Thursday, 10 March 2016

Czech sandstone meet 2012. Adrspach and Teplice. Various routes

Me about to switch from off-width to chimney on Original Route on Mayor's Wife. Photo: Radek Linerth

“Only a fool can fall out of a chimney.” True. But then, what do you call someone who gets lost in one? 

Of all the chimneys we climbed during the international Czech sandstone meeting in 2012 the one that stands out most in my memory is the Original route (Stará cesta) to the top of the Mayor's wife (Starostová) in Adršpach. 

The first pitch started with a hand-crack somewhere deep inside a rock labyrinth, followed by a bit of sideways chuffing in one chimney which lead to a three-way junction when it met another major chimney. After some confused back-and-forth shouting with local chimney-aficionado Tomáš Vidlák, I got the impression that I was supposed to take the left junction, and continue across a smaller side-chimney up and diagonally across the wide chimney to the tower on the left. Since I judged the rope-drag to be “impossible” (for some reason I often find the drag bad just before climbing starts to be scary…) I instead turned in to the side-chimney and made a body belay to bring up Tomáš and Stefan.

Stefan is leading us out of the darkness into the ... light?

It turned out that I was supposed to just go diagonally up in the left arm for ten meters or so until a hidden bolt in the chimney could be reached. The chimney was extraordinarily green and wide enough not to feel super safe anymore, so I was very thankful that Stefan led that part. 

Stefan was perhaps not quite as thankful to take the lead, especially after he failed applying one of the fine tricks our host had shown us: when approaching a ring bolt that you really want to clip as soon as possible, take a double shoulder-length spectra sling and lasso it to the pin (only works for the old style square pins on ancient routes). If the bolt is drilled in vertically or in slight downward direction, as is often the case with old bolts, the sling should give you a body-weight top-rope anchor.

The bolt that Stefan failed to lasso was old and almost rusted through. (Note: In four days of climbing it was the only bad bolt we saw.) The next pitch was an easy off-width to more wide chimneying, followed by a last pitch with an easy hand crack which led to the top. But that feeling of getting lost in a maze of dark green chimneys will stay with me for some time. Weird and exhilarating.

Heikki Karla on the last pitch of the Original route of Mayor's wife, Adrspach. Finally some gear!

Sandstone subculture

The towers overlooking Elbe valley in Saxony, Germany, form the cradle of modern free climbing. That is quite natural. There is something very satisfying and primal in climbing a freestanding tower, especially by its natural route, and even more satisfying when the easiest route is challenging.

Towers in the Elbe Sandsteingebrige in Germany, close to the border of the Czech republic

In a chimney the leader’s body in itself is a form of protection, and so many of the Alte Weg (literarily the “Old way” or Original route) follow chimneys.

As the ability rose among the tower-aficionados in Saxony the cracks they ascended got narrower, or wider, and faces they climbed steeper, or less featured. They developed two kinds of protection: rudimentary wedges in the form of knotted slings and absolutely bomber ring bolts drilled deep into the sandstone.

In the beginning of the last century Saxon climbers took their craft across the border to Bohemia; first, further down the Elbe river valley, then all the way to the Bohemian highland, to the magnificent towers around the villages of Adršpach and Teplice.
View of Adr rock city from the top of the Major (Starosta)

For better and for worse Saxony and Bohemia are deeply conservative regions.. Many of the taboos and rules of their first climbers still hold. Among these rules are: no metal protection in the cracks—only threads and slings, no chalk, minimum amount of bolts, and new routes must be put up ground-up.

Last year, when climbing in Elbsandstein on the German side, my friend Erik Massih remarked that it was like climbing in a museum. A fitting description, I think.

The strict rules of Bohemian and Saxon sandstone climbing have kept the towers removed from the mainstream, and made climbing on them a subculture, even in Germany and in the Czech Republic. This situation is not helped by the wide-eyed depiction of climbing there in foreign climbing media.

