Knot again!

A few years were not enough for becoming an expert in using knots as climbing protection. Yet I learned a lot by placing my fair share of sandstone-friendly Saxonian protection and watching other much more experienced climbers. This post is NOT a recommendation or an exhaustive guide to climbing with knots, but simply a summary of what I did. If you really want to learn how to use knots as pro the best way is to take a specialized course. That being said, I found the following tips extremely helpful when climbing with knots.

  1. Sort them out. Since you’ll be going up with plenty of rope segments of different lengths and diameters, it’s crucial that you have a good system for organizing your slings without ending up with a messy tangle of knots. The simplest way to do this is to girth-hitch them through the gear loops of your harness. There are two ways to do this:
    1. Knot up. The knot is closest to the harness.
      1. Pro: Easier to retrieve slings.
      2. Con: Bulky gear loops. Limits the number of knots you can comfortably carry.

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    2. Knot down. The knot hangs freely away from the harness.
      1. Pro: Many more slings per gear loop without added bulk near the harness. The reduced bulk will also make climbing narrow chimneys or off-widths more “comfortable” (as if that were possible…).
      2. Con: You have to pull first the free strand of the knot AND later pass the knot through this loop to remove the sling. Obviously, this costs valuable strength when trying to protect a move in an uncomfortable position and can create tangles when carrying many slings of different lengths.

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  2. Organize the long slings. Nothing beats carrying sewn or knotted loops of various lengths for tying horns, blocks and trees or for threading sanduhrs. If you, like me, don’t plan on going spartan on the pro, you’ll probably be carrying several 60, 120 and 180 loops. How do you organize them?
    1. The easiest way is to holster all loops above head and shoulder, folding two or three times the sling depending on the size. However, when carrying around multiple knots and slings of different lengths and sizes, trying to pull one of your long slings will inevitably result in a tangled mess (obviously during the overhanging crux of your endurance on-sight attempt…).

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    2. The “twisted method”. Take a long loop, double it and twist it on itself with your fingers. Bring the ends together and clip into a carabiner. This way you can pack a considerable amount of slings without tangling and occupying relatively a small space in just one carabiner hanging from your harness. Of course, the downside is that you’ll have to unclip the carabiner and remove the sling you need withouth dropping all the others.

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      Without the long slings, you can comfortably keep several short 60 cm loops over the shoulder for fast use.

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  3. Keep them loose! Before starting the climb, loosen up your knots. A loose figure-eight knot has a narrower profile compared to a tightened one and is much easier to place in thin (relative to the sling diameter) cracks.

    Keeping your knots loose is also very important for Kevlar slings, as tight knots reduce the fibers’ life-time.

  4. Keep long ends. Of course, long ends on your knots are essential to prevent he knot from slipping and untying at high loads. Additionally, the long ends will make retrieving knots an easier task for your second, as almost all jammed knots will be easily retrieved by a small tug at the ends. Your followers will be grateful.
  5. Keep the carabiners out of the way. I am betting you also love narrow chimneys and off-widths (really, who doesn’t?). Then, you’ll find that keeping the biners out of the way by clipping them to a loop over your shoulder instead than at the gear-loops will give you more freedom when changing sides or entering chimneys (unless of course you have a thing for parallel cracks, in which case you probably don’t need the biners..).

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  6. Shorten the loop on flaring cracks. Sometimes your only choice will be an asymmetric crack that widens on the outside. In this cases a pulling force directly towards the ground will likely remove the knot. A good preventive measure is to shorten the sling loop closest to the rock. This will result in an asymmetric pull that rotate theknot towards the inside of the crack, probably jamming more tightly.

All of these points are very basic and most likely you have experimented with some or all of them. In fact, you might even have more efficient and comfortable methods. Nevertheless, I hope this post gave you ideas to develop a system that works for you. Once again, the best source of information in this style of climbing is always a specialized course with professionals If you want to learn from and climb with one of the legends of Elbsandstein, check out the courses by Bernd Arnold.

