Editor’s Note: This is Part V in a way-too-many-part series on Mark’s trip to Germany. If you missed Parts I thru IV you can check them out here:
- Part I: Hitting the Wall
- Part II: Getting Blasted
- Part III: Chasing Waterfalls
- Part IV: Blitzing the Classics
We were nearing the end of our trip, and the fatigue of “maximizing fun” was beginning to take its toll, but we still had one major excursion planned, and I was really looking forward to it. “Saxony” sits to the northeast of Bavaria, sharing its southern border with the Czech Republic and its eastern border with Poland. For tourists, Saxony’s main attraction is the breathtaking city of Dresden, in the heart of Cold War East Germany. For climbers, the main attraction is the “Sachsiche Schweiz” (literally, Saxon Switzerland), known to American climbers as “Elbsandstein” (literally, Elbe (river) sandstone).
As we approached the Sachsiche Schweiz region, a thick layer of fog enveloped the countryside, so we decided to delay our planned recon hike by visiting the imposing Festung Konigstein. Construction of this impressive fortress began in the 13th century, and it’s said that the structure is so intimidating that nobody ever bothered to attack it.
It was easy to see why. The fortress featured a series of tiered walls, the tallest of which were easily 100 feet high and quite sheer. Of course, as a climber visiting castles, I’m always envisioning lines of weakness and routes through stone walls that were meant to be impossible to climb. The fortifications were entwined with the sandstone that makes the region famous to climbers, further enhancing the fantasy.
This was the only castle that we paid to enter on the trip, and the interior was not particularly impressive, but the views from the fortress walls were unparalleled. The fog gradually cleared as we explored the extensive courtyard, revealing first the Elbe River, and then various distant spires of sandstone. The castle was awesome, but we were getting the itch to explore the natural stone fortress of Elbsandstein.
It’s hard to describe the scale of a place like Elbsandstein, but it’s rumored to contain more than 17,000 routes. That’s an insane number! Mountain Project lists 18,951 routes in the state of Colorado (granted, not every route in the state is listed, but the vast majority of them are). Colorado isn’t exactly know for restraint when it comes to route development. The entire country of Germany is only 31% larger (in terms of land area) than the state of Colorado, and the Sachsiche Schweiz is only a tiny fraction of that area.
To get a sense of the place, we picked a loop hike known as the Schrammsteinaussicht. This passage twists and turns through a narrow labyrinth of sandstone spires, utilizing a series of ladders, catwalks, and not-quite-enough railings for a family with two small kids. Think of it as Saxony’s version of the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion.
The hike started in dense forest, but we were progressively introduced to more and more rock. First a narrow canyon coated in velvety green moss, and then a viewpoint that revealed distant sandstone spires. After more woods, we passed through a grove of towers on the order of 100 feet tall. The most impressive tower in this are was a broad, twin-summited spire known as Schrammtorwachter (which means something like “Schramm Gatekeeper”—a fitting description). At this point I spotted the first sign of rock climbers—an iron ring bolt located about 20 feet up the Schrammtorwachter’s south face.
Elbsandstein is legendary for its strict ethics. No metal protection is allowed, except for the rarely placed iron ring pitons. The cams and nuts that we consider essential to traditional climbing are not allowed for fear they will damage the soft sandstone. The primary form of protection is nylon cord, slung around natural features when possible, or tied into elaborate knots and slotted into constricting cracks (in recent years new types of “soft” protection have been introduced, like nuts made out of layered nylon webbing). Needless to say, this protection is dubious at best, especially when placed by neophytes.
The rings, on the other hand, seemed quite solid. The piton blade is easily an inch wide and a quarter inch thick, and the ring material is beefy as well. However, all rings must be placed ground-up, and may be placed no closer than 3-meters apart. No three rings can be within 10 meters. It’s definitely not sport climbing, even on routes that offer ring protection.
Once I picked out a ring, I started seeing them quite frequently. Even the blankest, steepest looking walls seemed to have rings in the most inconceivable places (although the stone was rarely overhanging, except in the case of short roof sections). It was hard to imagine what it would be like to lead up these features with nothing but some nylon cord and a drill bit.
We continued snaking around rocks and through gullies until we reached a series of ladders and platforms that led to the summit. Logan loved it and was really psyched to climb the ladders himself. Right as we reached the summit we saw a nearby climbing party beginning to descend from the tiny “Tante” (Aunt) spire.
On the way back down I made several detours to inspect various features up close. The rock looks very similar to the vertical walls of the Red River Gorge. Extremely featured in places, and quite blank in others. Some if the rock even had iron dike intrusions like those found all over the Left Flank (and other crags) at the Red. The rock was also frighteningly soft in some places. Much of the light gray stone was so soft you could probably dig into it with a small stick. The best stuff was the dark black patina, and some of it formed impressive horns, shallow pockets and incut crimps. The catch was that this patina was quite brittle in spots and frequently hollow and filled with loose sand. Holds could easily snap off or crumble under load. So not only was the gear sketchy, but the rock was suspect.
Seeing all this amazing rock, all these unbelievable features, and some climbers in action, set off a chain reaction inside of me that grew into an obsession. I had to climb something here. I knew I was ill-equipped—I didn’t have a guidebook , the skills to place protection here, or the time to acquire either, but surely I could find something relatively moderate, with enough fixed rings, to keep me off the deck. I didn’t bring any gear on the hike, so it would have to wait until tomorrow, but the plan was set in motion. Until then it was time to get some dinner in the mythic city of Dresden.
