Alone on the Wall, A Rope-Soloing Adventure in Taghia

Alone on the Wall, A Rope-Soloing Adventure in Taghia

At night it is completely silent. All of the berbers, the donkeys, sheep, and roosters are asleep. Only the river below stays hard at work carving out the canyon, transporting carbonic rich sediment downstream towards Zaouiat Ahansal. It is a clear night, and with no light pollution the billions of stars over the African continent shine so bright. It is a warm night in the alpine, I sleep well.

My alarm clock begins to sound at 6 am; the calls of the roosters from the stone built home just downhill from where I am. The alarm snoozes, sounding only every 15 minutes or so. The once alarming sound becomes comfortably assimilated into my half asleep dreams. I now hear the donkeys chime in on the morning song. My eyes peel open to experience the natural light shining through a small window in my fifty-square-foot room. I look out my window as I turn on my stove to prepare a cup of instant coffee. The first light of day begins to shine on the southwest face of Jbel Tagoujimt n’Tsouiannt. This magnificent face I can only dream of climbing. Perhaps if only I had a partner willing and capable would I step on this ocean of rock. A solo ascent would require gear, knowledge, and a superhero amount of strength and endurance that I just don’t have. Nonetheless, to have this wall be the first my eyes gaze at in the morning creates a sense of humbleness and a driven motivation to leave my cocoon for the great blocks of limestone uplifted and carved from the earth just outside my doorstep.

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Jbel Tagoujimt n’Tsouiannt

As I begin to sip on my coffee, I hear the sound of metal clinking on rock. The Berber men are up and at work continuing the last week’s project of breaking stones and mixing cement to build onto their homes.

I am greeted by Hyatt, a pretty twenty year old Berber girl who has prepared breakfast for me. It’s the normal Berber breakfast; bread and tea. Although she has treated me this morning with a few hard-boiled eggs and pancakes. We exchange our usual morning conversation.

“Bonjour”                                                                                                                         “Bonjour, ca va?”

“Bien, et tio?”                                                                                                                   “Bien, Merci”

“Manger?”                                                                                                                         “Oui, Merci”

After a hearty breakfast I am ready. I grab my rucksack and set out for the mountains for yet another exhausting but rewarding day of rope-soloing.

Overview

Taghia is known as the Yosemite of Africa, but unlike Yosemite, Taghia presents a climbing scene completely different. Taghia is a remote small north African village located in the central Atlas Mountains. The local people are Berbers, people of the mountains. Most of them living in Taghia still practice the traditional way of life of trading and bartering for goods, and farming food and animals. The others have transitioned into the market for tourism. Although tourism in Taghia is a slow growing market due to the remoteness of the area and lack of easy and affordable transportation to and from the village. With a certain perspective, this makes Taghia a more attractive destination as much of Morocco and the way of life is now built around the tourist dollar. Taghia is not crowded with climbers even during the peak season. Only popular bolted routes such as Baraka, Belle et Berber, and Le Reve d’Aicha are crowded with parties.

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Trip Report

I arrived in Taghia with no partner and thus prepared to rope-solo. Rope-soloing isn’t an expertise of mine in climbing, but I was inspired by a friend, Lee Neale, and a solo bike-touring trip I did the previous fall. Traveling solo on a wall or on a bike requires emotional intelligence, discipline, and a skill set for those out-there situations that you may find yourself dealing with. This is what interested me in soloing. My experience with rope-soloing began only four months prior to the trip. I spent my winter gathering information on gear, techniques, and systems used. When the weather permitted, I took my knowledge to the local climbing crag to dial in my systems. While preparing, it was important for me to practice falling on my devices used. I repeatedly took big falls on my Silent Partner and modified GriGri. I also spent the winter training in the gym, knowing that I would be doing twice the amount of work on a route that I was normally used to. I chose Taghia as a destination for rope-soloing because of the concentration of bolted long routes and bolted belays (safe for upward and downward forces).

My journey started in Marrakech. I flew in at 2:30pm and spent that afternoon grocery shopping and gathering last minute supplies for the three weeks I planned on being there. The next morning I was picked by a taxi I set up prior with the guest house I was going to stay at. If I were to repeat this trip, I would save money by taking public transportation, but my excitement to get there was overwhelming so I paid the extra money. My taxi driver didn’t know any french or english so we silently and awkwardly drove for 6 hours to Zaouiat Ahansal. Waiting for me at the end of the road was Hossain, a twenty year old Berber of the family I was to stay with. I loaded my heavy bags onto a donkey and we walked the 2.5 hours to the village of Taghia. The weather was grim but I could make out some of the great mountains that I planned on scaling. At this point I was very intimated by the sheer relief rising from the ground, like driving into Yosemite Valley and seeing El Captain for the first time.

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Clouds hovering over the summit of Oujdad

The next day I was up early, ready to rope-solo my first climb. I chose the 300m 6b+ “Belle et Berber” as my first climb because of its accessibility and security. It wasn’t long into my climb when I remembered how exhausting rope-soloing is. When rope-soloing one covers the wall three times; climbing up, rappelling down, and then re-climbing or jugging up the rope to retrieve gear left behind. So it is essentially at least double the amount of work than when climbing with a partner. I was completely exhausted by the time I made it to the top. With exhaustion comes the most dangerous part of climbing, descending. This is when all of the corners are cut and mistakes are made because exhaustion makes one lazy. I chose to be lazy and double rope rappelled down the length of two pitches knowing that there was a chance my rope was going to get hung up on one of the many trees growing out of the wall. At the bottom of the rappel on a large ledge still 100 meters from the canyon bottom, I pulled my rope down from the anchors above and just as I thought, it got rapped around a tree. A technique to get a rope unstuck is to tie a friction hitch onto the rope which bites with tension and then using your entire body weight, bounce on the rope. Before doing this I attached the end of the rope to the anchor just incase (there was approximately 40 feet of rope between my friction hitch and the anchor), although the ledge was big and flat and I didn’t think I would fall off when the rope released from the tree above. This was mistake number two. The rope gave, I fell to the ground and began to slide off the ledge upside down accelerating violently down rough terrain. The rope caught me after 40 feet, but what really held me was the 5mm klemheist friction knot on the rope. I was lucky to have come out of this fall with only bruises and scrapes.

