My left hand cups a full undercling while my right shades the sun from my eyes. Above me, the short arete curves out of sight, my insecurity about balancing on sloping sandstone in the full sun causes me to hesitate. Climbing to the right is objectively more dangerous. I’d be farther from my last protection. It looks untraveled, crumbly, and crimpy. I call down to Jane and climb to the right anyway.
The season is just beginning in Saxony. The late summer days are still too hot for most of the walls in Schmilkaer Gebiet, part of the Elbsandsteingebirge, which literally translates to the sandstone mountains. It’s a vast protected area in eastern Germany on the border with the Czech Republic. There are thousands of established routes on both sides of the border and over 150 years of documented climbing history.
Story by Tanager, a bonus online feature from The Zine. If you’d like to subscribe to The Zine, please do, there’s a link at end the of this article to our online store.
Germans, mostly, have been climbing sandstone towers since the mid-1800s. The towers are renowned as the cradle of free climbing from which a full-fledged community, chock full of tradition, has grown. Since then, the capabilities of individual climbers have evolved drastically. The style and ethics, however, have not. On the sandstone, style is law.
The German side has some of the strictest climbing ethics I’ve ever encountered. It’s forbidden to climb on anything that connects with the forest at the top. All development is ground up, all the rings must be at least 30cm deep, chalk is forbidden, toproping and stick clips are taboo when not explicitly banned. Instead of cams and nuts, climbers use a small sword to shove knotted bits of rope into cracks and holes or thread slings around hourglasses of sandstone. These rules are enforced by wardens and park officials as well as by members of the local climbing community. That is not to say that they are adhered to perfectly.
Despite the vibrant local climbing community, few women lead up the towers. Many of the women I met told me they preferred to climb as a second because of the lack of protection. And fear. Local women put up strong ascents and develop new routes, but the ratios in the park are woefully lower than anywhere else I’ve climbed in Europe or North America.
The fear makes sense. Some routes protect better than others, but learning by doing is the only way to find this out without a committed local mentor. I unknowingly put myself on an X rated route for my first of the season. I first came here in 2018 for two memorable weeks and had been wanting to return ever since. Not just to spend the friction season on the sandstone but to climb with as many women as possible, which is how I met Jane.
About 160cm tall and blonde, Jane and I have at least some superficial things in common. We also each wanted to climb in Saxony with a woman. Despite the 100+ year history of climbing in the region, I rarely saw an all-female team climbing. From behind the wooden framed window, I watched her walk up the narrow cobblestone road with a backpack that looked as though she could fit inside it. Though we had not yet met, it was a familiar sight. Her sister and I climbed next to each other briefly in Juval, a Klettergarten [climbing garden] in Süd Tirol, Italy. When I mentioned my fall plans in Elbsandsteingebirge and my goal of climbing with as many women as possible, she put me in touch with her twin.
Without a solid idea of what we wanted to climb, we sat with the guidebook and some coffee. About pocket-sized and yellow, this guidebook has given me more frustration than any other. It is, at best, a book of cryptic clues to help an overeager climber find a route. The introduction to the previous version describes climbing to the reader as “this lovely manly sport.” Which route to try to find should be found out elsewhere. Even the names of the climbs are uninspiring; West Arete, Valley Wall, North Wall… There must be two hundred routes named South Face in the region. How anyone can find inspiration in these pages of tiny text, I don’t know.
Together, we flip through the pages, laughing at its uselessness to us. Exasperation snuck up my cheeks while I attempted to read the route descriptions written entirely in abbreviations and German jargon I certainly didn’t learn in Berlin. That Jane, a native speaker, struggled with the book too averted my creeping discouragement. From the living room table in this dark valley, nothing seemed all that motivating.
The Böser Turm outcropping appeared to be the last tower in a line of rocks jutting out into the valley. I realized there was a pitch put up by my Gastgeber, an VIIIb called Sockelkante (the English translation is something like the Lower Arete). I felt somewhat indebted to my host, so climbing a route of his seemed like a fitting way to pay some respect, even if the name translated to “Evil Tower”.
That fall, VIIIa-c (6b-6c+, or roughly 10d-11c) was my preferred grade range in Saxony. Hard enough to require some actual body-on-rock skills but far enough below my physical limits for there to be wiggle room for error (such as my tendency to climb off-route). Climbing in Saxony is characterized by the unknown; each day, I’d walk up to the wall with no beta on the protection, no chalk, no idea if it’s an endurance route or a reachy one move wonder. Not because I ignored this information, but because it’s incredibly hard to find. Nowhere else I have been has the barrier to entry been so high, the community so awkwardly unwelcoming, and the climbing so blatantly risky. The 6b-6c+ range seemed like an appropriate challenge.
