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Sand Blasted

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Brittany Griffith on P8 (5.11a) of Canyon Apache (5.11d), Timrazine, Taghia Gorge, Morocco. Photo by Andy Burr /

Brittany Griffith on P8 (5.11a) of Canyon Apache (5.11d), Timrazine, Taghia Gorge, Morocco. Photo by Andy Burr /

Travel Travails and Epic Limestone in the Taghia Gorge, Morocco

April 7, 2007; Marrakech: chaos welcomed me in the blinding sun outside the airport. Moroccans shoved past each other. Heatedly, they shouted, “La grève, la grève, pas de taxi!”: a taxi strike, hardly ideal for four dirtbag climbers — me, Andy Burr, Jonathan Thesenga, and Brittany Griffith — trying to reach Morocco’s Taghia Gorge, a stunning and isolated limestone oasis in the High Atlas Mountains. The only way around would be with the hard-haggling, “unofficial” taxi drivers.

I hooked up with Andy, our expedition photographer, in Marrakech. The trip had been Jonathan’s idea, and he’d sounded the rallying cry during a meeting at Andy’s house in Salt Lake City that winter. Although I’d not yet met Brittany, I knew she was an ace climber and not wound tightly.

Brittany and Jonathan’s hotel in Marrakech organized a private car for $200 (double the going price), to take us to the High Atlas town of Azilal, where the pavement ends and the mountains begin. Azilal sits about 60 miles from Taghia in a mountain range that spans 1,400 miles across northern Morocco. An area nearly as expansive as the Dolomites (but much drier), the Taghia features similar cirques and towers, most virgin. Climbers, mainly French and Spanish, have come here since the 1970s, adding circa 115 routes from 5.6 to 5.13b on walls ranging from one pitch to 12. With the exception of some of the earliest routes, most lines are bolted (the rock doesn’t offer much natural protection). The bulk of the climbing starts at 5.11, with only about 40 single-pitch climbs. And there is no area-specific guidebook — only hand-drawn topos at the local gîte (refuge).

Brittany and JT playing cards in the school house (with Renan Ozturk

Brittany and JT playing cards in the school house (with Renan Ozturk

Blockading Abdullah on the mountain pass. Photo by Andy Burr /

Blockading Abdullah on the mountain pass. Photo by Andy Burr /

Once in Azilal, we discovered the taxi strike reached there, too, meaning the 4x4 we’d hoped to rent was not on offer. Enter Mohammed, a local “businessman” and the proprietor of a gîte in Zaouiat, the town nearest Taghia. He’d been recommended by The North Face climbing team, who’d visited in 2006; Mohammed, they said, could mule-pack our gear the seven miles from Zaouiat into the gorge. (The river running through the Taghia makes car access impossible.) Mohammed greeted us warmly at an open-air market in Azilal. A skinny, tanned man with a hawk nose, he looked innocuous enough, like a guy who’d invite you around for tea.

Mohammed convinced Abdullah, our driver from Marrakech, to take us to Zaouiat. Little did we know, neither our city-slicker driver nor his old Peugeot van were up for desert driving. As one of the few French speakers in the region, Mohammed, we’d learn, had a sweet scam going, convincing tourists of his good intentions while simultaneously emptying their wallets. He’d likely set us up with Abdullah to pocket a deal-brokering commission, fully knowing the whole thing could go to shit. Helpfully, Mo offered to accompany us in the cab.

Cody climbs climbs past the Moroccan flag on the crux P1, La Zebda (5.12c). Photo by Andy Burr /

Cody climbs climbs past the Moroccan flag on the crux P1, La Zebda (5.12c). Photo by Andy Burr /

Jonathan Thesenga passes a perched block pn P6 (5.11) of La Zebda (5.12c), Timrazine. Photo by Andy Burr /

Jonathan Thesenga passes a perched block pn P6 (5.11) of La Zebda (5.12c), Timrazine. Photo by Andy Burr /

Once outside the city, panic overtook Abdullah. As our dirt piste steepened, careening through the bleak lunar landscape en route to the isolated pass guarding Zaouiat, Abdullah threw the van into third gear rather than downshift. It stalled and overheated. The coup de grâce came near the summit, when we cleared a corner to see an old snowbank on the shoulder. Abdullah, it seemed, had never seen snow — he jammed on the brakes and jumped out, muttering, and tossing our bags onto the hardpack.

