Also posted on Summitpost here
- Alte Nordwand (UIAA V)
- June, 2008
There is something special about the Geiselstein. It’s a “front range” mountain, rising up quickly from the gentle green hills and torqoise lakes of Bavaria. The vertical towers of limestone are a promise of whats to come if you venture further south into the ranges. I like the idea of starting at “the edge” of the mountains, and gaining the heights via the most severe path. By that criteria, the Geiselstein is a good one. A northern outlier with the nickname “Matterhorn of the Ammergau,” even the normal way on this peak requires low 5th class climbing. But from the north the silvery-gray rock of the 1300 foot high north face looms over a sleepy cow-grazed meadow, their bells tingling softly. It seems to say: this is what I have to offer you, further in. That is, if you can get by me first.
At the same time as these mystical thoughts about the Geiselstein and her alluring north face were forming, I started going to the climbing gym with Danno, who’d been to the mountains once before with me on the Lampsenspitze. He’d really gotten the climbing bug this spring, and after working hard to master the plastic cracks in the gym I knew he was ready to join me on a tougher alpine climb. We’ve both got two kids at home now, so finding a day that worked was a minor miracle. Then mother nature made life hard. Three times over May and June we forged a chance, and three times she rained hard. Our last chance until September was June 21st. Finally, she relented and gave us her blessing.
Six miles of biking and a few confused moments of blinking at the map brought us to the meadow below the mountain, the Wankerfleck. It was interesting to be passed on a steep dirt road by a guy pedalling furiously on a reclining bike, his face betraying no sign of exertion to match our desperate efforts. “We are working so hard and you are falling asleep!” we joked to him.
A party bound for a shorter route on the south face gave us some advice about when to leave the trail. “Ah, you are doing the big one then,” said their leader. “Very hard.” Danno blanched visibly. Now we are in the realm of pyschological warfare!
We hiked a few hundred feet up through pleasant forest and meadowed slopes to an obvious side trail leading back to the face. Once at the base we saw we were behind two parties, clustered closely around the first and second pitches. They had chosen to ride the shuttle bus in to the meadow rather than bike. We had thought about that but the fact that the last bus out is at 5 pm nixed the idea for me: I hate nothing more than getting halfway up a peak only to make stressful time calculations as to whether or not we should go on. Indeed, one of the parties would eventually retreat, and the other just had to lump the long road walk out.
The first pitch of the route is the crux. And it was in terrible shape today: a 20 foot high dripping wall of snow protected a thick layer of slimy mud on the lower hand and foot holds. Danno and I squirmed through the moat, coating everything in black mud. As the party above cleared the pitch, I started up. I tried a harder direct variation that avoids the need to climb up then down 8 feet, the only problem being that it was incredibly slimy. Betraying my “climbing birthplace” in the wet, snowy Cascades, I kicked footholds in the snow wall behind me to aid the ascent. I tried to dry my shoes before the crux (V+ or about 5.8) lieback to reach the anchor. “Slimy shoes, polished rock,” I complained. Danno meanwhile was worrying about the vast gulf between his small store of rock climbing experiences and this dirty, thrutchy, wildly improvised display. I reached the belay, unable to pretend the crux had been easy! However, Danno mastered the moves, reluctant to commit to the lieback, but powering through anyway. “Nice! We’re on the rock, let’s see whats around the corner.”
Easily around, then downclimbing to reach a committing step across to a wall with good hands but smearing feet. More traversing rounded a corner to the belay. “Hmm, this is a lot to ask of a strong beginner,” I thought to myself. Only on pitch 2 (actually still part of pitch 1 on most topos), but already dealing with slick mud, traversing, downclimbing. I was beginning to see why the climb had a reputation despite a moderate (V+) grade, bolted belay stations, and a good amount of intermediate protection bolts or pitons. Danno came around the corner with no problem, but definitely wondering about his future on this climb. But we got a reprieve: one look up at the pitch ahead filled us with confidence. Good solid 5.6 ground led up a chimney/crack to a higher belay. We loved this pitch.
And the next one was even better. Rated 5.7 (UIAA V-), long and sustained, smearing feet on fins between water runnels, with great handholds everywhere.
