“Yes Decheen, Rock climbing, Climbing, you know…”. Stood in one of the biggest climbing shops in Prague, making stupid arm gestures, we seemed to be getting nowhere. Susannah and Pavel from the Czech Republic, who we met in St Leger in France, had been raving about it. “It’s the best climbing in the Czech – the other areas are famous, but this is better – more bolts and really good, quality sandstone”. I was particularly keen as the more bolts the better as far as I was concerned. But here we were and the Czechs seemed incredibly fussy over pronunciation. As we pointed to a word in heavy bold print on a map, the shop assistant sighed, “Oh Decin*, of course”. Still clueless as to what had been wrong with our pronunciation, we were sold a guidebook.
Nic Sellers onsighting Navrat krale, 7c+
Out of Prague we drove, following the large and fast-flowing river Labe (Elbe). We hit Decin, seemingly a very industrial town and quite a culture shock compared to Prague. Considering this was a sport climbing trip in Europe, things seemed awfully complicated. The campsite marked on the map didn’t seem to exist and the guidebook just included pages and pages of lists of routes, with a handful of topos, a few maps and no useful information for the visiting climber.
Looking over to Dolni Zleb
Susannah and Pavel had indicated that everything would be obvious and that you just went to a village called Dolni Zleb* where all the climbing was. What they hadn’t mentioned was the sheer volume of climbing; if you include both sides of the river, there’s about 7-10km of 100 metre high sandstone cliffs! They also didn’t mention that from Dolni Zleb you couldn’t access any of the climbing on the other side of the river. For that you had to drive back to Decin and out the other side. Not only could we not read or pronounce any of the words in our guide, but finding the crags was another thing altogether.
Tom Briggs leading the first pitch of Big Wall, E3
Unsurprisingly, we soon found ourselves bushwhacking uphill through forest just to get to any old crag in the hope of it having some climbing; at least then we might be able to locate it in our guide. We came across a huge 70 metre very sandy cliff with some bolts on it. The dread in the back of my mind, that actually this wouldn’t be a sandstone version of Ceuse, came true. The first bolts were miles up and it didn’t look that easy. Nic sauntered up something. “About 6b that”, he reported. From the ground it really didn’t look 6b – it looked big, imposing and only had about 7 bolts in it. To be safe, rather pathetically I toproped it. Later, when we got to grips with the guide and the grading system (worth an article in itself), we found out it was more like 7a.
Beech forest in the Decin region
Embarrassing as it may seem, it took me 3 days to actually lead something. This place is not nearly as run out as you might think, but the grades seemed all over the place and spaced bolts were certainly the norm. On one 7a+, I couldn’t even dog a move, in fact Nic fell off on the onsight; and on another route I had to pull off a crazy set of heel hooks simply to get past the first bolt on something Nic and Tom reached easily past. I needed to change my mindset fast.
Discovering one of the stretcher boxes at the bottom of the crag
Up until this point on our European tour, I was getting a big buzz from difficult moves either close to the ground or at most with the bolt around my toes. And now I was asking my head to start thinking like a bold trad climber 4 metres above a ring bolt. Could I be bothered to get into this mindset? The Frankenjura was only round the corner on the next stage of our trip…
After 3 days of scratting around in the rain and cold (even though it was May), trying to find something on which I could get off the deck, and with the river levels going up and down like a yo yo, the sun finally came out in all its glory and we headed over to Trun* – one of the best and most prestigious cliffs in the area.
Tom Briggs leading Prvni vraska, 7b
The majestic Trun has a vertical bottom wall and a big continuously flat overhanging headwall. Many classics line this wall and we were really inspired. Then suddenly, from around the corner, all these local Czech climbers appeared. Until this point we hadn’t seen a single climber. They were all kitted out in multi-coloured patchy trousers and racks of knotted slings dangling around their knees. They were also climbing things that seemed amenable.
“About HVS that”, said Nic. Admittedly it did look easy, but then again Nic makes everything look easy. I did it and then Tom. “More like E2”, Tom said. Mmm, I did think the 50 metres of French 6a with 6 bolts in it had seemed a bit stiff for HVS! But after that, I found my confidence growing. The climbing wasn’t too hard, but you had to have your wits about you as the bolts were certainly spaced. Placing the knotted slings seemed like comedy, novelty, tourist climbing – of little use normally, but something you just did in the Czech Republic.
Big swing potential: Tom Briggs seconding Lost Arrow, 7b+
Over the course of the next few days I found myself pulling on rippled crimps, fingertip slopers and rounded balancy aretes. The rock was solid and I was making upward progress on the sharp end. My highlight of the trip was to take place on the penultimate day of climbing. I started up Korist* (VIIIc or 6c+ / E4 6a). This dramatic arete twists and soars for 30 metres. It starts with balancy moves up a rounded arete. I was feeling shaky and despite having just climbed something a couple of grades harder this route had a big feel to it. You just knew it was an all time classic and you didn’t want to muck up.
Katherine Schirrmacher on Korist 6c+
The next section involved teetering up rounded holds above a bolt leading to a hard move – and a ground-skimming fall if you failed (well, that’s what it felt like). I was determined not to let my head get in the way and I charged through the first crux. Now there was just a 7 metre easy run-out to the next protection. After a week of torment in my head, finally things were in place. More moves up and I had clipped the huge ring bolt.
Now it was time for the technical crux – which psychologically seemed easy compared to the ground-skimmer below. I was on the type of arete you dream of on the grit: square cut, barn-doory, in a great position. With a few foot mix ups I sorted it out and grabbed the final jugs. Like a perfectly composed music album, this route had it all. And this is just one of many inspiring climbs in the area.