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M Techniques for Talus

by Ryan Jordan

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Article Summary:

Scree and talus are the terms that are used to describe broken fragments of rock at the base of steep mountainous formations, such as cliff faces.

Such fragments can be small enough so that a hiker's step results in the shifting of their location downslope (this is called scree) while fragments that are large enough to be (generally) immobile are referred to as talus.

Some will claim that the size that divides scree from talus is based on rock type, slope angle, and moon phase, but most of these chaps seem to be professional geologists or forum trolls. Experienced mountaineers will tell you that scree is comprised of rocks less than about the size of a cantaloupe, while talus is comprised of rocks larger than about the size of a case of beer ("beer talus"). Sizing up from there, one can find "fridge talus" (talus blocks the size of a refrigerator), "car talus" (talus blocks the size of automobiles), and "house talus" (talus blocks the size of houses). The latter can also be referred to as "BAT" or "big ___ talus", but I find this term to be overused by novices, and it should be reserved for talus fields where the blocks are predominantly bigger than American low-income housing units. BAT is a special sort of talus because the techniques used to travel through it are more akin to climbing off-widths and caving than to mountaineering of any sort. One employs stemming, tunneling, fingernail scraping, screaming, and sometimes swimming, in order to navigate through fields of BAT. It's something worth trying once.

I generally find steep scree to be treacherous and hostile to lightweight footwear, pant seats, and general well-being, and stay off of it whenever possible. The exception is fine scree (less than about the size of a baseball) not located above cliffs, which offers a fun step-slide-brake activity affectionately known as "screeing" by hikers who wear boots. For lightweight hikers who wear dubiously durable sneakers and discover the temptation to scree down a field of Madison limestone cobbles, the activity may end with shredded shoes and the realization that this could be a very expensive if not mildly entertaining hobby.

Managing scree requires no particular skill or determination, and is more of an exercise in having the good sense to manage one's own stupidity by avoiding scree slopes above cliffs, scree slopes overlaying slick bedrock, and scree slopes that are steep enough such that a risk of over-ending (British mountaineering literature calls this "tumbling") might result in various forms of bloodletting between the top of the head and the tip of the toes.

On the contrary, I find talus to be thoroughly enjoyable (most of the time). My clients, students, trek mates, Scouts, and family all know me to have such a positive relationship with it that one has to wonder at some point if a codependence is not involved. For me, a trip without talus is a depressing trip indeed.

The purpose of this article is to help you cultivate a relationship with talus that lasts a lifetime by offering you some tips for maximizing your technique while traveling to high places over this glorious mountain terrain.

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