Getting here

The more than 1,800 peaks of the Elbsandsteingebirge are distributed in several climbing areas which are widely spread apart, spanning over 150 km2. Luckily, the public transport network makes it easy to reach all different areas in a relatively short time. In this post, you’ll find the options available for traveling to and between different climbing areas.

The closest international airport to Elbsandstein is in the city of Dresden. There are several connecting flights per day operated by Airberlin and Lufthansa from major airport hubs in Germany (Frankfurt, München, Düsseldorf). Dresden is located less than 50 km away from the core of the Sächsische Schweiz and can serve as a good base for short one-day outings. For extended stays, a better option is staying in Bielatal or Bad Schandau.

From Dresden, regional trains depart every 30 minutes to Bad Schandau and every hour to Schöna. On the following tables you will find the train stops and bus lines you need to use to reach different climbing areas. The hiking distance is measured from the train stop to the closest peak in the area. However, note that for reaching other peaks you might need a much longer hike. When the starting point is different from the train stop, it will be indicated in parenthesis.

Climbing area

Train stop

Bus

Hiking distance

Bärenstein Stadt Wehlen 1.6 km – Conradturm
Wehlener Gebiet Stadt Wehlen  1.4 km – Buschholzturm
Rauenstein Kurort Rathen 1 km – Laasenturm
Rathener Gebiet Kurort Rathen 1 km – Mönch
Brandgebiet Pirna 237  1.3 km – Bärengartenscheibe
Lilienstein Königstein 1.8 km – Liliensteinnadel
Pfaffenstein Königstein 244a 0.7 km – Steinerne Scheune (Pfaffendorf)                           2.5 km – Steinerne Scheune (Königstein)
Papst & Gohrisch Königstein            Bad Schandau 244a 0.4 km – Papst       (Papstein)                              4.5 km – Papst                      (Bad Schandau)
Bielatal Königstein 242 1.1 km -Grossvaterstuhl (Mühlsteig)                             0.9 km – Herkulessäule (Rosenthal am Berg)                   > 10 km from Königstein
Nikolsdorf Königstein 246  0.6 km – Frosch           (Dorfplatz)
Schrammsteine Bad Schandau 252 0.9 km – Falkenstein (Wenzelweg)
Affensteine Bad Schandau 241 0.9 km – Blosztock                  (Beuthenfall)
Kleiner Zschand Bad Schandau Schmilka 241 2.5 km – Wintersteinwächter (Neumannmühle)
Grosser Zschand Bad Schandau Schmilka 241 1.8 km – Kanstein (Neumannmühle)
Wildensteiner Gebiet Bad Schandau 241 0.9 km – Glocke
Hinterhermsdorfer Gebiet Bad Schandau 241  1.5 km – Scheibe am Tellerhörnel
Schmilkaer Gebiet Schmilka  1.7 km – Wand am Kipphorn

After you get off the train, using the bus will be the fastest and easiest way to reach some areas. Use the table below to find which stop is the closest to your destination. Clicking on the bus number will take you to their current schedule.

Bus line

Climbing area

Bus Stop

237 Brand Gebiet Hohnstein Eiche
244a Pfaffenstein Pfaffendorf Vereinhaus
244a Papst & Gohrisch Papstdorf Papststein
242 Bielatal Rosenthal Am Berg or Rosenthal Mühlsteig
246 Nikolsdorf Dorfplatz
252 Schrammsteine Schrammsteinbaude or Wenzelweg
241 Affensteine-Wilde Zinne Kirnitzschtal Nasser Grund
241 Affensteine-Blosztock Kirnitzschtal Beuthenfall
241 Wildensteiner Gebiet-Neuer Wildenstein Lichtenhainer Wasserfall
241 Kleiner Zschand-Wintersteinwächter, Grosser Zschand-Goldstein, Neumannmühle*
241 Wildensteiner Gebiet-Kanstein Buschmühle*
241 Hinterhermsdorfer Gebiet Hinterhermsdorf Hoffnung*

* Important! Due to construction works on the Kirnitzschtal road, these stops are closed until further notice. Therefore, the last stop for bus 241 is the Lichtenhainer Wasserfall.

