Scree and Talus

Dear Jock,

I’ve heard locals talking about the scree slopes and talus fields on many of the nearby peaks. I want to climb Mt. Sneffels this summer. Will I encounter scree or talus? How should I negotiate these obstacles?

—San Juan Neophyte

Dear Neophyte,

You will encounter both scree and talus on the steep slopes of the San Juan Mountains. The difference between the two types of broken rock, or clast, is size. Scree is comprised of gravel-size chunks that get in your shoes. When disturbed, this rolling rock sounds like an angry rattlesnake. Conversely, talus is comprised of the tottering stacks of loose stones that tinkle like cowbells when they shift underfoot. Sadly, both scree and talus are common in the San Juans.

Techniques for scree and talus ascent are fairly instinctive. Verbs to describe the necessary actions include “scrambling,” “slogging,” “struggling” and “groveling.” Most of the time, it’s best to zig zag up the slope and keep your hands out of the fray. If the going gets steep and truly hideous, dropping to all fours and clawing uphill like a deranged wolverine may be the only option.

Descending talus efficiently is a Zen art learned only through practice, and it’s not easy. Use your geometric intuition to discern which stone is most stable underfoot. Scree, on the other hand, can be a joyous and quick medium to get down if you can find a section deep enough to plunge your heels into. If you make turns while descending scree, you are “screeing.”

When traveling on scree or talus, bring a pair of light leather gloves to protect your hands and a set of “puttees”—short gaiters for alpinists—to keep your boots from filling with detritus.

Good climbing, — Jock