Spring had arrived, and the first warm days prevailed against ever shorter nights. With the last frost gone weeks ago, it was time to go to the mountains. An hour‘s drive away, there was hardly anything resembling wilderness, but still, an escape from the city it was. The streets had yet to be cleansed by April showers from patterns of dirt that the melting snow had left. With its whiteness vanished, and not much verdure around, a break from all this irksome noise and damp concrete was certainly welcome.

Of course, hundreds of people had the same idea. Upon arrival, a small crowd had formed at the entrance to the forest, busy searching for parking lots and discussing routes in front of the trail map. We hurried past and after a few bends of the road turned to a less beaten path that would lead us to the sandstone massif lying ahead. The chatter faded away and a cool smell of wet bark and soil took over the senses. It mingled with a distinct scent of freshly cut wood; heaps of twigs and branches designated the spots where spruce and larch hat stood not long ago. They made us aware how much the landscape was exposed to human touch, as it has been for ages.

To imagine this area as genuine wilderness means going back far beyond the stone age. Ever since then traces of settlements have documented the shift towards an organized, tamed landscape. Its formation dates back way further: Where nowadays the Elbe river crosses the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, a shallow ocean stretched far and wide, slowly accumulating layer upon layer of sand, silt and gravel for eight million years. When it finally retreated, tectonic pressure, meandering rivers and climate changes steadily transformed the region into its current shape – the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. On a macroscopic scale, the ravages of time are clearly visible: Small solitary buttes stand amidst their overgrown scree bases; perpendicular walls exhibit their stratified structure, often forming narrow ledges where trails can be walked on by the sure-footed. Cracks and crevices tell about the relentless work of erosion, ultimately resulting in a layer of fine sand around the rocks, slowing returning them to the very state they once originated from.

More recent changes are even harder to overlook – marks of human impact can be found everywhere. The Middle Ages and subsequent times saw the construction of fortresses that made good use of the cliffs with their natural fortification. While few of the buildings remain today, there are footpaths on and around every rock, often in multiple levels, with steps hewn into the sandstone and holds carved by hands over the centuries. Hidden hollows were enlarged to shelters for cattle and people fleeing the devastation of the Thirty Years‘ War, when the armies of Europe, hunger and plague decimated the population. Local names tell their tale, such as „Swedish Holes“ and „Cowshed“. Others speak of smugglers and bandits who tried to hide their loot in dark corners and themselves from the arm of the law.

There is hardly a rock, crack or vale without an corresponding lore, and often it is unclear what came first: The name of a place or its legend. This is what makes walking these hills so entertaining – as does the most versatile scenery. One can climb a dozen peaks a day, each with its own delightful view, and in the next moment delve back into the forest where paths lead through cool ravines hidden from the sun.

Such merits did not remain secret for the bored townsfolk of nearby Dresden and elsewhere, and by the beginning of the 1800s tourism was thriving, soon culminating in eccentricities such as a tram line through one of the valleys or an electric lift for visitors who could not be bothered to go uphill by foot. Horse carts and palanquin bearers could be hired. Inns offered board and lodgings. Many peaks were secured with handrails and made accessible with ladders and metal stairways.

Around the same time a very different kind of visitors began to flock to the area, determined to scale peaks that the average tourist would never dare to set foot on. The Sandstone Mountains would soon become one of the earliest freeclimbing hotspots worldwide. The particular quality of rock and a curious mixture of traditionalism, preservation efforts and a dash of insanity lead to a unique way of climbing: With the exception of existing belay points (the first of which is usually placed only at a scary distance above the ground), no metal equipment of any kind nor magnesia is allowed to touch the rock, resulting in a creative use of ropes, slings and knots – and in some routes the building of human pyramids or the occasional jump to an opposite tower. Seasoned climbers have been documented getting the jitters halfway up.

After a pleasant hike on some of the classic trails with short intermezzos one could only describe as poor man‘s via ferrata, my companions called it a day and headed back into the arms of civilisation. I, however, intended to stay the night on one of the sandstone towers and turned into the opposite direction. The forecast had indicated a clear sky with a bit of wind; I reckoned that a protected spot on the southern wall would radiate some warmth from this day‘s exposure to the sun, making things agreeable until it was time to crawl into the sleeping bag. I arrived by early evening and found a suitable spot on a sandy ledge, at a height where the trees began to thin out, allowing a glance over the surrounding valley here and there. Then, iron ladders and a flight of stairs through a narrow crevice lead me to the top, just in time for sunset. To the south, a dell seperated the otherwise freestanding rock from the massif it once belonged to. The other directions allowed a wide view over a wooded basin from which the adjacent rocks emerged at a distance, covered in a warm glow.

Slowly the light faded to subdued shades and retreated beyond the horizon, leaving behind a landscape in soothing quietude. It gave way to the faint glow of cities nearby – artificial light reflected by a few low hanging clouds. Bats fluttered across the sky; now and then an owl hooted in the trees.

After a while, a near-full moon rose over my lookout, casting sharp shadows and staining the small plateau in a silverish tint. It transformed its surface with colder hues, as if to illustrate the noticeably falling temperature. I climbed down to my camp and soon fell into the light sleep of a city dweller not yet accustomed to being exposed to nature.

A rising wind interrupted my slumber in the morning, just as the sun reappeared on the horizon. I watched it paint orange patterns on the sandstone above my head for a while before drifting off again. A few hours later the sounds of the revived forest reawoke me at last. After packing up I climbed to the top for a last view. Then, reluctantly, I turned back to the city.