»Das Gesicht« turns into »The Face«
»The Face« 8a+ | Altmühltal
The face is the mirror of the soul, a wise man once said. Does the face hiding in the light forests of the Altmühltal reflect the soul of the Southern Frankenjura? In any case, the two eyes have been watching the goings-on in the valley for many millennia …
»Dot, dot, comma, dash –Smiley-face in a dash) – it’s that simple in a German children’s rhyme. The »face« at the Schellneckkopf turned out a bit more difficult, though: »dot, dot…« – the eyes, and another one a little below – the nose! Spring 1983: The two boulderers Norbert »Flipper« Fietz and Norbert Bätz from Nuremberg were surprised to find the impossibility-turned-rock at the Schellneckkopf. Overhanging slightly at the bottom, continuing in a vertical sleek concrete wall, decorated with a few scattered pockets and the three one-finger pockets far up that were to give the project its name – a new challenge for »Flipper«, forever looking for problems that others called unclimbable. To spite them, he usually managed. After a few days in the top rope, the movement problems were solved, the single moves climbed, and a name had been found: »The face«… »Flipper« was never interested in the climbing the full passage let alone the lead – he was happy if he managed the chess problem posed by the rock one step at a time; by the way: »Flipper« also is a great chess player …
And then there was Jerry! Jeremy Moffatt from Sheffield greatly stirred up the European climbing scene in 1983! Wherever he showed up, he climbed the most difficult routes – usually on sight and otherwise only in a very few attempts. Wolfgang Güllich had invited him to Oberschöllenbach – to the legendary climbing group around Kurt Albert, Norbert Sandner, Norbert Bätz and Ingrid Reitenspieß. «Usually on sight and otherwise only in a very few attempts» In Frankenjura, he not only repeated the most difficult routes of Wolfgang and Kurt Albert, but also solved an old toprope problem of »Flipper« Fietz, the massive rock overhang called »Ekel« in the Trubachtal – and the first IX+ in Germany was born.
Jerry couldn’t get enough though. He always wanted more! Therefore, Wolfgang took him to the Altmühltal, showed him the »Flipper« project »Face«, and Jerry was enthusiastic about the vertical, smoothly-rejecting rock pillar at the Schellneck. After he had abseiled down into the route, cleaned the holds and drilled in the necessary bolts, he set out. Up to the undercling traverse using down-sloping finger holes, then long pulls to a large pocket and finally up to the »face«. The sequences around the »face« were hardest for Jerry. He often fell into the rope – and had to return to the ground. Bouldering out in the rope (= hangdogging) was strictly scorned by the British climbing ethics – the devil is a hangdogger! The »yoyo style«, however, permitted leaving the rope in the highest bolt reached and climbing top rope to the section of the fall; every new unknown metre, however, became a new onsight problem. On his second day, Jerry almost reached the top when a sharp-edged one-finger hole cut his finger deeply: fall and out!
After two weeks, the finger was healed, but no one from the group wanted to come to the Altmühltal with Jerry to try the »face« again. »I could have cried,« he remembers now. Finally, Chris Gore, a friend of Jerry’s from England who also visited Oberschöllenbach, took pity on him and went to the »face« with Moffatt. «The first route of the minor Xth grade in Germany» Whether he did it in the first or the second try Jerry no longer remembers today – he just knows that it wasn’t a big deal anymore. When he clipped the final bolt, the face became »The Face« – the first route of the minor Xth grade in Germany. Jerry could return to England knowing that he had left his scent marks in the Frankenjura for everyone to see.
»The Face« being a truly hard piece of work is confirmed by Mammut-ProTeam athlete Barbara Bacher. It was too cold to climb through when she tried it in January, but she emphasizes that this is a hard 8a+: »I have climbed much easier routes assigned this grade.« For reasons of bird protection, the Schellneckkopf is banned between February and June, and Babsy is now waiting for autumn – we wish her great success for her ascent! The two eyes in the wall at the Schellneckkopf are keeping a lookout for her , in any case …
United by shared passion
When did you start climbing?
