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Trip Report, October 2007 

Trip Report, April 2007

Trip Report, February 2007

 

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Nestled amongst the strangely beautiful granite tors on the south side of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas mountains, the oasis town of Tafraoute is fast becoming a mecca for trad-climbers in search of easily accessible adventure-climbing. Since the major low-cost airlines opened up scheduled services to Agadir, and the Moroccan authorities conveniently constructed a road through the great climbing valley of Afantinzar, this place has become a unique trad destination, where climbers from as far afield as Russia, the US and across Europe have been flocking in increasing numbers.

The individual attributes that add to Tafraoute’s appeal may not be unique: the adventurous climbing, a wide variety of routes and grades, the short walk-ins, the spectacular scenery, an enchanting culture, the endless rock walls, and the perfect weather… But what makes the Anti-Atlas so special is the combination of these things, and the fact that unlike most other winter sun destinations, Jebel el Kest is all about the trad. In fact, in terms of the style of climbing, the quartzite of Jebel el Kest is about as close as you can get typical British multi-pitching, but on much bigger walls, and with warm sunshine throughout the winter. It’s no wonder that British climbing legends Joe Brown, Derek Walker, Chris Bonington, and others, have made this place their regular haunt throughout the last twenty years. Their legacy is evident across the range: head to Tizgut Gorge, in the Ameln Valley, and you’ll find a route that is in every way comparable to Cenotaph Corner, but on Joe Brown’s Tizgut Crack (E1/2 5b) there’s no polish, no other climbers, and you can probably count the number of wet days each year on your fingers.

There are routes like this throughout the massif, characterised by short approaches and superb steep climbing up cracks and walls. Ksar Rock, on the north side of the range, was unclimbed in 2007, but today holds more than 75 climbs of superb quality, right above a remote little Berber village. This is the kind of place where villagers, fascinated by this recent influx of western climbers, will bring a picnic of couscous up to the crag or invite you in to their homes for dinner at the end of the day. Towering above their ancient houses, four-star routes abound. If you like wide cracks then Kingpin (HVS) and Cannon Crack (E1) are unmissable struggles, as good as anything similar back home… or anywhere else for that matter. VS climbers will be in their element, ticking off a selection of unlikely-looking climbs on delightful solid quartzite, with big holds and solid gear to reassure. Sahara (VS), Jedi Groove (HVS), Paladin (VS), The Colour of Money (VS)… the list goes on, and you’ll probably find yourself climbing well into the evening, soaking up Saharan sunshine as the frequent calls to prayer echo around the rocky valley – the only thing to mark the passage of time in this place of timeless beauty. Just up the road, at neighbouring Anammer Crags, more than 100 single-pitch climbs offer a perfect rest-day from bigger things, and at least 70 of them are Hard Severe or below. Rest days here frequently turn into unplanned marathon days on the rock.

There’s so much good cragging here, right by the roadside, that it can be hard to tear yourself away. But that you must, because the bigger multi-pitch climbs are what this place does best; and there are plenty of them to go at. Adrar Asmit is Tafraoute’s answer to Tryfan, though if you’re looking for a mountain route in the rain then you’ve come to the wrong place. The handful of V.Diff and Severe routes up the northwest face are nothing short of delightful, set in stunning mountain solitude and topping out on a summit at 2000m above sea-level, from where the views are breathtaking: on a clear day you can see all the way across the brown rolling landscape to the Atlas mountains and Jebel Toubkal, 200km to the east. Climbing high-quality easy routes like this, under a sapphire blue sky, is a privilege reserved for only a handful of climbing destinations, and very few of those are as easily accessible as Tafraoute’s Anti-Atlas.

The climbing here tends to involve jagged cracks and big holds. Faces are often clean and exposed, but good rest ledges abound so even the steeper routes don’t feel too much like hard work. It’s the kind of rock that both encourages and rewards a positive approach, and grade-pushing is not uncommon. Climbers who are operating at VS or HVS on British crags will find it hard not to be inspired to tackle some of the longer classics of the range, despite the apparent commitment – routes such as the roadside  800m Labyrinth Ridge (AD VS 5a A0), which at 23 pitches is always going to give you a long day out, even if most of it is fairly easy. The same can be said of Aylim’s Central Buttress – the 475m, 12 pitch mega-route that fires straight up the east face of one of the region’s biggest crags. Variations allow the route to be climbed at VS or E1, but such is the nature of quartzite that you’ll be tempted to strike off up the E1 crux crack, with 1500ft of air beneath your feet, even if that’s the limit of your grade.

In total about 1000 routes have been recorded on Jebel el Kest over the last 20 years, with the majority of them spread between Severe and E2. There’s climbs here to suit most tastes and abilities, with everything from 8m roadside crag routes to 800m ridge lines, which provides for a pleasantly varied climbing holiday. Tafraoute itself is a wonderful little market town, full of character, and unlike many similar destinations the place has a very simple, relaxed feel to it. The local Berbers are very welcoming towards climbers, and there are no access restrictions to any of the climbing areas. That said, most of the landscape is cultivated and wild-camping opportunities are limited. Given the lack of surface water, however, most climbers opt for hotel or riad accommodation in Tafraoute or Tizourgane, of which there is sufficient variety to suit most budgets.

work in progress...


Morocco Trip, February 2008

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 down the 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.

On the first ascent of "Great Eastern" (VS 5a, 4b, 4c, 4b)

We finished the trip with a few more days of quality cragging at Anammer, including the awesome Great Eastern on the East face of Ksar Rock - one of the best routes of the week.



A guidebook to the region described in this article is available at

www.climb-tafraoute.com