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Scree. Is it fun? Is it worth it? Everyone has their own experience with it, and if you want to hike in Alaska, it’s likely that you’re going to have to embrace it. Enjoyment of scree often lies in the eye of the beholder.
Love it or hate it - scree is a "hands-on" experience
A guide on scree: hiking and scrambling across Southcentral Alaska
Today’s dispatch is all about scree, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since my family’s latest epic adventure through Bomber Traverse. In this guide, we’ll delve into the art of walking in scree fields, explore the different classes of hiking, scrambling, and climbing, discuss the dangers inherent to this geological feature, and highlight several stunning hiking areas in Southcentral Alaska where scree fields are a prominent feature of the terrain.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast looking to explore the rugged wilderness of Southcentral Alaska, you’ve probably encountered scree fields at some point during your adventures. Ask anyone who has experienced it how they feel about scree, and most people will express a strong love<>hate relationship with these loose rocks.
What starts as a fun challenge and scramble on a steeper slope can quickly turn into an irritating and pain-staking endeavor, at best requiring prolonged periods of intense focus, loose footing, and at worst can rip clothes and skin, lead to falls, and can present a risk of falling rocks on you and your companions. Scree is simply one of those unique elements of nature that one can love, hate, and feel betrayed by all in one experience. Read on for my take on scree and tips on how to make it as fun and safe as possible in your adventures!
In late July, 2023, Dan and I decided it was time for another family epic adventure. We were looking for something that involved basic mountaineering but would not be too “burly”. Knowing our own skill levels and our kids’ skills, age, and fitness, we thought the bomber traverse would be a satisfying and challenging experience for us as a group. We knew it would challenge the boys but we were confident in our ability to guide them through it. I was very excited to teach them some basic mountaineering skills in this incredible place. Over the course of the trip, we definitely got our fill of rocks: talus fields, loose “rock glaciers”, navigating through giant boulder fields, and yes – having our “fun” on scree!
Throughout this trip, I spent quite a lot of time pondering my own love<>hate affectation for rocks and the “best way” to navigate them (if you want to adventure off-trail in Alaska, often you have to choose: rocks, or alder bushwhacking). As I travelled through all these rock assemblies with my family, it occurred to me that in our youth backpacking trips and guided hiking tours with adults, one of the fundamental skills I continually help guide participants through is how to navigate on scree. Once you feel somewhat comfortable on scree, it is easy to take this foundational outdoor skill for granted or get risk-complacent. It is my hope that this guide will be informative for those looking to build up their foundational adventure skills as well as serve as a reminder to more experienced adventurers that we should respect the scree.
We used our burlier scree descent from the backdoor gap as an excuse to teach the boys about some basic rope systems and rappelling techniques. Here Rory has set up a “third hand” for himself as he picks his way down through the rocks and snow to Dan (down slope in the snow).
Pictured above: Our boys getting a look at the scree field we were about to descend on our family epic of the Bomber Traverse from Mint Hut to Reed Lakes. Pennyroyal Glacier at the bottom left. We took our time descending this nearly 60 degree, scree-filled slope and used some basic mountaineering systems as well.
Descending scree fields can be treacherous. When putting together your risk assessment and trip plan, you should expect to encounter scree and consider some of these factors: falling rocks of various sizes, your footing sliding out from underneath you on a steep slope, the needs of the least experienced, least fit, and least skilled member of your group, and the weight and balance of your pack, among other factors.
Leading inexperienced people through demanding terrain like this (in our case, our 13 and 10 year old boys), requires one to move slowly and deliberately, and communicate with one voice. Descending this particular scree field was not an ideal situation, but we were able to successfully guide them through it.
In the Anchorage area, we have found that the most challenging and most commonly accessed scree field, for inexperienced people, is the Little O’Malley gully; before the new switchback trail was completed, this gully was the main ascent and descent path to the peak or “the ballfield”, and beyond. This hike also happens to be the location of the most rescues in the Chugach State Park …why, you may ask? You got it – the descent on the scree field. Number 2 on the list is Little O’Malley’s neighbor, Flattop, just across powerline pass, the northwest aspect of which is dominated by a massive scree field.
If you are seeking some higher-adventure hiking, be ready to embrace scree as an inevitable part of the experience.
Scree consists of loose, small rocks and gravel found on slopes, making it unstable and challenging to walk on.
Scree is perilous due to its instability. Loose rocks shift underfoot, causing slips and falls. It hinders balance, increasing the risk of injuries from falls or twisted/sprained ankles. The steep terrain often found with scree in our Southcentral Alaskan wilderness amplify the danger, making it challenging terrain for hikers and climbers.
If you’re going out to enjoy a scree-filled adventure for the day or a trip, keep in mind your competence/experience level, fitness, and what kind of weight you’re carrying. Descending a scree field on a 60 degree slope, with a full multi-day backpack on is a different experience from descending a 30 degree scree field with a smaller daypack.
Scree, Talus, Rock Glaciers, and Boulders, oh my!