The Czech climbing federation is rightly worried about how the sandstone climbing is described as something deadly serious and only for people with a deep-rooted death wish. Inspired by the yearly BMC meeting, the federation decided to create a climbing meet to show the possibilities of their beloved sandstone areas.

Adršpach was thus chosen as the destination for the first Czech international trad- climbing meet, and climbers from Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Romania, Poland, and the Netherlands came to climb with Czech and Slovak hosts.

The first night of the meet we were given some useful accessory cord to tie into knots from Rock Empire, a company that partly sponsored the meet, and were treated to a few nice old movies showing some brave souls doing first ascents in the 60s. In my mind a factor-2 fall is never to be contemplated by the safe leader, so it was interesting to see the Czech old-timers thinking nothing of taking repeated long falls directly onto the anchor when failing to find a way up.

The first morning was a bit wet and we went up to Křížový vrch (“Cross hill”) for some shorter routes, well -protected with knots. The Czech chimney-fanatic Tomáš Vidlák was hosting the Nordic contingent, formed by Stefan Lindström and myself from Sweden, and Perttu Ollila and Heikki Karla from Finland. After a few minutes of instruction in the art of placing knots we were ready to go.
Tomáš Vidlák, Perttu Ollila and Heikki Karla on a small tower on Cross Hill

Quite soon Tomáš discovered that we did not mind groveling up hard but ridiculously low-graded green wet chimneys and a tour of some very “classic” chimneys up the taller spires in Adr followed.

Perttu Ollila on the exciting full body stem between the towers on the way to the top of the Mayor, Adrspach

Adršpach rock makes for a very special style of climbing. The climbing is not like anything else, really. The sandstone is quite soft and feels very sandy and in places slippery too. The cracks are often featureless, flaring, and generally unforgiving, and smearing on the slabs takes some time getting used to. Maybe imagining a Fontainebleau with 100 m tall boulders could approximate it.

After a rainy rest day midweek we moved a few kilometreskilometers up the road to Teplice to climb with another of our hosts, the eternally cheerful Oťas Srovnal. Teplice has more solid sandstone and the climbing is more similar in style to other sandstone areas I've been to.

Teplice is also more of a “sport climbing” destination. There are plenty of face routes only protected by bolts and threads. Note that the threads are rarely fixed, so bring a couple of slings on all routes, even if you judge the route to be fully equipped.
Gotická mlíko IXc, Martinské Steny. (Gothic milk IXc, Martin Walls)

Even if Teplice involves predominantly face climbing, there are some excellent cracks there too. Among them we did the aptly named roof crack Prásknutí bičem (“Whiplash crack”), probably the best hand crack I climbed in 2012. There is a bomber thread just before the roof and then nothing until a ring well above the overhang, so the name alludes to what would be the consequences of a fall. I flashed it with Heikki's encouraging beta ringing in my ears: “it is a hand crack, tight yellow camalot, there is no way you can fall off.”

Me on Prásknutí bičem
Prásknutí bičem, photo: Ota

Ota topping out Prásknutí bičem, Teplice

For climbers like me who have used camming devices since starting climbing, cracks are the safest routes possible. Having to use knots for protection changes the game completely, however, and make repeating cracks more mentally exhausting than repeating face climbs, at least for those of us not totally confident in our ability to properly place and judge knots.

Stefan Lindström warming up on Otas’s route Endoskop on Church wall

Among the face routes we did in Teplice I particularly enjoyed a quite new one on Martinské stěny called Stroboskop. Well-protected fun face climbing for almost 50 meters. It was also very popular, the only route we had to wait in line to get on.
During evenings we where treated with slide shows by Czech climbers active in putting up new routes all over the world, and also a slide show by Slovak legend Igor Koller (first-ascensionist of The fish on, Marmolada among other things).

Igor Koller repeats his classic route Kalamárky in Teplice. The second ring was put in after the first ascent.

Tomáš Sobotka, a very experienced climber with some impressive big wall free routes to his name also gave a slide show. Among other things, he talked enthusiastically about the possibilities for really hard face climbs on Czech sandstone, and his belief that there are many hard routes with Fountainebleau-style slapping on bad slopers waiting to be put up by a new generation, and indeed, Adam Ondra has already put up a route in the French 9a grade.

