Rocking in the Alsace
Copyright 2000 Karin L. Gallagher
My partner's fingertips clung to the thin crack in the corner, both feet pressed into tiny depressions on the adjoining wall. I tightened my grip on the rope and waited. He pushed off his right big toe, grabbed a small knob with his left hand, swung his right arm around like a swimmer's crawl, and slapped his hand around a large flake.
"I dislocated my shoulder."
We'd taken off for four days from our home in Germany to climb in the French Alsace during Christi Himmelfahrt, an obscure Catholic holiday. The Alsace stretches along the west side of the Rhine River, sharing the valley with Germany. The region is known for its mixture of French and German language and culture, a result of one thousand years of continual border swapping---sometimes gentle, sometimes not. City and family names, architecture, and much of the food is German. Whereas the official language is French, many still speak Alsatian, a German dialect.
The Alsace is split vertically between the vineyards of the flat Rhine Valley and the Vosges Mountains. The Vosges, a rocky, rugged set of rounded peaks, is the third major mountain range in France after the Alps and the Pyrenees. To get to the climbing area, we drove through Guebershwihr, a popular tourist town along the wine road between Strasbourg and Mulhouse. Its pastel-colored row houses front a multitude of wine cellars and an 11th century bell tower. Although May in the Alsace can be wet and dreary, the day was heating up.
The sandstone cliffs above Guebershwihr were five minutes' walk off a steep road above the town. From the base of the climbing area the Rhine Valley spread out below us, the Black Forest hills dim in the distance. The routes were short with perfect cracks at comfortable angles, so we swapped leads on the gritty rock. The crag was popular; a French priest soloed on our left and a loud German climbing club organized themselves on our right. With the heat came more climbers.
To find a less crowded area, we packed our gear and continued along the crag to the left. The path dropped into an old quarry, with steeper walls, plenty of cracks, and no other climbers. In the center of the main wall was a spectacular line: a slightly overhanging crack plummeted from the quarry rim to a ledge thirty feet off the ground. Below the ledge were a steep, pocketed face and a desperate-looking fingertip crack. Without a guide to the area, we didn't know how hard it was. Time to find out.
The first section had big holds and Ron moved fast, but his luck ran out at the fingertip crack. It opened enough to accept fingertips in only a few places and the slab to its left was almost featureless. He slapped a piece of protection into it and climbed lower to rest. Then he noticed that if he stemmed between the slab on the left and a vertical corner on the right, he could climb high enough to clip a bolt five feet above his last piece of protection. But it was humid, the stem was wide, and his jeans too tight. Meanwhile, three French climbers sat down on a log behind us to watch. Maybe the climb was harder than we'd thought.
Ron climbed down to the ground, stripped to his Scooby Doo underwear, and climbed back up. This time he was able to clip the bolt and hung on the rope to rest. It was clear he was stalling but I kept quiet. After what seemed a long time, he lunged back onto the rock, edging slowly upwards until the corners were too far apart to stem. Gently he eased into a layback along the crack, with fingers pulling one side of it and feet pushing on the flared corner against the other side of it. One move later, he dislocated his shoulder.
He clung to the flake, his feet scratching at the slab. Couldn't he just pull himself up to the safety of the ledge? Why wasn't he moving? My hand tightened on the rope.
"You got me?"
"I'm going to jump."
Ron let go of the flake and dropped into space. The climbers behind sucked in their breath as he jerked to a stop three feet below the bolt. His right arm dangled like a telephone cord as I lowered him the rest of the way to the ground. He had dislocated the shoulder before, and draped himself over a boulder with the arm loose so I could pull gently on it. It slid back into place with a pop.
The French huddled and whispered, waiting to see what we would do. There was no chance to try the climb again. Ron hiked to the top of the cliff and rappelled down to collect his gear. The crowd melted away and we coiled the rope. I felt pricks of rain as dark clouds moved across the Rhine Valley. It was time to head down the hill and quench our thirst on Guebershwihr Riesling.