I took up climbing at 15. When I finished school at 17, my parents expected me to start an apprenticeship, but I spent all my time climbing. I became a full-time climber, you could say.
What made you want to try »The Face«?
At the time, I was living in Oberschöllenbach, sharing the apartment with Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert. The Frankenjura boulderer Flipper Fietz had discovered “The Face”– just like many other routes in Frankenjura. Flipper wasn’t interested in the climb in one go, though; if he was able to climb every single move, the route was done as far as he was concerned. There were many such projects in Frankenjura – Wolfgang showed me a number of them, including the »Ekel« in the Trubachtal, which I was able to climb rather quickly. It was the first IX+ in the Frankenjura. Then came “The Face”, that Flipper had named »Das Gesicht«. Wolfgang took me to the Altmühltal, where he also had a project he was working on.
How long did the first ascent take you?
Theoretically, I could have climbed it the second day. After the “Face-Move”, though, I tore open my finger and was unable to climb for a while. When the finger had finally healed, no one wanted to come to the Altmühltal with me. It was a perfect nightmare – I knew that I could climb the route and no one wanted to come along to belay me! Then, two days before I had to leave Germany, Chris Gore, a friend from England, happened to be in Oberschöllenbach. He had a driver’s license, and Wolfgang gave us his car, so that we could drive to the Schelleneck pillar. I climbed the route in the first or second attempt. Looking back, I have to mention that we were practicing the »yoyo style« at the time. We didn’t climb redpoint but returned to the ground after a fall. The rope would stay in the last bolt.
What were the rules of the »yoyo style« precisely?
As mentioned – after a fall, you have to return to the ground at once. You cannot try out the next moves hanging in the rope. The rope stays in the last bolt, though. This makes every new climbing metre a kind of onsight. The result was that the routes could often be climbed toprope to the last bolt. Redpoint is surely a lot more exhausting!
What do you think is the main difference between climbing in the early 1980s and today?
I think the main difference is that we invested far less time in a route back then. I needed a total of three days for »The Face« and I never spent any longer than that on any route. For me, this was a sign that the route was really, really difficult. Usually, we took a day for a route, and usually we also managed. No one would have put weeks or months into a project then! Another difference was that there were far fewer climbers. During the week, you virtually never met any other people in the rocks; I remember that I never met any other climber in the rock during my first visit to the Frankenjura, which took about four weeks.
You were a frequent guest in the legendary shared apartment in Oberschöllenbach; tell us about that!
That was a great time! Wolfgang had invited me and I met Kurt and him. They were the only ones in Germany at the time, I think, who did nothing but climb. It was overwhelming to experience their hospitality. Wolfgang had just fallen into a great motivational hole and hardly climbed at all. He drove me to some rock or another in Frankenjura nearly every day and said »Try this one!« or »How about that one?« There was no envy when I managed to onsight his most difficult routes. I even felt like he was truly happy about this! Imagine the same thing today: You invite a very good climber from Germany to England and he climbs the country’s most difficult routes on sight – argh! No, that was a wonderful time with Wolfgang and Kurt and the others!
Were you in the Frankenjura when Wolfgang climbed »Action directe« as well?
I was in Germany at the time, yes. I had no idea just how difficult that route was, though! I only remember that Wolfgang told me that he was working on a new route that was harder than anything he had done before. It was really strange with Wolfgang. He wouldn’t climb at all for two months, and then all of a sudden, his motivation was back when he had a new project. He was obsessed with exercise, maintained a strict diet and climbed like crazy. That was the case before »Action« as well. I remember that he was thinner than ever. I know that he often complained about pain in his fingers. With »Action«, it was really uncertain whether he would manage or not. The most surprising thing about Wolfgang was that he never warmed up. He drove his car to »Action«, went to the starting point, hooked up and climbed in, did his starting jump and made a redpoint attempt – all cold and without a warm-up. It was unbelievable! Starting without warming up, starting to climb and actually getting to the traverse – that’s unbelievable! Yes. Those are good memories.
You climbed in competitions with great success for several years; why did you stop?
