When British climbers talk of German cragging, this will often conjure up images of knotted slings being crammed into crumbling cracks in Elbe – esoteric ‘adventure trad’ that should be saved for locals and masochists (or local masochists) – or tendon-busting pocket pulling on the bolted pinnacles of the Frankenjura. And while each of those will have its loyal proponents, the remarkably well-kept secret of the Pfalz region offers a wonderful array of climbing, across the disciplines and grades, that will convert all but the most gym-hardened wad to the joys of European sandstone.
The remarkably well-kept secret of the Pfalz region offers a wonderful array of rock climbing from overhanging pocketed walls to ‘old-school’ chimneys and cracks – all on excellent sandstone rock.
Pfalz, or des Pfalzer Felsenlands, is a compact area in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of south-west Germany, centred on the towns of Dahn, Hauenstein and Annweiler. It is a heavily forested region, with endless rolling hills of pine and larch dotted with quaint villages and punctuated by imposing sandstone towers and buttresses. The area has a complex history, being as it is a stone’s throw from the French border, on land that has been fought over for centuries. Alongside the climbing, the area is best known for its medieval castles and wine production. The climbing area is remarkably compact – the majority of the climbing can be found between Dahn and Annweiler – and one could drive across the area covered in the guidebook within forty-five minutes. As such, it is an ideal area for a short trip or a trip combining climbing with other activities.
The rock in the Pfalz is a form of sandstone from the Triassic period (c.250m years old). It is infinitely varied for climbing; from overhanging pocketed walls to ‘old-school’ thrutchy chimneys, 70m stamina fests to 15m technical test-pieces. The style and ethics of climbing in the Pfalz are correspondingly varied. Many of the easier lines follow large cracks in the buttresses – these are usually trad lines, and will entail many of the grunts, expletives and self-questioning that you would hear sitting at the bottom of Desperation Crack on a sunny Saturday. Between these cracks you are likely to find slightly harder trad or mixed sport-trad routes that will follow weaknesses up the faces, with cruxes conveniently protected by enormous confidence-inspiring ring bolts. The steepest and blankest walls generally house pure sport lines, with maillons in-situ for when you inevitably over-estimate how easy the crux looks from the ground. Many of the crags also have Normalweg routes up them – usually the first route put up – which are long, interesting low-grade routes that top out on the mini-summits (that said, some of the Normalweg routes have been known to spit off VS leaders – you have been warned…)
The rock is consistently of a high-quality, particularly at the well-travelled crags. However, in early season often it is worth having a brush on-hand for the inevitable post-winter sandiness. The crags are generally equipped well for lowering and abseiling off – the local climbing community is very active and takes pride in maintaining the crags, so poorly maintained bolts or lower-offs are hard to come across.
The routes are graded using the UIAA system (IV, V+, VI etc.), but usually they also come with an ‘E’ grade (not to be confused with the British equivalent). This is a useful addition to the UIAA grade, which gives an indication of the seriousness of the pitch, often cited as a flaw of the UIAA system: E1 is safe, E3 is serious, and E2 is somewhere between. In the guidebook, the number of ring bolts is always indicated and often the author has specific gear suggestions as well.
Local ethics are an important consideration – it is the unwritten rule that chalk (or pof, if you’re stuck in the 1980s wearing lycra and a moustache) is only used on routes graded VI or above, so no chalking up those non-existent holds in that sweaty grade IV chimney please. The sandstone is porous and, as a result, excessive chalk can cause serious wear to the rock. Those who climb on gritstone will be aware of its friability while damp; the sandstone is equally susceptible to damage while wet, so if you’re unlucky enough to have a wet day find something steep or, more sensibly, a tasty Weissbier (see ‘what else to do’ below). Bird bans are also present at some of the crags – the guidebook has clear information on these and, if your German is up to scratch, you’ll be able to supplement this online before you head out. Usually these are also well signposted and, as the area is so compact, there will always be something equally worthwhile nearby.
The current guidebook covers more than a hundred separate crags, so a comprehensive appreciation of the area could only come through a lifetime’s exploration. The following crags are not necessarily the biggest or most famous in the area, but they are a selection that would provide a good starting point for your exploratory journey.
One of the more popular and larger crags in the area, Hochstein is very close to Dahn and has an array of bolted and trad lines up to 40m. A friendly and varied crag, ideal for getting a taste of Pfalz climbing, start by taking a classic mid-grade crack (Eichenriss VI-) or the striking wide chasm of Dornenriss (V) as an aperitif. Perhaps move on to a second course of some harder bolted routes, such as the interesting pocketed walls of Ausgeschnattert (VI+) or Herbstwand (VII-) and then wash it all down with romp to the summit up PK-Kante (V+).