Up the hill we went. Chatting away, getting to know each other. Shouldn’t it feel odd, to meet someone and trust them with your life a few minutes later? It doesn’t. We walked right past our turn. Past the next one too. Retracing our steps back down the hill to an intersection, we took the correct turn up towards the rocks, following a sandbox shaped like a worm supplemented with untarred railroad ties and then turned left, when it seemed right. In only a few short minutes, we were at the wall. Well, a wall.
The white circle painted on the wall told us that to the left was a Turm [tower], and thus climbable. The rock to the right was designated as a Massif [a face or wall connected to the forest above] and therefore, in Elbsandsteingebirge, legally off-limits. A man was nearing the top of a first pitch to a terrace. Is this the Böser Turm, I asked? Jane chimed in too, our attention directed at the woman belaying. “Keine Ahnung,” she told us she had no idea where she was, only that the route her climber was on was a IV (something under 5.6). I asked the man climbing, who yelled down from the lofty heights of 15m, “Es gibt hier kein Böser Turm!” [There’s no Böser Turm here!] The woman told us, twice, that we were definitely too low, and that we needed to start up higher. No, that can’t be true. We were looking for the Sockel of the Böser Turm, the foot of the tower. We walked past them, stopping for a few minutes to marvel at some decent looking bright orange rock. Around and up, the three of us scrambled through the pine forest. Jane gave her adorable dog Berta a boost every now and then, and then suddenly, we popped out on top of the terrace. In front of me was the man we had seen earlier.
He was belaying her now. She was leading up the Alter Weg III (Old Route, class 4), barefoot in the sunshine. She had placed one sling around a tree and another giant piece of webbing around some of the curvy sandstone that led to the top of the tower. We asked him the name of the tower, “Böser Turm,” he said.
“Wat, bitte? Aber du hast mir gesagt…” [What!? But you told me…]
“Es gibt keine Boser Turm hier, das hier ist ein Böser Turm.” [There’s no Boser Turm hier, this is the Böser Turm].
He had just been making fun of my pronunciation. Or being rude was his sense of humor. Or trying to discourage a foreigner from climbing. Or I’m jumping to conclusions. Hadn’t Jane, a native German speaker, said something too? I was too flustered to respond.
“Hier ist das Abseillöse, wenn du unbedingt von unten anfangen willst, ihr sollten hier abseilen.” [Here’s the rap station, if you absolutely want to start from the bottom, you should rappel down from here.]
“Ne, ne. Wir werden runter laufen.” [No, no. We’ll walk back around.]
We also had a dog. An angry fire was burning inside me, and my ego jumped in to add,
“If I rappel, I won’t be able to onsight those routes. Anyways, the climbs we’re looking for are further left, on the arete.”
He said, “ihr konnte die beide klettern, aber alles links davon ist zu schwer.” [You can do these two, but all the routes further left are too hard.]
A small smile crept to my lips, and some of my frustration faded, “schwer ist relativ.” [Hard is relative.] We turned to leave.
As we walked back down, I kept imagining myself from his eyes. How did I look to him? Like a gym-rat, maybe, strong and stupid in my bright blue shirt.
The orange arete looked promising, with rounded features curving up along the corner. An old piece of rope tied through an hourglass of hardened sand was the first checkpoint, the second a heavy ring, at the modest height of 5m. It appeared to be the route we had set out to climb, Sockelkante VIIIc, put up by Mike Jäger in 1998.
It started off slightly overhung. Combined with the crumbly texture, feelings of insecurity pressed on my bladder. I put my shoes on while Jane measured out enough rope before putting the rope in the gri-gri. I hesitated before every single move, but Jane was full of patience. In the first five minutes of testing directions, no holds broke. I finally trusted myself enough to make a committing move up to where I hoped I could clip the sand clock. The threader was worn through, strands of core rubbing on rough rock, some broken. I’m little, I reassured myself, and looked up at the ring. The next moves are lost to me. All I can recall is throbbing in my forearms the moment the rope passed through the gate of my draw. I clipped two draws. Because the rings lay flat on the wall, you’re essentially always backclipped. Opposing two draws on a ring is common practice here. Though I’ve never had my rope unclip itself from a draw while falling, I’ve seen it happen. It’s not something I want to test.
