After months of planning, weeks of training and many days of anxious packing, it was finally time for our journey to begin. The flight to Germany turned out to be pretty uneventful. We were really worried about flying so far with two young kids, and perhaps all that worry, and the resultant preparations, paid off. Kate packed an impressive collection of toys and other distractions which really helped keep the kids entertained.
Once we arrived in Nuremberg we went for a short sightseeing walk around the Nuremberg Altstadt (old city), and then we headed north to scope out the approach to the crags for the next day. The Frankenjura is notoriously complex, with a maze of tiny winding roads, and finding your crag can sometimes be the crux of your climb (in the end, we were always able to find what we were looking for, but we made a few wrong turns here and there).
After some shenanigans getting out of the city we found ourselves cruising the luxurious autobahn. The Autobahn is pretty much like any US freeway, but with a much nicer road surface (no potholes) and no slow drivers in the left lane. The German drivers are very courteous in this regard, frequently sacrificing their own speed to avoid delaying faster drivers. Driving was one of many surprising pleasures of the trip. The landscape is a patchwork of rolling hills, farms, forests abundant with colorful fall foliage, and compact villages. Smooth roads twist and turn through an ever-interesting vista of medieval churches, rainbow-colored houses, hidden limestone walls, and lush vegetation. We made good time towards Plech where we saw the first signs for the “Frankische Schweiz” (literally “Franconian Switzerland”, aka, “Frankenjura”).
The first crag was easy to find. Weissenstein (“White Wall”) is right on the main road, and when they say a crag is good for kids they aren’t exaggerating. There were easily 10 kids there already, including several who were climbing and one in a pram. The rock looked outstanding, and the holds, while polished, had a nice gritty texture to them that made me think polished holds wouldn’t be much of a problem. [In hindsight, we came across quite a few polished routes, but we were going way out of our way to climb the most famous routes in Germany. Even then, polish was far less problematic than I found it in France and Spain. Most of the time the rock is so featured and the climbs so steep that you don’t mind the polish at all—if anything it’s a plus. On thin vertical routes it can be a bit of a problem on footholds, and I’m certain a few of the routes I did have gotten more difficult over the years as a result of traffic. However, thin vertical routes aren’t very common in the Frankenjura.]
Next we headed for Krottenseer Turm, home to Wolfgang Güllich’s legendary testpiece Wallstreet. Wallstreet was the world’s first 5.14b (11- on the German scale, or 8c in French terms), and I was really anxious to check it out. My primary climbing objective for this trip was to gain some appreciation for what Güllich was capable of in his prime. I also wanted to visit a broad selection of crags and climb a ton of routes. With those competing goals in mind, I set aside my first two climbing days for an attempt on Wallstreet. By this point I had already decided I didn’t want to spend my entire trip camped out under one route, but I was committed to at least trying it. After those first two days I would re-evaluate my priorities.
I headed into the mossy, damp forest and walked toward the towering wall. It was impressive. The sloping hillside makes it even more formidable, looming like a castle facade, with little curved turrets on either side. I flipped through the guidebook and identified all the major lines. I was really amped to come back and try Wallstreet, but it was getting late and we still had a good hour of driving to reach my sister’s house in Weiden.
After a surprisingly good night of sleep, we awoke early and fairly well-rested. Our plan was to warm up at Weissenstein before heading to Krottenseer Turm. In all my travels, Weissenstein is the best cliff I’ve ever been to for climbing with kids. It’s one of the best cliffs I’ve been to period. The cliff has routes of every grade from 5.6 to 5.13a, and literally, all the routes are world class (for their respective grades). The rock is flawless and extremely interesting, heavily pocketed limestone. The cliff base is flat and grassy, the approach is 30 seconds, and there’s a mix of shade and sun. The best domestic comparison I can think of is Chuckwalla Wall in St. George, Utah, but with twice as many routes, infinitely better rock, and half the approach. It’s a true climber’s paradise.
Every route we did was stellar, culminating with two lines on the right “steep” side of the wall. The first route, a Kurt Albert 12a called Dampfhammer, was climbed via huge, sequential reaches between perfect jugs. We accidentally stranded some draws on the upper slab, so rather than climb it again I decided to try the Wolfgang Güllich 13a to its left. Normally I don’t try to onsight 5.13 as part of my warmup, but I really wanted to get those draws back! And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try a Güllich line. This became a theme throughout the trip.
The crux was supposed to be low and bouldery, so I figured it would be a good warmup and not too taxing. After a few technical moves, I arrived at the Krampfhammer crux, a blank wall with several mono pockets. Welcome to the Frankenjura! The first few moves weren’t too hard, but then I was in the bulge, with my left hand in a high mono and nothing else within reach. I hiked up my feet, uttered the predictable “watch me”, and lunged high and right for a hidden patch of chalk. Jug! After that more 5.11 jug-hauling led up the steep wall to the chains.