Mandatory reading

With almost 150 years of climbing history, it’s no surprise that there is a huge amount of information about the climbing in Sächsische Schweiz. Although this website aims to make information more accessible to non-german speakers, there is no substitute for the original sources: the kletterführers (climbing guides). At first sight, they are cryptical (even for native german speakers!). For example:

Nordwand VIIc; Wulf Schefler, F. Scheffler, W Müller, E. Unger, 23.5.54 – 10 m li. vom “Nordweg” Verschn. ca. 12 m hoch. Rechtsgen. Rippe zu bew. Band, dieses li. zu R. (Unterst.) linksh. zu Verschn. 3 m li. queren u. Rissverschn. auf den Pfeiler vom “Rohsspitzlerweg” (nR). Feine Rippe zu Band. Re. queren (3.R) u. Riss mit überh. E zur Vorderer Gansscharte. Wie “Hartmannweg”  zG.

Yet, with some patience and practice these strange symbols will start to make sense with the features you read on the rock.

There are different types and styles of guides:

J. Schmeisser topo climbing guides.

Volumes for Rathen & Wehlen(old edition, left) and Gebiet der Steine (right)

Pros: Drawn topos for many faces that show rings and SU for protection. Pictograms showing the general climbing style of the route (dihedral, roof, overhang, slab). Pictograms showing the condition of the route (dry, humid, moss-covered). Orientation of peaks and hours of sun exposure. Great section for climbing highlights of the area and special recommendations for children and beginners. All routes have a rating using a 4-star system.

Cons: Currently only available for three areas, Gebiet der Steine, Rathen, and Bielatal. Sometimes written descriptions are missing and the drawn topo is not enough to understand the route. The hard cover editions are awkward to carry around in the backpack.

D. Heinicke & Co. climbing guides.

Practical color-coded volumes

Pros: Cover all climbing peaks in Sächsische Schweiz in 6 volumes. Very detailed and accurate written description of routes. Includes rating for some recommended climbs (** and *) and for poorly protected climbs (!). Plastic soft cover is very comfortable to carry around in the backpack. Excellent historical climbing pictures or original first-ascentionist route descriptions. Great sections on climbing history: climber profiles, first-ascent stories. Photo-topos for selected faces. Detailed map of the area to locate peaks.

Cons: Takes a lot of time to get comfortable with route description. Many peaks have no top-down overview to locate climbs. No description of peak orientation. Only few routes have a quality rating. You need multiple volumes if you plan to visit different areas. Since a couple of years back, several volumes are sold-out and practically impossible to find.

R. Hahn compact climbing guides

Pros: Covers all climbing peaks in Sächsische Schweiz in 2 volumes. Rating for several routes using a three-star system. Gives “insider tips” for each area. Gives practical advice and recommendations for many different routes.

Cons: Description is even more compact and cryptic. It is sometimes hard to find routes and/or peaks using exclusively this guide. Maps of the areas are not very detailed. The hard cover editions are awkward to carry around in the backpack. Both editions are currently sold-out.

B. Arnold Der Elbsandsteinführer

volume 1

Detailed topo showing locations for placing slings.

Pros: Presents a selection of the best climbs of Sächsische Schweiz in 2 volumes. It’s fantastic to read Bernd Arnold’s descriptions and recommendations for different areas. Has hand-drawn topos for most of the routes inside. The only guide that shows the approximate location for solid sling placements in the topos.

Cons: The selection leaves out several worthwile peaks. Sold-out since a couple of years.

R. Fehrmann Der Bergsteiger in der Sächsischen Schweiz

Run and get your reprinted edition. It is totally worth it!

Although it would not be the best idea to use this guidebook to find your climbs, I include it here for historical reasons. This is the first rock-climbing guide for Europe, dating back to 1908. Incredibly hard to find for many years, it has recently been reprinted. It shows 200 peaks with around 400 routes.

Online information

Besides the kletterführers, a number of online sites have recently been created to review, rate or recommend climbs of different styles. In many of them, you can also find important general information about knot protection, history of climbing, first ascents, etc. Although by no means exhaustive, the list below shows the sites that I use most frequently.