Scree, rock glaciers, boulder fields, and talus are distinct natural features encountered in the mountainous, glaciated landscapes of Southcentral Alaska. We’ve talked about scree, but here is how it differs from other rock features:
Rock Glaciers: These are slow-moving masses of ice mixed with rock debris. The rocks are larger, loose, and unstable. You’ll think you’ve got good footing when suddenly it wobbles, and you don’t!
Boulder Fields: Boulder fields consist of large, individual rocks settled over an area. They can make hiking difficult due to the need to navigate around or over massive boulders. I dubbed backpacking through boulder fields “bouldering-backpack-yoga”.
Talus: Talus is a collection of larger, more stable rocks, often found at the base of cliffs or mountains. It can be slippery, like any rocks when wet, but generally offers more reliable footing than rock glaciers and scree. You will often see ridges of talus along any trail in glaciated valleys; it is natures way of telling a story, as talus fields and ridgelines are formed when glaciers stop moving for a time (thousands of years), usually on their retreat but sometimes as they advance, and dump their load of rocks while they wait.
On our family Bomber Traverse epic, we finally made it down from the scree descent by sunset! …to then transition to the rock glacier, after which we navigated through a boulder field until finally we found a spot to camp for the night. Needless to say – at this point, I was not as excited about rocks as I would be on any other average day. The beautiful sunset was a gift as we picked our way through the rocks.
Rory showing perfect mountain goat scree form across a slope in the Eklutna Valley. Notice the larger rocks that appear ‘stable’, usually surrounded by vegetation, vs. the larger ones that may appear stable but, in fact, are not.
Moving on Scree Fields: Top 5 Tips and Techniques
Walking in scree fields can be tricky, as the unstable surface makes it easy to lose your balance or twist an ankle. However, with the right skills and precautions, you can navigate these rocky landscapes safely and enjoyably.
- Proper Footwear: Choose sturdy hiking boots with excellent ankle support and grippy soles. These will provide stability and protect your feet from sharp rocks.
- Use Trekking Poles: Trekking poles can significantly enhance your balance and reduce the strain on your knees. They’re particularly helpful when descending scree slopes. Ironically, trekking poles can be treacherous on rock glaciers, boulder fields, and talus fields (a HOT debate in the hiking/mountaineering community!)
- Weight Distribution: Keep your body weight centered over your feet, with a slight forward lean. This position allows for better control and stability.
- Short, Quick Steps: Take small steps to maintain balance. Quick, short strides help distribute your weight evenly and reduce the risk of slipping. Avoid power moves like lunging strides or big dynamic jumps.
- Mind Your Footing: Pay close attention to where you place your feet. Look for stable rocks and avoid loose ones. Test each step before fully committing your weight. You will often see larger rocks in scree fields and think “yes! I’ve made it to ‘home plate’; this rock may be a tempting platform, but it is likely going to become a rock sled ready to carry you down.
Geology and Alpine Ecosystems
Scree, Talus, and all the rocks we love are crucial in alpine ecosystem habitats
Talus fields play a crucial role as habitat in Alaska’s alpine settings, supporting a diverse range of wildlife. These rocky terrains offer shelter and sustenance for animals like pikas and marmots.
Pikas, small herbivorous mammals, rely on talus fields for food and protection. They collect vegetation during the summer and store it within the rocks for winter sustenance. The intricate maze of boulders provides refuge from predators and insulation against harsh weather.
Marmots, social rodents, also thrive in talus fields. They dig burrows among the rocks, creating underground homes that offer safety from predators and a warm environment for raising their young.
Additionally, talus fields attract a variety of bird species seeking nesting sites and insects living among the rocks. These habitats contribute to the overall biodiversity of the alpine ecosystem, making talus fields a vital component of Alaska’s pristine wilderness.
This fat little rodent has only love for rocks, needing talus fields to survive – they provide shelter from harsh conditions and predators alike. But beware “the marmot yell”; it may knock you off balance!
In another trip, in another time of life, I was in a moment of extreme focus; with both feet wanting to slide and rocks falling down on either side, an exposed steep slope with a lengthy distance falling away to the valley floor, I needed to quickly pick my way across the top of a scree gully to a ridge of somewhat better stability. If you’ve never heard a marmot yell, I can tell you it is a real treat. Just as I reached my area of relative “safety”, a fat, angry, furry rodent popped out 30 feet away. It screamed – a high pitched whistling scream. It was loud. It felt like a full-frontal assault that penetrated my very bones. In my moment of utter focus and concentration, it scared the living daylights out of me. I screamed – a strangled, pathetic sound that was not nearly as robust or magnificent as my angry neighbor. My hands and feet luckily gripped down more rather than flinging me off of my perch. I can’t be upset – after all, I was on its home turf and it wanted me out.
Hiking, Scrambling, and Climbing: Understanding the Classes
In Southcentral Alaska, you’ll find a range of hiking experiences, from gentle trails to challenging ascents. These activities are often categorized into different classes based on difficulty and technical requirements.
