Mount LeConte's Northeast Cirque — Page 4

Boulders & Talus

A Talus Primer

I'm beginning to get annoyed. I've spent the last few hours happily immersed in my happy thoughts, but my sunny veneer is starting to wear thin, and shadows have have grown long about me.

Unknown hours have passed as I've struggled upward; progress along Tuttle Creek's north fork has been achingly slow. The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't trail I've been following, off and on, has led me into increasingly rougher terrain—including an unexpected escalation of talus.

Rock Cairn Talus & Brush More Talus Tuttle Creek Drainage - Talus

The talus, in particular, is causing problems. Safe travel over talus is something of an art form—especially when you've got a heavy pack and skis on your back.

The route ahead requires me to gain several benches or saddles. These are, of course, typical features in a mountain drainage.

Ordinarily, it is fair to expect rough terrain at these transition points, which are, after all, essentially giant piles of debris moved by ancient glaciers. But the Usual Unpleasantness is starting to look decidedly...unusual.

I've reached a massive talus field, perhaps 1500 vertical feet high or more, much of it comprised of giant-sized blocks and boulders. Snow and brush fills the gaps between the blocks of granite, further complicating the problem.

Frankly, I'm not prepared to face this kind of terrain today—I just wasn't expecting it. And so I am annoyed not only with terrible Tuttle's endless talus, but my own failure to anticipate it.

By chance, I scramble my way toward a grouping of cairns. Hopefully, they mark a viable route.

The cairns do indeed lead me through the worst of the blocks, though it takes time and care to find the next one, and the next—and the way is hardly trivial. I am climbing and stepping over 20-foot deep gaps between boulders. This is no fun at all—and it is inarguably dangerous.

Scrambling over large talus blocks can become comparable to Class 4 climbing: whether you realize it or not, you're exposed.

It is fair to raise questions of judgment now. Are you sure you want to be here?

With a light day pack, an experienced hiker should be able to safely scramble across a talus field. But should a would-be skier, with 50 pounds of gear, including top-heavy skis, attempt the same? What is the line delineating an appropriately aggressive effort to keep going, and a foolhardy refusal to turn back?

This is a question wise mountaineers repeatedly ask themselves. I chose to press on. Ironically, a big factor in my decision is this year's drought, which has left me starved for snow (the very same snow, I might add, which would normally cover all this rock). So how do I contend with the terrain? Focus: when traveling over talus, cultivate mindfulness of risk. Do not let your concentration waver.

Plan your route: stop, stand where you are, and plan your sequence of moves ahead of time. Where will you put your feet? Your hands? What happens after that? Do not find yourself scrambling successfully up a large, flat block, only to discover you're hung up on a 30' drop at the opposite side.

Use your hands: remember, you are a climber now, not a hiker. Resist the temptation to use trekking poles. Instead, make use of the abundant hand holds. Don't be afraid to use a stiff arm to temporarily assume your body weight, and climb facing the rock—up and down—when possible.

Be Patient: whatever you do, it will take time to cross talus. Do not rush, even as the sun drops closer to the horizon, even as your legs begin to shake. Have patience, and have faith. Slow and steady wins this race.

next: Stalemate

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.