Steep Ground

Steep Ground


Recognise that a slope is becoming too steep and find an alternative route


Steep Ground 

Steep Ground



The hills and mountains of the UK are accessible; even the remote ones, with walkers routes to the top of most of them. But the things that make our mountains pleasing to look at are sometimes that areas that the walker needs to be aware of and avoid. Steep scree slopes, craggy outcrops & vertical cliffs are all examples of mountain features that can be avoided on the way up, but the walker must take care to avoid such obstacles and difficulties when descending, usually from a summit.


Route Planning

When planning your day in the hills you will learn to make a mental picture of the route, paying particular attention to whether the journey crosses contours that are closer together, i.e. steeper. Make a mental note of where steep ground occurs, perhaps as a tick-off feature, so that you can be prepared, and if in a group advise others accordingly.


Ascending

On the way up hill it's usually possible to see and avoid any crags or other difficulties, and when the slope becomes steep, walking in a zig-zag pattern will lessen the direct angle and allow progress to be made. Clearly, you have to be certain that you are on the correct slope and have not strayed onto a slope that becomes ever more steep, leading to precipitous and impenetrable obstacles. In poor visibility this is especially important.

Where a short section of the route necessarily goes over rocks, follow the advice below.


Loose Rocks

It's all too easy for a loose rock to be dislodged and cause serious injury to someone else, even if that rock isn't very big or doesn't travel far. At all costs extra care needs to be taken in areas where rock is obviously loose, or suspected of being so. In the event of you making a rock fall, you must shout "BELOW" so that others can take evasive action. Clearly, the whole group should know what to shout and why someone else may shout such.

Test rocks before putting weight on. Do this lightly trying to move it from side to side if a hand hold, or applying light to increasing pressure if a foot hold.


Descending

The descent is where most of the danger from inadvertently staying on to steep slopes occurs, and the weather, type of slope, conditions underfoot are all factors that will affect the safety of the situation. Your close attention to the map and memory of the route when planning, should mean that a short stray onto ground that becomes steeper than expected is recognised quickly, leading to an immediate reversal of footprints onto safer ground and to a point at which you can locate yourself on the map.

In situations where an incorrect choice of route could have serious consequences, you should obtain your grid reference for your location on a GPS unit, or mobile phone app that shows a grid reference, then check it to your map to confirm your position. It's better to stop and check the route precisely by GPS in this situation. 


False Paths

In popular locations where well worn walkers paths are common, it is also quite common to find on the ground what seems to be a good path, which on the face of it must be the 'right path', as many other people have been there before. Sometimes these routes turn out to be paths leading to danger, and the path erosion making the route 'right', is in fact caused by people walking to the danger, and retreating.

An example of such as path is on Crinkle Crags in the Lake District, where the obvious walkers' path over the ridge is interrupted by a steep scramble, which is most definitely out of what would be considered walking territory for many people. From below the bad step, it's clearly visible, as too is the diversion around it. However, from the top of the '2nd Crinkle', there is a clear path leading directly to the obstacle. Local guidebooks pay particular attention to this anomaly of a walker's route, but to the less well read walker there is a clear danger following the false path and being of the belief that descent via the bad step is the only route, thus incurring unnecessary danger and the potential of a fall from up-to 10 ft onto hard rock. The bad step a black-spot for accidents and often frequented by mountain rescue teams to collect fallen walkers.


Wet Ground
Wet grass (in particular) on any slope can be akin to walking on ice, and there are a surprising number of mountain rescue call outs to attend to people who have slipped and sustained an injury after slipping on wet grass, even on lower hills. The quality and suitability of footwear can make a real difference to safety, with strong soled boots having a good tread being the ideal choice. The technique used to descend can also make a difference, and the following tips may help:

  • zig-zag across the slope to lessen the angle and reduce potential for a slip
  • dig in up-hill edges of boots to the slope and place feet in a diagonal or sideways (to slope) position
  • gradually transfer weight from up-hill to down-hill foot, as it's often the down-hill foot that slips. This action will ensure that the down-hill foot is well placed, and any slip can be caught early as some weight is still with the up-hill leg
  • if there are embedded rocks on the slope (even small ones), wedge your foot against such rocks, thus providing a solid anchor. Care must be taken to ensure that the rock is indeed embedded and not just resting on the grass. An experienced eye can spot such, and a gradual transfer of weight - as above - will confirm whether the rock is any good
  • look ahead and plan your route down. Aim for any big rocks that provide security, against which you can rest


Wet Rock

Wet rocks tend to pose a danger to the walker, but it depends on the geology of the rocks. Limestone is particularly slippery, but rough granite can provide a firm grip when wet. Judging rocks is a skill that comes with experience, but the following tips will help a descent over rocks:

  • avoid stepping on flat rocks that slope away from you
  • a flat rock sloping towards you will provide a good step, but once your front foot is planted take care to transfer weight gradually, rather than pushing from the now back foot, as that's likely to cause a slip
  • identify nobbles that stick up from the surrounding rock; these will provide better grip than flat surfaces
  • watch out for lichen, moss, a green 'film' or other vegitation. In such areas it's likely that all rock will be more slippery than normal, requiring extra care
  • place your foot so that it rests against a second rock, meaning that it cannot slip anywhere


Scree Slopes

Scree is an accumulation of loose rock that can be dangerous to walk on, depending on the size of rocks.

You should avoid planning a route that descends a scree slope, for two reasons: the erosion and environmental damage caused by further cascades of rocks is irreversible and can destroy fragile habitats for rare plants; and, there is an increased risk of injury when descending scree through twisted ankles or just falling. Scree containing larger rocks is more dangerous.

Scree slope routes tend to be unnecessary short-cuts and are mostly easily avoided.

Some well used  paths may have become eroded over time, with short sections of path resembling scree slopes. In such situations proceed with care, where there is no alternative, so long as you're certain that you remain on the correct route.



Screes on Pike 'O Stickle

Screes on Rossett Pike - courtesy of Matt King


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