- Hiking (Class 1-2): Class 1 hiking is the most accessible outdoor activity and an excellent way to explore scree fields with a lower risk level, Involving well-maintained trails and minimal obstacles. Class 2 hikes may have rougher terrain or occasional off-trail sections but are still non-technical. Scree fields in this category are usually mild, offering a good introduction to walking on loose terrain. Hikers should wear appropriate gear and stay on marked paths.
- Scrambling (Class 2-3): Scrambling involves climbing steeper, more challenging terrain. Class 2 scrambles often require more route-finding skills and may involve navigating through moderately challenging scree fields. Class 3 scrambles require the use of hands for balance and often include exposure to steep drop-offs. The risk level increases, and route-finding skills become essential. Scramblers should consider carrying helmets for protection against falling rocks and wear durable clothing for abrasion resistance.
- Climbing (Class 4-5): For those seeking an adrenaline rush and a serious challenge, climbing is the ultimate adventure. Class 3 and above climbs often involve technical terrain, including steep scree slopes. Class 4 and 5 Climbs are considered rock or ice climbing and require specialized gear like ropes, harnesses, and climbing shoes. Additionally, advanced training in rock climbing techniques and rope management is essential. Scree fields in this class can be particularly treacherous, demanding expert route planning and precise footwork.
Walking in scree fields is an exhilarating experience that can be tailored to your skill level and adventurous spirit. Whether you choose hiking, scrambling, or climbing, remember to prioritize safety, wear appropriate gear, and respect the environment. By mastering scree navigation and choosing the right outdoor activity class, you can embark on memorable journeys in the great outdoors.
Many find having a rope system at the Bomber Gap to be helpful for this class 3/4 scramble up and over. For this trip, we brought our own but there are two ropes anchored in place already there; they’re anchored on boulders at the ridge of the Bomber Gap and descend about 50 feet down to the top of Bomber Glacier. Rope systems can offer a sense of security on class 3/4 terrain, especially with inexperienced people. We brought these along on our family epic because we were wanting to teach the boys some basic mountaineering skills. Extra weight, but a lot of fun!
Southcentral Alaska's Scree-Filled Treasures
Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge of how to navigate scree fields and understand the different hiking classes, let’s explore some of Southcentral Alaska’s incredible hiking areas that incorporate scree fields into the experience:
- Flattop Mountain: Located just outside Anchorage, Flattop Mountain offers a Class 2 hiking experience with stunning panoramic views of the city and the Chugach Mountains. Scree fields are encountered near the summit, making it an excellent place to practice scree-walking skills.
- Crow Pass Trail: This classic Alaskan hike runs from Girdwood to Eagle River and offers a diverse range of terrains, including scree fields. It has moments of a Class 2 hike with breathtaking views of glaciers, waterfalls, and wildlife.
- Matanuska Peak: For those seeking a more challenging Class 3 scramble, Matanuska Peak delivers. Located northeast of Palmer, this hike includes steep scree slopes and requires route-finding skills.
- Kesugi Ridge Trail: This long-distance trail in Denali State Park offers a mix of Class 1 and Class 2 hiking, with some scree sections near the ridge. The trail provides unparalleled views of Denali and the Alaska Range.
- Reed Lakes Trail: Located in Hatcher Pass, this Class 2 hike leads you to the stunning Reed Lakes and offers a taste of scree fields near the bomber gap. It’s lengthy, but a great introduction to scree walking in a picturesque setting if you wanted to set up a base camp at Upper Reed Lakes and do day hikes to Bomber Gap/Bomber Glacier.
At the summit of Flattop Mountain. This trail can offer an introductory experience in scree, just before the summit on the trail from Glen Alps Trailhead.
Southcentral Alaska is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a variety of hiking experiences across different classes. Whether you’re a novice hiker or an experienced climber, scree fields are a unique and challenging aspect of the Alaskan wilderness. With the right skills, gear, and a sense of adventure, you can conquer these rocky landscapes and immerse yourself in the breathtaking beauty of the Last Frontier. So, gear up, pack your sense of adventure, and embark on an unforgettable journey through Southcentral Alaska’s scree-filled treasures.
My family’s Bomber Traverse Epic merits a longer story-telling session on its own, which I promise to one day provide, and is a great example of the many different types of rock formations and the various levels of risk they may present. Always plan ahead and make sure that you are prepared for the risks that your various adventures may offer, be ready to bail on a plan if you feel like you are too far out of your comfort zone, and have fun!
Tina is the Owner, Director, and Dreamer of new adventures at Into the Woods Alaska. Her love for outdoor adventure fuels her mission to share outdoor skills and safety with everyone. Tina holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Languages (Spanish), a WFR (Wilderness First Responder), and a TRG (Top Rope Guide) with PCGI (Professional Climbing Guides Institute). Tina has worked as an EMT, a Spanish<>English Interpreter, and an “indoor” educator before turning her dream of starting Into the Woods AK into a reality in 2019.
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