Harz, October 2019

I hadn't done much traveling since the trip to Peru in June, so I got a bit bored and looked for something strange to do.

Fortunately, the area around the Rappbodetalsperre offered an opportunity to do so.

The Rappbodestausee is a part of water reservoir created by a number of dams. The two relevant dams are the Rappbodetalsperre and Talsperre Wendefurth ("Talsperre" literally translates to "valley barricade" and means 'dam'). And, technically, the area of water between them is not part of the Rappbodestausee, as usually only the body of water held back by the dam gets the name of the dam, but the area is generally known as Rappbodestausee, so I'll use that name.

The Talsperre Wendefurth is about 43 meters high (about 140 feet) and you can 'wallrun' down to the base of it.

Wallrunning dam

It's like abseiling down, but you do it face forward.

So, basically like this:

Dam with wallrunner

Or, closer up, like this:


Although, for the participant, it feels more like this:

Wallrunner rotated

It looks a bit like Batman and Robin walking up a building in the 60's TV show. Although this goes down, not up. And is for real.

The first part is straight down and has a metal plank to 'walk' on.

As that's part where the 'overflow' gaps are located in the dam, you can see the lake stretching 'down' 'below' you while you are walking down that section.

Once you are beyond that, the dam curves sufficiently that you can walk on its concrete wall.

Walking on concrete Walking on concrete

That's where the fun bit starts.

By then, you are properly 'standing' on the ground (albeit lightly) and they encourage you to let go of the abseiling rope (they have a second security rope to hold you), squat down and push yourself off the wall.

It's probably the nearest chance to feeling like jumping on the moon that anyone is going to get.


To give a rough idea - the 'baseline' for the is the white-ish track on the dam wall, so you can do pretty impressive jumps.

There is one guide on the top of the dam, giving instructions and belaying from above, while a second guide checks from below.

To avoid getting neck cramps from looking up all day, he is using mirror glasses (not the same as mirrored glasses) to check what happens above.

Avoiding neck cramps

I don't have any pictures of my wall run, but I did have a video camera on my helmet, so there are a few 'point of view' screenshots.

While I had done abseiling before, I never had done that face down. So I expected the first bit - standing on the edge and leaning over it - to be the most difficult.

Standing on the edge

When it was my turn to stand there, I was paying too much attention to having my feet in the proper positions and gripping the rope correctly to worry much about the situation I was in.

Even the 'trust check' (i.e. take your hands of the rope and trust that the belaying guide - literally - has your back) and waving to the few spectators left did bother me a lot less than I had assumed.

Waving to spectators

At that time, there weren't many visitors around. At that point, I was the last 'wallrunner' of the day (there were two others, but they had cancelled, because they thought they wouldn't make it to the dam in time - they arrived while I was already going down to wall) and the group before me was a stag party and four of them were wallrunning while the rest of them were commenting from above. And after the last of them was done, the group left, so by the time I was ready to go, there weren't many viewers left.

First wallrunning steps

The 'sky' that's visible at the lower end of the image is not directly the sky. It's the water in the reservoir lake reflecting the sky.

The 'wallrunning' at the beginning is slightly pointless.

You are encouraged to talk tiny steps and 'walk' down the aluminium plank. But I never had any feel whether my feet were below or above my body and whether I should keep my feet where they were and lower my body with the rope or keep the body in place and do a couple of more steps.

It doesn't matter much, though.

For all intents and purposes, you are just hanging down next to the wall and the 'walking' is at that point irrelevant.

It seems the main purpose of having the feet contacting the wall is to keep you from rotating on the rope. so it's more important to place your feet at about shoulder distance to have a stable 'stand' than to walk. The more you start to walk normally (i.e. putting one foot in front of the other), the less stable your position becomes.

There was a short nervous moment (well, two of them) before I stepped off the aluminium plank and onto the concrete.

I lost contact with the 'ground' (i.e. wall) and started to turn a bit, so my abseil rope started swinging wildly while I recovered position.

Catching my balance Catching my balance

The 'good' thing about this is that it is unimportant what the lower end of the rope does and I never let go of the rope, so even without the belay from above, the situation was always under control. (What should not happen is that you instinctively using your hands to protect yourself from hitting the wall and let go of the rope. Nothing bad would have happened then. Not only was there the safety belay from above, but also my 'abseil eight' was sufficiently tight that letting go of the rope presumably wouldn't have done much. I had to actively feed the rope through the 'eight' to lower myself. Still, it's nice to know that I didn't reflexively did anything stupid.)

