First Ascents and Adventure in Morocco

An experienced sport climber teams up with a veteran route developer to learn new skills, push her limits, and discover adventure in North Africa.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of our print edition. 

Vikki Weldon tops out her new seven-pitch route in the Rif Mountains. Photo: Paul McSorley

Four pitches up the orange-streaked limestone cliff, I cringe as my forearms seize up into balls of contracting muscle. My hands have become claws, and I’m barely hanging off a tipped-out cam in a crumbling crack. My trust in these questionable aid placements has increased since the start of the pitch five hours ago, but my pounding heart is a constant reminder of my fear. I look up desperately, searching for any sort of stance to build a belay. I am a complete beginner when it comes to route development, and I have been inching up on skyhooks and dodgy cam placements for what seems like an eternity. “Nice work, Vikki! Keep it going!” my partner and developing mentor Paul McSorley hollers from 100 feet below. Right as I think my hands are going to give out, I spy a large ledge 15 feet up and right (thank goodness). I revert to try-hard climbing mode and punch it to the ledge. My first ground-up pitch is complete.

Paul and I had arrived in the Akchour Valley of northern Morocco almost two weeks before with the intention of putting up a first ascent on the immense limestone cliffs of the Rif Mountains. First ascents were a mystery to me, but the vision and hard work required to establish a new line were enticing. Four months earlier on a rainy day in Squamish, I had suggested that Paul and I partner up to do a first ascent somewhere, half expecting him to turn me down. I’m a sport climber through and through, and had started to dabble in trad climbing, but I’d never put in a single bolt, cleaned loose rock, or established a route of my own. Why would this veteran developer, known for his boundless energy and affinity for adventure, want to take me, a total newbie, under his wing? But in typical Paul fashion of jumping head-first into the unknown, he responded with an enthusiastic “YES!” and quickly suggested Morocco as the destination, having visited several years before and seen the potential. “I’m in!” I immediately said while simultaneously thinking, What have I gotten myself into?!

A few weeks later, with plane tickets already booked, Paul gave me a crash course in aid climbing since my only experience with it was French-freeing past hard moves on sport routes. We met at the local Smoke Bluffs crag to practice aiding, pendulums, and jumaring, and after two hours, Paul said, “I think you’re ready now.” I laughed at the absurdity of it. My arms were scraped from botched pendulum attempts, and my nerves were rattled from the fear I experienced each time my body had skidded back across the granite. I didn’t quite believe him.

Photo: Paul McSorley

Destination: Morocco

On the final flight into Malaga, Spain, the reality of what I had committed to hit me like a slap in the face. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and all the worst-case scenarios played out in my mind as I stared out over the Mediterranean Sea: rockfall, major injury, or worse. Suddenly my 15 years of climbing experience seemed completely useless. I was going to be a beginner again, and it was going to be hard. When Paul picked me up from the airport, he raved about the stellar Spanish limestone he had been enjoying for the two weeks before I got there. “We could just stay here,” I said, only sort of joking. “Forget this whole new-routing thing in Morocco.” Paul just chuckled and kept driving.

A short ferry ride landed us in the bustling port of Ceuta. Paul and I soon found ourselves immersed in the chaos, both dripping with sweat and backs aching from shouldering such heavy bags. My head was spinning from the standard transcontinental fog, and it didn’t help that there was rapid-fire Arabic and French being shouted all around me. I cursed my 12-year-old self for not paying attention in French class, but Paul came to the rescue and translated through the babble. A three-hour taxi ride later, we arrived in the Akchour Valley, along with more than 200 pounds of gear: 150 bolts, three static lines, three climbing ropes, a power drill, 50 quickdraws, a full trad rack, and aid gear. Our big adventure had finally begun!

Paul McSorley puts his new-routing skills to the test on the fifth pitch. Photo: Paul McSorley

Rain Delay

Standing on the balcony at Café Rueda hostel in the valley, I clasped my hands around a warm and welcome cup of coffee. Rain dripped off the hood of my jacket as I gazed up at the low-lying clouds that shrouded my view of the cliff face. We’d had a few wonderfully sunny days at the start of our trip, but that came to an end when a storm system settled in over the valley. We decided to utilize our time by scoping out both the approach and the cliff. One rainy morning found us battling thick jungle foliage for three hours to gain just 650 feet of elevation to the base of the cliff. After traversing the bottom, we stumbled upon a well-established trail. “I knew there was a trail somewhere!” Paul said as I nursed my bleeding legs, scratched from the two-inch-long thorns that adorn the entire hillside.