Teufelsturm (German only). The biggest database of climbs in the Sächsische Schweiz. Users can upload climbs and share information on rock quality, protection and route finding. All users then rate and make further comments on the routes. This is an excellent tool to get a feeling for the nature of many climbs before trying them. They also have a fantastic curated image database. Naturally, not all routes are reviewed.

Jörg Brutschers climbing site (mostly in German, some sections in English). Has some great information on crack technique and using knots as protection. It is one of the best resources for learning just how much force will a well-placed knot hold. It also has a very nice climbing database of Sächsische Schweiz and other areas in Europe. One of my favorite sections is the list of the most rewarding crack-climbs in Elbsandstein. Not to miss is the hilarious Sandbag dictionary.

On-sight (German only). Provides some general information on the local climbing history, rules and ethics. Also has an interesting list of what the author considers to be the most beautiful routes in each area. What I like best are the safety ratings going from P0 (well protected route with rings without needing any additional natural protection) to P4 (crux might be protected by a ring but otherwise little or no protection).

Gipfelbuch (German only). Excellent site with tons of information about Saxonian climbing history, including a collection of chronicles of first ascents and short biographies of local climbing legends. It also has a big list of selected climbs for all climbing areas. In this list you’ll find a short overview of the climb, a description of the crux and useful tips for a successful ascent. The site owner is also the developer of Tourenbuch, a very interesting electronic log-book to keep track of your ascents in the Sächsische Schweiz.

RAF climbing site (German only). This is the website of the climbing club Riss Anstiegs Freunde. Although the site has not been updated for a couple of years, their list of recommended crack-climbs makes the visit worthwile. Particularly good is their self-taught crack-school, where they give a list of routes to learn and progress in all styles of crack-climbing: from chimneys to finger-cracks.

SBB site (mostly in German, with some sections in Spanish and English). Homepage of the Sächsischer Bergsteigerbund, the local section of the Deutscher Alpenverein (German Alpine Club). This is the official reference point for rules and regulations of Saxonian climbing. It also has very useful sections on registered first ascents, route grading review, request for new rings and advertisements to find climbing partners. Do not forget to check here the seasonal restrictions on climbing peaks!

When to visit

I can’t help it, I am always complaining about the lack of sun and constant rain in the Elbsandsteingebirge. But are conditions that bad? Not really, as the data from 2011 shows.

Although there are plenty of sunny days, they are not evenly distributed throughout the year. So when is the best season to climb in Sächsische Schweiz?

Typically, the climbing season starts in April and lasts until October. From January to March either the rock will still be covered with snow or you will have to deal with sub-zero temperatures. Most importantly, during this period there is a higher risk of rock-fall as thaw/freeze cycles can fracture the rock. Mid-spring offers stable weather patterns with multiple clear sunny days with cool temperatures, perfect for ticking those friction test-pieces! During summer stay alert for sudden showers and be ready to endure several days of continuous light rain. Please keep in mind that you should allow the rock to dry before climbing. Climbing on wet sandstone could lead to permanent damage to the rock (and the climber)! From June to August, the temperatures can go as high as 35 ºC and, as chalk is strictly forbidden, you might find yourself fighting against sweaty palms.  Still, with such a huge number of peaks, you will always find suitable routes in the shade or under a roof to make the most out of the summer. The highlight of the year usually comes in early Fall, when days are still long, temperatures are dropping and there’s hardly any rain.  Add the bright orange, red, and yellow hues in the forest and you will leave with a long-lasting positive impression.

Of course, every year brings different weather patterns. For example, 2011 had a very humid and rainy Summer with a long dry and mild Fall, with climbing still possible well into December. 2010 reversed this pattern as continuous rain started already during November. Still, the average weather pattern should hold true so the safest bet for a trip is to visit during late March to early May or late August to early October.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that sometimes weather conditions vary a lot between different areas in the Sächsische Schweiz.  There could be heavy rain in Rathen while the sky is perfectly clear in Zschand. So don’t be discouraged with the grey clouds outside your window! A great resource to plan for your day is the climate center from Meteomedia. They provide very accurate 4-day weather predictions with temperature, hours of sun, wind, and rain information. The best part is that you can retrieve the data for individual local weather stations, perfect for investigating which areas will have the best conditions! The most informative are the Pirna and Rathmannsdorf stations.  Seems like the sun is out… What are you waiting for?