A small reach up and left. Coarse orange and yellow sand. What even holds these grains together? Will it disintegrate? My mantra – someone bigger would have broken it already – doesn’t work here. No one climbs these routes. Left hand on a sloping undercling, right to a small pinch on the face. Feet up and a long move around the arete to a big open-handed sloping gaston. My center is too low to shoulder into it. Instead of committing to the move, I fall a short meter and look up. The next ring isn’t too far. With a good belayer, the clipping holds are probably before the ground fall zone. I wish I didn’t struggle so much with depth perception.
I try again. And again. Variations on a theme, but the sloping gaston seems to be a constant. My motivation plummets as soon as I understand the move. Not because I don’t believe I can do it, but because imagining myself having climbed above this sequence sends a wave of uncertainty through my body.
What if there’s another move up high? I couldn’t onsight this move. Is this the crux? What grade is this route anyways? VIIIb is like French 6c is like 5.11c is like something I can climb without breaking a sweat while giving a friend relationship advice but sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s sandbagged and sometimes the person who suggested the grade is 190cm tall and sometimes I have to do moves that belong on a 5.13 on an 11c and sometimes I fall and sometimes backing down is the right decision.
“Everything to the left is too hard.”
The awkward German man’s voice echoes in my head. Was I too cocky in my response? Schwer ist relativ. 6c is relative too.
I lower to the ground. We reassess. Jane has never belayed me before, and I just took 30 minutes to climb 5 meters. She appears to be completely relaxed, insisting that she’s happy to climb anything as long as I lead.
Two routes to the right, I see a ring in the middle of hyperfeatured sandstone. According to the book, Schlussspurt is the same grade as the Sockelkante. Put up in 1980 by D. Ulbrich, it has three rings in the ~30 meters of the first pitch. Technical, vertical climbing where I can keep three points on the wall at a time seems inviting. The black sandstone with ripples and pockets beckons upwards.
The path of least resistance traverses right three meters off the ground. My feet are under a small belly, and handholds are at my waist. Try as I might, my center of gravity won’t transfer smoothly to the right, and the more I lean into the wall, the less I can see my feet. With the discovery of an incut side pull, my body shifts as if through an invisible barrier. Suddenly, I’m directly under the ring. Simple movements follow and as I clip two draws to it, a tightness I hadn’t yet noticed releases.
One of the positive things about a high first ring is that the next several meters are safe. After the ring, the rock improves. Distinct pockets, almost sharp, accept my fingers. The stone feels solid under my skin, though it still crumbles a bit under the rubber on my toes. I pull a piece of Kevlar from the gear loop on my harness and fiddle with an overhand knot.
A flat knot slides better into a narrow opening. They don’t expand like cams do. Nor are they perfectly tapered like a nut. This placement seems straightforward. The weakest aspect is probably the sandstone itself. Sliding the knot down behind a graham cracker thick wall of stone, I poke at it with my sword. I arrange it so one string is lower than the other, shaping the loop into a teardrop.
The purple of the Kevlar contrasts royally with the black sandstone. My lilac and white draw bring the rope into the painting. Just up here, decorating the wall. “Ich glaube es ist gut! Aber veilleicht kannst du nochmal gucken und checken.” [I think it’s good! But maybe you can just take a look and check.] Though three babies in about as many years has kept her off the walls recently, Jane is an experienced sandstone climber. Especially compared to me.
Placing knotted bits of rope as protection is a challenging skill to learn here. It’s not like I can place a cam just below my knot and test it. Toproping isn’t part of the local ethics. To practice placing knots elsewhere is a bit odd, why waste valuable climbing time on a random skill that is hardly applicable anywhere else in the world?
The next two moves are between pinky-down finger locks in thin slots that bite my skin gently, a type of pain that inspires trust. My feet pass the knot as I climb into a no-fall zone. Small holds and delicate movements, a slight pump builds in my forearms. I reach a long horizontal break and shake a moment. My favorite sling – which I found in the basement of my host’s house – is fuzzy. Fuzz means friction, right? Friction means it holds, right? I loop it over a rounded piece of rock and continue upward.
A line of incut fingerbuckets trends up and left, dividing the darker, hardened sandstone from the brighter, sandy sandstone. The ring comes quickly, and the next isn’t so far away either, another traverse to the right. This time with less features; the blue rock glistens in the sun. My hand reaches behind me, but I wipe my hand on my butt when I discover that there is, of course, no chalk bag back there.