From what I’ve seen I am sure that Sobotka is right. However, to push hard on sandstone towers in Saxony or Bohemia seems to be a local privilege, and not even exceptionally good visiting climbers have made much of a mark.

Stefan Lindström cruising Převislá on Věž přátelství, Teplice
I have climbed on sandstone in Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, France and Germany, but I must say that Teplice is still probably my favourite sandstone area since it has a little of everything: pockets, edges, slopers, and cracks of all sizes.

Tentatively the Czech federation is planning a similar meeting for 2014, and if so, and were you to have a chance to go, – my only advice is: take it and enjoy the ride!

One of the excellent event organisers, the Czech climbing guide Radek Lienerth has a write up (in Czech) on 


Bring the following
  • 1 wooden or plastic stick on a leach to help pushing in knots into slots, and to use as a knot extractor. This is the most important piece of equipment. Without it the knotted slings are rendered useless.
  • 1 sling from 5 mm accessory cord, 175 cm long
  • 1 sling from 6 mm accessory cord, 175 cm long
  • 1-2 slings from 7 mm accessory cord, 175 cm long each
  • 1-2 slings from 8 mm accessory cord, 175 cm long each
  • 3-4 slings from old 9 mm climbing rope, 180 cm long each
  • 3-4 slings from old 10-11 mm climbing rope, 180 cm long each
  • 1-2 Monkey's fists from old climbing rope. They take quite a while to tie.
  • Maybe a few lengths of tape as well.
  • 10 quickdraws.
  • 2-3 triple runners/alpine draws
  • 60 m rope
  • Free biners for the knotted slings
  • 2-3 double shoulder length slings for chockstones etc.
  • Tape for jam gloves, or ready-made rubber jammies. All three manufacturers I know for rubber hand-jammies are based in the Czech republic. This is not a coincidence.
Notes: When tying the knots leave a good 20 cm tail. The easiest way to take out the knots when following is to grab the tail and pull upwards.

On the old style rings there is plenty of room for two quickdraws. It is normal to clip two draws in opposition on every ring. The rings seem to be very solid. 
Long factor two falls onto single rings was de rigueur for would-be first ascensionists in the 60s. 
Tomas and Sefan sorting gear in the morning


Problem. There are no foreign language guidebooks to Adr and Teplice in print that I know of. The current Czech guide book for Teplice has some useful topos for a few of the nicer face climbing sectors, but is mostly text based. 

The Czech guidebook for Adr is fully text based, and very terse too. There is a select guidebook in German for Adr, but it is out of print, and difficult to get hold of.


My wide crack-climbing and pistol-shooting mentor Alf in Moab will be pleased to know that grades are considered to be the intellectual property of the first-ascensionist. Only they can change the grade. Thus the grades might not be as predictable as we in the fast-food generation would like them to be.

Generally speaking, the routes are safer the harder and newer they are. Above French 7a/UK E4 or so there are plenty of routes to choose from where a ground fall would be implausible.

The grade is given by a roman numeral. For grade VII and up Latin letters a, b, or c are used as subdivision.

Any grade conversion table is a fiction in the best of times, but I nevertheless include a rough guide. For more detailed fiction, please refer to Wikipedia. 

I-IV This is probably a chimney. Can be easy or hard, but only a fool will fall out of a chimney, right? It can also be a trivial face route. A grade III chimney could be pretty far from trivial.
IV-V You should be fine. This is an old route, so protection might be scarce but the climbing should not be too hard. Might involve slab climbing, juggy face climbing, or fist cracks.
VI Translation tables claim that this is around Hard Severe. Makes sense. Climbers where braking in to this grade before the turn or the old-old century, making this grade quite unpredictable. Worst case scenario is that it is a 70 year old friction slab.
VII Many old routes that follow striking lines are this grade. HVS+ or 5.9+ says it all.
VIII Still on the most striking natural lines. Often quite pumpy. Prepare to fight for it.
IX Some of the master pieces from the 70s have this grade. Think 6c or E3/4 and up. If it looks bold it probably is.
X Mostly safe and hard, or if it was put up by Berndt Arnold in the 70/80s: unsafe and hard. E6 and up. There is probably a bolt every 5-7 meters or so. Or it could be death on a stick.