I did enjoy climbing competitions at first. But at the time, the competitions were really hard on me. You had to pay for your expenses, the organisers hardly took care of the climbers. Sometimes you sat in isolation all day before you were finally allowed to climb. During the last competition I took part in – that was in Arco in 1990 – I was sitting in isolation from eight in the morning and it wasn’t my turn to climb before eleven PM! That was horrible. I was burned out. That’s why I stopped climbing competitions until I would get my motivation for them back. The motivation to compete never returned, though – that was it (laughs!).
You stopped climbing about ten years ago. Why?
I stopped climbing when I was about 40. I had done all I had wanted to do and was able to. It was hard to find new motivation. I did other things, I bought some property, that took me lots of time. If you don’t climb all the time, it is frustrating to see how quickly you lose skill. There were so many other things that I couldn’t do when I was still climbing. I do those things today. Surfing has become one of my new great passions! I also like playing golf and skeet shooting – there are things other than climbing, too… (laughs!)
How would you characterise »The Face« particularly as compared to the »currently« most difficult routes?
It is a beautiful, technically demanding slab climb on positive pockets and ledges and with very bad footholds. Today, people are often just looking for »extreme and difficult« – some smile down at an X–. But honestly – »The Face« doesn’t need to hide. This route can become impossible to handle quickly.
Jerry rated the route with X– at the time, which equals a solid 8a+; What do you think of this?
I think in the 1980s, routs were often rated harder rather than easier if in doubt. That is always a matter of opinion – for me, it is a difficult route and I have certainly climbed easier X- ones before!
You only climbed »The Face« with rests due to the bad weather; will you return to do the route redpoint?
Yes, I would like to try the route again this year, and also climb it. The rock will be open again from 1 July onwards. I don’t know when I’ll be back in the Altmühltal precisely. In any case, I will have to coordinate with the weather and the world cup dates. I will certainly stay home next time we have around zero degrees!
Why do you want to do the route redpoint? What is special about it?
That’s a good question that you can ask of every climber. When I like a route and it feels climbable to me, it’s simply – you want to do that thing and push your own limits. And »The Face« is a piece of climbing history for me, waiting like Sleeping Beauty to be woken or climbed.
What do you as a young sports climber think of the old Anglo-American »yoyo style« tactic?
That’s a bit funny. Jerry had to explain it to me first. But you can also debate what true onsight and true redpoint mean today.
What about Jerry, whom you met in England, impressed you most?
Well, you hear all these stories. He certainly is a very ambitious man who knows precisely what he wants to do. He is very funny, too! I think it’s a bit sad that he stopped climbing.
Did you hear of “The Face” before the Mammut project »Reclimbing The Classics«? How important was this tour to you?
I had heard of this route before, but honestly, I first googled it after I got the invitation to »The Face«. To me, this route is a challenge that I accept gladly. It is a milestone in climbing history after all.
Tough nut to crack
Most difficult individual move
History of the Earth
The reason for »The Face« to exist at all was a huge shallow sea that covered the largest part of what is now Southern Germany during the White Jurassic, about 161 to 150 M years ago. The residue of algae, shells and crustaceans deposited at the bottom of this sea, slowly being compressed into the Jurassic sediment. The lifting of the Earth’s surface during the Upper Jurassic – about 145 million years ago – slowly dried out the sea and the mainland was intensely eroded by the tropical climate of the time
In the course of millions of years, wind and weather produced a rock world in the Southern Franconian Jurassic that is now very different from the Northern Franconian Jurassic (see »Action Directe«): The stone is plate-shaped and smooth, contact, sprinkled with small holes and dents and usually vertical or only slightly overhanging. The climbing areas of the Southern Franconian Jurassic are structured in two large areas – the rocks around the Wellheim dry valley – which are of no interest to us here) and those in the Altmühl Valley.
In the good old times, the Altmühl river was snaking through the wide valley between Riedenburg and Essing, and the countryside was calm and quiet. This was massively changed when the picturesque valley with its little river were included in the plans for the Rhine-Main-Danube canal in the 1980s; the construction, which the Bavarian State Government went through with in spite of immense protest from the people, changed the landscape considerably – today, the rocks in the Altmühl Valley are looking out over a waterway that hardly anyone uses …
Climbing has been popular in the Altmühl Valley since the 1920s. The systematic development of the rocks by local climbers, as well as those from Munich and Nuremberg, however, did not start until the 1950s and 1960s . Climbing in the Prunn rocks, the Kastl wall and the Danube passage near Weltenburg were deemed mostly training for climbing in the Alps during those days.
