Moroccan Gold - Climbing in Africa's gateway

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Approaching the Todra Gorge can be a relaxing walk, but on a bustling market day it can be an uphill battle through vendor stands, livestock, and exotic entertainment.

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My eyes dart from the shiny bolt a few moves away down to the roof’s edge where my rope disappears from view — somewhere beneath that edge is my last draw. The ground is a hundred feet below and the African sun warms the limestone, encouraging me to chalk up more than normal. I tell myself to relax, pull the next few moves, and clip. I start to move, but I’m distracted by a blaring truck horn. My attention is drawn to the road beneath the climb. A turban-clad man struggles to regain control of his goat herd as a large truck pushes through their mass. The goats scatter into stalls where merchants yell at them in Arabic and Berber, trying to keep the livestock clear of their rugs, food, and jewelry. My forearms threaten to pump out as I watch the ensuing chaos. The next bolt looks further and further away, and I desperately try to regain my composure and make a lunge towards a slopey clipping jug. The biner snaps shut, relief floods my body, and I smile and relish the warm sun. While multi-pitch climbing is often adventurous, climbing in Morocco’s Todra Gorge constantly presents experiences rarely encountered on — or off — the stone. Morocco is located in the northwest corner of Africa, nineteen kilometers across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. Trade and immigrants from all over Africa flow northward through Morocco into Europe, reminiscent of the porous-border relationship that Mexico has with the United States. The names of many Moroccan cities are both exotic and familiar: Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, Fes, and Timbuktu. Foreign artists have been attracted to Morocco for generations. Some, including Henri Matisse, were drawn by the stark landscape and indigenous art forms. Others, like William S. Burroughs, found muses of a different sort in its lawless international port cities. Morocco’s complex cultural landscape is populated by a blend of Arab and Berber peoples. An Islamic country, it’s governed by an ancient monarchy that traces back to the prophet Muhammad at the turn of the sixth century. The country feels more Westernized than orthodox, however, much of this is driven by the fact that tourism is the country’s second largest industry, behind phosphate mining. Unlike more conservative Islamic nations, many laws in Morocco are lax to accommodate tourists; for instance, alcohol is legally bought, sold, and enjoyed. Other Western influences remain from its days as a French protectorate, and French is still a national language (along with Arabic and Berber). The country’s physical landscape hosts vast deserts and impressive mountain ranges. To the north of the Todra Gorge are the Rif Mountains that overlook the Mediterranean. The High, Middle, and Anti-Atlas Mountain Ranges bisect the country’s middle. The gorge itself is located in the High Atlas Mountains and is a major scenic attraction for non-climbing tourists, hundreds of whom arrive daily by bus.

The author honed and toned on Afrique Physique (7a+ or 5.12a).

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The Todra Gorge is Morocco’s premier climbing destination, with a history dating back to 1966, when the first technical rock climb was documented. Word slowly spread through Europe over the next decade as climbers explored the gorge and established traditional routes. Spanish climbers put up the first bolted climbs, Capuma (6a+ or 5.10b) and Linda (6b or 5.10c) in 1976, but new route development didn’t explode until the winter of 1987. In a two-and-a-half-month blitz, five Dutch climbers installed 120 sport routes, and successive waves of Spanish, French, Dutch, and Swiss climbers put the Todra Gorge on the sport-climbing map. Lynn Hill briefly visited in 1997 and established one of the area’s overhanging cave testpieces called Tête de Chou (8b 5.13c), which today is still one of the gorge’s hardest routes. While not as popular as it was in its heyday due to the emergence of newer European marquee crags, the Todra Gorge’s exotic appeal still draws climbers, and new routes are still being developed. The canyon stretches for kilometers and the highly featured stone yields an endless variety of edges, chickenheads, pockets, jugs, and tufas, making the area’s potential seem endless. For three weeks my friend, photographer Aaron Black, and I explored the vast canyon of towering golden-brown limestone. Known for its long technical face climbs and hard, steep bolted lines, it attracts adventurous climbers from all over Europe as well as points beyond. Though located only a few hours from the Sahara desert, the Todra Gorge is high enough in the mountains to have great fall and spring weather, and the exotic surroundings, cheap food, festive atmosphere, plus really cheap hotels are reminiscent of Mexico’s El Portrero Chico.