Rules and reality, a footnote

Some of the rules, and my own comments and interpretations. All eventual misunderstandings are my own.

1) No metal gear in the cracks, only knots and slings. In recent years a new form of expanding sling chock, dubbed “ufo”, has been developed in the Czech republic. We tried one and found them quite trustworthy. Otherwise the crack protection is the same as hundred years ago: different form of knots in slings.

2) No chalk. Chalk-use is a source of real controversy in the Czech republic. Not so much in Germany since chalk is illegal in Elbe valley. However, in some areas on the Czech side sparing use of chalk is sort-of OK on non crack climbs of sufficiently high difficulty. Suffice to say that this is a sensitive subject and that I recommend to do without everywhere.

3) All new routes must be put up ground up. In Saxony the mere suspicion that parts of a new route where inspected on rappel has been ground for removal of bolts and the first ascent claim. In Teplice bolts where recently chopped when it transpired that they where drilled from rappel.

4) No aid climbing. What the Victorians dubbed “combined tactics”, where the leader climbs up the body of other climbers is OK, but none of the team can be hanging from protection to make the ascent valid. It seems to be OK to drill from aid stances as long as you climb free up to it, and on modern hard face routes in Czech most lead-bolts are drilled from improved hooks (bat hooking) or rivets, (after the lead bolt has been placed the first hole is glued shut).

5) Minimum amount of bolts. This rule has been understood different through time and is interpreted a bit differently depending on area. Suffice to say that fully bolted routes are few and far between and that they seldom are what we have started to call “sport routes” (i.e. fully and closely bolted short routes).

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Sud-Est Directe, 540 m, 6c>6a at Pointe Jean Santé, Pic du Midi d'Ossau

Julia on the approach to Pic du Midi d'Osseau
If you for some reason end up close to the border between France and Spain in the summer and are trying to find cool rock, there are very few good options unless you head for the mountains. One option is to go to the classic “Climber's peak” Pic du Midi d'Osseau in the French Pyrenees.

All routes, even the normal route, are rather involved. This is not Chamonix. There are no fixed belays, at least none that you would happily rappel off. Even the most straightforward routes require double ropes, a big rack with lots of small gear, and a good nose for finding solid safe climbing. The mountain is of andesite, a volcanic rock that is quite slick with mostly thin cracks.

The mountain is interesting on all sides, so getting down involves scrambling, easy climbing and rappelling.

When we climbed the route we did not need crampons or axes to cross the randkluft (rimaye in french and catalan). We called the guardians of the refugio next to the mountain to enquire about the snow conditions and if we would need to bring crampons. The guardians where hesitant to give a clear answer, which was understandable as it was a marginal call.

When I looked on the topo, our chosen route, Sud-Est Directe looked like an easy day out—for a 500 m route anyway. In reality it took us a long time to get up and down the route, I don't remember the time exactly but we managed to return to the refugio just in time for the dinner so it must have been around 12 hours.

The pitch-grades on Sud-Est Directe is of the typically parsimonious Pyrenées's standard. The same holds true for other routes I've heard.

The route, some pitch notes
Bearing in mind that we climbed this in 2014 and I did not write down any notes, take everything I say with some grain of salt. I'm sure it's all true, but I might miss some crucial details.

The approach was very easy, about 20 min from the refugio/camping. The first pitch is easy and nondescript, but the second pitch is one of the hardest, with fairly complex terrain (6b+, the main problem is to find a good combination of good gear and easy climbing).