The other thing that happened was that one of my 'leg wraps' went off.

To make things a bit easier at the beginning (so that the legs don't hang down in front of the body if you lose contact with the plank and are hard to stretch out again), they put some Velcro wraps (which are attached to your harness) around your legs. They are for convenience and are not relevant for safety.

It still makes for an odd moment when you hear the 'ripping' sound of Velcro opening and something dangles down beside you, before you realize that this is no reason to worry.

But after that, everything is fun.

The 'jumping' off the wall is great. I would have paid extra for just hanging there for half an hour and bouncing of the wall over and over again.

Wall jumping (animated GIF)

And the final bit down was proper 'wallrunning', trying to take big 'moonwalking' steps (the bouncy ones they took on the moon, not the shuffling Michael Jackson steps) and feed the rope through the 'eight' as quick as possible.

Wall running (animated GIF)

Real fun!

A bit unexpected was how quickly the direction where the feet where became the new 'down'.

I wasn't even at the end of the metal bit when it felt like walking along a large plane surface with the rope stretching ahead and no longer like hanging down. Even though the equilibrium sense must have said something else, the visual sense and the brain won and decided that it made more sense that I walked on a surface with strange gravitational properties than that I was hanging face down 40 meters above the ground.

Looking up wallrunning trail

A last look up from the bottom and it was time to go.

The next day I was back at the Rappbodetalsperre again, this time an the main dam.

Which has a suspension bridge running in parallel to it.

Harz suspension bridge Harz suspension bridge

And also a zipline.

Harz zipline Harz zipline

I had arrived early for the zipline, so I decided to walk the suspension bridge first.

Walking along suspension bridge Walking along suspension bridge

Walking on the bridge feels strange - a bit like walking on a bouncy castle.

At least the bridge does not swing much. There are two parallel cables running along the sides of the bridge and connecting cables between them and the bridge every ten meters or so to stabilize the bridge.

So on the bridge it's more a wobbly, swaying motion and not a swinging one.

My timing was lucky. Originally I wanted to use the bridge to walk back after doing the zipline (you can either go along the dam or use the suspension bridge).

Suspension bridge left, dam right

But by the time I had done the zipline, there were a lot more visitors and they had to queue for the suspension bridge. (The entrance and exit gates to the bridge only allow a certain number of people on the bridge at any time.)

People queueing for suspension bridge

The queue was even longer on the other side and I wouldn't have liked to stand 20 minutes in line after doing the zipline, so it was a good choice to do the bridge first.

The zipline was, as expected, fun.

The autumn scenery is impressive and 'zipping' over a lake was a new experience.

They only do 'falcon' style ziplining (lying down instead of sitting in a harness) and on that day it was also necessary. There was some headwind over the lake and anything not-streamlined would have been in trouble.

Their usual minimum weight is 4o kg, but they increased that twice during the morning, as lighter persons wouldn't have made it to the end of the line and would have required rescue over the lake. (I'm not sure though why they didn't have any weights they could attach to the harness.)

Reaching minimum weight obviously wasn't an issue for me, but even so everyone was instructed to keep their arms close to their body. If the wind is more favourable, you can stretch your arms out to the side and pretend you have 'wings'. Or stretch your hands ahead, 'Superman' style. But with the headwind, the arms stayed at the sides, with the hands gripping the harness.

Unexpectedly, at both ends of the line people from the crew recognized me. (The person at the bottom of the wallrunning dam was being one of the 'starters' on the zipline that day and the wallrunning belayer was at the end of the zipline.)

When I stepped up to the starting platform for my zipline ride, the 'starter' clipping me in asked whether I was really sure that I wanted to do that in a t-shirt (as it was around 8°C (46°F) and you zip along at roughly 100 km/h) and before I could answer the guy at the second zipline said "Don't worry, he'll be fine in a t-shirt. He always does that."

And the same at the end, where the 'breaker' helped me out of the harness and was a bit surprised of me wearing a t-shirt, when the belayer from the previous day stepped over and commented "Well, he did that for wallrunning, so it's fine for him."

So it felt a bit like I was a regular, having done that dozens of time (and always in a t-shirt), as opposed to only having done wallrunning once on the previous day.

In any case - ziplining is great.

Harz Ziplining (Movie)

Suspension bridge from zipline tower Dam from zipline starting platform Looking at suspension bridge from zipline
Ziplining beside suspension bridge Ziplining over lake Ziplining over lake
Ziplining over lake Looking back from landing platform

The red circle in the last image shows where the starting tower is.

