By Jillian Smith
This was my thought as I eyed the ancient, crumbling staircase that was sewn roughly into the side of Qingcheng Mountain. It was midday, and my shirt was clinging to my back, sweat and mountain dust making the light cotton feel suddenly like it weighed five pounds more than a shirt should. My friends and I had spent the past two hours scaling up the precarious face of the north end of the mountain, edging past throngs of tourists, chanting monks, shouting merchants and precocious children. The stairs, which had been steadily and cruelly increasing in altitude, drooped suddenly, a set of impossibly narrow, impossibly steep and incredibly intimidating little platforms threatened to make me slip and fall flat on my face for many hundreds of painful feet. The stones glistened with a slick moistness. The open expanse of the Sichuan province sky met the steps on the left hand side, with no guard rail separating it from clumsy tourists.
“Are you sure this is right?” I yelled back to my friend Mike, who had climbed the mountain once before. “Why are we going down? Shouldn’t we be going up?”
“Well yeah,” he answered back. “But sometimes you have to go down in order to go back up.”
I thought what he said sounded vaguely philosophical, but I was panicking too much to consider it at that moment. The throngs of people who had been trailing us up the mountain were finally catching up as I dithered near the top of the stairs. I had drunk little water over the course of the hike, and the strain on my muscles coupled with my dehydration causing my legs to shake involuntary, like they were struggling under the weight of some massive barbell. I desperately clutched the side of the cliff face, digging my fingers into the soft dirt, in an attempt to gain some stability.
“Hurry up Jillian, keep going,” yelled Mike, who could not see the staircase of death from behind. We had worked hard to escape the oppressive press of the crowd, and I knew he wanted us to keep up our lead.
I swallowed hard as I peered down at the teeny tiny little footholds that were covered in dew, the only lifelines between myself and an incredibly unpleasant and wildly careening sled ride over stones and mud and tree branches. The bottom of the staircase looked even tinier. It seemed a mile away, at an eighty degree drop. I had seen such drops before, but only when I was safely in the car of a roller coaster. I felt my hands turn into two dead, cold fish. My head began to swim. My stomach felt like it had turned to scrambled eggs and was being turned by some invisible spatula.
Mike was suddenly right behind me.
“Oh shit,” he exclaimed, staring down the steps with me.
We both paused for a moment, assessing our own athletic ability and mental stamina. The path was too narrow for him to pass me. The only thing to do was to either keep going forward or stop and turn around.
“There’s a really cool Taoist temple down there,” he said, attempting to encourage me.
I breathed deeply. “Yes, I want to see that!”
I lifted one jello-ey leg. My balance was nonexistent. I peered down again at the massive staircase and froze.
“Oh God,” I whispered. “I don’t know about this.”
With my head spinning and heart racing, Mike offered some mountain climber wisdom that seemed to cut right through the thick slab of my own disorientation.
“Don’t look at the whole staircase,” he said calmly. “Just focus on one step.”
I wanted to turn around and see if he meant for that to be some kind of Taoist philosophical axiom, or simply a way of getting my behind further down the mountain. I took it as both.
That was all I focused on when I unclenched my clawed hand from the soggy earth and lifted my twitching leg. All I have to do is move my legs one step.
Left, right. Done.
I paused another moment, amazed. I had moved down the mountain, and I hadn’t died. Nothing had happened. I was ok. And all I had done was taken a step.
I heard Mike from behind again. “Great!”
One step. I was a little further down. Incredible.
Not bad at all, I told myself. I can easily do this. At this rate, I could probably clear ten steps in a minute and….
I had accidentally raised my head back up and looked at the whole staircase as I considered my progress. Instantly, the queasy spatula-stomach feeling came back in full force. I desperately fought the urge to jump back up the stairs and turn around and curl into the fetal position.
Just one step, I reminded myself. I breathed deeply again, and focused my thoughts into impossibly small time increments. One … two… three … step. One … two … three …step.
In this way, I methodically picked my way down the staircase in a near meditative trance. Reaching the bottom, I was met with the coolness of the mountain mist and the chanting of the monks. Mike and I wordlessly followed the scent of burning incense to the temple that jutted out from the base of a cliff. Standing at the mouth of the temple, we watched candles flicker as the faithful knelt and offered prayers. A wave of peace came over me.
I am one who is often prone to over think things. It is tempting for me to panic when I feel overwhelmed. But Qincheng Mountain showed me something incredible. In touristy mountain climbing, and in life, one must not be discouraged by the enormity of the staircase. Anyone can scale a mountainside if they simply only focus on just one step.