A Guide to Rock Climbing, Access and Nature Conservation in Poland
Poland is well known for the tradition of its climbers and their feats in the Himalayas and other high mountains. Some might have heard about its only high-mountain range – the Tatra Mountains (2655m). However, Poland is also a significant destination for rock climbing. Miłosz Jodłowski, a member of the UIAA Access Commission, explores the rock climbing culture in Poland and challenges faced in terms of access and nature conservation.
As mountains and uplands constitute less than 10% of Poland’s territory, cliffs and other rock formations are rather unique and of great significance not only for climbing but also as landmarks, geosites and habitats for various species of fauna and flora. Majority of them are protected by law as various types of protected areas. On the other hand, during the last three decades almost all cliffs and rocky outcrops have been subjected to climbing exploration, which have resulted in creating nearly 200 climbing spots located within five geographical regions, all in southern part of the country.
Main Climbing Areas
Jura Krakowsko-Częstochowska (Polish Jura)
Polish Jura is known for white limestone outcrops with ruins of medieval castles rising over the pastures and cliffs located on the slopes of karst gorges. It is the biggest climbing region in Poland with almost 10,000 routes within several dozen sites. Climbing on blank vertical walls with numerous pockets of different size and depth is typical for these area, but there are also some cave roofs with extreme lines and boulders. One of the main reasons of the popularity of this region is the close proximity (one-hour driving distance) to agglomerations of Krakow and Upper Silesia, but first and foremost the region offers a great choice of well-equipped routes, both easy ones suitable for beginners and recreational climbers as well as these more difficult (up to 9a), which can be ‘projects’ for more ambitious climbers.
Dozens of small sandstone outcrops hidden in the beech forest as well as former quarries are perfect locations for bouldering and sport climbing during almost the whole year. Due to the distance from bigger cities and limited number of routes, most of the crags are rather of local importance, however a few spots are frequently visited especially during winter months (ideal friction!) being a good alternative to indoor climbing.
Old mountains with a diverse geology located on the borderland with Czechia are a place with hundreds of crags built of granite, gneiss, conglomerate, limestone and sandstone. Mostly, these are isolated spots visited by local climbers but few areas have gained international reputation. Notably, Sokoliki and Rudawy Janowickie – in the vicinity of Jelenia Góra – being full of granite tors and boulders are a ‘Mecca” for Polish trad climbers but also for boulderers. They comprise many perfect cracks, easily protected with friends and nuts, and possibilities for multi-pitch climbing also make it a perfect environment for climbing courses. The other famous spot, Hejszowina, is one of a few sandstone areas in Central Europe with a very strict climbing ethic based on Saxon rules (Sächsische Kletterregeln) – similarly to Elbsandstein (Germany) and Adršpach (Czechia) climbing there is mentally challenging, routes are spacely bolted with an addition of natural protection (slings and knots). Also, using chalk is forbidden.
The only Polish high-mountains offer numerous climbing possibilities of all types and styles – from sport climbing on 20-meter overhanging crags to alpine climbing on 900-meter cliffs. Being a cradle of Polish climbing since the end of the 19th century, all cliffs have been covered by a dense network of routes of different grades and seriousness. Especially in winter, this is a unique destination for climbing and mountaineering.
*The highest peak of the Tatra Mountain Range. is Gerlachovsky stit (2655) located in Slovakian part of the range. The highest peak of the Polish Tatra Mountains is Rysy (2499).
Access Organization – Structure and Goals
Since the 1990s, the increasing number of climbers in Poland as well as the growing popularity of all climbing types (sport, trad, bouldering, dry-tooling) have led to numerous conflicts with land owners, local authorities and managers of protected areas. In 2008 a group of climbers from Krakow founded an organization called Climbers’ Inititative “Nasze Skały” (“Our Crags”), following the example of the Access Fund (USA) and IG Klettern (Germany). From the beginning it was supported by Polish Mountaineering Assocciaton (PZA), the Jerzy Kukuczka Polish Mountaineering Support Foundation and climbing media. Representatives of these organizations as well as experts in law, spatial management, nature conservation and public relations constitute a Management Board who work voluntarily. Most of the organizational and field work is done by a managing director formally hired by PZA. He is supported by more than 20 regional coordinators – local climbing leaders, instructors, equippers and guidebook authors.
As always, money is a crucial problem – currently, the main source of funding is a 1% tax deduction which people can transfer to “Nasze Skały” via the Jerzy Kukuczka Foundation. Gaining sponsorship from outdoor companies is not an easy task, AMC – Petzl distributor in Poland, has to be mentioned here, as they have been supporting “Nasze Skały” almost from the beginning. Additionally, private donations, support from local clubs and last but not least – the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA), complete the budget.
The main goal of “Nasze Skały” is to assure free and unconstraint access to climbing areas with respect to natural and cultural values. All disputable issues should be solved together with owners and managers of climbing areas as well as other stakeholders to achieve mutual agreement – formal or informal. Sometimes it requires establishing or renovating climbing infrastructure (equipping routes with glue-in stainless bolts, building paths and platforms) with the great help of local climbing clubs and equippers, trained and licensed by the Polish Mountaineering Association. Additionally, to maintain legal access to climbing areas informational and educational actions among climbing society should be organized.
Access and Conservation
Three types of climbing sites are a subject of access actions: protected areas, private land and public property governed by local authorities or institutions.