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Saxonian difficulties

Now that looks like a *VIIIb RP VIIIc! … or is it a **VIIb(VIIc)??

So you’ve found a place to stay, tied all the knots, readied your mind-set, and even managed to borrow a couple of guidebooks from some local friends. You’ve heard so much about all the classics! But you’ve also heard that for breaking into Saxonian climbing it’s best to start with several grades below your usual climbing level. So you eagerly dive into the guidebook and find:

*! Überclassic-route, 2 / VIIa (VIIc) RP VIIIa      

What do you make out of it? Is this the right route for you?

The Saxonian grading scale is longer than other common systems for sport and traditional climbing. However, it is easily understood when broken down to its different components:

* : The star (*) symbol is used for recommendable climbs.  The double star (**) means this is an especially beautiful route. You SHOULD do at least one of these during your visit.

! : The exclamation mark before a name is used for routes which are, by Saxonian standards, not adequately protected.  Meaning, there won’t be anything to hold you if you fall.

2 : You’ll only find this in Sächsische Schweiz! Arabic numerals are used in routes that need jumps (for example, from one tower to another).  Nowadays, the jumping grades go from 1 to 6, and take into account the take-off site, the landing, the overall trajectory, and the length of the jump. The easiest jumps are rated with a 1, the hardest with a 6.

VIIa : The roman numerals indicate the technical difficulty of the route given by the first ascender and grade the hardest single move and/or frequent difficult sequences . Note that the grading is in the Saxonian scale, which now goes from I to XIIb.  For comparisons with other grading systems the tables on Wikipedia or Snowdonia are quite accurate.  Otherwise, use the simple rule-of-thumb:

VIIc = 6+ (UIAA) = 6a (French) = 5.10a (YDS).

(VIIc) : Another peculiarity of Saxonian climbing.  According to the local climbing rules, it is perfectly acceptable to use the body(ies) of your  partner(s) to overcome difficult passages of a route. This can go from simply standing on your partner’s leg to building a human pyramid! When such strategy is required, the guide books mark it with a U (for Unterstützung, meaning aid, or assistance). However, once a route has been “freed”, or climbed o.U. (ohne Unterstützung or without aid), then the guidebook will put the new “free” difficulty on parenthesis.

RP VIIIa : Still another unique aspect of Saxonian climbing is the af (from alles frei or all free) style. Here it is valid and considered good climbing style to rest at each ring. Normally all grades are given for the af-ascent. However, climbing certain routes without any stops increases their difficulty. In this cases the RP (from rotpunkt or redpoint) grade is added to the af grade.

Of course, none of this information reflects the character or safety of a route. A poorly protected VI can be as challenging as a VIIIa full of solid pro. Also, keep in mind the techniques that your route of choice requires. There is a huge difference between a VIIc face climb on good holds and a technical VIIc off-width.  The main point is not being fooled by the grade alone. Find as much information as possible about the route you want to do.  Above all, always be honest about your climbing ability.

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Route and peak ratings

Since I really like guidebooks that include a rating for the routes they describe, I’ve decided to start with a (totally subjective) rating system for the peaks and routes I upload to the page. I hope they will be useful to rapidly screen and cherry-pick routes when you are on a tight schedule.

The ratings consist on a 4-point system (1: worst, 4: best) in different categories.  The average of all of them will give the overall score.

For peaks, I consider the amount of good routes, surroundings, form and shape, and approach.  For routes I rate rock quality, protections, line, scenery, and weather conditions.

Peak ratings

  • Amount of good Routes:

4 = Wow! Where do we start?
3 = Will keep you happy for a day
2 = A couple of routes
1 = Why did we come here?