To avoid being stranded, Brittany and I held fast in the back seat, while Andy and Jonathan blockaded the road with our bags. An angry Abdullah revved the engine and pulled a U-turn, heading full throttle toward the boys. In that clutch second, Andy sat in front of the bags, crossed his legs, and threw an “I dare you” look. Abdullah screeched to a halt a few inches from Andy’s feet. Meanwhile Mohammed, standing mutely on the sidelines, flipped open his cellphone. Some French guests staying at his gîte had a Land Cruiser, he told us, and were only 20 minutes away ski touring.

Taghia spires: Oujdad at center right, the Taoujdad in the gorge, and Timrazine at left. Photo by Andy Burr /

Taghia spires: Oujdad at center right, the Taoujdad in the gorge, and Timrazine at left. Photo by Andy Burr /

The Frenchies showed up a half-hour later, but Abdullah backed up his taxi and himself blockaded the road, in hopes of extorting more money. We crept past his back bumper, two wheels of the Frenchies’ Land Cruiser off the shoulder. Mohammed kept his poker face until we cleared that obstacle, and then he went off, insisting that the taxi driver was a crazed “Arab from the city.”

Still, due to the language barrier, we had no way of telling what he and Abdullah truly discussed. The whole thing seemed fishy. We wound up in Zaouiat late, with Mohammed too tired to saddle up and head into the gorge. We slept at his gîte, planning to wake early and mule-pack in.

The Taghia village marks a step back in time, with hogan-like adobe/mud dwellings, Berber shepherds tending their flocks, and veiled women working the fields. Very little goes on here. The schoolroom sits vacant, and there’s no mosque, as you see in most Moroccan towns. The food is on the bland side, lacking the classic Moroccan spices. And the mince is made with only goat and chicken gristle combined with locally grown carrots and potatoes. In most parts of Morocco, kids run up and ask you for candy or money. In Taghia, they run up and ask for a pen — for them, it has the entertainment value of, say, an Xbox in the States.

That morning after our taxi debacle — after we reached our final destination — Mo’s game became clear. The prices for the mules shot up, along with the price of our night in Zaouiat. Mo even hassled Said, the gîte owner in Taghia, demanding a cut from his profit for our eight-day stay, as he’d done with Abdullah. We lost the rest of a potentially great climbing day sorting the fiasco, though at least we were (temporarily) rid of Mo.

The next day dawned sunny, perfect for getting on one of Taghia’s longer lines. We decided on Canyon Apache (5.11d), a 12-pitch masterpiece put up by the French all-around ace Arnaud Petit. Canyon Apache, like nearly every Taghia line, is so fresh that there’s little chalk. That and the exposed atmosphere and well-spaced bolts give the area a distinctly raw, alpine feel.

The first climber to visit Taghia was Manuel Punsola, in 1974. Then Tony Arbones, best known for bolting most of the routes around Catalonia’s premier cliffs, Siurana and Mont Sant, established Taghia’s first fully bolted climb, in the 1990s. It’s called Shoukran (5.12), a nine-pitch line beginning on obvious blue-to-black tufas. Petit also added several 5.11-to-5.13 gems on the spires, his most famous being Axe du Mal, a 5.13b on the 11-pitch tower of Taoujdad. Polish teams have also made substantial contributions, putting up stout-looking lines on at least three formations. Taghia routes tend to be eight to 10 pitches, on quality orange limestone with barracuda-tooth friction. The earliest Taghia climbs tackle lower-angled ridges, making for low-commitment “tradventures.”

As we reached the last pitches of Canyon Apache, we heard bleating. Sure enough, at the final belay, a Berber shepherd and his daughter greeted me. The two inhabited the plateau each spring, bivying at night in a grotto and tending their goats. Brittany gave them a Clif Bar and, to the girl, a hair tie for her black tresses.

“Ici, Ici,” said the shepherd, pointing to a severely exposed karst ridge. He walked across the narrow arête, which yielded a more tracked but still exposed trail back to the valley. The shepherds have painstakingly built bridges out of stacked rocks in the ridge gaps, reinforcing them with sticks that serve as solid makeshift beams.

On our second day, we set our sights on La Zebda (5.12c), 10 minutes from the gîte. Reaching La Zebda involves river hopping and catwalking along canals; the climb itself starts from the riverbed, and then zigzags across a flat wall. And while La Zebda lacks the aesthetics of a freestanding tower, it compensates with a stellar view of the village, where you might see climbers lounging atop the gîte or kids kicking a soccer ball in the red, mineral-stained hills behind it.