A short break in the rain allowed us to scramble up a fourth and fifth class ramp to the top of the cliff, and I quickly spied a wicked overhanging arête. I tried hard to convince my partner that we should check it out, but lesson one in route development from Paul: Be conservative when choosing a line. A lower-angle route would be far more forgiving ground to learn on. Of course he had a point, so instead we rappelled down a large gray shield of rock, finding what appeared to be some beautiful technical climbing. Paul used the time as an opportunity to teach me the ways of the Bosch drill. “Hold it straight, don’t push, let the hammer drill do the work,” he coached as I hesitantly held the drill against the rock. “Blow the dust out of the hole with the little plastic tube, hammer the bolt in, tighten the nut, and voila—a bolt. Only a hundred more to go!”

The following days brought more bad weather, and Paul and I were unhappily grounded. It took a solid five minutes to explore the town we were staying in. Our hostel sat at the T-intersection of a long street that contained a small corner store, some odd shops, a mosque, and a rather large but empty-looking hotel. The few locals that resided in the area kept to themselves, working in the fields or lounging at the shops. Despite being only 30 minutes from the bustling city of Chefchaouen, it was easy to feel far from civilization here. “What’s the name of this town again?” I asked Paul. He paused, then said, “I don’t think it has one.”

We passed the time by paging through the mix-and-match binder of topos that our host Abdul had collected from all the traveling climbers who journeyed here to establish routes. Though not a climber himself, Abdul welcomed the tourism that climbers brought to the valley, and since Paul’s last visit three years earlier, European climbers had developed a few dozen multi-pitch routes. Even still, the possibility for new lines in the area appeared to be endless. Looking at topos and talking about climbing all day was a nice distraction, but it didn’t relieve the itch we both felt to get back on the wall. We just needed Mother Nature to give us a smile.

The author scopes out the endless climbing potential in the Akchour valley. Photo: Paul McSorley

No Rest for the Wicked

After a week of rain, Paul and I awoke to a glorious high-pressure system. We had just 10 days to get this route done, so Paul took the lead for the first three pitches, getting us up to the gray shield 300 feet off the ground. Efficient and experienced, Paul established the majority of the first three pitches in a day. The terrain was moderate, and Paul scampered up the rock, flawlessly switching between aiding and free climbing as he bolted. Well this shouldn’t be too hard, I thought to myself naively as I watched the master practice his craft.

Paul opted for the “sink or swim” teaching technique when he handed me the drill at the bottom of the fourth pitch. I struggled at the beginning, my mind as blank as the wall above me, but I eventually found my rhythm. My efforts during that day-long, ground-up bolting battle would carry me through the rest of the trip. The sense of accomplishment I had from creating something from a starkly blank slate was overwhelming, and my appreciation for people like Paul who dedicate their lives to establishing routes skyrocketed. The cramps in my arms and legs that night were unbearable, with one particular leg cramp leaving me unable to stand after dinner, but I didn’t care—the pain was worth it. Despite my body’s cries for a rest day, there was no time; we were racing the clock and the weather to get this route done.

We developed a pattern: wake up early, scarf down stale bread and hot coffee, hike to the cliff, and jug or climb back to our high point from the previous day. From there, we would continue upward, aiding and bolting until dark. Each day, the route revealed itself to us one section at a time, and often I felt confused as to where to go, until Paul, the true aficionado, would point out an imperceptible feature that allowed the line to flow upward. These were two more big lessons for establishing climbs: learning how to read the virgin stone and changing my mindset from climber to developer. Bolt spacing, clipping holds, and fall potential became my main concerns. This route wasn’t just for us; it was for the climbing community, and we wanted it to be high-quality. Since the majority of our development was ground-up, we often equipped only one 100-foot pitch per day, making necessary adjustments, such as relocating bolts and cleaning more rock, as we rappelled.

While we worked, the sounds of beating drums reverberated through the valley below us. High in the hills, farmers were hard at work pounding cannabis into hashish resin, a product the Rif Mountains are well-known for. Escapee goats would hide out on the neighboring fourth class ramp, and clouds of black birds cawing and dive-bombing for bugs acted as our natural alarm clock, heralding dusk—it was time to head down for the day. As the sun ducked below the horizon, we would rappel to the ground and stumble back to our hostel in the dark where Abdul was waiting with hot mint tea and questions about the day’s progress.