Balanced-tasting-menu rating: 5/5
One of a handful of excellent crags surrounding the village of Lug, LugerGeiersteine (Vulture Stone) is pair of large pinnacles, each with two faces of very different character – the steep, shady Nordwand and the slightly less steep, sunnier Sudwand. There is a huge amount of climbing to be explored here, with nearly a hundred routes up to 50m. The Sudwand hosts a range of superb long routes, with highlights across the spectrum of grades. For a pleasant ramble, the Normalweg (III+) provides a traditional route, with the benefit of topping out on a summit above a sea of trees. For a greater challenge, the superb 50m arête and hanging pocketed wall of Geierwally (VII) and Left Wall-esque finger crack of Sonnenweg (VII) would be a satisfying pair to tick. For those operating in the upper grades, the Nordwand has a concentration of long, steep test-pieces in the 8th and 9th grades – tick Atemlos (VIII), Gabis Weg (VIII-) or Meister Petz (IX+) and you’ll more than deserve a rest day and a pastry.
Heaven-is-a-sandstone-pinnacle rating: 9/10
A small crag near the village of Rinnthal, Frohndellpfieler offers a pleasantly secluded option, with routes up to 32m, mainly in the mid to high grades. Spidermove (VII+) and Bauernriss (VI) are the most highly regarded routes, though the outstanding crack and arête line of Südostkante (VII) gets the award for the most underrated route in Pfalz, receiving a measly two stars. This crag can easily be combined with any of the other crags nearby (the same could be said of many of the crags in Pfalz), with the larger Drei Felsen and Dingeltalturm well worth investigating.
It’s-not-the-size-that-matters rating: 12/12
These two large crags appear as ruined medieval battlements when peering up the hill from Dahn, and are a must-visit if you are staying in or near the town. Both have a generous spread of grades, with routes up to 45m, and a real variety of grades and styles of climbing. They consist of a series of pinnacles, with easy, highly-rated Normalweg routes offering access to the summits. Short sport routes such as Reibesen (VII+) and Reibekuchen (VII+) on the shorter approach walls provide good entertainment, but many of the best lines here are sparsely bolted trad – Große Südwand (VI), Kleine Südwand (V-) and Direkte Nordwand (VII+) stand out. Lämmerfelsen also has a concentration of some of the best hard sport lines in Pfalz in Batman (VIII+) and Kathedrale (IX). If you’re looking for a striking hard project for your trip, you would struggle to come across better.
There-is-such-a-thing-as-too-much-choice rating: 5/5
Westpfeiler is a great option for those wishing to explore a few crags in a day – it is part of a long escarpment which also encompasses Weiherwände and the two Kesselwande crags. The routes here are largely nicely bolted sport-trad routes up to 50m long, with a pleasant woodland area at the base – a good option for groups or families. As a result, the crag is perhaps more popular than some of the others mentioned (it’s all relative, mind), but the proximity of the other crags means you’ll be able to find solitude easily enough. Alternatively, bring a boombox and blast out The Prodigy to scare off the other punters and get the crag to yourself. The best routes here are in the sixth and seventh grades – the superb face climbs of Lange Westwand (VII-) and Langer Eugen (VI+) to name a couple – though the slabbier arête of Direkt zum Vorbau (V) is a popular line.
Bring-the-whole-family-and-the-dog rating: 9/10
The Teufelstisch (Devil’s Table) is the most iconic piece of rock in the Pfalz, and has a steady stream of tourists to go with it. It appears as an oversized mushroom, with a large ‘table’ balanced on worryingly thin stem. There are only a handful of routes up it, but these short routes pack a punch and top out on a great mini-summit. Before launching through the underside of the table top, pause to consider how on earth it remains balanced on such a thin table leg. The routes through the roof are 100% hero climbing, so a round of applause can be anticipated from the gathering tourists while topping out. While by no means the best crag in the area, it is worth a visit purely for the novelty, perhaps as a quick hit on the way back to the hotel.
Devil’s novelty rating: 5/5
The winter months in Pfalz are cold (average 1C) and largely unsuitable for climbing, while the summer temperatures average around 20C. The warm months are the wettest, while the driest are in spring and autumn. As such, the most reliable climbing periods are March-April and September-October. The best conditions for climbing are in these temperate months, where you’re less likely to be desperately wishing you could use chalk one those sweaty slopers, though climbing is possible in the summer – find a shady Nordwand.