We packed our stuff into the car and raced towards my rendezvous with Wallstreet. The route starts with an easy slab, and then gets progressively harder as you ascend, culminating in a crux roof encounter a few meters below the anchor. The climbing up to the roof was beautiful, with technical moves on mostly sinker pockets. There’s a powerful move just below the roof, and then a long reach out to a good clipping jug at the lip. The headwall is relatively monolithic, with a few shallow, well-spaced two-finger pockets.
The crux boulder problem begins at the lip of the roof with a reach to a three-finger dish, and then a difficult stab to an incut but shallow (3/4-pad) two-finger pocket. The hardest individual move is pulling off this pocket. Güllich apparently placed his right hand in this pocket (shown in the Wallstreet poster), threw his left foot super high to the lip of the roof, and then made a big reach to another shallow, sloping, two-finger pocket. Another option is to take the incut two-finger with the left hand, get the left foot up to the lip, back flag and lunge desperately for a thin three-finger crimp. There are also various other divots and dishes with smatterings of chalk that didn’t seem too promising. Above here, two or three difficult, but not desperate moves lead to easier ground and the anchor.
I spent about 45 minutes trying the various options. I could get the incut two-finger but I couldn’t realistically pull off of it. With the undercut roof, and the slick, featureless nature of the stone at the lip, you basically need to suspend your entire body weight from that pocket. It felt incredibly tweaky and painful, and I gained new respect for the few climbers who have done this sequence on redpoint. I gave it two burns on Friday and one more on Sunday, but I was pretty well-convinced after the first burn that it was not going to happen.
I’m really glad I got the opportunity to try it, and that I was able to try it at a time in my career when I was strong enough to appreciate it. I was actually very relieved that it was unrealistic for this trip. My biggest fear heading into the trip was that I would fool myself into thinking I could do it, spend the entire time flailing on it, and still walk away empty-handed. The outcome was pretty clear-cut, and that freed me to enjoy other routes without any regrets. Still, it makes me wish I lived nearby, because it’s precisely the type of route I would really enjoy training for and working as a long-term project. At the same time, I realize I live in a great place too, with plenty of awesome climbs to keep me busy.
Before we left Krottenseer Turm on Sunday there was one more route I desperately wanted to do. In 1981, the great John Bachar visited Germany to participate in an international climbing festival. During his visit he claimed the first ascent of an open project on the right side of the cliff. The line followed a discontinuous groove with an intermittent crack that climbed over several steep bulges. I would imagine it seemed very futuristic for the day, considering its steepness. He graded the route 5.13a, which made it the hardest route in Europe at the time, and one of the hardest in the world [ultimately the route was downgraded to .12d, but it would easily rate 5.13 at any of the world’s modern vacation crags]. He called the route Chasin’ the Trane, the title of a John Coltrane album. Many have taken this to be a not-so-subtle dig at the European climbing scene, although others have alleged that Bachar denied that. According to Güllich’s Biography (the must-read A Life in the Vertical), Bachar’s ascent was a huge deal in Germany. It made Bachar an instant star, and the route an instant test-piece.
By the time I cleaned my gear off Wallstreet, it was pouring down rain and the top of the cliff was soaked. I waited in vain for the rain to stop, as the various waterfalls inched their way lower and lower down the cliff. The route was still mostly dry, so eventually I decided I was going to take my chances and deal with whatever moisture came my way.
The route begins with slabby moves on big jugs to reach a horizontal break below a steep bulge. I made a few big moves between sinker pockets to reach a pumpy stance at the lip of the bulge. At this point a thin seam appears and most of the pockets vanish. I made some strenuous liebacking moves to get established in the groove. I was able to get good shakes from some awkward stems, but the climbing was really physical and surprisingly pumpy. I could see how a California crack master would excel on this type of terrain. At the top of the seam, the route traverses right below a roof, and then clears a final bulge before following a long slab to the anchor. I got one last shake below this roof, contemplating my exit strategy. It was still raining hard, and I knew the best case scenario was a soaking wet run to the anchor. At the very top of the seam is a good incut sidepull that I was able to lever out on, allowing a huge reach to a flat jug at the top of the bulge. The jug was a puddle, but it was positive enough that with dry footholds I was able to work my way up onto the slab. Much to my relief, the finishing slab was littered with incut pockets and good footholds. I knew I wasn’t going to fall and enjoyed the early shower as I made my way to the top.
Click here to read Germany Part II: Getting Blasted!