A black fin of sandstone protrudes from the right side of the crack. I pinch it like a tufa and look up at the iron ring. Next stop, ring, I tell myself. Feet up, then hands. I layback the crack for a few moves and then pull in to stand atop the fin. It wiggles under my weight, crumbling slightly. My hands become vise grips, clamped on their holds as a hot lump of fear catapults from my throat into my stomach. I place a sling around a chicken head and clip a draw to it. By the time it’s attached to my rope, it’s below my feet. The fear cools, and I laugh to myself. Absurd. Just get to the first ring. It’s some fifteen meters above me still, and below, my belayer patiently stands on a small ledge.
Note: this piece is published in the new Zine, Volume 17, now available to order. Banner photo of the author by Standa Mitáč.
I clip two quickdraws to the ring, opposing the gates in hope of some redundancy. The lump melts away. Some thirty meters later, I peer into a chimney. The rope disappears around the corner, where I force myself to remember that it’s clipped to a long sling on the second ring. I hesitate and retreat. Am I really supposed to go in there? My feet smear on the curved gray stone, palms press on the belly protruding above. I traverse, retreating toward the ring. I pull air in through my nose, slowly and strongly, and then relax as I release it out my mouth. Slowly, I traverse back to the chimney. I repeat this retreat twice. Once I enter the chimney, the scuttle upward feels natural, and I’m suddenly on top of the tower.
Though I have spent most of the last six years in the Old World, I had never actually climbed in Europe…until I was visiting friends in my old stomping grounds and found an invite in my inbox to climb on sandstone that lines the Elbe River at the Czech-German border. A half year prior, I started copyediting the English-language content for a Czech online adventure magazine. The eMontana editor-in-chief, Standa Mitáč, was the one to send the invite.
Instead of dodging riot police in Berlin at the annual May Day labor demonstrations, I boarded a train to Bad Schandau. It seemed like a fantastic plan until I was on the train alone, questioning my blind faith in the goodness of human nature. Climbers are good people. No kidnapping, no ground falls, I reassured myself. From the platform, we went straight to the right bank of Labák—the local term for the Czech crag Labské Údolí. The Elbe Valley on the Czech side has some ten thousand routes. Unlike the German side, chalk is sometimes permitted, other times unofficially tolerated. The bolts and rings are a little bit closer together…sometimes. Over the next two weeks, we would climb on both sides of the border. On that first afternoon en route to the crag, his first question was: Tell me, honestly, what grade do you feel very confident onsighting?
Between the towers in Saxony, between the massifs along the Elbe toward Děčín, between the drive (or bike ride) to the crag and the base of the cliff, between the moment my feet left the ground and I arrived at the rap ring, between misty mornings and sunbaked chalkless ascents, time operates at devious speeds, and I might actually have dreamt it all up.
I’d heard just a little about the climbing on the German side, in Saxony, before. It’s famous for being sparsely bolted and not allowing climbers to use chalk or metal protection such as cams or nuts. The month before I went, I edited a long article about injuries sustained by local climbers. One anecdote kept replaying in my head: as a cooldown route, a local took five ground falls.
I first set foot in Bad Schandau with a firm jaw, attempting to be mentally prepared for anything. Everything I knew about climbing in Saxony and Czech before I arrived had a negative hue. While I try to be open-minded, not to make assumptions or predictions, the information I gleaned from friends and stories I had read online colored my perception of this sandstone region with its unique and strict ethics.
Climbable sandstone is strewn throughout the entire Elbsandsteingebirge, or Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Within this region, which crosses the German and Czech border as well as the Elbe River, there are some forty thousand routes and boulders. The quality of the rock, style of the formations, and the ethics of the local climbers vary widely. Roughly, the region can be divided into three sections: the German side (Saxony), Labák Left Bank (Dolní Žleb), and Labák Right Bank (Belveder). In all three areas, the routes are developed ground up. The rings and bolts are all supposed to be at least thirty centimeters deep. The rings are like bolts, in the sense that one can clip quickdraws to them. No metal protection (camming devices or nuts) is allowed, to protect the soft sandstone. Alongside normal climbing equipment, like a harness and draws, the sandstone rack can include slings in a myriad of lengths, as well as short bits of rope of various diameters. These are used much like nuts; climbers use a small wooden or fiberglass sword to shove the knot back inside a crack or constriction. In all three areas, there are some sport climbs, some mixed routes, and some pure classic lines. The purely traditional routes are protected with knotted bits of rope and slings threaded through hourglasses formed in the sandstone. Or just not protected.
The first route I got on was Kruh za kruhem, an VIIIc, local grade, which is something like 5.11c. It’s eighty meters of pure stone, fourteen rings/bolts. A sea of jugs led to spaced crimp rails. Iron bands through black rock followed by zones of small pockets, one after another like rain on sand. The last quarter of the route was a friction slab, and I suddenly didn’t know what to do. Not only was the rope so absurdly heavy that I had to grab it at my ankle and use my arm to pull as I pushed to stand on high feet, but the rock had curving waves and no holds. Luckily, I never needed to clip on the twenty-meter slab.