This was only to change in the 1970s, when the redpoint idea from the Northern Franconian Jurassic brought sports climbing to the Altmühl Valley as well. In 1976, Franconians Kurt Albert and Rainer Pickl came to the Kastl wall and opened up the »Osterweg«, the first route classified VII-. The next year, the first eighth degree route was established with the »Exorzist« – again by Kurt Albert! For a long time, this feared route – Gerd Uhner once broke his elbow in a bad fall in the notorious cross-passage – was deemed the most difficult tour in the entire Altmühl Valley. Other traces of Master Albert from those years can be found in the »Holzkeilriss« (VII+, Kastl Wand) and »Schiefer Riss« (VII+, Prunn Wand).
Sepp Gschwendtner’s »Oberbayrische Analyse« at the Prunner Turm was a great step ahead, first bringing the solid upper VIIIth degree to the valley. Sepp Gschwendtner was a driving force in development of routes between 1978 and 1983 – his first ascents were characterised by generous lines and sparse protection. The »Münchner Dach« (IX–) was one of his highlights, a monster at the cracked roof and the first route of this degree in Germany. There still is an (incorrect) rumour, that the »Sautanz« (and that Albert again!) at the Gössweinstein walls in the Northern Franconian Jurassic had been the first »niner«; however, its first ascent dated about four weeks later. In a burst of recklessness, Sepp renamed his route into “Emanzenschreck” (»Women cannot climb this kind of thing!«), setting off a flurry of events. Young Andrea Eisenhut repeated the horrible cracked roof and named it »Chauvi go home«. Two names for one route couldn’t be maintained, though, and after a few beers in the legendary Schlosswirtschaft, they agreed to stick with the original name of »Münchner Dach«.
In spring of 1983, Norbert »Flipper« Fietz and Norbert Bätz moved into the barn in the Kastlhof below the wall of the same name, living in the hay for a week and climbing in the top rope (usually with rests) to cover all possible and apparently impossible lines in the Schellneck wall. The result of this top rope week was a topo of the smooth Schellneck wall with wand spider web like route lines: »Mr. Magnesia«, »Tag der offenen Tür«, »New Wave« are only a few of them – and, of course, there is »The Face«! While Jerry was working on his face, Wolfgang Güllich tried and climbed the »Flipper« project »Mr. Magnesia« at the adjacent Schellneck wall, thus covering the first IX+ (8a) in the Altmühl Valley. However, it was outdone by Jerry’s »The Face« (X–, 8a+). The fact that Jerry and Wolfgang – possibly the two best climbers of the time –, were securing, motivating and cheering each other on suggests what they thought of competition and might be a good example for some young climbers…
After Wolfgang Güllich repeated »The Face« in August 1984, he focused on another old »Flipper«-project, the route »Kanal im Rücken« at the Kastl wall. 24 October 1984 is a historic data: It was the day when Wolfgang climbed through the first route X (8b) in the world – and for a few months, the most difficult route in the world was in the Altmühl Valley. The fact that the »Kanal« is still the most important route in the valley proves that the smooth, vertical rock doesn’t offer much more than that. Hundreds of first ascents were implemented on the many rocks of the Altmühl Valley since – but »The Face«, »Mr Magnesia« and »Kanal im Rücken« are still among the very best of the Altmühl Valley in terms of beauty and difficulty …
I would like to thank my old »fighting buddies« Hans-Dieter Brunner and Ralph Stöhr from the editorial office of KLETTERN for their active support in research for development of the Altmühl Valley rocks.
Two climbing generations
Would you like to try the route for yourself? There’s an easy way to find the start for once! Get the GPS data to find our recommended path to the start of the route (note: differences of up to 10 meters are possible due to measuring inaccuracies).