  • Surroundings:

4 = You would even come here on a rainy day just enjoy the place
3 = Wouldn’t mind staying a while after climbing
2 = You come here just because there’s something to climb
1 = Indoors would be better …

  • Form and shape

4 = Iconic tower or wall
3 = Interesting formation in the area
2 = Just another average rock
1 = Is that a peak?

  • Approach:

4 = Right next to the parking lot
3 =A long walk on well-marked paths
2 = A long walk with irregular paths/stairs/scrambles
1 = After a long walk, even with a map it’s hard to find it

Route rating

  • Rock quality:

4 = Was this sandstone or limestone?
3 = Sand gets in your eyes
2 = Fragile structures
1 = Oops! Did I just break another foothold?

  • Protection:

4 = Frequent, easy-to-place, solid knots
3 = With a good eye, skills, and patience you’ll find solid placements
2 = Huge run-outs between sparse solid placements
1 = Don’t bother searching

  • Line:

4 = Long, elegant line with unique or bizarre features
3 = If only it were longer…
2 = Nothing remarkable
1 = Was that a route?

  • Scenery:

4 = Mandatory stop at the belay to enjoy it
3 = Would make a nice picture
2 = Average view
1 = Better to just look at the footholds

  • Weather conditions:

4 = Sun-exposed and always dry.
3 = In the shade. Wait a few days after heavy rain
2 = Mostly humid. Only after an extended dry season will this be in good conditions
1 = Always covered by a moist, green carpet

Remember this system is completely arbitrary and hence not 100% accurate. Your feedback and comments are always welcomed!

Back to Getting Started

Why climb in Sächsische Schweiz?

Unfortunately, many climbers have never heard about climbing in Sächsische Schweiz.  Most likely, climbing in Germany immediately brings up images of flasks of beer, bretzels, Wolfgang Güllich and the athletic routes in Frankenjura.  “Elbsands …What? Never heard of that place!”  Yet, upon your first visit you will discover a climbing area that can exceed all your expectations.

The Elbsandsteingebirge (literally meaning Elbe Sandstone Mountains) is an area located in Saxony, close to the border of the Czech Republic in the National Park of Sächsische Schweiz (Saxony Switzerland).  What could you find here?

A typical colorful approach

You’ll find yourself in a dense forest, walking along tracks that crawl around a patchwork of ravines, canyons, hills and valleys.  Bright moss covering the walls, ferns, pine trees … look now, a clearing. You’ve walked 200 m above the valley floor and now marvel at the fading orange, red, and brown colors offered by the autumn.  Do you hear that?  Exactly, nothing. Except for growing excitement about the monstrous tower that rises out of nowhere to greet you with its climbs. You see, here the approach walk alone is worth the visit.

Climbing routes everywhere! Where to go? WHEEEEREEE?

 

With more than 18 000 climbing routes your biggest problem might be deciding which peak to climb first.  Perhaps you would like to enjoy the classic routes and follow the ascents of early climbing icons like Oliver Perry-Smith and Rudolf Fehrmann. Or maybe you are aiming for the hard and technical rotpunkt climbs of recent years. Whatever your experience and ability level you will find excellent routes with different degrees of security and commitment. And what a great variety!  Sandstone will challenge you with unique friction slabs (the traditional Sächsische Reibung), cracks of all widths and lengths, perfect dihedrals, athletic climbs… you name it.  And the cherry on top of the cake: you’ll get to try them all without chalk or bolts marking the way, training your ability to read the rock and your creativity for placing solid knotted slings as protection.  Here, every climb is an adventure.

You’ve read this far!  Do you really need more reasons?  Stop reading!  Come and climb!

Back to Getting started.

Warning: Read this first!

Warning!

I can make no guarantee about the accuracy or safety of the information posted in this blog. If you want to start climbing get proper instruction by experienced guides.  If you are a climber you should know that climbing is a dangerous activity which can lead to serious injuries or death. Traditional climbing with frequent run-outs using only natural protection on soft or brittle rock requires even better judgement about one’s own skills.  Never uderestimate any route, do not confuse easy for simple or safe!  Be honest about your confidence and abilities and choose your itineraries accordingly.  Always proceed at your own risk!