A first trip to Tafraoute - February 2007
"I used to think winter sun-rock involved limestone, bolts, sangria, and routes I couldn't climb. I had very little interest in climbing them anyway. An epic retreat from a limestone spire in Majorca whilst carrying out a role as a lightning conductor made it seem a little bit more adventurous and appealing, but it was never going to be as good as the icy clutches of the Hebrides, where every storm brings dramatic scenes, unique colours, and humbling experiences. But that was before Morocco."
The climbing wall was as mundane as ever, and I was never going to be any good. So we went for a beer instead. By the time the first pint was sunk our imminent return to Majorca had been shelved in favour of a hastily thrown-together adventure to Morocco.
Car hire seemed to be a problem, as the three companies that showed any signs of being open at midnight when we arrived in Marrakech were unable to tell us whether they could get us a car. By the day of our departure, we had still not secured a vehicle... and sure enough we stumbled out of Marrakech airport in the middle of the night with no plan whatsoever. We had no cash, no car, nowhere to stay, and no idea what we were doing.
Three different banks, some signing of illegible arabic documents by the light of a headtorch, and the exchange of a meaningless amount of cash in a dark carpark somehow saw us procuring a ford fiesta. With a map downloaded from Google Earth we bounced our way through the city streets and speared off into deepest, darkest Africa.
By 8am we had learned much about the driving attitudes of the Moroccans, had an hour's sleep behind the wheel, and arrived in Tafraoute. Sven and Jude had been there for the last few days, and met us in the Amandiers Hotel lobby. They were ready for climbing, and five minutes later, so were we.
Well, actually we needed, cash, petrol, and bread first. It was Sunday, the bank was closed, and the cash machine ate my credit card. Petrol would have to wait, and bread would be all we could afford, but the climbing got done all the same.
Next day we failed to obtain cash. Again. Sven had previously identified an unclimbed triangular summit so we headed that way to see what the day would bring. The road wasn't yet finished, so we had to wait half an hour for the man with the JCB to finish it for us to pass. The locals didn't really seem used to westerners driving through their villages, and smiled and waved whenever we passed. Their simple existence was a truly humbling experience.
2 hours into the backcountry, the fiesta felt a very long way from tarmac. Sven pointed out his unclimbed summit, but my eyes were elsewhere. An unclimbed big wall; a massive vertical face. A huge imposing mountain. It was one of many, but it was as good as any.
I scoped out a line with binoculars. Sven and Jude headed back to a lower crag they had climbed on previously. It was already lunch time and once again I was way out of my depth. It was sunny, though, so we racked up and hiked off through the bushes to reach the start of my 'line'. We took one small pack and a lot of optimism.
Steve on pitch 6 of the first ascent of Oxford Route
9 pitches, and over 350m of VS climbing later we were quite proud with ourselves for having found a way up such a big unclimbed wall of rock. In amongst all the moss and meandering there had been some really nice climbing, and it had certainly re-ignited my love of adventure climbing. We named the line 'Oxford Route' VS 5a, but our destiny was already sealed as the sun set over the hills to the west. We had no chance of finding our way down in the dark, so settled down for a very, very cold long night of no sleep. Again.
Bivouac - French for mistake!
Daylight couldn't come to soon. And didn't. The survival bag may have saved our lives, allowing us to stagger back to the base of the route at first light, where we retrieved our bags and ate bread.
Wrapped in the remains of the bivi to preserve warmth!
Winter sunrock indeed. This was what climbing was all about; travel, adventure, learning about people and places, and above all throwing yourself into something and relying solely on your own skills and experiences to make everything work out. 200m up that face I was committing to hard moves - I didn't know if they would work out or not. My mind raced through escape options, outcomes, and strategies. 12 hours later I was a tiny, humble animal existing solely to retain warmth through the cold night.
The Drive back through the morning sun was free from the usual expectations and arbitrary rules of everyday life. We picked up a Berber gentleman and gave him a lift for 20km or so along the road. It saved him a hot walk, but I suspect the saved-time would be mostly spent sitting under a tree enjoying life. He gave us four oranges and two apples in a gesture of gratitude. We treasured that fruit.
Day three dawned hot and sunny. The beautiful scent of herbs filled the air as we arrived at an un-named crag in an un-named valley. Attempts to ascertain any references to this place had ended in failure - the local population couldn't read or write, and didn't understand the concept of a map. Our Berber language skills went as far as 'hello' and 'thankyou'.
Running out the first ascent of 'Park End' (E3 5b), Anammer Crags.
From the tiny mud-built farmhouse below us, bemused residents stared in amazement at our antics on the rock. An old woman washed clothes in the well, oblivious to my own struggles. A donkey brayed, but remained obediently untethered outside the house. For me, the moves were flowing now. Tiny features of the rock filled my conscious mind as I climbed ever farther from the perception of safety. 5 or 6 metres above my last runner, a ground fall was now a certainty should I make any mistake. And if any one of these flakes of rock should fracture then I'd only know about it for a second or two.
But the quartzite, like the Berber lifestyle, rewards a confident approach and I boulder my way up the final technical moves without bothering with the final runner. Here, there are no rules.
Katja seconding the incredible arete of 'Park End'
Accross the valley, another unclimbed big wall loomed. Belaying Katja up another new climb, I spied a possible line of assault, photgraphing it in detail to serve as a guidebook should we attempt the adventure. Time, however, was not on our side. We were having far too much fun to do anything but this wonderful cragging. For three more days we dragged ourselves out of bed earlier and earlier to spend every hour of sunlight on our playground; identifying brilliant unclimbed lines faster than we could climb them. That big wall was just going to have to wait for another trip.
Slabs, walls, aretes, overhangs, and... Offwidth cracks - Fighting up the first ascent of 'Greyhound Crack' (HVS 4b)
The final day soon arrived, and we found ourselves unable to pay the hotel bill, hampered by unfathomable number sytems and banks that don't work. The solution, we were told, was to drive into town where the local carpet seller would 'sort us out'. So sure enough, from the shadows leapt a man in robes, smiling. It was 11pm but the carpet seller didn't mind opening up his shop to allow us to access the only working VISA machine in town. He agreed to pay the hotel owner the difference the following day. Life was different here.
Katja seconding the first ascent of 'St.Aldate's' (HVS 4c)
The drive back to Marrakech was pretty much as expected, fraught with danger as oblivious pedestrians, donkeys, goats, and chickens milled around on the narrow roads. Every now and again the Police would offer advisory hints to slow down whilst mocking young drivers who had lost control of their vehicles and caused near fatal accidents. Somehow, though, we made it to the airport, where we strolled onto our African-maintained aircraft carrying 2 litres of Coca-Cola. Security consisted of a guard shaking it to make sure it explode. Normality, it seems, is a point of view.