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Can I get a spot over here?

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After flying from the United States to Spain and then traveling overland via overnight trains, an unreliable ferry, and a long, cramped bus ride, Aaron and I found ourselves deep in Morocco. To our jet-lagged minds the country seemed straight out of Hollywood with snake charmers and turban-clad hustlers winding down every market street. People constantly tried to sell us food, spices, shiny teapots, and silver jewelry, and everyone seemed to have a rug-making family member who guaranteed us the “best deal, not like shop, real cheap, best rugs.” The Todra Gorge came into view as our final taxi ride brought us up from the plains into the High Atlas. Narrow canyon walls rose straight up for over 1000 feet; at the base of these walls sit a series of hotels, restaurants, and vendor stalls. To learn more about the history and development of the area we needed to find the local expert. Everyone we asked told us we were seeking Hassan Mouhajir. Mouhajir is a small, compact man who exudes wisdom and positive energy. He dresses in a self-styled uniform consisting of a Mammut T-shirt and top-of-the-line mountaineering boots. Mouhajir told us that he was wearing the shirt when he was featured in a French magazine years ago, and now he always wore it so that people would recognize him. In addition to French, Arabic, and Berber, he spoke some broken English and Spanish. Though it was hard to communicate, he gave us plenty of Beta and knew every route in the area. Although we weren’t able to determine his age, stories we heard placed him anywhere from thirty-five to fifty-seven years old. While Mouhajir’s presence was ubiquitous, he was hard to contact as he has no phone or email. We learned that the best way to reach him was to ask around on the street; within a couple hours he always found us. At first he would meet with us at our hotel for short periods every few days and would tell us a little about himself or the Todra Gorge, but eventually he invited us to his kasbah, a large traditional family house, for the real stories and a glass of mint tea. We sat on his ornately patterned rugs and leaned against the thick mud and straw walls characteristic of the area’s older buildings. “I’ve been climbing for fourteen years. I was born in the mountains and had to watch the goats. They were great climbers and I would scramble around the rocks with them,” he said as he poured us tea. Mouhajir told us that his family frequently visited the Todra Gorge and he became captivated by watching the European climbers gracefully moving up the vertical and overhanging walls. He expressed enough interest that an older French climber taught him the basics. Shortly after, Mouhajir met Ali, one of the few other serious Moroccan climbers, and they began climbing together; most of what Mouhajir knows he gleaned from Ali. His limited amount of gear keeps him clipping bolts, but when I asked him what trad gear he wanted most, he replied, “A drill and bolts.” Mouhajir has established four routes in the gorge so far and has many more lines in mind. In addition to his work as a full-time climbing guide, Mouhajir is the author of the Gorge’s current guidebook, having learned how to make guidebooks by helping French climber Guy Albert pen the area’s first official guide. That book was filled with lavish paintings but short on information, and as it became dated Albert gave his blessing for Mouhajir to pen a new version. Mouhajir’s guidebooks have their own unique charm. Each one is custom made and is available in each of the major languages that climbers speak. Once he discovers your language he photocopies one and then hand colors it. In comparison to the original it’s not a work of art, but it has an authentic feel and is constantly updated. This year alone Mouhajir has written up thirty new routes, and an Italian team was busy bolting a new multi-pitch route during our stay.

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If local guide Abdul El Aziz El Mouatasim was climbing on his own gear he’d be fifty feet above his last bolt. Instead, he’s glad to hang his client’s draws on Coer de Palmier (6c or 5.11a).

