Have you ever crossed a river by a path of stepping stones? Such bridges range from those man made, huge blocks - rounded by a trillion gallons of water, and those cast down by nature, a random path of boulders and stones - all a bridge across rivers big and small.
Now on a man made line of stepping stones the crossing is easy, you step from one to the other without to much call on balance, paying attention to where your foot lands, the wet rock, the odd puddle or green patch - but really it’s as simple as walking, even above a racing river.
And then there are the naturals ways, which again can be easy to traverse, big clean boulders that nature aligns perfectly for a stride, the other side just a hop-skip and a jump away.
But then there are the harder crossings, where a flood has washed away ones of man’s blocks, leaving a gap that much be jumped, or nature has neglected to drop the right boulder in the right place, or a greedy river has swallowed some whole. Here you need to pay more attention, stopping and looking, judging where to step next, where solid ground may be found - what stones may rattle you to wet feet - which will hold you aloft for only a fraction, a single step.
And then there are those stepping stones where they are almost all rounded, wet, slippery and unstable, the only thing to aim for one or two solid stones set in the stream, the only way to cross to move with confidence until you reach the safe harbour of a solid boulder. As you move you know that there is a good chance you will slip and fall in, but there will also be the same outcome if you hesitate. No you just have to go for it and believe you’ll make it to a solid step.
Well this is what climbings like, the holds for hands and feet (and needs, backs, bottom, head) nothing but a line of stepping stones.
On an easy route you simply walk up the rock, the only way you’ll fall off if you get a sudden attack of vertigo or give in to suicidal thoughts. Like crossing a well made set of stepping stones, you just have to move with some care and you’ll find yourself at your destination.
As you progress you find these well made and regular blocks will begin to get smaller, often spaced further apart, only just close enough to stride. Then they become jumbled, irregular, chaotic - still offering good purchase if you can reach them, but more and more you find yourself standing and looking for the next stepping stone. And when you find it and stride or jump - or flail - and reach the next step you feel what makes climbing so fun. Most would be happy to move like this forever, where the way is not so hard, where only finding the way is the puzzle, no real power or strength needed, just a mind that can navigate an uncertain way.
On harder routes you begin to get gaps between the good holds, where only slippery and uncertain stones offer a bridge - stopping you in your tracks, fearful they might cast you in even though you know many thousands have come this way before. You make the jump, trust your feet and your skill, and hop over and there you are, on solid ground again.
When things get really hard you find yourself with only the worst kinds of stones, smooth and slippery, not one trustworthy - the only way to make it across by understanding completely the very shape and nature if every single step, the traverse perhaps taking hours, days or months to fathom.
Stepping stone lessons
- Unless you believe your are the first, know that others have made it across.
- Move with care and confidence.
- Nature is supreme and like to play tricks, so never take the way on for granted - the river is always at your heals.
- When the easy path comes to an end, or you find a space between secure ground, make a plan, then move fast and with confidence until you reach somewhere were you can think about your next move.
- Sometimes there are no good stepping stones, so don’t get your feet wet looking for them, just move!
- If you wish to choose the hardest path, make getting wet part of the fun.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram