It was Friday evening when we caught the train from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. Two dads, two daughters, heading south beyond Dresden and towards the Czech border, climbing down from the train in darkness on the banks of the Elbe. Across the river from the station, the lights of Bad Schandau shone against the dark hills that rose up behind the town. The next morning, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Saxon Switzerland would be our goal, but for now we were staying down by the river.
The next morning our route took us along the water, following the bike path that links Dresden to Prague, until we reached one of the narrow valleys that push up between the rocky outcrops of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. It was autumn, not long after the start of term, and we were not alone on the trail. Hikers and trail runners stuck to the paths as they were marked, finding their way up to the heights via damp gorges and gullies, between sandstone outcrops.
Every so often there was a gap in the wooden fence that marked the trail, and a warning that only climbers should proceed along the trampled path that led away towards the rocks. For some parts of the trail we had been climbing ourselves – of a fashion – using ladders and metal handholds, hammered into the rock. It was the only way for non-climbers to reach the lookout points above the trees. But those paths through the woods spoke to a different climbing tradition, one unique to this particular place and part of the world.
Rock climbing in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains began in the middle of the 19th century, a gymnasts’ pursuit roughly around the time these landscapes were being discovered – and made famous – by Romantic painters and poets. The first climbing area in Saxon Switzerland was around the Falkenstein and the Schrammsteine, the very area we were walking through above Bad Schandau.
As the climbing tradition developed in the region, as was happening elsewhere in Europe such as the Alps and the mountains of Scotland and Wales, sets of ethics developed. By 1913 among these rocks above the Elbe, these ethics had been formalised with the creation of the Saxon Climbing Regulations by the guide Rudolf Fehrmann, whose bust we would find carved into the rock along the trail. An irony perhaps, considering the code Fehrmann laid down in his set of principles was all about committing to protect the soft sandstone of the region.
The Saxon Climbing Regulations are relatively straightforward, if posing quite a challenge for those used to climbing elsewhere. Artificial aids are forbidden, as are nuts, friends and other protection. Only ropes, slings and carabiners may be used, and the only bolts that can be added to the rock are installed by the first person to climb it, with first ascents only to be attempted from the bottom up – no developing a route by hanging from a rope with a toothbrush in hand. Chalk may not be used at any time and climbing is strictly forbidden on wet or damp rocks.
The specifics of climbing in Saxon Switzerland meant that the sport developed in a slightly different way to traditional and sport climbing elsewhere, with its own set of valued skills and techniques. At the same time, from the end of the Second World War until 1990, this part of the world was part of the German Democratic Republic, meaning climbers from the region tended not to have the opportunity to travel beyond socialist Europe to try their skills elsewhere. But the climbing world did come to them, of a fashion, as for some western climbers, Saxon Switzerland – because of its unique climbing traditions and location ‘beyond the Iron Curtain’ – became something of a bucket list destination, before such a phrase even existed.
As for us, we stuck to the ladders in the gorges and remained on the waymarked hiking paths until we reached the lookout point above the Schrammsteine rock formation. Once there we could take in this very special landscape of ravines, table mountains and rocky outcrops – a landscape as particular as the climbing traditions it gave birth to. We did not have time to linger. From the vantage point looking out over the Schrammsteine we could see the clouds gathering. Our route back to Bad Schandau would see us caught in a rainstorm – a mountain experience that made those of us from northern England feel right at home.
But still, as we made our way through the gorges and forests, across the plateau plains and down the steep hillside to the town on the Elbe, following paths that had turned into rushing streams with the downpour, we could certainly agree that despite ending our day soaked to the skin, that it had all been worth it. That we had scratched the surface of an area that needed more exploration. And that these mountains that straddle the German-Czech border are certainly a place like no other.
Words & Photographs: Paul Scraton