|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
|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.
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.
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 http://www.lezec.cz/clanky.php?key=10553
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.
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).