Nine out of ten climbing sites in Poland are located within various types of protected areas: national parks, nature reserves, landscape parks, Natura 2000 sites and natural monuments. They are governed and managed by different institutions depending on the type. Law on nature conservation in Poland and resulting management strategies in protected areas differ from these in Western Europe and North America, being relatively stricter. Climbing, as well as other outdoor sports are explicitly forbidden by law in national parks and nature reserves (¼ of Polish climbing sites), unless a special ordinance (or management plan) is issued specifying places where these activities are allowed. Such management philosophy – what is not permitted is prohibited – results in long-lasting (at least 2-3 years) negotiations with managers of protected areas but also with ecological organizations and scientists. Usually it involves site inspections with stakeholders and expertise on environmental impact of climbing in a particular area. In other types of protected areas you are generally allowed to climb, however some limitations might be introduced in order to protect species and habitats.
At the beginning, lack of mutual trust between climbers and people involved in nature conservation was predominant, but after almost ten years of our efforts the situation has changed, at least in some regions. “Nasze Skały” and the Polish Mountaineering Association are willing to be partners for environmental institutions and co-operate to manage climbing in protected areas – there are some good examples of such collaboration from Polish Jura.
There are two main areas of conflict between climbers and landowners in Poland. One is owners’ concern about risk related to climbing and resulting liability. In such cases, the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA) and its equippers inspect and rebolt climbing routes in the area if needed. In few sites PZA admitted liability for accidents related to climbing infrastructure meeting the demand of a landowner. However, the main issues related to climbing on private land are: insufficient parking space and access to the crag’s bases violating private property. When a successful, usually informal, agreement is achieved, information is published in climbing guidebooks and shared by the media. Unfortunately, such agreements are very fragile and could be easily broken by reckless behavior of irresponsible climbers.
Some of crags are located in the areas managed by state agencies and companies (e.g. State Forests) or by local authorities and municipal institutions. The access issues are similar to these in private areas, although a more formal way of negotiation is usually required and more stakeholders are involved in the process.
Case Study of Ojców National Park
Potentially it would be the biggest climbing area in Polish Jura, with hundreds of limestone cliffs located on the slopes of Pradnik Valley within only 30-minutes driving distance from Krakow. However, in 1956 the smallest national park in Poland was founded there and climbing was forbidden. The only accessible crag was Pochylec, an overhanging pinnacle explored by the top climbers from Krakow, with over 20 routes and combination graded from 6c to 8c. From the 1990s there was an informal agreement with Ojców NP’s authorities and climbing was allowed only for the members of Polish national team – however, nobody was verifying this.
The situation was delicate – more and more climbers were visiting the crag and there was a growing demand for opening new routes on adjacent cliffs. On the other hand, the residents of nearby houses were complaining about the noise and human waste was also an issue. The NP’s authorities weren’t sure how to solve the problem. In the autumn of 2013 our organization “Nasze Skały” together with the Polish Mountaineering Association prepared a climbing management plan for the area (Pochylec and its neighboring crag, Duży Pochylec) and presented it to the NP’s authorities. This included bolting new routes in specified zones (not colliding with vegetation patches) and placing the belay anchors below the upper edge of the cliff (top of the cliff is covered by highly biodiverse grassland). Additionally, we were planning to build platforms for belayers at the cliffbase to minimize vegetation trampling and stabilize the slope, to place a portable toilet cabin and cut down trees and shrubs which shaded the cliff. The last one would have also a positive effect on the conservation of xerothermic plant species. The shortest access to Duży Pochylec crosses private land – thus, to avoid conflicts with landowners a new path had to be established.
Then, we had to face the scientific council of the Ojców National Park and explain the project – we received “green light” provided relevant site inspections with botanists, foresters and ornithologists would be carried out. The project started in November 2013, at the beginning belaying platforms were constructed. Preparing new routes begun in the spring of 2014, but just after the first day of works there was an anonymous call to the NP’s manager with information about alleged nesting of European eagle-owl, the biggest of European owls, which is very rare in Poland (250 pairs in the whole country). Confirming that rumor would not only stop our project but also would end an informal agreement on climbing on Pochylec. At almost the same time a denunciation was sent to the regional Construction Supervision Office, questioning the legality of our works. After additional expertise on nesting birds, consulting lawyers and another meeting with the scientific council, in December 2014 we could finally cut down the trees and shrubs. With the permission of the NP’s authorities, logged wood was handed over to the owners of the nearest house – it significantly improved relations with them. Clearing the crag from loose rock, bolting and working on almost twenty projects took another year and in September 2015 we could announce that the work is done.
It would not be possible without volunteers – climbers and equippers from Krakow and Upper Silesia as well as financial support from the Polish Mountaineering Association and Jerzy Kukuczka Foundation. Namaste – Camp distributor in Poland sponsored new quickdraws on the crag and one of the top climbers (who would like to stay anonymous) from Krakow partially funded construction works.
About the Author:
Miłosz Jodłowski is a member of the UIAA Access Commission, president of Access and Conservation Commission of the Polish Mountaineering Association and co-founder of Climbers’ Initiative “Nasze Skały”. Professionally, he is an academic teacher in geography and geoecology in the Institute of Geography and Spatial Management (Jagiellonian University, Krakow) and works also as a climbing instructor and mountain guide.
You can find more information on access to climbing sites in Poland on webpage: www.naszeskaly.pl and FB profile: https://www.facebook.com/NaszeSkaly/
Details on the UIAA Access Commission can be found here.
Main Image: Pochylec in Ojców National Park (Polish Jura). Photography – Kamil Żmija.