"In my diary I'd written myself a reminder of things to do next time I visit Tafraoute... as if the 79 new routes over 130 pitches wasn't enough. There was still so much to see, and so much to do. Long hot days of care-free cragging, breakfasts of Berber flat-bread and Coca Cola, and evenings in the bar with our new friends at the Amandiers Hotel. So before we'd even set off on this trip, our flights were booked for the next one."
The Moroccan Anti-Atlas
The endless drive from Marrakesh was now a familiar pilgrimage, and the over-loaded lorries, struggling donkeys and oblivious pedestrians seemed perfectly normal. But one thing was different... ominous dark clouds.
At Tafraoute it was raining - the first downpour for twelve years. While the locals celebrated, we wondered how the weather would affect our apparently guaranteed climbing. The Hotel seemed like a cold place, though the welcome was as warm as ever. Despite their obvious happiness at the rain, the familiar staff were still concerned that it would spoil our climbing. I assured them it wouldn't.
It had been a long day, so we opted for a lie-in and short drive in the morning to Aguchtim, where a series of huge stacked flakes had caught my eye the first time we ever visited the area. I remember asking Les Brown whether they had ever been climbed, to which he replied "No, we've never fancied the walk-in."
Village of Aguchtim, Ameln Valley
Our oddly named Dacia Logan coped well with the rough track up the the village, from where the enormous flakes looked surprisingly close, and it was only a 45 minute hike to the base of the rocks. We quickly identified a line up one of the buttresses, and then not so quickly hacked our way through the Prickly Pears to reach the start of the route.
Katja on pitch 4 of "The Cat in the Hat" (VS 4b)
As usual, it was a shaky start and there wasn't much gear. I couldn't remember how much to trust the friction, and the holds didn't feel like they ought to stay attached to the rock. Katja belayed attentively. "Don't worry, I'll get back into it soon" I reassured her. And by the end of the second pitch we had remembered... the Quartzite rewards confidence, so we bounded up the rest of the six pitch route as if we'd never been away.
Driving back to the hotel. Another great day's climbing.
Despite the cold, grey weather, the rain had held off and allowed us to tick off the first of our objectives for the trip. The second would be a bigger proposition, and would require some recce before we could tackle the climb itself.
A short day on Monday gave us chance to map out our driving-route, scope a descent route, buy some supplies, and incidentally climb a new 5-pitch route along the way. We went to bed at about 9pm, excited like children on Christmas Eve.
The Great Rock, Samazar.
This enormous tower dwarfs everything else in the area, but it's size, complexity, and our lack of knowledge about the area had previously deterred us from attempting to climb it. The first ascent went to Mike Mortimer and Jim Fotheringham in October 2007 - they'd been a few days ahead of us in their reconnaissance and were rewarded with a magnificent classic climb up the tower's Great Ridge. Now we would turn our attention to the second ascent, via the other obvious ridge line.
Katja enjoying the lower section of "Labyrinth Ridge" (AD)
At 6am the wind howled around the car, blowing rain almost horizontally. I turned off the engine and we sat in the dark. We'd wanted the start the route at first light, but right now even going outside seemed like too much effort. I closed my eyes and slept until the sky began to get light.
At the base of the tower the wind was calm, and the rain reduced to light drizzle. A grey dawn revealed overcast skies, but no sign of the thunderstorms that had past through in the night. The quartzite was wet, but we knew the first part of the ridge would be easy. "Let's go for it."
The ridge would be fairly straightforward for most of the morning, with plenty of escape options into the huge central gully should anything go wrong. Above that, however, was the headwall... and up there we didn't know what to expect.
Labyrinth Ridge, pitch 8
The rock dried throughout the morning, and we made excellent progress up the ridge, measuring each pitch as accurately as we could, and trying to remember details of the route. Moving as quickly as we could, we hardly even exchanged words during our brief encounters at the belays, but the potential difficulty of the headwall was ever present in our thoughts.
On pitch 9, as things get steeper.
At 1030 I remember thinking how well we were doing, dispatching pitch after pitch and getting noticeably higher on the tower. To my surprise, however, we never really reached the headwall - instead the climbing just started getting gradually steeper, and harder. Before we'd even noticed it, we were up amongst the steep buttresses, gullies, and pinnacles of the headwall.
Looking Down on Samazar, far far below!
After about 15 pitches I took my pack off for an exposed 5a wall. The route was never obvious, but there only ever seemed to be one way to go that didn't lead to chossy gullies or blank walls. Things were starting to get tense as I continually feared the next pitch would lead us to a dead-end. The valley floor was a staggeringly long way down.
Pitch 17 turned into easy ground, but just when it looked like we'd found our way up the wall we topped out on a perfect flat-topped tower, separated from the main face by a gap of about 2 metres. It had poor anchors, no way down, and terrible looking rock on either side. The face behind the tower looked totally unclimbable in it's lower part, and the only option was to gain a high crack...
Images of silly climbing films, death-defying leaps, and stupid aid moves seemed to materialize. I looked again at options to either side, but there were none. So with some tension in the rope, some pulling on gear, and much surprise I dragged myself up to the next belay.
Katja committed to the silliest free-climbing move we've ever seen, 18 pitches up Labyrinth Ridge
Katja free-climbed the move off the tower, contemplating how to transfer her feet onto the main face whilst staring straight downthe daunting drop below... We'd never imagined that a route of this length would come down to one unavoidable crux move!
And surely that was the top? but no... more pinnacles, downclimbs, steep gullies, moving together, walks, scrambles... it was 5pm by the time we reached the summit having covered about 800m of climbing in 20 or so pitches. The whole route was now a blur of moves, belays, views, decisions and pitches, apart from that one bold step off the tower. It was one of the most incredible day's climbing we'd ever had.