Soft Stone, Rigid Ethics: The History of Europe’s Boldest Climbing Area
In the Elbe River Valley they were climbing 5.9+ by 1905 and 5.10+/5.11 by 1922. And they were doing this with knotted slings as pro.
Enjoy unlimited access to Climbing’s award-winning features, in-depth interviews, and expert training advice. Subscribe here.
Ed. Note: This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2020 and is now being released in front of the paywall for the first time.
I looked out from my anchor high on the sandstone cliffs of the Elbe River Valley to see its namesake river winding below. I was climbing and shooting in Bohemia, along Czechia’s (the Czech Republic’s) northwestern border. In the distance rose the tabletop mountains of Saxony, Germany, part of the same plateau—the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, or Elbsandstein—where rock climbing has deep historical roots. Here, the Elbe River divides the two countries, splitting the towers and cliffs into two distinct national parks and protected landscape areas: On the Czech side, the park is Bohemian Switzerland; on the German side, it’s Saxon Switzerland. They received their respective names in the eighteenth century from Swiss artists living in the area who were reminded of their home country’s alpine terrain.
One of the oldest climbing areas in Germany outside the alpine, Saxony traces its first modern ascent to German gymnasts in 1864 and their climb of the 300-foot Falkenstein pinnacle using logs and wooden ladders. Just 10 years later, O. Ufer and H. Frick climbed the same tower without aid, grading their route III (5.4) on the Saxon scale. The early German climbers sought to climb the most visually striking features—towers—which led them to search farther southeast across the Elbsandstein Plateau and into Czechoslovakia, with route development beginning in and around the Elbe River Valley at the turn of the 1900s. In 1913, the infamously strict Saxon climbing regulations were codified in the German climber Rudolf Fehrmann’s guidebook. They’ve remained nearly untouched, except to add more restrictions as the sport has evolved.*
*These regulations include but are not limited to: No aid climbing; no chalk (“chemical or mineral substances intended to increase friction on the rock”); no “clamping wedges and devices” unless made entirely of webbing; all first ascents must be ground-up, with no rappel pre-inspection; protection rings must be spaced at least 10 feet apart (the recommendation is 16 feet), with possible exceptions for things like groundfall; a route that’s first climbed on toprope is not considered an ascent; and it’s “unsportsmanlike” to pre-clip a ring that’s clippable by hand.
As climbers sought more difficult objectives, routes that couldn’t be naturally protected with cord flossed through holes or draped over horns, or with monkey fists (a knotted rope of varying thickness that’s slotted into a crack), would require a safety ring—essentially a giant eye bolt. Driving in a ring with a hammer could take up to an hour, so easy terrain was left unprotected. To stay within the code of ethics, many rings were hammered in from free stances, at least until the ring was in far enough to weight. Not only were the rings physically taxing to place, they were expensive. A first ascensionist would have to pay a blacksmith to hand-make each ring, so some routes were runout due to simple economics.
Across the border, Czech climbers adopted these practices and rules, given that they were climbing on the same stone. When nuts became commonplace in the 1970s, and cams in the 1980s, both the Saxons and Czechs banned their use to protect the soft rock. (Note: While we all want to have minimal impact, during my time in the Elbe I did not feel that the dark, iron-dense sandstone was any weaker than what you’d find in the Southeast, like at the Tennessee Wall or around Cowell, Arkansas.) The Czech climbers along the Elbe River Valley would also go on to ban chalk. This has long cultivated the perfect atmosphere for big, bold first ascents: Who was willing to risk life and limb climbing between the widely spaced rings, or running it out 30 feet off a knotted sling?
Still, those who were, were rewarded with amazing climbs and the region’s untapped potential of hundreds of towers and 11 miles of cliffs. The early pioneers, armed with nothing more than a few carabiners, knotted slings, and a rope tied around their waists, freed routes as difficult as 5.9+ by 1905 and 5.10+/5.11 by 1922. Back then, climbing a route in good style largely had to do with how you were protecting it, and running the rope out implied that the climber was confident in their abilities. This ethos held sway for decades.
Then, in the 1980s, as the sport-climbing revolution took hold in Europe, climbers from Saxony and Bohemia began traveling to the Frankenjura and other nearby bolted areas. After Communism fell in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution, Elbe climbers began to roam freely about the Continent, bringing back modern bolting techniques, including using a power drill and hanging on hooks. Despite the presence of the Czech Mountaineering Association, the climbing ethics in the Elbe River Valley seem to be dictated by the locals and first ascentionists. (Only areas inside the national parks have continued to adhere to the old ring-only ethic. Meanwhile, retrobolting of the parks’ untold serious lines—read: death routes/roped free solos—has not been permitted unless the first ascensionist is the one to do so, which is rare.)