The first pitch involved mean colonette pinching and was uncharacteristically well-chalked. There wasn’t a single junk pitch or bunk move in La Zebda’s eight ropelengths. Pitch three went at hard 5.12b, starting with devious face climbing and finishing with a spectacular roof that forced footloose moves on massive jugs. Pitches four, five, and six involved creative, impromptu moves, as the route gradually snaked right across a wide-open canvas of stone.

Finally feeling the groove, we scouted the eight-pitch Tout Pour le Club (5.12d), on Oujdad. The next morning, however, the clouds caught up with us, a rare occurrence in Morocco. After the first pitch, we bailed, spending a heinous, stormbound night at a ramshackle gîte below the wall. The thick-walled mud room was barren, with only a single dim bulb. The noxious fumes of burned toilet paper and plastic wafted over from the adjacent chimney (burning trash is Said’s only option for waste management). Fortunately, we had cards and a stash of Gatorade and tequila.

5.12 power slab: Roth leads the charge on P5 (5.12b), Tout Pour le Club, Oujdad. Photo by Andy Burr /

5.12 power slab: Roth leads the charge on P5 (5.12b), Tout Pour le Club, Oujdad. Photo by Andy Burr /

The clouds parted at breakfast — Inshallah! — so we hotfooted up the hour-long approach, reaching the wall just as the sun warmed the rock. I French-freed P1 (I’d climbed it the day before), and then punched up the second pitch (5.10), gunning for the belay in a single, rope-stretching push. On the third pitch (5.12d), I found myself stymied on a thin slab. I lowered twice, hoping Brittany wasn’t getting sick of me hanging, and then slid through via a sneaky sidepull, with little chalk to mark the 70 feet of tech-bot climbing that remained.

After a few more 5.11 and 5.12 pitches (Brittany onsighted one of the 5.12b’s), I stared up the final ropelength, an intimidating 5.12d comprised of hand jamming out a roof crack, to insecure jams up a slightly overhanging face. I grew up in Albuquerque, mere hours from Indian Creek, but, unfortunately, never made it there. It was now time to bleed for my punk-sport-climber mentality. Going out on the steep swell, I quickly found myself ass-handed. I lowered and gave another go, half-heckled and half-cheered by Andy and Jonathan, both well-versed crack climbers. Wasted, with my feet slipping but jams staying in, I pulled the lip and continued desperately up the fussy fissure. At the top, I took in the view of a half-dozen unnamed towers fading to orange as the sun slowly set.

The next morning, Andy and I parted ways with Brittany and Jonathan, who were staying to try the classic West Face of the Taoujdad tower. Good-old Mohammed met us at the Taghia gîte and complained of our tardiness. The walk out was uncomfortable — we feared further shenanigans.

Sure enough, back in Zaouiat, the price for the 4x4 ride nearly doubled, to about $100; we had only $85. In protest, Andy loaded his gear onto his back and started up the road. After almost an hour of negotiations with the driver and Mohammed, I whittled the price to $70 to Ait, a tiny outpost that was the nearest town with a bus station (yet still 30 miles from Azilal).

Before we left, Mohammed threatened to call the police, saying we’d shorted him for his mules and deal-brokering. He jumped into the car, insisting he must accompany us for translation purposes. I told him he could go wherever he pleased, but he wouldn’t see another dime from us. We picked Andy up a few kilometers down the road. With all his gear, there was no danger of Andy getting too far, too quickly.

Three hours later, we reached Ait, where the bus had already left . . . two hours earlier. Mohammed insisted on searching for a taxi, but I firmly told him to leave us alone. Andy and I, choosing to hitchhike instead, left Mo standing in the dusty street. That night in Marrakech, we celebrated our little victory with sausages, beer, and belly dancers.

Three days later, I sat in the Marrakech Square, awaiting Brittany and Jonathan. They arrived, exasperated and reeling from another encounter with Mohammed, in Zaouiat. After arranging an impromptu ride to Marrakech with some French climbers a day earlier than planned, they’d broken the news to Mohammed that his ride-arranging services were no longer needed. Mo took to the street, staging a grève of his own. After blocking the way with rocks didn’t work, he resorted to jumping on the hood of the French climbers’ car. One hour later, after nonstop arguing, Mohammed leapt down. The climbers drove away, leaving the little man standing speechless in the road.

Cody Roth lives in Austria, where transportation hassles, he says, are nearly nonexistent.

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