Trouble on the Drachenfels Donkey Trail

The towering Drachenfels cliff is one of the most popular recreation spots in the “Siebengebirge” (seven mountains) stretch on the Rhine. But the cliff’s rocks have become brittle and now work is under way to try to keep it from breaking apart.

Atop the Drachenfels (literally: Dragon Rock), high above the River Rhine, sits the striking ruins of a castle. With its height of 321 metres and striking silhouette, it has been an attraction for people from all parts of the world for more than 100 years who go there to enjoy the panoramic views of the river at Königswinter, a bit south of the city of Bonn.

Many visitors choose to use the iconic cog railway (the Drachenfelsbahn), in operation since 1883, to get to the top of the Drachenfels.  This has become increasingly crucial for tourism as the “Eselsweg” (donkey trail), the best-known hiking path up the 321-metre-high cliff, however, has been blocked off for more than a year now due to the extreme danger of rock slides.  Now, work is going on to try to secure the rocks. A specialized company has built 50-metre-tall scaffolding on the cliff. On a recent day, Roland Strauß from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia’s geological service, was up there and struck the stone with a hammer – and immediately small pieces fell away.

“Everything here is crumbling,” the geologist says. He then hammers a few times on an old spike in the rock. “Hear that? Hollow. There’s no firm hold anymore.”

Drachenfels rocks

Roland Strauß from the Geological Service NRW shows cracks under the Drachenfels / Image: dpa

The spike dates back to the early 1970s when, after a rock slide, the state installed a system of nails and anchors to keep the Drachenfels from breaking apart. The trachyte stone of the erstwhile quarry – which provided stones for, among others, the Cologne cathedral – is porous.

“If it hadn’t been for this protection system, the upper section including the castle ruins would have fallen long ago,” Strauss said.

At the end of 2016, measurements were taken that showed there had been some shifting inside the mountain. So the district government based in Cologne shut the Eselweg trail down. Complex renovation work began, an effort that became even more comprehensive as the work continued.  “The damage was much greater than originally assumed,” says Thomas Metz of the district government. “But that could only be determined little by little.”


Workers have fixed anchors beneath the castle ruins to prevent a rock fall / Image: dpa

One reason is that the cliff has dense vegetation. Only after workers had removed tons of soil, ivy, and plant roots did many cracks become visible, cracks which, in the meantime, have spread through the rock massif. Coloured markings designated the damage areas which are now to be filled with concrete. Last year, two massive rock anchors, 16 and 25 metres long, were driven through the rock in order to prevent a breaking apart of the massif.

Drachenfels closed

For the moment, the Donkey Trail is closed / Image: Zumbusch

At the moment, around 170 spikes that hold the rock together at critical points are being replaced or newly positioned. Before the six-metre-long spikes can be pounded into the rock, large machines must first drill holes for them. Workers are wearing protective masks against swirling clouds of dust. It is still not clear yet when the Eselsweg trail will be opened up again. Most likely in 2019.

“Unfortunately everything is taking much longer than planned,” Metz says. The originally estimated costs, which the state will bear, are now foreseen tripling to around three million euros (3.5 million dollars). But even after the refurbishing work has been completed, maintaining the Drachenfels will remain a problem.

“We cannot prevent the disintegration,” Metz says. “We can only slow it down.”

Thanks – Koenigswinter, Germany (dpa).

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