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Climbing culture in Germany

Belay differences in Germany vs. US Rock Climbing

Belay differences in Germany vs. US Rock Climbing

Belaying has a few universal principles that transcend culture. However, as fellow expats and travelers can attest to, there are still some noticeable belay differences in Germany compared to the US.  In short, “semi automatic” tube devices are preferred and the munter hitch is very often used outdoors.

Death to Tubes. Long Live the Smart!

An observant foreigner may notice that German gyms have a conspicuous lack of tube style ATCs (aka “tubers” in German). This is not to say you won’t see them, but at least half of all belay devices will be assisted braking devices like the Edelrid Megajul or Mammut Smart or Austrialpin Fish. A German Alpine Club (DAV) study which is widely read and cited here in Germany strongly warns against using standard tube devices and indeed, you’ll never find them for rent at a gym and rarely even being used by

HMS forever, or Halbmastwurf

English speaking climbers all know the term HMS, usually from HMS carabiner. What they don’t know is that it stands for Halbmastwurf in German, or munter it’s known to us. The reason the carabiner is called such is because it was the style used (and most suited) for belaying with a munter or HMS. While many Americans cringe at the idea of belaying without a device, it’s something you still often see outdoors in Germany. Moreover, it is still taught and encouraged as well, and not just as a backup. Be prepared to see it used, especially outdoors for both leader and follower.

The Banshee Belay / Reihenschaltung

Reihenschaltung sicherung, which means approximately series connection/switching belay, is the German name for banshee belay. This is something that many American climbers may never have seen before. It seemingly violates the basic teachings drilled into us when starting out. Nevertheless, it’s safe, fast and very practical when used in the right context. As soon as you head outdoors in Germany, do not be alarmed =) Expect to see the locals using it liberally. So what is it? From

Connecting high quality bolts in series is fast. This can be done with the rope or with a sling. Many will see this as a controversial approach as it doesn’t try to equalise, or minimise extension under partial failure. It is however common in much of Europe were new big fat bolts have been placed by trained individuals into solid rock.

Reihenschaultung sicherung is meant for use on high quality bolts only and looks like this:

Reihenschaltung Sicherung / Banshee Belay
Reihenschaltung Sicherung / Banshee Belay of leader

With solid modern bolts, building a redundant anchor with force distribution is overkill. It may take a little getting used to, but the many crags with beautiful titanium glue-ins will soon win you over. You can find some German language resources on it here and here.

Summary: American and German Belay Differences

Germans and Americans both prefer different styles of belay devices, however, the Grigri is widely loved and used in both places. With less trad climbing and far better maintained crags nationally, Germany also has the luxury of using the Banschee belay (Reihenschaltung) on bolts in good condition. This is just not possible in many places in the US, UK or Australia due to geography, culture and climbing style. Americans should refresh their knowledge of the munter hitch before coming over and not be shocked when they see people using it as a primary method outside, not a backup after having dropped your belay device on multipitch!

German vs American Climbing Culture – Mainstream or not?

German vs American Climbing Culture – Mainstream or not?

The United States is well-known for enjoying different sports than the rest of the world. American football and baseball are on par with soccer in terms of cultural influence and presence. All three are staples of childhood with American kids being in little league football team and Europeans joining youth soccer clubs. But what about climbing culture?

Let me preface the rest of this post as being my personal impressions and opinions.

Tldr; Climbing is more mainstream in Germany having little association with counterculture, mainly due to geography.

German vs American Climbing Culture

In the United States, climbing is nowhere close to a mainstream sport. Due to the massive size of the United States, there are simply many places where climbing isn’t possible. So right off the bat, it’s nowhere as common as Europe. Germany by contrast, is the size of Montana meaning everyone has climbing opportunities within a short distance. Similar to little league in the US, it is common for kids to be in youth climbing teams or clubs. This may be true to a lesser extent in the north which is much flatter than southern Germany.

Moreover, with the Alps running through countries like France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia, mountaineering and climbing have long been not just a common sport but an avenue for nationalism (first ascents, naming peaks, routes). The comparatively short existence of the United States and lack of neighbors also means climbing has not had as much time to become a means of national pride or expression.

Individual vs Team Sports

Despite being a more individualistic country, Americans focus on team sports. Indeed, it is apparent nearly everywhere, whether school or work, that American culture values teamwork very highly. This is another contributor to climbing being seen as an outsider sport. It’s not about team work. It’s you vs the rock. In that sense it’s closer to say golf or running.

In my personal experience, many of the people who came to climbing are exactly those who dislike and even hate team sports. Suddenly finding climbing was like a “hallelujah” moment when for the first time it was clear, you could “play” a sport without all the jerseys, team work, locker rooms etc. This was exactly the case for me, who has only ever engaged in other “lone” sports such as competitive rifle shooting and skeet.

Germany, by contrast, tends to put more value in individual personal development and expression and does not value teamwork for its own sake. It is a means to an end. The heavy emphasis in schools and by society overall just is not present here.


With a longer history, climbing became an organized and well known sport quicker in Europe than the United States. The more organized, the more mainstream in a sense. Consider the DAV which was founded as early as 1869. Additionally, given the massive spaces America has to offer, the culture of road trips, exploring the frontier and distrust of the mainstream, climbing tended to be attractive and associated with those outside the system and non-team-players.

Finally, excepting the very recent development of competition, climbing has never offered any kind of tangible sport-like benefits: no trophies or achievements, school teams or household names. Your average person understands that a summit is impressive, but not redpointing a 5.12 or a first ascent in the backcountry. Contrast that with trophies, cups and international competitions for other sports. Everyone knows what Major League is, or NFL or FIFA.

In conclusion, climbing’s different place in German and American culture is primarily due too geographic influence and secondly to cultural. But no matter where in the world it’s done, it’s still downright awesome.


New bouldering grades at my gym

New bouldering grades at my gym

In the United States, we have the V system for bouldering problems. In France, they use the Fontainebleau, or font scale. Yet, while Germany has its own UIAA system for roped climbs, there is no standard for bouldering which initially confuses us poor foreigners.

How boulder problems are often set in Germany:

First of all, I can’t promise everyone uses this system. But it’s common in one variant or another. Problems are color coded with a letter to indicate the wall and number for the route, written on a colored tag. So, you’ll see “M5” at the start of a route and then you look at the top to find the end of M5. Note the grade is indicated by the color, NOT the number since boulder problems are numbered instead of named.  And best of all, problems are set in a single color. You won’t find a mess of tape surrounding every hold like in the US. The same goes for normal routes. Ordnung muss sein!

My gym’s modified font scale

Below, you’ll see a photo I recently snapped of the new bouldering grades at my local gym in Stuttgart.  It was a new year’s surprise and came in response to customer gripes. In German, it says on top “Explanation of the Grade Signs” and then features a table with the French or Fontainebleau grading scale on the left hand side and the gym’s new system on the right.

The bouldering grades at my gym were originally white, yellow, blue, red, black (from easiest to hardest). But this of course meant each color contained many grades. The new sign explains they are split into six categories: easy, moderate, medium, tricky, difficult, and extreme and  still color coded. Basically they just added orange. Nearby Cafe Kraft in Vaihingen uses the standard font system which includes several additional colors. For more info on the history of bouldering and grading systems, check out 99boulders.

bouldering grades


Below, is the “true” font scale that Cafe Kraft uses. Given they’re a purely bouldering gym or Boulderhalle, it is unsurprising.


bouldering font scale at cafe kraft

Stay tuned for a brief overview of the UIAA grading system for roped climbs.