Julia following the 2nd pitch

A few easy pitches leads up to a cool ledge with a very cool hanging tree before the crux pitch.
Javi belaying from a mighty flake on top of pitch 4...
Julia found a good belay in the shade....
....while Julia is belaying in the shade before Pitch 5. Photo: Javier Aranda
The crux pitch (6c) had some really nice climbing up to a short boulder problem in an open grove. The crack in the bottom of the groove was too thin for my fingers, but I could find a sequence with mostly stemming and face holds. Very pleasurable pitch up to an obvious belay.
Joaquim above the difficulties of pitch 5.

From there the climbing started to be surprisingly sustained. The pitches followed generally a big corner system and the line is mostly quite obvious.

Joaquim climbing somewhere on the route. Probably on pitch 9. Photo: Javier Aranda
 On pitch ten the original line keeps going straight up the ever steeper dihedral at A1, while the most common way to climb it now is by finding a tricky traverse out left to a hidden dihedral (6a). I missed the true line of the traverse and climbed to high up on ground protected by inadequate fixed gear (6b+, at one point I clipped a fixed cam-hook...). One or two of the smaller ball nuts would have been lovely. The best line should be easy enough to find if you pay attention to the topo (or in my case: if I'd payed attention to what my partner told me).
Me being a bit uncomfortable on the tenth pitch. Photo Javier Aranda 
Our catalan friends, who found it hilarious that I complained about the pitons, were clearly held back by us at this point,.

The following  two pitches were surprisingly difficult and should not be treated lightly. Then easier climbing follows to the top of Pointe Jean Santé. I suppose it is possible to link this route, which finishes on the subsidiary (Pointe Jean Santé) with a route up to the prominent peak of Pic du Midi d'Ossau, but like most we were totally satistifed having done Sud-Est Directe.

The decent was a bit tricky and I recommend to find a good topo of this, and to talk with the guardians as well. The decent is a mixture of scrambling, easy fifth-class downclimbing (many pitons and fixed threads) and rappelling which leads back to the glacier on the west flank. We were able to cross the randkluft (bergschrund) and downclimb the glacier using sharp rocks as improvised ice tools. For this decent, stiff soled boots are better than trainers or approach shoes.

Refuge de Pombier

Back at camp—while you enjoy your evening meal in the Pompie Refugio (reservations needed) or by your tent on the idyllic green field by the small nearby lake—take some time to reflect on Serge Castéran's amazing solo enchainment of Sud-Est Directe with Le Plilier de l'Embarradère and Le Pilier Sud, done in a day in the late 80s. Almost unimaginable considering the insecure complex climbing some of the pitches offers. Castéran's solo got very little press at the time. Crazy.

Getting there
The mountain is just on the border between France and Spain. One and a half hours north of Huesca in Spain, and one and a half hours south of Pau in France. Park on the road a kilometer south of the border and hike up to the Pombier hut (less than an hour). I've dropped a needle on both for the peak and for the parking lot.

Staying there
Tent or the Pombier refugio. If you're staying in the hut, or eating there, reserve in advance. There are not many climbers around, but plenty of hikers. The guardians of the refugio are good climbers and can give detailed information about most routes. They are also willing to answer questions about the conditions etc.

Double ropes and a full rack, heavy on thin gear. Until early august, an ice tool and crampons might be needed to cross the snow beneath the route or on the decent.

May to late September. We climbed in July and had very nice conditions.

More information
As usual for this region of the world, Camp to Camp is a good source. There is some information on UK Climbing. This route is also in the bible, with a very precise topo, unfortunately without information how to get down. There is a binder of topos in the refuge.

La Vallée d'Ossau, Xavier Buxo, Luis Alfonso (2011, text in French and Spanish).

Monday, 7 March 2016

Globeros en Alaska 7a>6b 250m. Mont-rebei

Sometimes sport climbing really gets to me. Falling over and over on the same route wears me down. Then it's time to do some climbing where falling is either not an option or at least not a splendid idea.

Pared de Catalonia from the Parking.
Recently I've spent some time failing very badly on a route in Bruixes that in my imagination should be well within my abilities, and getting a bit down-hearted in the process (ridiculous, I know!) My friend Javier Aranda / INUIT The mountain experience suggested Globeros en Alaska (Balloonist in Alaska) in Montrebei north of Lleida as a remedy.

