Strategy to Ascend a Steep Scree Slope

Steep scree slopes are sometimes unavoidable when you are on a summit tour or just on a hiking or backpacking tour with cliffs around. Some care is needed when you pass such sections on your trail.

Steep scree slopes are difficult and potentially also dangerous to navigate because of the following reasons:

  • Such a ground is not compacted, and it is unstable and prone to avalanches.
  • Because of such a ground, you can lose balance and get injured.
  • There may be falling rocks above you, this is how the scree is created in the first place.

This is why it is best to avoid scree sections that are on your route. But if you have to pass it, keep reading.

Strategy to ascend steep scree slope. From my tour to Tofana Di Roses.
From my tour to Tofana Di Roses.

So what is scree?

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is about “an accumulation of loose stones or rocky debris lying on a slope or at the base of a hill or cliff”.

The top picture above shows you one example of those ‘lying on the slope’, this is a section from Tofana Di Roses in Italy which I climbed recently.

Those ‘at the base of a cliff’ are in the picture below. This is also from one of my tours in the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. As you see, there is accumulation of broken rock everywhere under the cliffs. So this is scree.

Scree under the cliffs of Tofane Group, Dolomites.
Scree under the cliffs of Tofane Group, Dolomites.

If you are on a summit tour in such an environment, your access route will likely go at least partly over such a terrain. This is indeed a difficult walking surface, everything is unstable and it moves under your feet due to your body weight. It consumes lots of energy and progress can be slow.

Below is one more example, again from the Dolomites, this is from my tour to Piz La Varella, and the photo shows the nearby Piz Conturines. The summit rock is surrounded with large scree slopes.

Conturines summit with scree slopes below.
Conturines summit with scree slopes below.

These debris are created because of continuous action of Nature. This includes repeated heating and freezing, and continuous rain and wind erosion.

Are scree areas dangerous?

There may be some danger when you are on scree areas, every particular case is different. But here are some possible dangers that are quite general and you can expected them all the time.

Danger of falling rocks

As mentioned above, a scree is just an accumulation of rocks that fell from the cliffs above. Bear this in mind and keep an eye on the area above you.

I have seen falling rocks speeding down this steep slope passage when I was on my tour to Piz Umbrail in Swiss/Italian Alps. This is why it is better not to stay in such places too long. So keep moving and do not make breaks unless you have to.

From my Piz Umbrail tour.
From my Piz Umbrail tour.

Unstable surface

Scree areas are not compacted and when you walk, you can destabilize it because rock debris start moving under your feet. This can be particularly dangerous if there are people above you or below you on a switchback type route.

Sometimes there may be larger rocks buried in the scree and when such destabilization happens, it may trigger a larger avalanche.

There may also be ice buried under the debris and you can either slide on it, or it can break under your weight and you might lose balance.

In the case of rain, all this stuff becomes wet, slippery, and generally even more unstable.

Scree on cliff tops

I have seen some scree areas in the Dolomites formed on wide ledges and terraces, and on cliff tops, with big drops below. Losing ground under your feet on such places can be deadly.

How to ascend steep scree slopes?

Of course, I shall assume that you have proper boots with strong and stable soles. You will need this on such a terrain.

Here are some tips that you might find useful, I apply them myself when I am on such passages:

  1. It is best to avoid scree if possible. But sometimes it is not, so keep reading.
  2. You might want to re-tie your boots a bit lower. With this you will have more flexibility in the ankle area.
  3. If there is an established trail across such a scree field, make sure that you follow it. Do not make shortcuts here, you may try and you will realize it is not the best strategy.
  4. If there are multiple trails, take those that are less steep. Why? The reason is simple, those that go straight up are not made by people ascending, they are made by those making shortcuts descending. So make sure you follow mild switchback zig-zag trails on such a terrain. Trust me, this is the most convenient way of least resistance.
  5. But what if there are no trails, or you lost it? Inspect the terrain visually, if there are visible boulders that look anchored, use them and step from one too another. If the boulders are larger than you foot, this means that the weight is distributed over a wider area under the boulder and you will be safer.
  6. Check visually if there are some compacted areas, you will recognize them because they are sometimes covered with plants. Go from one of such areas to another, this should be the safest way.
  7. There may be goat trails, follow some if they are in your direction.
  8. Do not go directly up, this is the worst approach. It is hard and you will move lots of rock and cause avalanches.
  9. Make sure that you edge your boots into the hill. Transfer your body weight from one leg to another when you feel that you have a reasonably secure footing.
  10. Do not step aggressively in any case. Think about walking over a thin ice, it is similar.
  11. Use trekking poles to improve stability and also to spread the weight a bit. I tend to anchor my down-hill pole and I place my foot next to it. This may add some extra stability to my footing. The same method I use on a steep grassy terrain.
  12. But if you fall, make sure that you apply the usual self-arrest techniques that work for snow or dry steep grassy areas.
  13. If you know that this is on a cliff top and you can get seriously injured or killed, keep your ice axe in the hand if you have it, and use for self-arrest just like on a snow slope or on a dry grass slope.

So this was what I had to say about strategy to ascend a steep scree slope. I gave some tips that I use myself on my mountaineering tours. Let me know if I have missed mentioning something important, there is a comment box below.

You might want also to read my separate text about the best way to walk in extreme downhillBookmark this site and visit it occasionally, you will always find new texts added here. Thank you for reading and have a nice day.

Me on Jalovec.Hi, I am Jovo, the founder of this OutdoorsFAQs site and several other outdoor sites. I have been mountaineering for almost 40 years already, and I have created this site to use as a reference for various questions that I receive in my sites. Being a theoretical physicist by profession, I tend to base my answers on facts and on my own personal experience.

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