I pressed my fist into the crack and squeezed, increasing the pressure until I felt the skin begin to split against the sandstone. I glanced down at the 30-meter drop below me and took a deep breath. Either my fist would hold and I would keep ascending, or I would pop off the wall, a few grams of skin lighter. And I began to wonder just how well that piece of rope wedged into a crack, my only piece of protection, would hold up in a leader fall…
Clearly I’ve been reading too many books like Psychovertical. The only really exciting thing that happened is that I managed to burn my neck during a longish abseil. When I got home, Clair asked where I got the hickey. I told her it was the kiss of the figure eight.
I spent last weekend in Saxon Switzerland, a sandstone climbing region near Dresden, Germany. There are some special rules that have been in place since the late 1800s, namely: no metal protection (no cams, no nuts) and no chalk (manageable, although at temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit – which we ‘enjoyed’ – your hands do tend to sweat). This on routes where, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a bolt that was hammered in sometime before World War I, about 5 meters above the start of a route that begins in an overhanging roof. Ridiculous. See the picture if you don’t believe me. Yes, that black dot at bottom mid-center is the first ring, and the next one is just above it over the next overhang. Whatever.
I went on this intrepid journey with four other climbers from the German Alpine Club. Trip leader Robby Sandmann has tons of experience in Saxon Switzerland and elsewhere, while the rest of us were pretty much complete newcomers to climbing on real rock. Needless to say, when you trade in the training wheels of bolted routes for protection consisting of slings and loops draped around rock features, or threaded through hourglass-shaped indentions in the wall, you know you’re in for a good time.
And a good time it was. We managed to climb about 12 routes in two days, which with five people – only one of whom knew how to keep us from getting killed – is pretty decent. Most of the routes were graded I or II on the Saxon scale – which translates to easy – but a couple of them were graded IV, which is 5.5 on the YDS. But the point wasn’t to hone my skills until I could challenge Alex Honnold to a climb-whuppin’. My objective this weekend was to get some experience with some real-world climbing, learn about the area (it’s only two hours away by car from Berlin, which is much easier than a ten-hour push to the Alps), meet some new people, and learn about the unique rules of these seemingly suicidal Saxon climbers.
I was successful on all counts, and even managed to lead two pitches. I have to say that climbing in the real outdoors is so much more amazing than anything I’ve done so far. The Bielatal valley is a thickly forested area with these crazy sandstone towers tottering up into the sky. So while you’re belaying or waiting to abseil, there’s this thick scent of pine all around you, the sound of the Biela stream gurgling away below. Sitting on top of the peaks, I would look around at other towers where climbers were working their way up, and even though they were probably finishing up some sick climb that I’ll never be up for, I still felt some connected to them.
The first memory that stands out for me was climbing a chimney on the Herkuleswand. It was rated a I, but we must have read the guide wrong or something because we ended up in some tricky territory that our leader said was at least IV. And this was made all the nastier because of a ton of vegetation that was in the way, making a straightforward ascent impossible. There was a lot of stemming and a fairly hefty mantle up at the end. But when I topped out, I could definitely tell that I have made some big strides since my lead climbing course back in early May.
The second major moment was another chimney, this time a very wide one between two towers. It was a bit tricky because we had to keep moving from one side of the chimney to another; sometimes you could get both legs across the gap and step up, but several times you had to get on one wall of the chimney and continue climbing. Well, this was all fine and good until we suddenly heard the crash of thunder. A giant thunderhead, bristling with lightning, reared up from the west, and that first clap of thunder brought a gust of wind through the chimney. I was waiting my turn to ascend when all of this happened. The guy who was in the route was fairly new to climbing, so he understandably came back down in a jiffy. I was up next, so I hoofed it up there double-quick, and I was really surprised how fast it went. Luckily, even though it seemed like we were about to get doused or fried by lightning, the storm disappeared as quickly as it had come, and we abseiled down at our leisure.
The third and last memorable bit was my first hard IV in the great outdoors. We had been climbing pretty easy stuff, so I asked Robby to belay me from above while I tried something a bit harder on one of our routes. It was the first time in the whole trip that I was on a vertical wall with very few features, but, having been climbing three+ hours each week for almost two months, I had a much-improved feel for finding the holds. The final move was a hairy overhang that I definitely would not have wanted to lead – the holds on top were smooth-worn and didn’t really offer any purchase. But I managed to get my feet up under me and propel myself over the edge. I practically shouted “Berg heil!” to Robby, which is what you say in Saxon Switzerland when you reach the top.
Last but not least, I should note that my training is definitely paying off. The approaches to the climbs were short but very steep – easily 45 degrees – and because it was one zillion degrees with one zillion percent humidity, I was basically carrying a water cooler on my back (well, seven liters at least). And my rope, and my rack, and food, and a camera, etc. etc. But I didn’t even really notice, and I was even agile on slippery and rocky territory alike. So I could definitely tell that there has been a quantum leap in strength and endurance. More than once, I asked someone to get something for me out of my pack, and they said, “What the hell is in here? Rocks?”
On the way home, Robby and I talked a bit about alpine climbing. I told him that I’m interested in learning about multi-pitch climbing, and he suggested going to the Löbejün stone quarry near Halle to get some experience leading with nuts, cams, and building belay stations. If I can get enough people interested, he might even teach a course on it himself at Königshain in Görlitz. So that’s something to look forward to.
One thought kept recurring to me all weekend, though: who were the guys (and gals) who have climbed all of these thousands of routes in Saxon Switzerland, often secured by nothing more than a carabiner clipped into a figure-eight knot wedged into a crack? What were they climbing in when most of the original routes went up in the early twentieth century, when there were no climbing shoes, no carabiners, no modern ropes? And who are the maniacs today who are climbing Xa (5.12b) and keeping to these rules? It’s a humbling thought to think of all of the climbers who have come before, and how much raw courage it took to do things that no one thought was possible back then (or today, for that matter). I took it as a startling reminder that nascent alpinists are standing on the shoulders of giants, and that it’s important to recognize the need for humility in the face of the achievements of our predecessors.