“Wie weit Rechst soll ich eigentlich? Kante oder weiter?” [How far right should I climb? The arete or further?] Much of my weight is on my feet and I have a substantial undercling at my waist, so Jane picks up the book to try to decipher the description. Around the corner, the holds look crumbly and unclimbed. Straight up looks slopey and low percentage in today’s heat. A few false starts up the arete and I climb around the corner. My rope curls around the edge and disappears.
I’m slow to decide. I try to weigh the probabilities and consequences. It seems easier to the right. And chossier. The fall is worse. Much worse. The arete is slopey. If there are holds, I can’t see them. It’s hot today and in the full sun, the grade could only be true on a cooler day. If I climb around the corner, will it still count? There’s so much unknown, and none of it is that important. I just want to go up.
Two holds break. I weight each placement slowly. It’s only a few meters of climbing and I’m on top. “Stand! Kannst aus!” [Off belay!] I shout down and start pulling the rope up. Looping the rope around a tree, I walk towards the rounded edge to belay Jane.
I try to find her on the other end, out of sight some 30 meters below. Even though the rope is only attached to the rock in five places, it zigzags and drags. Tugging gently, I close my eyes to try to find that goldilocks amount of tension. I don’t want her to deck nor do I want to pull her off balance on the first traverse either. She falls before the first ring and I imagine her dangling in space.
Opening my eyes again, I watch a man take and sit at the last ring of a route around the corner. His gut protrudes above his harness like his pregnant partner’s belly. I wonder if it ever occurred to him to stop drinking beer while his wife was pregnant. Or if he would shave his head if she went through chemo. He’s less than two meters from topping out his pitch on the terrace, but he rappels out of relevance. A woman descends from the tower above me. We make eye contact and I smile. No chit chat, no hallo, she disappears. I watch the next pitch in front of me. It has two rings and the rock is very featured. My eyes gaze at the potential holds leading up towards the first ring. They have potential, if they’re not crumbly. It doesn’t look well-traveled. It’s not that far to the first iron checkpoint, only four body lengths.
Closing my eyes to the sun, my consciousness shifts into my palms. The world is comprised now of only the vibrations in the rope, tingling triceps, and arcing wrists. Distractions are limited to the coarse grains of stone on my soles and a brief attempt to sand down the callouses on my toes.
Jane appears before me brightly, backlit by the afternoon sun. Is this how people see me? My purple knot was good, she reports, and something in me swells with pride. Or relief. A flicker of hope seems to pass over me. Preparing for the next pitch, she recounts she ended up off route after she fell and couldn’t help but send quite a bit of choss down. The kid on the ground didn’t seem to care when she yelled rock. The parents didn’t tell him to move either, Jane shakes her head in mild disapproval. She launches into another anecdote. While I was climbing,
“Pass mir mal das Stick Clip! [Pass me the stick clip!]” the man around the corner had yelled at his wife.
“Aber nur wenn die madels mich nicht sehen konnen [but only if the chicks can’t see me!]”
The man’s voice had carried over to Jane, who looked at the woman belaying. They made eye contact before she went to grab the stick clip. Perhaps they had carefully kept it out of sight, because I feel like I would have noticed if I had seen one. Between the retro-bolting drama, absolute aversion towards ‘sport climbing’, and the ban on chalk, this sandstone mecca doesn’t have all that much in common with Red River Gorge. Stick clips most certainly aren’t part the ‘standard kit’ for climbing in Elbsandsteingebirge.
Jane places a knot in a horizontal crack and extended some rope to anchor herself for the belay. The wall starts at shoulder height, an alcove below provides just empty space and perhaps a good bivy spot, but no footholds. Standing on top a small block on the terrace, I’m able to reach for what look like the most solid of the holds. The first few moves are uncomfortably powerful, and the rule ‘the higher you go, the better the rock will get’ doesn’t seem to have any truth to it.
I climb in a Smith Rocks-esque style. Three points on, pull the body into a position, hold it, and move just one limb. Again and again. Locking off on a left gaston, I clip the ring. It’s a lousy hold in the right place, my weight is equally distributed and the movement of my arm to clip the ring doesn’t disturb my balance or shift my weight in a way that could cause a foothold to crumble. My whole life I’ve never worried too much about breaking holds or chairs or tree branches because I just assume that someone heavier would have touched it already. Footholds, sure, but that’s just because I tend to seek out my own that help me compensate for my height. Here, though, the rock sometimes is so fragile. With no chalk, there’s no proof that someone else has tested the holds before me. Though the book listed Talweg as a full three grades below the last pitch, it feels just as hard and I’m only halfway up.
