Wednesday, 10 October 2012

On the Wild Side for 9 September 2012 by Deborah Greaves:    coping with scree

In my opinion, there’s good reason for the two e’s at the end of the word ‘scree.’
That pair of e’s is an abbreviation of the word ‘ eeeee-e-e-e-e!’ -  generally uttered by a person who is either thrilled or terrified. Scree, as a feature of a hillside, can induce both emotions in human beings who encounter it.    
I can’t recall the first time I heard the word, ( ‘ a steep slope of loose, fragmented rock lying below a cliff or bluff’’ according to the Gage Canadian Dictionary)  but I well remember the first time an encounter with ‘scree’ caught me off guard.  It’s embarrassing to confess that I stumbled onto a steep scree slope in my early days as a West Kelowna resident, and immediately got stuck.
Of course a person who finds herself immobilized on a scree slope is rarely physically stuck.

The truth is, it’s very easy to keep moving on scree, but that movement may not be the kind of locomotion the human has in mind. The hillside is playing a joke on a hapless biped, a creature not well suited to terrain that even Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats have the good sense to avoid. The biped instinctively strives to remain upright in almost all outdoor hiking situations, but the scree slope presents the distinct possibility of descending helplessly on one’s derriere or worse.
How do you know you’re close to scree? For the uninitiated, you’ll notice the slope is covered in a million pieces of fist-sized rock, pieces of rock that are dry and naked. Unanchored by trees, shrubs or grasses, these are pieces of rock that look as though a giant dump truck in the sky unloaded them onto the hillside just moments ago.

They move so easily that there’s been no time for the weather to cover them with sand or soil to seal them together and settle them in to the slope. They have landed in an area bereft of solid shelves or old lava folds that would have created steps, small ridges or other civilized features to help the bipeds along. 
My first encounter with Okanagan scree was on the fabled slopes of Mount Boucherie.  I was trotting happily along, intoxicated by the gorgeous view, and then I was in it. Fortunately,  I didn’t have a cell phone with me to call anyone for assistance or advice, which would have proven how helpless I can be while on a foolish impromptu hike no one else knew about.

My show-off athletic dog couldn’t figure out why I didn’t follow her across the scree in a single graceful sprint. Nimbly perched on a sturdy boulder on the far side of the scree, Kiyah gazed at me and waited. Each time I moved a foot, a cascade of rocks careened noisily down the slope and I had to fight for my balance.  Gads, I thought. What if someone sees me? I was both scared and embarrassed.
To be honest, the years since have kindly erased my memory of exactly how I got off that slope. I suspect I sat down and skidded down feet first until I bumped onto some bunchgrass. This was one of my first introductions to the Okanagan’s wonderful native Bluebunch Wheatgrass.

Bunchgrass is beautiful, deep-rooted enough to allow for astonishingly effective regeneration after fire, and very kind to sliding bipeds. I have a dream-like recollection of grasping gratefully onto a large tuft, returning to an upright position, and making the delightful discovery that bunchgrass will allow your carefully-placed feet to use its sturdy clusters for footholds.
I don’t recall who told me or where I first read about tricks for crossing scree slopes, but a few years later I tried some on Carrot Mountain, and they worked. First, stand on solid ground, examine the degree of slope and look for any sturdy shelves or trees or other objects to safely grasp or rest on. Once you’ve decided you can cope with the steepness – and considered aborting the crossing if it’s too perilous- plan your route before you set foot onto the scree, and prepare to run straight across- if possible, on an animal trail.

I confess to cheating a bit-  that day I sent that show-off  dog of mine across the scree first. She dashed across on a barely visible deer track, dislodging hardly any rock at all. I took a deep breath and raced lightly ( as lightly as a somewhat round middle-aged woman can) across the scree, using exactly the same route.  I found myself proudly upright on the other side. Amazed but feeling my luck should not be pushed, I carefully selected an alternate route down. This wasn’t a good idea, but I made it.
‘If you are going to hike up a steep slope,’ states Rocky Mountain explorer and author J. Leslie Johnson, ‘make sure you are comfortable coming back down the same way.’  Sometimes when you’ve climbed over a difficult set of obstacles to get to your destination high on the hill, it turns out there is no alternative route down. As experienced hikers know and foolish novices quickly learn, it’s amazing how much harder it can be to retrace your moves as you descend the same route you went up.

I’ve learned the hard way that Johnson is right. If it’s still in print, there’s plenty of good advice in her Year 2000 book, Basic Mountain Safety from A-Z, by Altitude Publishing. 
Assorted reminders I’ve been provided with lately:

If you’re driving an SUV or riding a horse up a steep hill, drive or ride straight up rather than traverse or cross the slope. Both vehicle and horse could roll down if they stall or fall. If crossing a steep slope while wearing hiking boots or snowshoes, lean into the hill and cut your steps into the slope, pressing down into the trail or snow to secure your hold with each step. Use hiking poles. Traverse rocky slopes when with a group so you don’t roll rocks onto each other.
It’s been a while since I’ve scared myself silly outside. Lately my husband, the dogs and I have stayed at low elevations on gentle terrain. The ridges and hills are calling me again though. Armed with a map and a little caution and accompanied by good friends, I plan to be back up there soon.






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