I fell in love with mountains and became a hiker in Utah’s Western bite of the Rocky Mountains. That summer, in a dry desert area North of Salt Lake City. Fueled with inexperience and a taste for adventure I wound up in several off-trail scrambles there which taught me a foundation about how to descend loose rock and dirt. This Spring I had to use these skills again in an ‘Oh Shit!’ moment near Castle Peak where the trail forward simply ran off a cliff and turning around meant descending icy snow in hiking boots. As a result, my group chose to descend 1000 ft of loose dirt/rock, many doing so for the first time.
Rarely is descending loose terrain something I want to do, but if it is something I have to do I use a few techniques to provide traction, stability and maneuverability in this environment. First a few general tips:
Avoid Boulder Piles
Large rocks may look more solid but they are literally a balancing act. Stepping on rocks yields unpredictable results because they have irregular contact on the dirt and rocks below them. Instead look for dirt and plants. These areas are more firm and will allow you to build up piles of dirt beneath your feet to act as a brake.
Move at a Constant Pace
Moving too fast or stopping abruptly on boulder piles can cause a rock slide where all rocks for several feet (or dozens!) around you start to move. Being in the middle of a slide is like surfing on an avalanche. On dirt moving too fast or stopping quickly can thin out your dirt brake and cause you to slide a lot longer than you feel comfortable with.
Be Aware of The Group
Group descents need to be planned out so that either everyone is spread evenly across the area or each person descends one by one. The goal is to keep the person above from kicking rocks on or starting a rock slide on top of the person below. When traversing through this terrain always be clear on your communications. Calling “ROCK!” when anything starts moving down hill and watching your fall lines.
Techniques of Descending Loose Terrain
This technique provides the most control by placing your hands in front of you and extending your feet into the dirt below. It also provides the most safety by placing your center of gravity over your hands. That means if your feet give out that your chest will hit the slope, increasing the surface area to slow you down. Remember, friction is your friend in this environment. The descending technique is to look below through your legs while moving each limb individually down the slope like a reverse bear crawl.
This technique is more comfortable to those new to these types of descents, but offers less safety and stability over crawling. It involves facing outward with your legs down the slope while sitting on your butt with your hands at your sides. To descend you move your butt down the slope by bending and extending your legs. I really don’t recommend this technique because if your feet give out your hands won’t provide leverage at your sides, your butt is the only point of contact with the slope and you are not able to move quickly horizontally to avoid hazards from above.
This is an advanced technique to be used by people comfortable with the terrain. It involves placing your shoulders perpendicular to the slope and extending your outer leg into the dirt while keeping your inner leg bent with your foot under your butt. In this posture you can quickly switch between looking uphill for hazards or downhill to navigate while maintaining your center of gravity towards the slope in case of sliding. Like the other techniques it involves using a built up dirt brake beneath your feet to control your descent.
The One-Legged Slide trades maneuverability for speed so often you will switch into the Crawl position when you need to move horizontally or want more stability. When descending there are several variations you can use:
- Keep a firm position with a consistent dirt brake beneath your feet while pushing yourself downwards with your hands.
- Cause your body to slide downhill by standing up some on the inner leg to move your center of gravity more onto the outer leg. To decrease speed or stop, sit back down on the inner / back leg to put more weight over your inner foot.
- On gradual slope with just loose dirt or gravel it might be difficult descending due to too much friction. With tough pants and some courage a fast descent can be obtained by using a fast walk start or a walking jump to kick start this slide.
I would not recommend descending loose terrain any place where you don’t have a lot of runout. You can easily slide for quite a ways don’t want to go over a sheer cliff. Also, remember that descending loose terrain like this is highly erosive and definitely inferior to a descent on stable terrain. These tips should only be used when a loose terrain descent is your only option.
Disclaimer: I am not licensed or certified to provide technical training in any way. I am just a dude who loves to explore in nature’s playground. Usage and replication of any of these techniques is at your own risk.