These sandstone towers sometimes look like snowmen, rounded balls on top of one another. The little band between below the top ball of the tower is big enough for me to rest on and I shuffle back and forth, placing a knot far to the left and extending it with a sling. Straight up doesn’t seem like an option, overhung and sandy without enough features. To the right, it is still steep, but the rock is at least featured. It is rippled, thin, and crumbly. I scour the overhang for evidence of a previous climber, white marks where feet have broken off nubs, but turn up nothing.
Extending my sling in the band, I climb left. Pausing briefly to place a sling around a plant, I climb up a flared groove. The terrain is mellow, barely class 5. On top of the bulge, I traverse back right and peer down at the overhang. A single groove through the stone cut by a rope comes into focus.
Stubbornness floods through my chest. Feet first, facing the wall, I downclimb to the band, unsling the plant and traverse back right below the small chossy roof. With one hand and my teeth, I place a blue and white sling around a weird horn. Earlier, I was afraid to even use it as a handhold and yet here I am, pretending it’ll hold me if I fall. I only need to climb two meters before I’m in cruising terrain to the top. The horn is at my chest, my left hand on a sloper. I try a few different footholds. They crumble.
Looking up, the moves appear in my mind. Long dynamic left hand moves up, bump, place the left foot, but where? False start. Downclimb. I chat with Jane. The calm patience in her voice relieves me. I know I must let my left foot free, but it feels counterintuitive. I can imagine the next moves, climb it in my head again and again. I cannot bring myself to commit.
A helicopter flies past, a basket dangling below. Do I believe in omens? I ask myself. “What is that?” I ask Jane. “Someone must have fallen,” she answers. Looking at my rope, curving gently as it runs from the sling on the horn down to a knot wedged in a horizontal crack several meters to my left. The extended alpine draw on the knot rests lazily on the sandstone. Another body length below it, my last ring. Metal gleaming in the sun.
“Okay! I’m going to try!” My announcement surprises me, but I follow my own instructions. I draw full deep breaths in through my nose, out the mouth. The air rages through my windpipes like bellows fueling a furnace. Bump left hand up and out to a sloping gaston and my left foot automatically swings through the air. I push hard on the right toe, counterpressure for the gaston, and the foothold doesn’t break. My right hand leaves its precious hold, darting up for something, anything. My palm slaps a rounded lump and I pull myself hard, up. My right foot is relieved of its duties providing counterpressure to serve its next role to help me mantle. I see myself from the east, holding only open handed, sloping holds, both feet swinging slowly through the air. The stubbornness in my chest transforms into pride. The post-fear glow begins to spread from my lungs outwards. I scurry up to the top, grinning wide. I quickly pull up as much rope as I can before tying a loop of rope around the rappel ring and downclimb a bit. Taking off my favorite blue shoes, I clip them to my side.
Straddling a lump of sandstone, I face outwards and put Jane on belay. I can’t see her. My world is once again trees and pillars. Blue skies and bright sun. The vibrations of the rope, my hands holding tight as she falls. And falls again. She gets stuck right above the second ring, unable to find a solution to the band. After a half an hour, I lower her to the terrace. I rappel over the route to clean the two pieces of protection above the second ring and when I land on the terrace, the rope is far too heavy to pull.
We’re full of laughter. A young man steps around a boulder. “Do you know what route this is?” I accost him excitedly. “Oh, are you staying here tonight?” Oh no, I say. We’re just trying to get our rope back. I’m bubbling, giddy, and desperate to know if I’ve climbed the right thing, because when I put my name in the book at the top of the tower, I want to write it correctly.
After a few more minutes pulling on the rope, awkwardly leaning into the nothingness, anchored to a knotted sling behind a boulder, we give up. I solo the Alter Weg (III, Class 4) to the top of the tower and pull the rope up. I toss down the rope to Jane, who ties in. I belay her up. “Thank goodness the rope got stuck, because this way we can be on top of the tower together!”
The Gipfelbuch [Summit Book] is heavily worn. Name after name after name, the Alter Weg gets a lot of traffic. Rightfully so, we’re perched perfectly above a steep forested valley. I look up the names and numbers, I’m the 13th person to lead Schlussspurt since its first ascent in 1980 and the 16th to lead the slightly newer (1989) Talweg, the second pitch that should have been a cakewalk. Orange rays of light, a quiet moment. And it breaks.
We rappel to the terrace and walk around to the next big rap ring. It’s above our heads. “Another Lilliputian project,” grumbles Jane.
