text: Eva Schwienbacher, photos: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut
Professional climbers, Katha Saurwein and Jorg Verhoeven enjoy travelling the globe. This summer, however, the couple intend to spend more time in Tirol - to explore new rock faces and train in their favourite climbing region.
“We climbers are quite lazy about warming up before rock climbing”, says Katha Saurwein and laughs. While she feeds the rope into a safety device, her climbing partner Jorg Verhoeven enters the route, at the beginning of which "Ötztal Express" can be read. She skilfully gives rope, while Jorg uses small steps to traverse the initial overhang. Jorg secures the quick-draw on the second belay point, before attaching the rope. He dips his hand into the magnesium bag and climbs upwards with light movements. These movements, now second nature to them both, give you an idea as to what a well-functioning team this couple actually is.
Katha is wearing a warm jumper to start with. On this summer’s day, there is residual dampness in the air from an overnight thunderstorm and, unlike previous days, it is somewhat cooler. The sun peaks through the clouds and pine trees every so often, and shines brightly on the granite boulder. It is quiet in the Niederthai climbing area. All you can hear is birdsong and the rushing waters of the Ötztaler Ache further down in the valley - and Jorg, as he whistles sporadically whilst climbing along this 7C-graded route.
“When you travel so much, it is easy to forget how many climbing opportunities there are actually here in Tirol”
Katha and Jorg have recently returned from a trip to America. Tirolean born Katha and Tiroler-by-choice Jorg, who have been together for ten years, climbed the Devil’s Tower there in Wyoming. The athletes regularly travel to distant countries, such as China, Japan, Australia, Tasmania or South Africa for competitions and to realise their alpine projects. In 2014, for example, Jorg succeeded in climbing the notorious "Nose" steep rock face at El Capitan. The video of this free ascent by the Dutch pro recently achieved its millionth “click”.
After spending time abroad, however, the two adventurers always look forward to returning home. “It is good to have a home-base. I can only really switch off when I’m at home”, says the Innsbruck-born girl. Home is where she can best relax and recharge her batteries whilst visiting family, or meet up with friends in town for an ice cream, catch up with colleagues from the national team at Kletterzentrum Innsbruck Climbing Centre and, of course, climb a few “home” routes in Tirol.
“When you travel so much, it is easy to forget how many climbing opportunities there are actually here in Tirol”, says Jorg. In recent years, the couple have spent an average of 180 days per year on the road. When home, they only had time for training, studying or just preparing for the next trip. “It may sound strange, but at some point we got fed up with not being able to climb more often in Tirol”, says Jorg. “Which is why we decided to spend more time at home this summer - competitions permitting”.
When the Dutchman speaks of home, he actually means Tirol. The 32-year-old has lived here now for over ten years. As a child, Jorg often travelled to the mountains with his parents, to the Pyrenees, the French Alps and Austria. Aged 19, he decided to move to the “country in the mountains”, in order to pursue his passion for climbing. A European trip took him to Innsbruck, where he met up with Katha again - they were already acquainted thanks to competitions abroad. “Everything then happened very quickly”, the 29-year-old recalls. “He didn’t have any permanent place to stay, so he moved in with me at home. I am still surprised that my parents were so cool about it”. The couple are soon to celebrate their second wedding anniversary. “That is if we don’t forget”, she says laughing.
Katharina (Katha) Saurwein was born in Innsbruck on 11th November 1987, and grew up in the Tirolean state capital. She began sport climbing in 1995 and trained in Reini Scherer’s team. In addition to competitive climbing, she also started rock climbing. Sauerwein has been a leading light on the World Cup climbing scene for several years as a member of the Austrian National Bouldering Team. Some of her greatest successes include first place at the World Cup in Moscow (2008), third place in the European Championships (2015) and first place at the Rockmaster (2016). Saurwein was runner up at the World Cup opener in Meiringen, Switzerland this year.
What the two top athletes appreciate about Tirol is the variety of climbing opportunities it has to offer, the landscape and diverse rock types. “The climbing areas may be smaller here than in America, but their density is much higher”, says Jorg. “The alpine flair makes Tirol so very special, like here in the Ötztal Valley”.
The Niederthai climbing region is one of their favourite climbing spots in Tirol. It is located at 1,450 metres above sea level and consists of 14 gneiss boulders, spread through an idyllic forest. Small hills and valleys, as well as moss-covered rock formations separate the boulders from each other, yet a pleasant forest path connects them all. “You can train here all year round”, says Jorg. “While temperatures in summer are usually pleasantly fresh, you can always find a sunny spot in winter”. The climbing routes range in difficulty from six to eleven (according to the French grading system) and are therefore especially suitable for advanced climbers.
Zwergenloch, Adon Riese, C’est la vie or Zapfenstreich are just some of the names of the 122 routes. There are some that the couple like to climb regularly, and others that are still on their “to do” list. Le Miracle Route belongs to the former. The route is not an insider tip, just very popular with other climbers. It is located around fifteen minutes from the first boulder. Why is it so special? “The route is very steep and has a unique fissure. The grips are somewhat irregular and it is not easy to find your footing. Not only that, at the end of the climb you stand right on top of the boulder”, enthuses the climber.
Katha, who for health reasons has had to take things easy for the past ten days, starts climbing. Le Miracle leads initially over a flake, before continuing steeply upwards. Katha is cautious to start with. “You could try a little over to the left”, Jorg tries to help with words of advice. As soon as she passes the first bolts, however, Katha finds her groove and climbs upwards, metre for metre, in flowing movements. “Wicked”, she calls out as she reaches the top and sits on the edge of this vertical boulder face.
The world-class climber has been taking part in competitions since she was 8 years old. Since then, she has emerged as one of the best members of the Bouldering Squad in the Austrian National Team. She was trained by Reini Scherer for many years. Nowadays she trains almost independently and speaks only on occasion with national coach, Martin Hammerer. “Over the years you get to know yourself and your body well, and know which training works best and what stimuli you need”, explains Katha once she has her feet back on the ground. Furthermore, the athletes maintain intensive dialogue with national team coach, Heiko Wilhelm. “We have a very strong and highly motivated climbing scene in Tirol. You will always find someone to climb with - both on the rock and indoors at the climbing hall”, says Katha.
What makes training even easier now is the perfect infrastructure, which can be found at Kletterzentrums Innsbruck Climbing Centre that opened this spring. “We have one of the best climbing halls in the world. National teams from Russia, Japan and Sweden have all trained here. Not that we could fault the old climbing hall, it had just become too small”, adds Jorg.
Jorg Verhoeven was born (05.06.85) and raised in the Netherlands. He began his climbing career in the gym. He moved to Tirol in 2005 and has lived in Innsbruck ever since. The pro climber competes for the Dutch National Team, has achieved over 25 World Cup podium positions and won the Lead World Cup in 2008. In recent years, he has also attracted attention with numerous alpine projects.
The couple have enjoyed sponsorship for the past five years, which makes it possible for them to realise alpine projects around the world. In addition to their numerous competitions and training sessions, they have also managed to squeeze some filmmaking projects into their busy agenda. They have also both started new study courses, as a second mainstay and to give their heads something to do, they say. They like it when there is lots going on.
Their next big goal is the home World Championships 2018 in Innsbruck. After that, they intend to withdraw from competitive sports and devote themselves to alpine climbing. “There is still so much to do and experience - in the mountains of Tirol and the world”, the couple agree and pack their ropes away, ready for the next boulder.