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The Todra Gorge rapidly proved to be a worthy sport-climbing destination. Of the roughly 350 routes, spread over twenty-nine crags along the eight-kilometer canyon, three-quarters are bolt protected. Twenty-five of the sport routes are three or more pitches, with the longest being eight pitches. The easiest multi-pitch excursions start at 5c (5.8) and range all the way to 8a (5.13b), making it possible to get off the ground at almost any level of difficulty. The gorge is host to roughly seventy-five established multi-pitch “adventure” trad routes, so called because of their reputation for loose rock. Many of the obscure — as well as the harder — trad routes haven’t received enough traffic to give them a proper cleaning. Local climbers reported that there were at least another hundred established multi-pitch trad lines that weren’t published in any guidebook, and plenty of would-be routes still waiting for an ascent. Cragging in Morocco provides a range of unique experiences. On the downside, you can’t always climb your intended route, as vendors set up their stalls directly beneath the starting jugs, sometimes even using the first bolts as a tie-in point for their tarps. The rumble and fumes of diesel trucks, so packed with people that they’re hanging off the sides, provides a noisy spectacle. Veiled and tattooed Berber nomads graze their herds in the distance and are a pleasant distraction. But the sounds one hears echoing up the canyon are truly enchanting: vendors play strange polyrhythmic beats on dindla and tabel drums, and at regular intervals the call to prayer emanates from the mosque’s minaret with eerie and captivating atonal melodies. Climbing near the hotels was a surreal experience. As we walked to the climbs we were merely tourists being barraged by vendors and panhandlers. Yet once we started climbing we suddenly became an attraction. The guides would stop and tell the other tourists about climbing and encourage them to take pictures. The change from audience to performers was abrupt and humorous every time. Luckily, a ten-minute walk took us out of the gorge entrance’s hustle and bustle. With either a short, steep uphill hike or a kilometer or two of walking it was easy to find ourselves completely alone. On lazy days we took advantage of the fact that there were routes directly across from our hotel. The short approaches, however, weren’t always easy. The road was flooded for a few days during our stay, and there was always vehicle traffic and congestion at the crags closest to the gorge’s entrance. Many of these routes started directly out of the river on steep slabs, requiring a giant running leap and a quick catch of balance. On one occasion I wasn’t successful at the long jump, much to the great amusement of the tourists and locals. A few weeks after arriving in Morocco we had an experience of truly biblical proportions. We were hiking up a short trail to a superb cliff formally known as Jardin D’Hiver (The Winter Garden) but nicknamed Trainee Blanche, when we noticed that the sky was darkening. We discovered it wasn’t clouds, but rather a massive swarm of locusts. Soon the whole sky was filled with their beating wings. As we walked higher up the trail we noticed that the locusts had carpeted the ground, blanketing every plant, rock, and dirt patch. With every step we took, swarms would leap into the air and soar away. The effect was mesmerizing. The sun caught their translucent wings, turning the reddish explosions of insects into glowing jewels gently floating away.

Talk about a buzz. The author approaches the Jardin d’Hiver wall, one of the Todra Gorge’s finest, through a swarm of locusts.

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Big walls, little climbers, and a ... sheep? Visiting Spanish climber Antonio Escaito engages the Aiguille de Grave (6b or 5.10c).