At the bottom, she returns to her backpack to find a dozen missed calls from her husband. The season was in fact on its way to being one of the deadliest on record, with 17 deaths of experienced climbers. She’s a mom and two pitches took us a whole day. Her dog Berta greets us warmly; if she was worried about us earlier, it doesn’t show.
By the end of the week, I had asked every sandstone climber I knew about the last pitch. It seemed too physical to be VIIb. Then again, there are so many sandstone sandbags.
The uncertainty gnawed. How was I supposed to know which route to pick? What grades were within my potential ability? Taking a test without ever comparing with an answer key doesn’t tell you what you learned. A placement exam provides you with the opportunity to perform, but not what class to take next. This weak metaphor is collapsing. Knowing someone’s opinion of the difficulty of what I climbed would give me valuable insight. If this was a VIIb (5.9ish), maybe I need to dial it back.
Risk-calculations can only be made with input. It’s an equation with unlimited external factors. The outcome is an experience. Take friction climbs, for example, from my experiences on sandstone, they’re graded by tall people who excel at the style. There’s usually scant natural protection and long falls on slab… I’m not expert and I don’t think I want to be.
My first time on this sandstone, I was full of… love. I filled my own skin out with so much love for myself. I felt fear on the wall, heart pounding, hair raising, voice squeaking, fear. My feet returned to the ground and I would return to a hyper happy state. I returned from a brief detour to the Frankenjura for another week of climbing and found some serene calm. I was dependent, in a way, on the locals who showed me around, recommending climbs with a measured approach that inspired my trust. My second time on this sandstone, I was coated in uncertainty.
Nordwand on Schwarzer Horn, two weeks earlier. All I need to do is wrench my bones from between the stones and climb outside the crack. I feel tension shivering through every muscle. My jaw is clenched. What kind of fear is this? I make a half-assed attempt to remove myself from the squeeze, but my butt is bombproof. I try to recall my first trip to Saxony; memories of cheeks sore from smiling, sunshine on sandstone, flashes of fire passing through my core when holds creak. Where is my joy now?
Strong wind whips the leaves on the massif behind me. There are climbers on the ground below me, their concern growing with each heavy roll of thunder. I think about going upwards, I’m less than three meters from the top. Why didn’t I pick something with rings? Am I having fun? Would I die if I fell here? Did I lose too much confidence this year? I don’t think I’m having fun. I did this to myself. I should be enjoying this. I wouldn’t survive if I fell here. Am I really going to climb here for a month?
My hips are wedged tightly in the short chimney and thunder echoes off the walls. I know I can climb it, but I want to enjoy it. Death swirls around in my mind until I acquiesce. A cold acceptance creeps through my mind until I notice that I’m smiling.
Just three meters of wiggling and I’m at the abseil ring.
To learn from this experience in a way that aids my future decisions, I classify the experience in my mind along with all the available information written down. No rings. Featured rock, but north facing which can often indicate high amounts of dirt and low quality. I later saw it had a skull and cross bones in a guidebook. Grade VI. Katie and I did the 9th ascent overall and the first female ascent of an easy crack first put up in 1937 (Nordweg on Schwarzer Horn).
After the end of the season, I chanced upon a photo I had taken that morning of a page in another guidebook. “Oh! That’s what I did!” I squealed. “It’s 9b!” The description of the second pitch of the seldom-climbed Im Zeichen des Skorpions put up in 1997 by F. Heinicke, states:
“Talweg zG – am (2.R) rechtsausbiegend (9b)”
Rereading an online description of the Talweg, it becomes clear that the VIIb (5.9) route goes left to join the Westkante route to the top. I had gone to the right, completing the 3rd ascent of this crumbly 9b (5.11d/12a).
I also learn that the helicopter that had passed over me that day carried the body of a 34-year-old professional climber who fell 12 meters to his death nearby. The chill that had been spreading through my body since the first pitch of the season deepens. I don’t feel lucky, just ready to climb somewhere safer for a while.
Jane and I haven’t seen each other since. We’ve exchanged sporadic text messages and failed to follow through a few times on plans to climb together again. I hope someday – after this ice inside me has thawed – we’ll tie in together again, hopefully somewhere with sunshine filtering in through leaves, a light breeze, and the occasional glint of a ring peeking out from a sea of sand. I’m not ready for that sandstone now. I’ll have to go back when I’m full of love.
A migratory bird born in southern Oregon, Tanager organizes her life around dancing vertically on rock. She has a talent for finding silver linings, feeling limitless, microcrimping, and language. You can find more of her writing at her site.