Dresden is known for its stunning architecture. The city was completely destroyed during World War II, but it has since been painstakingly rebuilt. I’m not really one for cities, but I would have to say Dresden is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Unlike Barcelona (one of my other favorites) the scenic part of Dresden is really dense and compact. The Altstadt is almost entirely unspoiled and you can easily see the most impressive sights entirely on foot (even with two small kids in tow).
Our hotel was right in the center of things, so we were able to walk right out our door for a self-guided tour as the sun was beginning to set. A few blocks down there happened to be a Herbst Fest in progress, so we got a quick meal and a beer, Logan got a train ride, and Amelie played in the fountains. After dinner we waltzed through the plaza below Dresden’s most iconic landmark, the towering Frauenkirche.
The magnificent Frauenkirche was completely obliterated during the notorious Allied fire-bombing campaign in 1945. I’m a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and surely his most famous book is the semi-autobiographical novel Slaughterhouse V, which follows the non-linear travails of an American soldier imprisoned in Dresden during the air raid. It was sad to think that such a beautiful place was once completely destroyed, but even worse to contemplate the terrible forces that led to it. Apparently the city was also completely destroyed by a Prussian siege in 1760, and suffered serious damage during the German Revolutions in 1848, only to be re-constructed each time. Vonnegut would say “So it goes.”
For decades after World War II the Frauenkirche was left in rubble as a war memorial, but after Reunification of East and West Germany it was rebuilt to look exactly as it did before the war. In any case, it looked amazing, and the evening light gave all the buildings a glorious yellow glow.
We continued our stroll through the old city, crossing the Elbe River to watch the city skyline fade into darkness before returning back through a maze of architectural masterpieces. Every corner was captivating—it’s the sort of place you could never tire of.
The next morning we headed out bright and early to the tourist mecca known as The Bastei (literally “bastion”, or fortification). This is one of those places with a constant stream of tour buses coming and going, and between the hours of 10am and 4pm the place is completely packed with crowds. We were able to beat the rush and get a brief unspoiled glimpse of the beautiful sea of sandstone spires that tower over the meandering Elbe.
The centerpiece is the multi-arched stone bridge (known as the Basteibrucke) that leads to an old mini-fortress hidden quite well within the rocks. However, the real attraction is the magnificent views. Once again there was a dense layer of fog, which I think really added to the mystique. The fog slowly lifted throughout the day, revealing more and more spectacular towers and expansive views.
This time I brought my kit with me, and I was on the lookout for rings. There’s a nice loop hike that drops down around the Bastei, and I quickly spotted a short, slightly detached tower of stone with a series of rings leading up a blunt prow. With three rings in 50 feet, this was a sport climb by local standards.
Kate was super-not-psyched about my plan, especially after I spent the last 48 hours talking up the danger of the Elbsandstein’s climbs and the unparalleled boldness of its climbers. Now I had some serious backtracking to do to convince her that it really wasn’t that bad and I would be fine. There was a time when I was quite a bold climber, but we’ve been strictly in sport climbing mode since the kids came along. She wasn’t too re-assured by my assertion that the worst-case scenario was a few broken bones. Apparently “it’s not like I’m going to die” isn’t a very compelling argument.
Despite her reservations, I unwrapped my rope and racked up. I was pretty confident when I left the ground. The first bit of climbing to reach the lowest ring was really straight-forward, up a highly featured slab on the left side of the prow. After the first clip, the climb trended right onto a steeper face with dark gray incut edges. Just as I was passing the first ring a solid looking edge crumbled under my left foot. I was in a good spot and easily avoided coming off, but it really got me thinking about the rock quality. The hold that dissolved under a fraction of my body weight looked completely bomber, like the black patina of Red Rocks. I didn’t have the experience with this type of rock to really judge which edges were solid and which were suspect, so I decided to avoid all the small incuts and instead use larger slopers and other low-profile holds that were less likely to break. This approach made the climbing much more tedious and much less fun, but it kept me on the rock.
After several minutes I reached the second ring, and from that point I felt pretty confident that Kate could keep me off the ground in the event of a fall. I was able to relax a bit as the angle lessened gradually near the top. With growing confidence I made quick progress to the last ring. I found a highly dubious thread a body-length above the third ring, but I clipped it in hopes that it would re-assure Kate (it didn’t). Soon I was at “the summit”, which luckily had a nice big beefy rap ring. This was probably just the end of the first pitch of some multi-pitch route, but I was temporarily satisfied with my brief sample of the Elbsandstein climbing experience.
What I learned is that this is not the sort of climbing area you can experience in one or two days. It would be like trying to experience Yosemite in eight hours. You really need to take the time to just be here, explore the area, and work through the grades as you learn the rock and the protection. Perhaps some time in the future I will have the opportunity to do that, but for now all I really know is that I absolutely want to come back!
If I have even the slightest ability as a writer, it should be evident by now that we had a fantastic trip. Shortly after I returned my good friend Fred Gomez (a new proud father) asked me if we would do it again considering the difficulties of traveling with two small kids. The answer is ABSOLUTELY! It was such an awesome trip, easily the climbing highlight of my year, in a year filled with worthy candidates. On the drive home from the airport Kate and I were already brainstorming ideas for future adventures to faraway places. Thanks to all the people who helped make it happen, especially Kate, Logan and Amelie for putting up with a season’s worth of climbing crammed into 17 days. Thanks to my sister Christina, and her husband Eric for putting us up (and putting up with us) in Weiden. Thanks to Shawn Heath and his lovely wife whose name I can pronounce but won’t dare try to spell, for showing us around the Frankenjura and insisting that we visit Dresden. Finally, thanks to the entire Trango/Tenaya team for continuing to support my climbing endeavors.