On Top of the World


Travel on scree is often off-putting to those unused to its loose and unstable nature and so encouragement may be needed, especially when traversing a scree slope. Once accustomed to its “one step up, half a step down” nature, climbing scree is often a preferred ascent technique. As a rule, ascend on the largest scree and descend on the smallest. An ice-axe, or walking pole can greatly assist stability.

When sidling across a scree slope, an ice-axe, or walking pole held with one hand on the head and the other part way down the shaft, presented sideways and uphill as high as is comfortable, can assist balance.

Treat clay and mud on scree slopes with caution as it may be hard, or frozen. Clay under a thin layer of gravel is particularly difficult, in which case you will likely need to kick steps and may even need to cut steps with an ice-axe.

When travelling on scree and rock, take great care to avoid dislodging loose rocks onto other members of the party below: keep very close together, or travel one at a time through constricted areas, with the downhill members of the party sheltering in a protected area. A good leader will be mindful of the risk and use a diagonal sidle to reduce the risk. Waiting at each corner may be necessary. Loudly shout “Rock!” to warn party members below as soon as any rock is dislodged.

Descending scree by controlled running and glissading is exhilarating, relatively safe, fast and easy on your knees; this is usually the best method to descend scree unless there are large rocks, or clay. Always be aware of changes in stone texture, or size, or hard ground coming very close to the surface. The general rule is to sit down if one loses one’s balance on scree.

Snow gaiters greatly reduce the amount of scree stones working their way into your boots.

Snowgrass and tussock

Only botanists can distinguish between tussock and snowgrass, and so here we refer to both as tussock.

Tussock leaves are strong and their roots solid, so they make reliable foot and hand holds. The downside to tussock is that leaf tips can leave splinters in your hands. Use tussocks to haul yourself up with in steep country, wrapping your fingers around the leaves to maximise grip. When descending in steep country, it is common practice to slide each foot from one large tussock down to the next, gripping other tussocks at all times to keep control. Depending on the terrain, face inwards for steep slopes, but otherwise face out. It is acceptable to slide on one’s bum from tussock to tussock as a last resort, but with a heavy pack one’s arms aren’t strong enough to stop any sudden acceleration, so keep your speed down.

Take care when travelling on steep, short tussock because if you slip, it may be impossible to save yourself. Extreme care is needed where there is a thin layer of snow as it makes short tussock slippery and your fingers will be too cold to grip the tussocks – most people find it very difficult to grip tussock when wearing gloves; indeed, such country may become impassable. In summer, some tussocks shed copious leaves and these can be as slippery as snow.

Sub-alpine scrub

Sub-alpine scrub varies enormously: sometimes it isn’t very hard to get through, but usually one has to climb through it as much as over it. Generally, one must stand on the branches as it is impossible to reach the ground, hence its other name, ‘monkey scrub’. Happily, hebes and many other scrubby sub-alpine plants make very good foot and hand holds. It is much easier to descend this stuff than ascend it and it easier still to avoid it. Unlike scrub, alpine plants with succulent leaves are unsuitable as handholds.


Although often a fast way to make, or lose height, always treat gullies with mistrust. When ascending them, be prepared for an unsurmountable small bluff, or overhanging bank at the top. Smooth, treacherous sections can be expected somewhere in the middle. When descending, be prepared to meet an impassable waterfall: the rule is, be prepared to climb out onto a spur, no matter how enticing the immediate travel may be.

This page is a reproduction of the relevant section of FMC’s Safety in the Mountains booklet; first published in 1937, and still in print today, 11 editions later. You can buy your copy from the FMC website, at near giveaway price. More than 130,000 copies of this distilled mountain wisdom have found their way in to packs, huts and collections of generations of outdoors enthusiasts.