Globeros en Alaska was put up by Alberto Salvado and friends 8-9 years ago. Alberto Salvado is one of the most fanatic new routers in Catalonia, with many new multi-pitch routes all over the region.

Montrebei consist of two large walls on each side of the river: Pared de Catalonia on the east bank of the river Noguera, and Pared de Aragon on the west. The walls are between 200-500 m tall mostly of limestone with some sand-stone bands. Pictured above is the upper east side of Pared de Catalonia

Notes on the pitches
From the parking lot (possible camping, but no running water) an easy 10 min hike lead to the first pitch of the route. Some face climbing past two bolts lead to a dihedral with a loose pillar in the middle: stem and place no gear behind the pillar (5+). There's a bolt halfway up.

Pitch 1. 6b. Photo Javier Aranda
The second pitch was mine, a nice pitch on good solid limestone. I did a fairly hard pull above a piton (6c?) but there was apparently easier climbing out right. Belay in a bolt and a joke piton.
Start of pitch 2. Photo Javier Aranda
 The third pitch started with some nice slab climbing. That's all I can remember. It was Javi's pitch anyway.
Pitch 3. Photo Javi. The heavy-handed fake blur is all me though
The forth pitch is the major pitch of the route, which Javi very generously handed to me. Mostly fixed gear (bolts and pitons—most of the pitons were in good condition) and one or two cams. A rising rightwards traverse lead to a small crux at an overlap, where some very good hearted climber had extended a bolt with a piece of fixed rope. Again, I had to do a tricky pull (7a+), and this time I managed to fool Javi into doing it with the same sequence (climbing with a backpack). Javi had to rest a bit and promptly found a better sequence to the left, which probably makes the climbing easier (7a). A steep sustained crack with lots of technical footwork followed, up to a bolted belay.

Me on pitch 4. About to do something daft as per usual. Photo: Javier

Me on the top of pitch 4.
 Pitch 5 started up a diagonal crack on some gear that I think is fairly solid. Then there's a fairly scary runout to a bolt, especially if you're short and have to clip in the middle of the crux as my poor guide for the day... (6b+ or so). Easier but quite runout climbing follows. There were two fixed threads that should be replaced. Bring some extra 6 mm cord if the threads are still not replaced.

At the top of the pitch there was some quite steep and loose traversing to get to the belay. Nothing too  bad, but be careful!

Javier Aranda past the crux of pitch 5.

Me following the 5th pitch. Not too inspiring rock on this pitch. Photo: Javier
Pitch 6 was the second best pitch of the route and again Javi gave it to me. It started with some quite cool face climbing past two bolts to a short bit of expo climbing (6b, I fiddled in some mediocre gear) on very solid rock. The top of the pitch had a quite cool boulder problem that is possible harder than the original grade of the route suggest (6c+ according to the openers).

Javi follows pitch 6
The last pitch is quite long (50 m) and starts up steep terrain to a roof with loose rock (one bolt), after that its quite enjoyable slabby lime stone climbing to the top of the wall.
Javi starting the last pitch

Javi on top. Pared de Aragon in the background.

Getting off the climb just before the storm moves in, like a boss! Photo: Javier

Topo, stolen from the internet.

We had half a set of wires (up to DMM #4 or 5 I think) and one set of camalots from blue (#0.3) to blue (#3). I don't think we placed the large blue. 15 draws should definitely be enough. Most routes in Montrebei has less fixed gear than this route, so would need a normal mountain rack and possibly a 3-4 pitons for the more heady routes.

Getting there
Montrebei is located north of Lleida, close to Tremp and the well known climbing area Terradets. I've dropped a needle on the parking for Pared de Catalonia on 27crags. More info can be found on Camp to Camp (french) or UK Climbing (english).

There's an old guidebook for the area: Montsec Oueste by L.Alfonso, X.Buxó (1998). Luichy is working on a new guidebook and for now, the best option is to look on his website and to search topos (croquis) on the Spanish blogosphere.