Elbe Mountains

Elbe Mountains1As we drove along the Elbe River in the early hours of the morning I kept my doubts to myself. Having never climbed before, I was a little nervous. Since I had already commited to the trip, I couldn’t back out now. Not to worry though, our group would be led by two experienced climbers from Kreisel Outdoors, so there was nothing to be nervous about. What a terrific opportunity to actually climb real rock, up in the mountains rather than some climbing gym in the city. And I wasn’t afraid of heights at all – or was I? As I saw the large rock towers looming in the distance I couldn’t remember.

Tucked away in the eastern corner of Germany lies one of the largest climbing areas in Europe. The breathtaking Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxon Switzerland National Park feature free climbing on over 1,100 free-standing sandstone towers embedded in a fairy-tale like, picturesque landscape. The area encompasses nearly 15,000 climbing routes in all grades ranging between 30 to 300 feet. The countless routes covering a wide range of difficulty levels, make this the perfect adventure destination for both beginners and hard climbers.

Elbe Mountains2Located in the heart of former East Germany, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains have been virtually unchanged throughout the 20th century. It was only after the wall came down in 1989 that visitors have rediscovered this treasure. The Elbe River cuts deeply through the sandstone formations creating a canyon that stretches from the town of Torgau in the north to Bad Schandau in the south. The river meanders majestically through a region of sandstone gorges and clifftop mountains with a sprinkling of castles and cozy inns along the way. The splendor of the rocks is amplified by the green depth of the surrounding forests. High upon the ridges lie the intriguingly poised pine trees, while tall spruce and beech trees grow in the dark gorges. A glimpse of the rocks from the valley, which is interlaced with the cascade of wild rivers, one can observe huge slabs of sandstone piled high one above the other. In places the slabs seem to be rounded off like a mesa, elsewhere they are jagged creating the appearance of a castle’s turret.

When we first arrived in Saxon Switzerland National Park I glanced up at the sandstone towers surrounding us. While squinting to see the top, I wondered if these were the rocks we were going to climb. I mean, the tallest thing I had climbed recently were the stairs to my apartment. Perhaps in the climbing world these rocks weren’t very tall, but in my world, they were awfully intimidating. After all, we weren’t in the safe confines of the climbing gym, we were in the place where free climbing had originated!

Elbe Mountains3In the sport of free climbing, the climber uses equipment for safety purposes only. To free climb, the climber uses their arms and legs as they would to climb a ladder, except they carry gear to help protect them from a fall. One such piece of gear is a piton, which is a metal spike that is hammered into a crack in the rock so that the climber can secure a rope in the event of a fall. This is considered free climbing because the items that the climber uses to keep from falling are not pulled on or clung to in order to help their upward progress. Many of the climbing routes and hiking trails in Saxon Switzerland National Park have metal ladders and permanent pitons attached to the rock to aid climbers to the summit, thereby revealing spectacular views of the countryside and nearby towns.

Elbe Mountains4At the trailhead entrance, our energetic, multi-lingual guides Manfred and Roman addressed us with confident ease: “You don’t need to know anything about climbing, all of the equipment and experience are provided. You get to jump right in and give free climbing a try in a natural environment that’s extremely safe. And if you happen to learn just a little bit along the way, then you can take that home with you along with the memories.” Lead by Roman, we set off along a hiking trail as the sun peaked in a clear blue sky. The beginning of the trail was more like a walk in the woods than a climb. It ran along a brook before gradually ascending towards the rock towers. The first rock face on our journey was rather easy to climb. It was a short ascent that consisted of a series of ladders built into the rock. We scrambled up the ladders with confidence and a renewed sense of excitement for the more challenging climbs to come. That wasn’t so bad, maybe I would be able to do this free climbing after all, I thought. Before too long, as we rounded a corner on the trail, we were faced with a much more daunting rock tower. In front of us was a 200 foot sandstone rock face that would require the use of a sit harness and ropes that would be attached to a permanent metal rung.

Elbe Mountains5Roman began the climb by shuffling his feet onto a small vertical feature on the right side of the rock. He then moved his hand up and grasped a horizontal hand hold and then continued climbing until he came to a ledge where he hooked his harness onto the metal rung. The ledge was approximately fifteen feet long and ten inches wide. Without the aid of the harness, one false move would send him falling a distance that seemed unfathomable. It was my turn and I wasn’t feeling very good about this climb. It wasn’t that the route was too difficult, I just didn’t feel right, I was losing confidence. Manfred helped me fasten my harness to the rung since I was so distracted with fear. Even though I tested the system and felt sure it was safe, my legs were still quivering. With a deep breath and words of encouragement from the group, I pulled back onto the ledge and continued my ascent upward, anxious to finish the climb.

Upon completing the climb, we had a few minutes to relax and take in the breathtaking views before continuing on to our next challenge. After a mile of hiking, the trail seemed to end as a towering rock wall appeared before us. There was a much smaller trail that curved to the left, giving the appearance of the road less traveled. At this point our guides stopped and teasingly asked us how we planned on getting around the rock wall that stood before us. It seemed quite obvious to us that we would be taking the smaller trail to the left. We stopped in our tracks when we were told that instead we would be going up and over the wall! Upon further inspection of the wall, I soon realized that there was a crevice in the center approximately 20-24 inches wide that vertically rose 100 feet to the top of the rock formation. At that point, we questioned our presence there – what were we trying to prove? Roman demonstrated how we would use the metal pitons and rungs built into the rock to pull ourselves up to the top. He definitely resembled Spider Man as he seemingly floated up the rock face. His climbing was quick and fluid, like water flowing uphill. The crazy part was that we were going to accomplish this without the help of any harness or rope. I had serious thoughts of turning back. As we squeezed through the crevice one by one, there was a real spirit of camaraderie. We all shared the same goal – reaching the top.

Elbe Mountains6In spite of our fears, we survived the climb. We relaxed and basked in the sun on the summit, amazed and relieved by our accomplishment. The afternoon trek was a meandering downhill stroll, complete with a rustic picnic including local wines, meats, breads and cheeses the guides prepared for us. That was the one surprise of the day we didn’t mind.


Getting There:

Lufthansa Airlines offers flights from cities throughout the United States into Dresden. From Dresden, take the regional train (“S-Bahn”) towards Schona. Stations that are closest to major climbing areas are Rathen, Bad Schandau and Schmilka.

Kreisel Outdoors Telephone: 03 51 / 8 03 31 34 www.outdoor-kreisel.de

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