A European Climbing Vacation
A family friend is fond of calling us “Swiss family Hörst,” given our Swiss/German heritage and our propensity to go on epic rock climbing trips each summer.
Most summers we pack our Jeep and travel around the western United States to climb in amazing places such as Devil’s Tower (WY), Maple Canyon (UT), and Yosemite (CA). Every few years, however, we board a plan to Europe. This summer we embarked on our family’s second European Vacation (we did a similar trip across the pond in 2015) with a plan to climb in at least four countries.
Our first stop was at the world-famous Céüse crag located on a ridge in the foothills of the French Alps. Céüse is home to some of the world’s hardest sport climbs, but the burly one-hour uphill approach serves as a natural defense mechanism that keeps less-hardy climbers away.
Céüse rock is top-quality dolomite riddled with pockets and edges that often accept no more than just the tips of your fingers. The angle of the rock face ranges from just less than vertical to severely overhung, with about 15-degrees past vertical being the norm.
Our daily MO while at Céüse was to begin the long uphill hike mid-morning, do a few warm-up climbs during the midday, and then project—and hopefully send—a few hard routes late each afternoon when the air temperatures cooled off.
Each of our four climbing days (we took 2 rest days) ended with the downhill hike delivering us to our car around dusk with tired bodies and full hearts.
The Frankenjura is home to some of toughest power climbs on the planet, making it a destination every hard-training climber should aspire to visit. We spent three weeks in the Frankenjura in the summer of 2015 and this summer planned a one-week return visit to the area.
Unlike the broad monolithic ridgetop cliff of Céüse, the Frankenjura is comprised of myriad small limestone outcrops scattered about hilltops and farm valleys of Germany’s Bavaria region. The short approaches are easy on your legs, but the tiny finger pockets and steep bulging faces make for strenuous, powerful climbing that’s especially hard on this 50-something’s fingers! Fortunately, there are climbs of every grade here, and visiting the beautiful Frankenjura should be on every climber’s bucket list, regardless of age.
I was happy to ascend my hardest route of the trip here, a climb called Ekel (5.13a). Once the hardest route in Germany (when it was established in the early 1980s), it’s now climbed first try by strong young guns like my sons, Cameron and Jonathan. Succeeding on Ekel was a challenge for me. It took part of two days to unlock and practice the tricky and powerful crux sequence, before I was able to make a complete ascent without hanging or falling.
As for my sons, they climb at a whole other level. While in the Frankenjura Jonathan climbed a route called Subway (5.13d) and Cameron succeeded on his hardest-ever climb, Pain Makes Me Stronger Every Day (5.14c).
Our next destination was a short, but delightful stop at a small Swiss crag called Voralpsee. Viewed from afar, this 100-foot cliff looks flat, featureless, and unclimbable. Upon arriving at the cliff base, you discover the wall is filled with tiny edges and ripples that typically measure a centimeter or less in depth. The challenge of climbing at Voralpsee, then, is deciphering the proper sequence of hand and foot holds and moving as fast as possible up the wall in the hopes of reaching the top before your forearms explode from the muscle pump!
Located in the rolling hills of southern Switzerland, hiking around Voralpsee is as beautiful as the climbs are pumpy. This place is on the top of my list for a return visit!
Tetto Di Sarre, Italy
Our European vacation did include a few work days (for me), as I presented a keynote talk at the International Rock Climbing Researchers congress in Chamonix, France. We decided to “basecamp” for a week in Chamonix, so that my wife, Lisa, and the boys could explore this famous ski village, hike in the shadow of Mt. Blanc, and even climb a few days at nearby cliffs while I attended the conference.
Interestingly, the best nearby sport crag was on the opposite side of Mt. Blanc, but it was surprisingly easy to access via the 12km long tunnel under mountain. My family made this 40-minute cross-border commute three times to climb at Tetto Di Sarre. Fortunately, I was able to make the trip one day as well. It’s a stunning location with a 45-degree overhanging cliff across from the Sarre Royal Castle and idyllic Italian vineyards.
A terrific bonus of our week in Chamonix was the World Cup speed and lead climbing competition being held on a giant competition wall built in town centre. Featuring many of the world’s top pro and amateur climbers, this four-day event was a spectacular preview of what the world will get to watch when climbing debuts in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games!
Eric J. Hörst is an internationally renowned author, researcher, climbing coach, and accomplished climber of more than 30 years. A self-professed “climber for life,” Eric remains active at the cliffs, traveling widely with his wife, Lisa, and sons, Cameron and Jonathan.