SAXONY

Posted by: phlan

SAXONY - 08/23/02 04:39 PM

Germany Trip 2001-2002 (Impressions of Limestone and Sandstone)

Upon my return to the Gunks after being away for the last 10 months, people often ask, "where exactly were you anyway?" So let me start there.

Germany's north is very flat, but southern Bavaria has the limestone alps which are big mountains up to 10,000 feet or so, whereas the areas between the alps and flatlands, the so-called "Mittelgebirge" have many beautiful areas of hills, woodlands, and crags which are wonderful to visit. There are many types of rock including some granite, but limestone and sandstone areas predominate.

The Frankenjura in Germany is often confused with the other big climbing area south of and outside Dresden called the Elbsandstein, or Saxon Switzerland ('Sachsische Schweiz.')

I lived and worked very near the Frankenjura, which is a large area in northern Bavaria to the east and bounded north and south between Bamberg and Nuremberg. This area is limestone and well known for hard sport climbing. I was able to climb almost every weekday and weekends for several months toward the end, and explored about 2 dozen of the probably more than 300 crags. The Frankenjura are small crags of the finest quality limestone, whereas the Saxon and Pfaltz areas are sandstone. The Saxon areas are of more interest to Gunkies for historical reasons. This is the first place visited, on our way back from Berlin toward the beginning of the stay.

Part I. Saxony (In Fritz's footsteps)

The Saxon areas, or 'Elbsandstein' were made famous and are important for Gunkies since it is the origin to our own climbing ethic and style. Fritz Wiessner, the father of the Gunks, was from this area and he learned to climb and always climbed by its rules (or at least very close to them.) The Saxon climbing rules prohibit the use of chalk or artificial aid. Using aid is considered unsporting. The East Germans (Saxons) did, however, rest on rings or hang from protection while placing rings. All moves were supposed to be made free, though. The roots of this ethic, interestingly enough, go back to an American, Oliver Perry Smith, who made some of the first climbs here. His ethics were actually the notoriously strict old British rules which were adopted by the Saxons. So, the lineage of our Gunks ethics and style goes a long way back! Fritz Wiessner's partner in Gunks first ascents was Hans Kraus, who hailed from Trieste in the Dolomites where aid was more accepted. It was, however, Fritz's set of ethics and style which came to be eventually more accepted in the Gunks.

Use of cams or nuts is prohibited in Saxony, partly because the rock is very heavily used soft sandstone; the use of threads and knots has been perfected to a fine art in this area. Bolts do exist (they are huge iron rings cemented into the rock) but they are VERY widely spaced. Some of the newer routes do have more closely spaced rings but they are very much at the upper end of the scale. On visiting the area with my traveling companion we hiked around and explored, enjoying the lovely scenery and amazing rock formations. We had climbing gear along but it was wet and cold, and climbing is not permitted when it is wet. We visited Bernd Arnold's (Bernd is the leading climber in the area) shop in Bad Schandau, and the folks there were very nice. They said Bernd was traveling but also that we should call Bernd directly if we came back and he would love to show us around. They don't get many visitors from the US and like Americans. My opinion of the East Germans (most of whom were brought up under the former communist regime) is that people seem nicer and more relaxed than the more materialistic and Westernized West Germans. They also seem more interested in the US and not as critical of our culture than the more "sophisticated" young West Germans, who can be somewhat blasé. The 'Ossies' (East Germans) are still somewhat looked down upon by the 'Wessies' (West Germans) as being shiftless and lazy and there is lots of joking and putdowns from each side. My non-German speaking traveling companion and I both enjoyed the more mellifluous and less harsh sounding Saxon dialect (which Wessies claim sounds horrible) as well as the Saxon food- this includes dumplings, wild mushroom, and many meat specialties of course; we even sampled pig's tongue which was delicious. My formerly vegetarian companion's eating habits regressed back to meat, which she had been raised on as a child. One thing to note about language is that fewer people here in the East speak English than in Western Germany, especially older folks because in Communist times everyone learned Russian in school. The younger people now tend to mostly learn and speak English though.

In Bernd's store we picked up a German book about Fritz which was fascinating and gave many details about his life I had never heard about. He was a great personality and one of the great climbers of the 20th century. He adopted the rules of his home area to give us our very special Gunks experience we can still enjoy today.

Right across the state border of Germany south of Bad Schandau is the Czech side, where I have climbed in the past. We didn't visit there this trip. Both German and Czech areas are enormous climbing areas with hundreds of different crags and thousands of routes spread across tens of thousands of acres. The Czech climbing rules are equally as strict as the Saxon rules. There is no English guidebook that I am aware of, however Bernd does run an excellent guiding service and climbing school specializing in teaching the Saxon style of ascent.

The best times to visit this area are spring and especially fall, during which one can enjoy nice fall foliage and cool dry weather. I definitely plan a longer trip back just to climb here someday soon. When in the area, do as we did and visit the amazing medieval fortress of Stolpen, near Bernd's hometown of Hohnstein (also very charming.) Stolpen is entirely made of basalt and is unique in all of Europe. The Saxon king August the Strong imprisoned his mistress here for the latter part of her life when he took a new wife. Once, when she saw him arriving with his retinue in later years, she thought he was coming to take her back. In reality, he only wanted to test his new cannons against Stolpen's amazingly hard walls. Oh, ce la vie. There are also many other old castles to explore by the way. A side trip to Dresden to see the Zwinger, the most famous rococo architecture of Germany and now recently restored, should not be missed as well.

The river Elbe flows through the area and also defines its character. We stayed at an old hotel right on the river which was very reasonable. In general, things are not too touristy or expensive, and the old flavor of the East lingers. To reach one of the main climbing and hiking areas, the Paradise Valley, one can take a charming century old trolley on a ride back in time. The efficient Ossies engineered the system to run on hydroelectric power. At the time of this writing the Elbe is flooded and many of the places we visited including the Zwinger are under water, which is hard to imagine. The rocks are all dark colored which gives things a somber atmosphere. Most of the climbs look intimidating.

The old labyrinths of stone tell many tales. There are unlimited hiding places in the seemingly endless canyons, where during the 20's and early 30's the Communist resistance to the Fascist takeover of Germany would rendezvous. Eventually those who did not leave the Reich were tragically betrayed and tortured, then executed by the Gestapo, who murdered all of their political opponents. Some of them were climbers. The victims of those terrible times must not be forgotten; some of their ghosts still seem to haunt these places. To sum it all up, this place is incredibly well worth a trip even if you just hike, explore and enjoy the delicious food as well as the very special ambience of the place.