Though I’ve trusted myself on slabs since my first climb in Tuolumne Meadows in 2001, all I could think about was how I might fart and throw my balance off. With the rope in one hand and using the other hand for balance, I high-stepped up the sandstone waves to a single massive ring marking the top of the route.
A half-dozen meters from the top of Nautilus, VIIIc, local grade, there was a small ledge. The shiny new glue-in next to the rusted elderly bolt two moves above the ledge inspired some confidence. That confidence was offset by the seeming lack of holds upward and no more chalk to guide the way. Go to the right! my belayer suggested to my relief. Any desire to onsight was gone at the sight of the long stretch above me to the anchor. My nervousness set in a few minutes later, five meters up and right above the bolt. My fingers fondled blank rock until I touched aone-eighth inch pad crimp with my left hand. I carefully downclimbed two moves to set myself up to reach up with my right. The rippled gray rock gave nothing away; my hand brushed lichen and nothing else. I had lost the hold. Desperately trying to deduce its location, I pushed past the lower limit of my lock-off strength and latched the tiny incut crimp as my body began to fall away from the wall.
Instead of toprope time or feeling overwhelmed by fear, I found the Elbe River Valley to be an experiential classroom chock-full of life lessons. In a mere two weeks on Czech sandstone, I learned more than in two months on Turkish limestone. Though it wasn’t planned, I was lucky to be in good climbing shape when I got off the train in Bad Schandau, forearms ready for anything. In the past two months of sport climbing, I had honed my body awareness and understanding of my physical capabilities and arrived ready to employ that knowledge to the headier climbing on sandstone.
Well-protected sport climbing is stress free. It provides an amazing opportunity to experiment and expand one’s repertoire on the rock—all while getting that satisfaction of trying again and again to eventually send…maybe. Experimenting and falling are both such a big part of the experience that they don’t feel like failure. Climbing in the sandstone fairyland was the first time I took that collection of moves. I learned to apply myself to routes with less-than-desirable fall zones and occasional no-fall zones.
As a climber, I am continuously in the process of becoming—perpetually learning. Ability on the wall is made up of experience combined with internal reflection. Practiced knowledge of what the body can and cannot do combines into an ever-evolving understanding of oneself, which is then used to choreograph and perform a vertical dance.
On a bold route, midrunout, or above a sling or knot, every move is a performance of self-ownership. On easy enough terrain, those decisions are instant, hands and feet flowing one after another. As a rule, I climb koala style, tortoise pace. Why rush something you love? In Saxony and Labák, I felt some kind of fear and nervousness when faced with a move I didn’t believe I could downclimb. I hesitated for full minutes, as if I were a movie on pause, until suddenly, a small dam inside my mind would burst.
When beginning an irreversible move, excitement bubbled up inside me like water in a freshly dug well. The point of no return offers invaluable insight into the innerworkings of the mind: a mix of silence and white noise. I found an impossible place where I couldn’t be more present in my body or further removed from reality. Having made the decision, it was easy to stick to it and continue climbing.
My firm resolution to be brave and choosing routes well within my ability kept me safe on the wall. If you keep your head on your shoulders, you’ll get to keep your head on your shoulders.
Expectations and assumptions have gotten me into trouble before. Relying on someone else’s opinion of a crag, a route, or someone else’s beta has held me back. In the worst-case scenario, it’s likely prevented me from experiencing something new and worthwhile. The Elbe River Valley is not the safest place in the world to climb, but not every route is onsight or die. On the Czech side, the bolting seems logical. A runout often indicates mellow terrain relative to the grade given for the entire route. Slings and knotted bits of rope supplement rings and bolts. The rock is often solid.
The Saxon side, well, that was put best by a visiting Berliner father. I asked him if a short route had another ring above the lip. If it makes sense, he replied, it’s not there. Certain route developers will put the ring just after the crux. Yet, the setting is serene, and Bernd Arnold’s affinity for thirds has a poetry to it. The climbing in Saxony seems endless, even if you’re limited to climbing on towers. There it is forbidden to climb on a wall that has a forest at the top.
On the train south from Berlin, I had prepared myself to be brave in the face of fear. Instead of needing to be stoic, I found myself in a fairytale landscape, which became a breathtaking outdoor classroom in which I could learn about myself. There’s no hiding when you’re seven meters above the last piece of pro, and that pro is actually just raggedy webbing looped over a crumbling flake. In those moments, fear did rise in me. Yet, it did not present itself in shaky legs, ragged breathing, or tears. Instead, I found myself without a concept of time, in total focus, movement flowing, and occasional hesitation.
Climbing ethics are a choice. The sandstone community on the German side chooses to protect the rock by prohibiting chalk, cams, and other metal protection. Every day, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity. The sheer ridiculousness of climbing with a small wooden sword dangling below my feet, using it to stab a bit of rope into a crack that I won’t dare to fall on. It’s what my dreams are made of: laughter, fear, and a slow but steady movement upward.
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.