Some data: According to my GPS, my maximum speed was 94.6 km/h, the distance between start and stop was 900 meters with an altitude difference of 100 meters, the ride took 51 seconds, making it an average speed of 64 km/h.

On the way home I stopped at the Wernigerode Aviation Museum.

The collection there is a bit random. Like many aviation museums in the former GDR the core of the collection is made up on various 'cold war leftovers', with 60's and 70's military planes that were no longer used. Hence they have the usual set - a MiG-21, a MiG-23, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a Fiat G.91, a Mirage III and the ubiquitous Antonow An-2. Not so common, they also have a Hindustan Aeronautics HF 24 and a Transall C-160.

Wernigerode Aviation Museum Wernigerode Aviation Museum Antonow An-2 at Wernigerode Aviation Museum

There are also some helicopters and, kind of sprinkled between the other exhibits, a handful of cars.

So there are a lot of exhibits and the presentation is informative, but there's no clear theme to it. A bit more "stuff we could afford to buy and for which we had some room left" than "history of aviation".

However, the exhibition was not the main reason for visiting. They also have two flight simulators (a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and a Bell UH-1 D helicopter) and I wanted to have a go on them.

Both of them are static (so no hydraulic platforms or anything like that), but both have large projection displays (the helicopter simulator has six projectors) and real instrumentation.

The Messerschmitt was unexpectedly easy to fly. Probably because it is ridiculously high powered, with a 1400 hp engine, so you can brute force your way out of most situations.

I even managed a survivable landing on the first attempt (although more than a bit bouncy - kangaroos would be impressed), but then managed to crash the plane on the last meters. (I was rolling down the runway and tried to brake - using the wheel brakes, not some flaps or the engine - and hit the brakes too hard, so the plane fell over. Not good, but in real life, I might have crawled away from the wreckage.

The "Huey" helicopter was as difficult to handle during starts and landings as I expected. The flying was surprisingly manageable. I had expected much more required interaction between the control stick, the foot pedals, the throttle and the rotor blade angle control. But for most of the flight, I was doing well with the control stick alone.

Taking off and landing was altogether another matter.

The thing that is complicated to handle is the interplay between 'forward' and 'upward'. The control stick (more or less) tilts the whole rotor, so, given enough power and the proper setting of the rotor blades, the helicopter either goes up or forward or some combination of those. (Ignoring downwards, sideward and backwards motion for the moment.)

And the control stick has no 'centering' position, so it's usually a bit off in some direction. Which you don't notice while you are still on the ground. As a result, most of the time I was taking off, the helicopter started to drift backwards (shearing off the back rotor blade in one case). Or I tried to compensate, pushed the stick a bit too far forward, picked up some speed, lost altitude and ploughed into the ground.

The 'best' starts were done by increasing power quickly, so I 'jumped' about a 100 feet into the air while drifting in a random direction (sometimes successfully, sometimes crashing into buildings) and then sorting things out once I was properly (?) up in the air.

Landings were much, much worse. While my starts were survivable about one in five, none of the intended landings could be appropriately called a landing.

Again, there was very little reduction of engine power (or change of blade angle) involved. The idea seems to be to reduce height by heading forward, so the thrust of the rotor is more backwards than down, until you are close to the ground (maybe ten meters or so), then tilt back until you are stationary above the ground (at which point the helicopter starts to rise again) and only then reduce power to lower the helicopter.

I usually either ran full speed into the ground (the downside of losing altitude by going forward is that you increase your speed a lot - by flying forward as well as by dropping down) because I pulled back to late or pulled up early, but still had too much forward speed, so by the time the helicopter was stationary again, I was too high and too far away from the landing spot.

There were also some combinations of these basic mistakes with hitting some building or power line on the way down.

I am still not sure why you don't fly towards your destination at any altitude you like, then balance your control stick until you are stationary above the ground and then reduce the throttle until you start sinking down. There's probably a good reason for that, but I forgot to ask.

Anyway, it was a fun thing to do (even though I wasn't much good at it) and the setup was impressive (the helicopter has a full cabin in the simulator, including two pilot seats, back seats and complete instrumentation), so it was a significant improvement over playing a flight simulator at home.

But if I ever end up in a helicopter and the pilot gets incapacitated, I now know that there's little hope of surviving. (At least in an old 'mechanical' helicopter. Presumably a modern helicopter has some features that automate some procedures, such as keeping altitude when going forward.)

Wallrunning down a dam, a large suspension bridge, ziplining over a lake and simulator flying a fighter plane and a helicopter - a lot to do in 24 hours in the Harz region.

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