Following a summer of working too hard and not enough climbing, we decided to seek some rock climbing in the winter sun. Rather than follow the masses to one of the Mediterranean’s “traditional” sport climbing destinations, we were keen for adventurous trad. A recent article in Climb magazine led to booking a trip to the Jebel El Kest region of the Anti Atlas mountains in Morocco, for the first week of December. Logistics were easily arranged, with Easyjet flights direct from Gatwick to Agadir, a 90 minute drive into the mountains, and a week staying in the Kasbah Tizourgane (http://www.tizourgane-kasbah.com/).
The recent wave of new climbing in the Anti Atlas has been going for over a decade, started by climbers who had previously been going to the famous sandstone towers of Wadi Rum in Jordan, but needed somewhere else as the Gulf War broke out in 1991. Since then there has been an explosion of new routing that continues today – buy the 360 page guidebook (http://www.moroccorock.com/), by Paul Donnithorne and Emma Alsford, published in 2012, and you already get a free 60 page supplement of new routes since! The climbing is on mainly solid hard quartzite. Lots of cracks and positive incut holds on moderately steep rock. Routes are mostly VS to E2, ranging from single pitch cragging, through 2-3 pitch classics, all the way to 12 pitch adventures with a serious risk of benightment! Walk-ins ranging from 2 minutes to 60 minutes, and a liberal sprinkling of starred routes gives plenty to go at.
So the guidebook was bought, ticklists were drawn up, and, as the nights drew in and the temperature dropped in the UK, anticipation built, until finally we were off. However, Morocco had a surprise in store for us…. Normally when you think northern Africa you think dry desert. Our arrival came at the tail end of the heaviest rains in the area for 5 years. Flooding was visible as the plane came into land, and the journey started with leaving the airport in the dark, at the first roundabout being casually directed by a police officer down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, because the other side was flooded, and facing a large truck approaching from the other direction flashing its lights. Various deep puddles, mini-rivers and gravel washed across the road were negotiated, and eventually the Kasbah loomed out of the darkness.
Kasbah Tizourgane is a beautiful place to stay. First built in the 13th century, a jumbled arrangement of buildings perches on a rocky outcrop, commanding fantastic views up and down the valley. 163 steps lead up the entrance, and the sun terrace is perfect for gazing into the mountains, inspiring you for the day ahead. The owners and staff are very welcoming, and familiar with climbers who have been staying for the last decade, in particular feeding their large appetites with fantastic Moroccan tagine food! The rooms are comfortable, with space for 30-40 guests. The peak season is around Sept-Nov, and again Feb-April, so during our stay there was just our party of four, and another pair.
Did I mention the rain? Having arrived in the dark, the first day dawned overcast. At breakfast we met two Dutch climbers at the end of a fortnight trip, one week’s excellent climbing, followed by one week of continuous rain and little done. They looked miserable and ready to leave, and for good reason. Several key roads into the mountains and a bridge had been washed out by swollen rivers. On our first day, despite bubbling enthusiasm, we only managed one pitch of one-star HS, before resigning ourselves to a walk. The second day was brighter at the Kasbah, and no shortage of local rock meant the locals had repaired the main roads. However things turned showery once in the hills where the main cliffs are, and again it was just another walking day, enjoyable but not quite what we had come for.
Fortunately things then improved, and we got four days of excellent climbing done. Temperatures were pleasant t-shirt weather, but not roasting. We were definitely seeking south-facing cliffs, which limited the choice somewhat. Next time we’d come a few months earlier or later, as the north faces open up a ton more climbing. However there was still plenty to go at, as we climbed at Ksar Rock (lots of quality 2-3 pitch routes, our best being Cannon Buttress/Jedi Grooves, and Berber Anne), Babouche Buttress (5-pitch Crazy Mushroom Ridge), Griffon Rock (best was A Profusion of Protrusions), White Domes (the exciting journey of Event Horizon, before I snatched my first real E1 lead on the fantastic flake crack of Golden Compass) and The Orange Wall.
I’d been fortunate to receive a variety of Hangar 18 clothing to take on the trip. The down vest, which I’ve used before on mountain marathons, proved its versatility keeping me warm on shady belays. The alpaca fibre socks, which I’ve enjoy running in, also came into their own providing soft comfort in the evening for tired feet that have been shoved in tight climbing shoes all day. And ignore the name of the “boulder” pants – they are equally good for trad climbing, with an excellent cut, and enough flexibility when moving over the rock.
Sadly the end of the week came all too quickly, but I am sure we’ll be back for more in future.