By Mark Anderson
Switzerland isn’t particularly regarded as a sport climbing hotbed, but there are a few crags that are well-known on the world stage. We were able to visit two of the country’s premier sport crags, both located in the Berner Oberland region around the outdoor adventure mecca of Interlaken—Lehn and Gimmelwald.
Although not much more than an hour’s commute apart, these two crags are completely different. Lehn is hidden in a pine forest right above Interlaken, with tall, white walls that don’t look particularly special from the ground. The sandstone has a very grippy texture, but generally forms slopey holds that require precise body positions. The best routes overhang up to ~20 degrees and feature long, sustained, and uber-pumpy sequences. The long cliffband offers over a hundred routes and a wide range of grades from 5.9-ish to mid 5.14.
Gimmelwald is perhaps Switzerland’s most well-known crag, and certainly the most photogenic. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve almost certainly seen a picture of it. It’s nestled at the end of a remote alpine valley; accessed by cable car and a long walk. The main cliff overhangs in a steep swell that is streaked in beautiful blue and orange, with a backdrop of picturesque, snow-capped peaks. The routes overhang anywhere from ~30 to 120 degrees, and are known for bouldery-yet sustained climbing that produces major pumpfests. The climbing here pretty much starts at ~5.13-, and doesn’t really get good until the 5.13+ range. [Note, there is another crag at Gimmelwald, called “Sector B”, that offers routes in the 5.10-5.12 range. I did not climb at Sector B, but I inspected it closely, and based on that inspection, and visits to other Swiss crags, I would discourage anyone from climbing at Sector B—there are far better 5.10-5.12 sport crags in Switzerland!]
Lehn was the first crag we visited on the trip, essentially straight from the airport with major jet lag. Based on a general lack of information and its unassuming look, I had pretty low expectations for the climbing. I jumped on a 6c (~5.11b) to warmup and quickly found myself using every trick in my bag to sketch my way up the thing. The slopey, insecure, oozing style of climbing was a major shock. Body English is paramount, as is trusting your feet on polished bumps.
Despite my struggles, I couldn’t deny the crag’s quality. The rock was impeccable, if hard to read. As I progressed to harder routes, I found the grades felt more reasonable and the climbing only got better (struggling on warmups was a theme throughout the trip—I don’t know if this is due to nonlinear sandbagging, jet lag, or a combination of the two!).
The best route I did was a tall, uber-classic 7b+ (5.12c) called Schweizerhalle. This is a world class route, not quite as good as, but reminiscent of, Orange Juice at the Red. The climbing started with big moves between slopey, pumping jugs, leading to a final battle up a long molasses streak. The holds slowly morphed into small, angled edges requiring sequential gastons and crosses weaving to the top of the wall.
I was pretty lukewarm on the crag until I did this route, which really convinced me of Lehn’s quality. European guidebooks rarely offer any sort of quality ratings, so sometimes we visitors need to bumble around in the wilderness until we stumble upon the goods!
My experience at Gimmelwald was pretty much the opposite. I had found a lot of info on the crag and a lot of hype. The crag looked phenomenal and my expectations were correspondingly high. Although the scenery and position were every bit as good as advertised, I was disappointed in my climbing.
Roughly half the routes were dripping wet due to an early morning deluge, so I was pretty limited in my warm-up options, at a crag that is already known for its lack of “moderates.” The crag’s classic 7c+ (5.13a) Men at Work had fixed draws and was dry through the lower half, so I attempted to warmup on that. I really struggled to find a rhythm—it seemed like I was constantly off-balance and out of sequence.
Next I tried Teufelskuche, the crag’s other dry 7c+. This time it went a little better, but not by much. I couldn’t deny the quality of the rock, but frankly I wasn’t enjoying the climbing. When the climbing is awkward, its hard to know if that’s due to the rock or the climber. This section of the cliff generally consisted of stacked, sloping rails that all slanted down to the left, such that the climbing was generally slopey liebacking with all the footholds sloping away. I was constantly battling against a left-ward barn-door and I never felt relaxed or comfortable.
I had been warned before I left that the climbing at Gimmelwald really doesn’t get good until the 5.14s. Once I had confirmed this to my satisfaction, I decided to jump on something a bit harder, and found what turned out to be an incredible 8a+ (5.13c) called Surfer’s Paradise—the sector’s namesake.
Surfer’s Paradise climbs a huge, 45-degree overhanging swell of blue limestone, characterized by big moves between water pockets. For the most part the pockets were big and incut (and mostly dry). The bottom section involved really cool footwork, with overhead heel hooking and toe-camming passing a big hueco. The route never really eased up and ended with some really big, burly throws between well-spaced 3 and 4-finger mini-buckets.
By the time I lowered off, I could appreciate why this crag was so well-regarded. The setting is unmatched and when the climbing is good, its really good. Unfortunately the grades are pretty exclusive, which probably explains why the routes appeared relatively untraveled. I felt fortunate to get to experience a taste of what the area has to offer, but I was also content and excited to check out some more obscure Swiss crags…
…Coming soon: Swiss Sport Climbing Part 2: Off the Beaten Path