Hiking the Highcountry

Some of the most beautiful trails you'll ever see aren't trails, exactly—they're more like cairned paths through rocky rubbly terrain that twists knees and ankles and may give new meaning to your concept of what a "mile" is.

Like anywhere else, alpine trails in the rocky zone above treeline take the path of least resistance—but with boulders everywhere, the path of least resistance can make for challenging hiking.

Scree is one obstacle. On a steep climb, scree is the crumbly stuff that slides underneath you, making each foot of elevation you gain seem like three. On a descent, it descends, too—and may send you down the mountain faster than you want to get there.

When climbing, see if you can make mini-switchbacks so you don't have to face the slope head-on. On steep slopes where switchbacks are impractical (or impossible), you can kick steps by digging in with your toes (if, that is, the scree is deep enough). Don't commit your weight till you know your foothold is solid.

Descending on scree is a bit faster. The quickest technique is called screeing, which, as it sounds, is a little like skiing on your boots. The deeper the scree, the better. You also want to limit this technique to slopes with few obstacles like big boulders sitting in the middle and waiting to trip you up. Bend your knees, then start running and sliding. Hopping from foot to foot helps you to keep your balance.

Talus is made up of the bigger chunks of rock rubble that frequently collect on mountain slopes or at the base of cirques. Here, the idea is to keep your balance. Whenever possible, hike diagonally across a talus slope. (Going straight up and down is harder on your knees, takes more energy, and subjects those underneath you to the hazard of falling rock.)

If you're the cautious type, go slowly, perhaps with the help of hiking sticks to keep your balance and assist you in those big steps between boulders. Or, you can use your momentum to hop from rock to rock (best done with a light pack). It's best to practice boulder-hopping without a pack to get the hang of it.

A couple of tips: Keep your attention focused and several steps ahead. Keep your knees bent; it's also useful to keep your feet farther apart than you do when walking so you can shift your balance from side to side. Think of a tripod: It's better balanced when the legs are spread than when they are close together. Same goes for you. One cautionary note: Dislodged rocks are subject to the same laws of gravity that we all are: They fall, and can pose a danger to hikers below. If you knock a rock loose, yell "Rock!" to warn others. And if you hear someone else yell "Rock," duck and protect your head.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions