud.
Scree is common in loose gullies. Unfortunately, gullies are often the best way to get up to a saddle between two higher points or to a ridge. At least gullies have sides that might give you handholds – I will always look for that when ascending or descending a gully.
Talus fields can also be layers of rock right on the surface of a slope that can be loose, stable, or a mix. Scree and talus are common hiking trail conditions, so how do you handle these obstacles?
If you know your trail will include patches of scree or talus, leave the sandals at home for sure—this is the time to wear sturdy footwear with solid heel and toe protection, and good ankle support. If you find yourself getting pebbles or sand down your shoes or boots, next time wear gaiters.
Hiking on Scree
There are many techniques to navigate through scree. When hiking uphill, look for anything that might be solid, such as a patch of grass or a bigger rock that looks solid—but test it before putting your full weight on it. Try digging your toes in when going uphill. I have found sidestepping up also helps because I get more of the boot (the whole side edge) into the mountain.
When going downhill, you can kick your heels in, but be prepared for some slippage. That can still work as long as you keep your balance right over your boots—just like keeping your weight over the center of your skis when downhill skiing.
Finding solid objects like trees and large rocks as handholds helps immensely. In some talus fields you will see a faint path of flattened rock—that is almost always more stable from others having been there before you.
If you see switchbacks, take them—not only will it be safer, you will also avoid destroying parts of the mountain from man-made disturbance.
I am a firm believer in hiking poles that help in all kinds of conditions, but especially on scree where they can help you maintain your balance and take some pressure off your footfalls. If you are in a gully, you can have one hand on the sidewall and the other working a hiking pole. In that case, stow the other pole on your pack.
If you have really good balance, you can try “screeing,” which is like skating or skiing down the rocky slope. I have done this a few times and I have seen others do it, but I don’t recommend it. You can be skating downhill and hit a rock that doesn’t move, and the next thing you know you are pitching forward, tumbling headfirst down the slope. The mass of your body hitting the loose rocks as you fall can cause a rockslide with you in it. I can recall vividly a young, very fit girl skating down the scree in the gully on Mt. Sneffels. She passed me in very smooth actions and then hit a fixed rock and fell forward right on her face. The rocks are sharp and unforgiving—she made a mess of a very pretty face.
A final note: when navigating scree or talus, make sure you are not in the fall line with your buddies. The uppermost hiker can easily kick rocks loose which can fall and hit those hiking below. If you kick a rock loose, shout “ROCK” loudly as a warning to those below you.