Modernized bolting meant Czechs could push grades and pursue lines that were previously too dangerous. Climbers like Jindřich Hudeček (aka “Hudy”) began putting up the next wave of climbs; the epitome of this style might be Hudy’s Kante Philosophy (5.13a), established in 1997 along a laser-cut arête dotted with micro-crimps. Soon enough, climbers from Saxony were crossing the Elbe to climb Czechia’s new routes, seeking escape from the draconian regulations on their side of the border.
Today, climbing in northwest Czechia is at a crossroads—despite the nearly 1,000 trad routes in the Czech land surrounding the Elbe River, it’s now considered a “sport” destination by those who live there. Some locals are looking for modern solutions to better protect climbs from ages past (in particular, cracks), including the UFO, a chock/wedge made of webbing. The UFO was invented in the early 2000s; you slot it in above a constriction and yank down, seating the overlapping webbing tightly onto itself—it’s essentially a giant webbing nut/Tricam.
There have also been discussions about the use of chalk springing up on Instagram and Facebook. Climbers realize how ugly white-streaked cliffs must look to the general population, so they try to not use chalk, though on more challenging routes you will find telltale white splotches. The unspoken rule seems to be “Don’t ask, don’t tell”—that is, “If you must chalk up, do it on a modern sport climb and leave the classics alone.” There is still a thriving debate over retrobolting as well. First ascensionists like Richard Litochleb are wondering if they should retrobolt their lines to make them more accessible. They see some of their runout climbs only getting three to four ascents a year, whereas the newer, safer lines are climbed daily. “Now nobody climbs the old routes. The route gets covered with lichen and gets dirty, and no one wants to climb it anymore,” says Litochleb. “Maybe after 20 years someone will explore again and make a ‘first ascent’ of my old routes.”
Many local climbers can clearly see the ethical gray area they occupy. Climbing has transitioned from a sport centered on bold, daring ascents to one that’s more focused on technical difficulty and skill. The gear reflects this evolution as well. Thirty years ago, stick-clipping a high first bolt or rehearsing moves on toprope would have been considered unsportsmanlike the world over. Now such practices are commonplace, even in the Elbe River Valley.
Yet something is lost in this modern style. Climbing the old-school routes in the Elbe requires a mental focus, one that leaves a lasting impression. As I shot my friend Jenny Fischer climbing high above rings that had been pounded into the sandstone decades before she was born, I found myself holding my breath. The only sound was my shutter clicking fervently as she moved confidently up the vertical rock, sometimes with more than 40 feet of rope drooping down to the last ring. There would be a collective sigh of relief as she clipped the next historic piece, perhaps one of only two rings in 150 feet, as on The Guillotine (5.10c; see photo at left). More than any sport climbs I’ve shot, these routes will stay with me. I’m sure Jenny and other visitors to the Elbe River Valley would say
Elbe River Valley Logistics
Fly into Prague’s Václav Havel Airport and rent a car. It’s a two-hour drive to Decin, the region’s largest metropolitan city. Alternatively, you can take the train from Prague to Decin, but you’ll need a car to visit most climbing areas.
Decin has a plethora of hotels and Airbnb options. I’d also recommend the Pension U Lipy in Arnoltice—it’s a small bed and breakfast run by a local family that supports climbers. Breakfast and dinner are included, and are cooked by the host. I made a point to not miss any meals. Black tea, salted, halved tomates, and eggs and toast with jam were a staple every morning. For dinner, I had everything from Czech goulash (a delicious shredded-beef dish covered in aromatic paprika and garlic sauce), to homemade pizza. Of course, meals were always accompanied by local beer.
There is little information in English, which may be why the amazing sandstone is so uncrowded. Climbing Guide Labské Údolí has the most beta in English.
All climbing gear, including UFOs and knots, can be bought at HUDY Sports—founded by the local Elbsandstein climber Jindřich Hudeček (“Hudy”) in 1990—in locations across Czechia.
Levi Harrell is an adventure storyteller and photographer based in Boulder, CO. With a deep love of wild places, Levi is most at home on international expeditions that capture the imagination and inspire others to spend more time outdoors.