I wasn't sure where to stick this question. It has a bit to do with making use of stones, of slowing down erosion, and ergonomics.
There is a part of my property that is something like a ravine or a canyon. I call it the toilet bowl, because most of our property, plus two neighbors all slope toward it, and all the water run off "flushes" down the bowl. The sides are steep and heavily eroded. In many places its nearly a perpendicular drop from the top to the bottom. I have some great projects happening down there, but access is a problem. Traditionally my husbands family have just dug out foot holds in the slope and used those until they erode away. Then dig out new ones. The end result is that the path into the bowl resembles a waterslide during the rains. Rains should start here in a couple of weeks.
So I have had this idea of creating a stairway. It would not go straight up and down the slope, but switch back and forth... To deter erosion and also to make it less steep. (I am slightly disabled and have a hard time with steep climbs.) Stairs would be built into the earth and reinforced with the stones from the property.
I started work on the stairs today. HARD work hauling basketball sized stones from one end of the property to the other! But here is the problem I ran into: even though I picked the least steep place I could find, I still ran into a section that is just too steep. There is no earth there to put a step into, so its go in to end up being a giant step up, with a tiny step surface. Poop, it needs a ladder, not stairs.
There is a layer of heavy clay over top of something that I don't know the name for... Something like crushed compacted gravel. ( In the steepest areas all the clay is gone, eroded away). Its very hard, but it can be dug into. My laptop has died, and I am having difficulty getting pics from my phone onto the permies site. If you are really interested, you can send me an email address and I can try emailing via the phone. (Crappy Chinese knock off "smartphone")
I would say to run the next few steps more sideways to the slope to get comfortable rise to run. This will probably need more stones to support the exposed edge and hold back the uphill edge, but those would help reinforce what is likely to be a more endangered slope.
Thanks Glenn. I've pretty much done what you suggested and done a switchback. The resulting steps are tiny, and there is not much room for supporting stones. This accounts for about a four foot drop. I got tired of carrying stones and frustrated with this section so I quit for today.
Dumping more dirt won't help, as there is nothing below to hold the dirt in place. I would basically have to rebuild the whole hillside, and it would take at least a truckload of dirt. (I have a plan for that too, but that's a project for another post!)
I do really love the idea of the knotted rope... Even if I get good steps into this tricky spot, a rope would add some security for me, since my balance isn't so great. I think there may even be a sturdy enough tree above the spot to anchor a rope to.
Do you mean tiny, as in narrow side to side? What I had in mind is digging down a bit on the downhill side to give a flat space for stones, and building up stones to step level, with comfortable width steps. This would give less stress on any one step-stone and its base. What are your stones like? Round and smooth, jagged, or flat? Round stones would be a real problem to use for any significant structure. My local stones are mostly flat and more or less rectangular, making them ideal for building dry stone walls and stairs.
If you have balance issues, digging into the uphill side of the stairs and building up a small retaining wall might give you something to steady yourself with, while keeping the dirt from sliding down onto the steps.
William that's an interesting design I hadn't thought of. Wooden posts would be problematic because things rot and decay super fast here, and there are termites. But I am wondering if I put some metal bar or pipe. Hmm. Trying not to spend money on this project, but worth thinking about.
My rocks are varied. Kind of square-ish and rough. People with an abundance of these stones sometimes build structures with them (churches, mostly). I don't know what kind of mineral it's made of, and nobody else around does either. Every rock is just a rock, kind if like every kind of squash is just called a pumpkin no matter the variety. I also have some home made bricks. They are not very strong, but could maybe add some bulk under the outside edge.
Squarish and rough is good It doesn't matter what kind of mineral it is as long as it holds up to use.
If you can dig out a flat, solid base for the bottom stones to sit on, and build up to the step level you want, you should have a bit of stair that will last for years.
This is a good guide to dry stone walling (which is what you are doing, on a small scale. The rules still apply.)
How To Build A Dry Stone Wall Pay attention to "batter" and running the length of the stones into the wall.