Around 10 years ago, before internet video shorts killed the DVD, an underrated climbing film called Autoroute hit the shelves. The film featured a young but ascendant Dave Graham, and his friends Joe Kinder and Luke Parady. It chronicled their quest around mainland Europe, which took them to many of the best sport climbing and bouldering venues the continent had to offer. One of the most striking crags Graham and friends laid waste to on the film was called Voralpsee, a relatively small but impressive looking sport climbing venue in the Canton of St. Gallen region of Switzerland. Captivated by the clean swathe of unbroken limestone, I had wanted to climb at Voralpsee ever since. Finally, last summer, I made a visit.
The crag sits high above the village of Grabs, overlooking the beautiful lake which gives it its name. The setting will be familiar to anyone who has climbed in the alpine regions of France, Austria, Italy or Switzerland during the summer months – serene, picturesque backdrops and fresh mountain air. Not forgetting the unending, but never irritating, jangle of cow bells in the background. The clean, white wall of limestone extends up the side of a steep, forested hill giving a climbing surface that is a little steeper than vertical.
Few venues I’ve visited feature such sustained and technical climbing, and those of us who like endurance based crimping will feel very much at home at Voralpsee. The crag takes no prisoners, however, and any weaknesses in fitness or route reading will quickly be underlined by this vast expanse of limestone. There are few opportunities for resting, and most of the routes serve up a seemingly endless string of sloping crimps and questionable footholds. The grades felt rather stiff to me, but that may say more about where I currently sit on the ‘fitness and route reading’ spectrum noted above! The routes may not be as long as they feel, but equally most of them are not short pitches. A 70 metre rope will be required for the longer routes (which are around 35 metres long) but there are shorter lines at both the left and right ends of the wall.
The stand out part of the Autoroute film for me was Dave Graham’s third ascent of an immaculate looking vertical wall known as Speed. This is the centrepiece of the crag, established in 1995 by local legend Beat Kammerlander and graded 8c+. It has since been extended by Cedric Lachat, to give ‘Speed Integrale’, a ‘hard’ 9a that looks to pack in even more quality endurance crimping.
It’s not all about the upper 8’s, though, there are many other high quality technical endurance routes to try. There are around 20 or so routes in total, and at a range of grades that will keep anyone operating at the mid 7’s upward busy for a few days. The few high 6s provide enjoyable for warming up on, but the classics of the crag are in the higher 7s and 8s. In particular, Rapunzel (7b), Paradigma (7c), Alaska Kid (8a) and Mordillo (8a+) are all classics of their respective grades and all popular with visiting climbers. The Schwiez extreme OST guide features Voralpsee, and the route names are (in true Euro fashion) painted at the bottom of the crag.
When to visit
The best season to climb at Voralpsee is from late spring to early autumn. The crag stays in the shade for a lot of the time, as it is tucked away in trees, so conditions can be good on sunny days. The summer can get hot, but the elevation means it will probably be much tolerable than conditions at lower altitudes. On the other hand, the tree cover does mean it can take a while for the overnight dampness to dissipate and it can stay damp during inclement weather. In wet weather the crag is off the agenda due to run off from above.
The quickest approach from the UK is to fly to Zurich then make the 2 hour drive. On our trip we were going to other crags too, so we drove from the UK in about 16 hours or so. This might be a good option for those wanting to stop off at other venues, like Fontainebleau in France or Berdorf in Luxembourg. Once you arrive at the lake, the crag is around 20 minute walk. Basically, you need to walk along the path that takes you around the left side of the lake. At the far end, take a smaller path uphill and into the trees. The crag emerges to your left after a few minutes. The area is popular with tourists so expect to see people sunbathing, swimming and fishing.
Accommodation and supplies
There are various options for camping in the area, and there is also a guesthouse sitting right above the lake: www.voralp.ch. There are various small villages in the vicinity where food and supplied can be purchased, though for larger shops it might be worth popping across the border into Austria – where prices are significantly lower.