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Europe, Climging in Czechoslovakia and East Germany

Climbing in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. My trip to Czechoslovakia was much enhanced by the warmth and hospitality of the many Czech climbers with whom I climbed. Our first climbing was on the 50- meter limestone cliffs just outside of Prague called Srbsko. From there we moved into several climbing areas in the belt of sandstone towers which stretches from southern East Germany (near Dresden) in an arc across northern Bohemia. While extreme sandstone climbing, and the development of free-climbing ethics had an earlier start in East Germany, much high-standard free climbing has been going on in Czechoslovakia for a long time. We climbed first in the Prachov Rocks, and then at Adrspach and Teplice. I was interested in the distinction between a “free” shoulder stand (where neither climber is supported by artificial protection) and an “aid” shoulder stand (where the lower climber might be hanging from protection). I was also impressed by the fact that local climbing clubs are responsible for maintaining fixed protection, and replacing the large iron pegs and rings when they become dangerously rusty. When I mentioned that I had met Fritz Wiessner, my Czech friends led me to the bottom of a tower that he first climbed in 1927. The climbing was at an enjoyable F8 standard, and I was impressed by its early first ascent. I also heard that Henry Barber had impressed the Czechs in this area by not only climbing a hard crack unroped, but downclimbing it as well. The rock is softer in some sandstone areas, and these places are best known for the face climbing to be found there (like Prachov). Where the rock is harder, strenuous crack climbs and friction routes predominate (as at Adrspach). We travelled by train to Poprad, a city near the .High Tatra, which are the highest mountains in Czechoslovakia. Rail trams can then be taken to the various resort towns (Tatranska Lomnica, Stary Smokovec, Popradske Pleso) which serve as jumping-off places for climbers. There are climbers’ camps in several valleys (usually near to a chalet with a bar) and various climbers’ clubs have worked out agreements with the Czechoslovak Park Service to let them camp in these areas. These are not places for tourists, but only for climbers, and it is sometimes necessary to show a climbing-club membership card to the authorities. The camps are fun places to be and they are good places to meet other climbers. The regimentation and bureaucracy found at Soviet camps is totally absent here. The mountains themselves are granite peaks up to about 2600 meters high. There is almost no snow in the summer, but the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Poles develop a lot of their toughness by climbing in the winter. There are a few big faces, but also many shorter climbs as well. Sometimes the rock is compact and of high quality, but some of the north faces are fairly loose. There isn’t as much emphasis on ethics in the Tatra (and pitons and nuts are allowed) as there is in the sandstone, but most routes are done in very good style. We did routes up to grade IV, F8, A-3 standard, but there were harder and longer routes in the areas that I visited. I’ve been impressed for a long time by Czech climbers that I’ve heard about in Yosemite and the Alps, and it was good to meet a few of them and see their home mountains. I went from the Tatra to East Germany and did a bit of climbing in the sandstone along the Elbe River with some climbers from Dresden that I met on the night train from Prague. Besides the rock and the challenging nature of all the climbing, it is the unique cultural experience of visiting eastern Europe which makes Czechoslovakia and East Germany so attractive. Tourist visas are far easier to get than one might think because eastern bloc countries are always eager to get the western currency that American tourists bring. Advance planning and letters to the embassies in Washington to get visa applications are all that is necessary.

Michael Warburton