Pfalz is a convenient area to reach from the UK. There are regular flights to Frankfurt and Stuttgart and the area is easily accessible via train (with local lines servicing Dahn and Annweiler) for those keen to limit their carbon footprint. Driving is also an option to consider – the fast and free motorway network in Germany makes the trip from Calais via Belgium doable in under six hours. A vehicle is useful in the Pfalz, but not essential – it would be possible to have a trip here using the local buses, trains and walking. Pfalz would also make a convenient stop-off en route to grander objectives – it only requires a small diversion from a drive towards the Dolomites or Swiss Alps, though once you have a taste of Pfalz, you’re unlikely to want to then bother with tottering towers of Italian choss.
Depending on your grade and objectives, the gear you take will vary. However, as a general rule, a pair of 50m half ropes, or a 70-80m sport rope will suffice for most routes. Most will want to take a full rack, unless you’re purely targeting hard sport projects. The local climbing hub at the Bärenbrunner Hof (see below) has a very well stocked gear shop to accompany its delicious pastries.
The only guidebook for Pfalz available is in German. The most recent (fifth) edition by Jens Richter (Panico Alpinverlag) has received excellent reviews and even for those whose German is limited, the guidebook is easily interpretable (a popular translation app might come in handy occasionally). The topos are drawn, as might be expected in a heavily forested area, but are easy to understand and show bolts and belays clearly. Due to the nature of the area, crags are often hidden and the less accessible ones might be difficult to locate without the book. For the very keen, there is also a supplement available with a few extra crags that couldn’t fit into the main guidebook. Buy this Plalz rock climbing guidebook from our shop.
As the area is so compact, any of the small local towns – Dahn, Hauenstein, Annweiler – would serve as a decent base. There are numerous hotels and B&Bs in these towns, and private rentals are also fairly easy to come by. There are various campsites as well, including a couple close to Dahn.
The local climbing hub is the café and climbing shop at the Bärenbruner Hof, which is located up a narrow valley east of Dahn. This is the access point for various excellent crags, but it also has a well-stocked gear shop, good café, kids play area and, most importantly, a large number of pigs to watch frollicking in the mud. It is also the place to go if you’re seeking advice or information about the climbing in the Pfalz – the locals who run the shop are well-informed and will be able to answer most queries.
For rest days or wet days, there are various worthwhile options to consider. The area is excellent for mountain biking, with a network of forest trails to explore. The Pamina Lautertral is a long, easy cycle route on tracks that goes over the French border, and various other waymarked routes are around. Those more adventurously inclined could explore some of the steeper, un-waymarked tracks around the hills. Mountain and road bikes can be rented in the major towns.
The area is also well-known for its wine industry – it is Germany’s second largest producer of wine – so it is well set up to cater for those tourists who a prefer a bit more sophistication and a bit less Weissbier. The German and Southern wine trails start nearby, and explore vineyards, wineries and provide a good ‘taste’ of Palatinate culture.
Another interesting feature of the region is its medieval castles. The Annweil and Dahn groups of castles are some of the most popular and largest, with some impressive medieval architecture and historical interest. Bouldering traverses on the walls of the castles are not explicitly banned, but if you’re that desperate you should probably just get a fingerboard. Trifels castle is also worth an honourable mention for British visitors – Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here during one of his European escapades (there are rumours that his crime was using chalk on a grade III Normalweg). Trifels also has an excellent crag by the castle – the two could be combined for a varied day.
Walking is also an option, as you probably won’t have done much getting to the almost-roadside crags. As above, the area is well set up for this, with lots of waymarked trails and information points. For those who would much rather be climbing, some of the major trails are based around exploring crags – the Dahn Rock Trail (Felsenpfad) and Rockland Legend Trail (Felsenland Sagenweg) – so you can scope out your next project under the guise of going for a rest day walk.
I was sceptical when I first heard of the Pfalz – continental sandstone trad cragging was not something that had ever been on my radar outside of my nightmares. However, I was blown away by the quality and variety of the climbing, the friendliness of the locals and the beauty of the area. It is a relative unknown amongst UK climbers, but in Germany and France it is well-known as a cragging destination. In my time there I’ve not met any Brits, but the crags are not deserted by any stretch of the imagination. I for one intend to revisit – I’ve only had a faint whiff of what Pfalz has to offer, but that was more than enough to get me hooked. So next time you’re flicking through the Costa Blanca guide, reluctantly agreeing to spend yet another Easter week topping up your tan, drinking cerveza and climbing polished limestone, perhaps consider Pfalz as something a bit different and more sophisticated – a fine German Riesling, as it were.
Though written in German the guidebook is easily interpretable with a large amount of information being conveyed by symbols and on the topos.
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