We kept pace with the party above, eventually waiting a while when there was trouble finding an anchor. They were some nice fellas, though this was one of their first outdoor climbs and the very sparse protection on easy ground became increasingly difficult for them. After hunting around 15-20 minutes, they found an anchor, and Danno and I could go up. But they had run out their 70 meter rope so I figured we wouldn’t see them any more. Shucks, wrong! After a rope-stretching 50 meter pitch I built a belay from a shrub on the lower part of a grass band that divides the face. The party above was only 10 meters away. Danno came up, and another short pitch put us right behind again.
We’d finished the lower face, but the weather had gotten cloudy and we didn’t want to linger. I combined two pitches with some simul-climbing, and then we sat down to eat some lunch and let the party above clear out. After a long lunch and deep conversation about our crazy families (haha!), we realized the leader above was climbing down! Uh-oh, it was supposed to be a pitch of easy grade III (5.2) ground. No more time for delaying, I resolved to pass by. I set off on my own line to the left. The leader was coming down because he couldn’t find the belay anchor, and there were no other bolts. We were on loose terrain, useless for protection, but above was a headwall which must have something, even if it didn’t have a ring bolt. Just as I was going to sling a horn and place a cam, I found the belay anchor. Visibly relieved, the other party could come up, now behind Danno and I.
I left again quickly to give them some room. More easy terrain led into a dripping maw: a deep hole under a house-sized chockstone. I was back in the zone of slick mud-plastered holds, and worked to find some protection. With a decent small cam placement, I could finesse my way up and right to a ledge with the belay anchor (looking a bit rusty). Danno came up, and I called down to the guys below that the 5.8 pitch above, though dripping wet, looked do-able because of some blocky holds and several bolts providing good protection.
Danno and I talked a few minutes, cheering ourselves up with positive statements like “that doesn’t look so bad!” But still, at the little overhang with hands on wet holds, trusting to a smeared foot and reaching higher even as the foot started to slip…I wondered! But the reached-for hold was of the “Thank God” variety, and I moved up. Above that I could avoid the worst of the mud, then finally had to commit to real chimney climbing: back on one wall, feet on the other. I lost the “free ascent” pin at the last wet smear by grabbing a quickdraw. But even as I beat myself up for lack of boldness, I was enjoying the “lost art of chimney climbing” once back on dry rock. I reached a belay at a notch on a ridge, now caught-up with the first party of the day. Their leader spent about 20 minutes stymied by a hard move on the vertical step above. After a long time, Danno arrived looking about 3 years older. “Man, that was really hard!” he said. He also grabbed a sling, but a different one. He said he was cursing a blue streak for a minute or so, and possibly scared off the party below! It was a real old-school, gritty pitch. Probably best climbed with a bit of anger, so his style was appropriate!
The next vertical ridge pitch was one of my favorites. 5.8 climbing moves that really made you think, shifting left then right. I avoided an easy exit near the top to prolong the joy of incut holds on blank-looking limestone slabs. Danno enjoyed it too. He was really pleased that after so many pitches he wasn’t feeling tired. I remember that being a big surprise to me too on early long climbs. We finished off his dark chocolate and continued.
Easy ground led to an interesting traverse pitch, around the “hauseck” (house corner). There was a great natural hourglass in the rock here to sling. Above, I reached the false summit after 50 meters of easing ground. I found a good huge boulder to sling at the top and a worried man came over to tell me there was an anchor 20 feet away. I explained I’d reached the end of the rope and this was a perfectly good anchor anyway. And the view was great. I looked down on the sun-dappled meadow of the morning, heard the jangling bells. Danno appeared now ready, like me, to call it a day. Easily done. One more trivial pitch got us to the summit where we could eat and take in the views to the south.
After a few minutes though, we realized Danno might be able to get home and tuck in his boy if we hurried down. He’s a good dad who doesn’t break promises lightly, so we took off! The normal route was easily downclimbed, and then we scurried down many switchbacks to reach the Wankerfleck. Retrieving our bikes, we pedaled away with nary a backward glance save one: I had to say goodbye to that physical yet extra-dimensional mountain of my dreams.
The ride down in the golden evening light was fantastic. Coasting through forest, stream and meadow, I was sorry to see it end. Sadly the boy had to go to sleep before we got back to civilization, but Danno would have a new bedtime story. One hopefully less long-winded than my own!
Thanks Danno, and thanks Geiselstein.