Angle of Repose

“Angle of repose” is an engineering or geology term for “The maximum angle at which a pile of unconsolidated material can remain stable”, according to the on-line Geology Dictionary at

Wallace Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 for his stunning novel, Angle of Repose.  The unconsolidated material in that story was the marital relationship of the two protagonists.  The stability in their relationship was very fragile, as it is with a steep fan of loose gravel or sand, balanced between staying in place and sliding downhill with the slightest disturbance, even a slight breath of a breeze or an apparently gentle rain shower.

Other forces, such as the interaction of other people whether innocent or intended for impact, can send that pile of unconsolidated material rapidly tumbling down, a landslide of displacement and chaos.  Not only will those in the relationship be carried away to come to rest in some other fashion, but those causing the displacement will often be carried away in the slide, as well. 

What Dangers Lie Below?  (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

What Dangers Lie Below? (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

Many of my backcountry hiking treks off-trail have included crossing, ascending or descending an area of unconsolidated material.  Sometimes the material is fine like sand, or small gravel scree, but sometimes it is a talus slope of large unstable blocks of rock.  Lack of preparation or hesitant, unfocused steps may lead to stumbling, or loosing a cascade of material that may merely make your journey difficult (two steps up and one step down), or dangerous (a rockslide that injures or kills).  

When properly trained and with experience, one may use a route on small-sized materials under acceptable conditions to avoid a far more dangerous route on larger material, steeper, hardpan, uneven and slippery slopes, and thereby descend a mountain very rapidly.  Each step, however, essentially creates a small area that is pushed to an angle in excess of “repose”, causing sliding steps and minor slides.  One must virtually “dance” down such a slope to avoid triggering a large slide or stumbling when a more consolidated area stops the intended sliding steps.

Do any of your relationships seem balanced, but rest at the angle of repose? 

Is the unconsolidated material minor, small, sometimes even helpful in your journey?  Or, is it dangerous due to the size of the fragments, or the height of the exposure above the “relational cliff” or tangle of debris downslope? 

Are you alone or in close company on the slope, or are there others below who would suffer “collateral damage” if an uncontrolled crossing triggered a dangerous slide in the relationship?  Are you “leading” others onto that slope, or following someone without comprehension and skills onto dangerous ground? Children, other family members, colleagues, employees or employers, and community members are often caught in the chaos that follows. 

Complacency may lead to unintended consequences, unconscious negligence.  Intentional actions may lead to culpability for the consequences.  Careful action may relieve the pressure, improve the relationship by easing its condition to one less acute than the angle of repose.

Take a few minutes to consider what matters and relationships in your life are lying at the angle of repose, and determine if that is a healthy condition, safe to continue if care is exercised, or a dangerous condition that needs to be remedied, not exacerbated, to remove all that matters from harms way.

Winter mountain fans may want to address how avalanche conditions offer parallel or even more striking metaphors (prevention, preparation, rescue are powerful actions).  As for me, I’ll stop here before venturing out into that territory, because,

I don’t like slippery slopes!


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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One Response to Angle of Repose

  1. Jill Elswick says:

    Great metaphor, Randy. Thanks for this post.

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