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During our stay we befriended another local guide named Abdul. We met him when he approached us and asked if we were looking for a guide. We declined, but he then surprised us by asking if it would be okay for him to climb with us. When we handed him the rope’s sharp end, he reached into his small bag and pulled out his harness and his prize possession: An old pair of 5.10s given to him by some Spanish climbers. He quickly led a nice line with our gear and thanked us by pointing out some other good warm-ups before bidding us a good day. At twenty-four Abdul has only been climbing for three years, but is full of energetic psych and habitually wears a smile. He advertises his profession by wearing the same Mammut T-shirt as Hassan and takes great pride in his uniform. His profession is difficult because he only owns the gear he carries in his little bag and must rely on his clients for ropes and draws. Abdul personifies a problem that many Moroccan climbers encounter: In order to have the time to climb he must make it his profession. This means he has to rely on the same group of people to both learn from and guide. With his language skills, his knowledge of the area, and his basic climbing skills, however, Abdul is already one of the best guides and is eager to become as knowledgeable as Mouhajir. After a few days of climbing and exploring we pinpointed something that was conspicuously absent from the Todra Gorge: local women. We had seen women during the day in the villages, and there were foreign female tourists of all types, but no local women in the gorge itself. This reminded us that we were in an Islamic country where the public and private spheres of men and women remain distinctly separated. Visiting female tourists (and even men to some extent) are encouraged to wear pants and long-sleeved shirts in public in order to show respect for Moroccan culture. Many female tourists travel in the company of men to give the impression of being married; some unwed female travelers even go so far as to wear wedding rings in public. We learned that the frequent marriage proposals foreign women receive rise from a genuine cultural concern that no woman older than a teenager would want to remain unwed. We even found ourselves turning down a few veiled giggling teenage girls who proposed to us one day while we explored their village. They seemed half-serious, but we decided it probably had more to do with a peer-pressure-inspired dare than our charm and good looks.

Hassan Mouhajir contemplates opulent living.

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Aaron Black touches gold on Habibi Brahim (7b or 5.12b).

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During our last few days at the Todra Gorge we discovered a perplexing mystery. Three pitches up a climb I noticed a black sheep perched on a pillar across the canyon. From my position it looked like the sheep was stranded, and it was unclear how it could have climbed up there in the first place. When we returned to town we found Mouhajir, Abdul, and a number of other locals drinking mint tea and chatting. We told them about the sheep and asked if they needed our help to rescue it. They laughed and told us not to worry, that it was “the sacred sheep.” Seeing our puzzled looks they beckoned us to sit down, have some tea, and listen to a story. Apparently there was a man who lived in a nearby village who was unlucky with animals. Determined to get a good beast, the man bought the best-looking sheep he could find. Pleased with his purchase, he tied it up for the night so that it wouldn’t wander off. When he awoke the next morning it was gone. He searched all over and finally found it had climbed the near vertical cliff and was sitting high up on the pillar. “The sheep can climb 6a+ (5.10b), free solo,” Mouhajir piped in. After considerable effort the man got the sheep down and decided he wouldn’t take any more chances: He locked it in a windowless room for the night. But when he awoke the next morning and went looking for his sheep, it had vanished. He ran up the canyon and saw that it had returned to the pillar. Downcast, he realized bad luck had struck again. The sheep must be sacred if it could do this, he rationalized. No mortal should own a sacred sheep, so he left it there to roost. We left the gorge wondering whether the whole town was in on a joke they played on gullible climbers. We asked around, but everyone told us roughly the same story. Moreover, everyone seemed sincere when they told us their tale. Still, it didn’t make sense to our Western minds that a sheep could survive up on a cliff without water or food, not to mention climb 6a+ to get there. But then again, we’d seen it with our own eyes. Days later and hundreds of miles away from the Todra Gorge in the Moroccan border town of Tangiers, a friendly stranger struck up a conversation with us. After a few minutes of explaining where we were from, and that we enjoyed our visit to Morocco, he discovered we were climbers and had been in the Todra Gorge. His eyes lit up and he asked us with much enthusiasm, “Did you see the great sacred sheep that could climb cliffs?” Aaron and I just smiled at each other. Indeed, some things about Morocco would always be lost in translation.Merrick Schaefer, twenty-eight, has been climbing for twelve years. After two years of living out of his old station wagon, climbing full time, and building the occasional website on rest days, he decided to settle down in Seattle an get a real job ... just not until after that next climbing trip.

Another form of Moroccan gold — the ubiquitous mint tea.

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