This blog is the first from the Buxton MC’s newest chapter- Buxton MC East, based in Saxony.
Rob drove heroically to get me and my boxes of junk to Saxony, but after he left, I found myself alone, with no working phone or internet, and all shops closed for two days due to the Pfingsten holiday. It looked pretty bleak. I cycled through the woods and had a beer at the beer garden in the middle of it. This helped calm my nerves and inspire me to try once again with the little battery power I had left to make a phone call. As it turns out, my UK phone could make calls, but send no texts. Ulli insisted I get on the next train to Rathen, a spa town on the Elbe. One thing I have learned- with Ulli, anything is possible; Rucksack fallen over 100m onto a glacier? No need to despair. A very long abseil should do the trick. (And he actually collected all the items that had fallen out on the way as he recovered the damaged sack!) So I went along and within 2 hours was greeting the good doctor on the platform. Soon I was at a party of people I had never met, drinking wine I never bought, and sitting around a fire outside a very large country house I had never been in. I felt like a celebrity.
The next day was sunny and warm. We hiked for an hour or so through the forest and uphill, trying to recall from memory what the guidebook we didn’t have would have told us. Wide tourist paths gave way to narrow paths for climbers, and then came a small obstacle- a bit of a scramble up some steep sandstone boulders and passages too narrow for rucksacks. Watching Ulli lift both legs and run in the air, cartoon style, while his pack held him in place will always be a highlight. We quickly set up a rope to pull the packs up and through, and even helped some other people behind us. Doing this all barefoot to save time made me feel closer to our forebears of the last century, who did all of these routes barefoot.
One thing that has always impressed me, in fact, is the stasis of the Elbsandstein. It had not changed in the years I had been gone, and indeed it had not changed much in the 155 years since the first routes were put up. Oscar Schuster, Fritz Brosin, Oliver Perry-Smith and Rudolf Fehrmann had experienced it much the same as we did. The familiar sights, sounds, and smells of the woods and sandstone towers made me feel as if I had not been gone at all, as if the last eight years had never happened. I felt the timelessness of the place, it seemed to echo back into infinity.
Soon we were staring in awe at Höllenhund, one of the great classic towers, some 70m high, a wall full of tiny, web-like structures, and according to the books, plenty of places for threads. I say awe, but fear is perhaps more accurate. The easiest way up is not easy at all, and quite dangerous. We decided instead on a few easier towers nearby.
Each tower has several routes, the oldest generally the easiest, and almost always called Alter Weg (old way). Much like gritstone, the grades can be deceptive. Even theoretically easy grades can have very tricky portions. Soon we were on top of the Eule, the first I had climbed here in 8 years! Its narrow but long peak had a fantastic view. After a 25m abseil, in which we got off early on a sloping canyon, rather than descending the entire 35m or so, we walked to the Höllendhund Scheibe, which was close but in fact required an abseil from a tree on loose ground and through trees to get to, and thus was an effort of 30 minutes or so. Here we did a few more difficult routes, the last one having very marginal protection and very fragile hand and foot placements. By fragile I mean that they crumbled away in your hand.
Perhaps most interesting here was the summit register at the top. These are always in a small zinc box to protect it from the elements, and with a pencil which can be sharpened by scraping it along the stone. Each book stays there until it is full, at which time the local Alpine Club (SBB) collects it, replaces it, and archives it. Popular summits’ books must be replaced yearly or more often. This one, perhaps because of the difficulty of reaching the start, had been in use, in its zinc box, since 1976! And just before us, the lead climber had written that this was his final summit of all those in the Elbsandstein! There are over 1,100 such towers on the German side, and more if you include the Bohemian side. Only a few people have done this, and even fewer have led at least one route on every summit. From the top we could also see a ring on the rock wall some metres away. Climbing on the innumerable massifs is not allowed, but the ring is there to accommodate the belaying of those who would like to jump from the massif to the top of the tower. It seems a rather large effort for something that has probably only been done once. Successfully.
The walk back down through the fragrant forest, empty of humans, but full of birdsong and sandstone towers, was a pleasure only added to when Ulli pulled the beers out of the creek, where he had hidden them earlier, and we drank them on the ferry across the Elbe.