Photo: Paul McSorley

The Last Step

After six consecutive days of bolting effort, Paul and I found ourselves back on top of the lofty 800-foot cliff where we had stood almost two weeks earlier. Bodies in pain from the manual labor of prying off loose blocks, scrubbing dusty rock, aid climbing with heavy racks, and drilling into solid stone, we looked and felt haggard. Muscle cramps, bloody knuckles from tightening more than 100 bolts, and battered minds plagued us both, but it was worth it. We had accomplished what we came here to do: We had established a fully equipped multi-pitch, seven pitches of what we hoped to be fantastic movement with some steep tufas right at the end. The hard work was done; all that was left to do was climb it.

After a week of beautiful weather, Paul and I felt we would be pushing Mother Nature’s generosity by taking a rest day before attempting to free the route. Ignoring our bodies’ screams for a reprieve, we woke up early the next morning. It felt strange to leave our Bosch buddy behind, but the drastic weight reduction made me lighter and more energetic. A small pack of climbing gear and a few quickdraws for a fun day out sport climbing—this was right up my alley.

Photo: Paul McSorley

The first three pitches (5.11a, 5.9, 5.10d) were a fabulous warm-up, loosening our aching muscles and reminding us how fun moving on rock is. Memories of hard work evaporated as we climbed up, the movement technical and precarious but powerful at the same time. The fourth pitch, the section I labored over for an entire day, ended up being the crux, and despite being well within my ability at 5.12b, I had to try incredibly hard to send. I created this, I thought incredulously as I climbed. The gray limestone was sharp and techy, but my mind focused on the task at hand, allowing my body to dig deep and move up the rock with precision.

Pitch five, a stunning 5.12a on gold limestone, turned my forearms into bricks of lactic acid, but the sixth pitch (a 5.10d traverse) helped to relax my exhausted body. My fingertips were shrieking, but I was looking forward to the glorious final pitch, like saving the best bite of cake for last. The rock shifted to a burnt orange and kicked back into a juggy, tufa-filled playground. Paul had put in an impressive effort to bolt this pitch, so it would be his to send. Despite putting it all out on the table, Paul’s last reserve of energy expired on the final moves, and completely gassed, he lowered in defeat. “Oh man, I really wanted that one,” he said with a touch of regret in his voice. My turn. Keep it together, I thought to myself, one last pitch. My muscles creaked with every move, and I almost fell several times, but with a final explosion of effort, my hands clasped the jugs that signified the summit and the end of our route. “Whoop!” I hollered, Paul echoing me from down below. Elation and giddiness took over. To be able to free climb a route that I had helped create was beyond words. As Paul joined me, we celebrated as good climbing partners do: hooting, hollering, and high-fiving.

Photo: Paul McSorley

One Last Look

Zahir is an Islamic term that refers to something visible, present, and incapable of going unnoticed—an obsession. I learned the term in a book I picked up in Chefchaouen, and it reverberated with me, as this venture had slowly turned into an obsession for both of us. Once we had committed to establishing the route, it never left our thoughts, and when it was finished, it left us utterly empty. As we sipped mint tea on the balcony of the empty hotel after sending the climb, no other name seemed more fitting for our route. We decided on Le Zahir, adding an appropriately French flair to the name.

A completely blank canvas was crafted into something that people from all over the world could enjoy, and the pure joy and gratification of a first ascent will live in my heart forever. An entirely new realm of rock climbing was opened to me, and I am grateful to Paul for sharing his hard-earned knowledge. According to our travel itinerary, we had a few days left in the Akchour Valley, but the route was complete—our Zahir was no longer holding us here—so we opted for seafood and Spanish beer in Malaga for the remainder of our trip. After exchanging warm goodbyes with Abdul on that last day, I turned for one last look. Le Zahir stood out to me like a beacon amidst the sea of rock.

Photo: Paul McSorley

Morocco Climbing Beta

How to Get There

Fly to Malaga, Spain, and take the ferry from Gibraltar or Algeciras to Ceuta or Tangier. From there, a three-hour taxi ride will take you to the Akchour Valley. Or fly into a major city in northern Morocco and train, bus, or taxi to the Akchour Valley.

Where to Stay

Café Rueda is the main climber’s hostel. Abdul, the owner, is incredibly friendly, and he is currently upgrading the hostel to accommodate more people.

Where to Eat/Drink

There is a small corner store down the street from Café Rueda for small items and bread, while the hotel across the street has affordable dinners. Chefchaouen has a wider selection of groceries. Both the dirham and the euro are widely accepted in Morocco.

Photo: Paul McSorley