Berber Passage

Berber Passage

Two days of bad weather passed by. During this time, I drank tea while reflecting on my experience and explored the mountains by the way of the different trails built by the Berbers. Hossain wanted to climb with me the next day so I chose for us to do the Northwest Pillar of Taoujdad, a 500m mellow traditional climb. We spent the night racking gear and coming up code words that we would both understand when on the wall. Hossain spoke mostly Arabic and Berber but also spoke a little bit of Spanish, French, and English. Most of our conversations included all NW Pillar, Taoujdadof these languages sandwiched into one sentence, a language some people (no one) consider “Spangfrenchabic”. The following day while on the mountain, we attempted to use our newly created code words for our climbing calls.

NW Pillar, Taoujdad

NW Pillar, Taoujdad

They didn’t work very well and it was obvious that Hossain didn’t understand my American climbing systems. After waiting at a belay for over 30 minutes, failing to communicate with Hossain to start climbing, I had an idea. I pulled out my phone and contacted him using WhatsApp. This way we could talk to each other, translating each others languages. It worked and we began to speed up the wall. On the second to the last pitch from the summit I pulled off a massive block and fell with it. Immediately calculations stormed through my brain yielding the magnitude of the fall I was about to endure. I was climbing on very easy terrain, so I felt comfortable “running it out” sparsely protecting myself. My last piece of protection placed was 20 feet below me and the next 30 feet below that one. If the amount of force was great enough, my last piece was to rip out of the wall sending me to the bottom of the nasty gully below. Once again I was accelerating, falling violently down rough terrain. The thought of death passed through my mind and I was forced to be content with my life. And then all of the sudden, I stopped after a 50 feet of falling. The rope caught on my last piece. I couldn’t help but yell because of the joy I had of still being alive. As I climbed back up I felt immense pain throughout my body and especially in my heel. I had bruised it badly while falling. My hands gushed blood and I had blood spots forming though my pants. Hossain was happy to see me after following the pitch. We climbed the last pitch and descended off the backside of Taoujdad in the dark. I was in pain, I had trouble walking, but I knew that if I took any breaks it would become worse so we pushed on to the bottom and back to the village.

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Hossain on the summit of Taoujdad

Two climbs and two very bad falls. What was I doing here? Maybe I don’t belong here in Taghia. I took the next two days off. I was limping badly and had the memory of nearly falling to my death repeating over and over in my head. I was in a bad place. I could leave the mountains and go to the beach but I knew my broken ego and self doubt would only follow me.

“I could still climb since all of my body weight would be on my toes, but I can’t walk down anything. Though, there are a few large climbs close by that I could rappel down after summiting”, I thought.

So I stayed. The next day I limped over to the base of “Le Reve d’Aisha”, a 255m 6a+ fully equipped route. I took my time and enjoyed every bit of the climb. I felt like a bird on the wall and a crippled on the ground. The more I climbed, the more my nightmares faded away. I felt content even though I knew that now I wasn’t able to accomplish the larger goals I had set for myself here.

The day before I left the weather looked ominous and it was supposed to rain. I sat around till the late morning hours talking with some fellows from Basque. We watched the ominous clouds roll by but they did not precipitate. So I said, “fuck it, I’m going climbing”. I grabbed my gear and limped towards the mountains. I jumped on the only accessible climb that I hadn’t done, “Classe Montagne Epinal”, a 200m 6c+. I began to rope-solo; pulling hard with my finger tips on small limestone edges and pockets to ascend, building an equalized anchor at the top, rappelling back down to the bottom, and jugging up the rope with teeth sinking jumars back to the top only to repeat the process again for the next five pitches of the climb. The storm began to blow in hard. Light rain blew sideways and I could hear the roar of thunder approaching. I had the option to bail or wait for an optimistic weather window. I decided to wait accepting that I might get caught in a bad storm on the wall. The rain stopped and I continued to climb. This cycle repeated itself once more before I made it to the summit. At the summit I was filled joy that I didn’t quit but was immediately in a rush as the rain started to pour down hard and the bolts of lightning were now visible. I rappelled down down the route as quickly as possible while keeping safety my priority. Once I arrived back at the guest house, cobbles of ice fell from the sky and I couldn’t help but laugh. I was very happy at this moment and satisfied with what I had done in Taghia. Most importantly I was happy I learned important lessons in the mountains, and they had let me go with only bruises.

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Getting There and Back

The way to Taghia starts with transportation from Marrakech to Zaouiat Ahansal and then a 2.5 hour walk up the canyon. In total it takes one to two days. From Marrakech to Zaouiat Ahansal there are two options: private or public transportation

Private Transportation

Private transportation is the quickest and easiest way to get to and from Zaouiat Ahansal. It takes 6 hours and costs around 1100dhs in total for two people. It is best to set up private transportation through the guest house you will be staying at to ensure your arrival. There are horror stories of climbers being kicked out of a taxi early because the driver refused to continue on the rutted windy road to Zaouiat Ahansal.

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Zaouiat Ahansal

Public Transportation

Public transportation is recommended for those traveling alone as it is much cheaper than the private transportation. To get to Taghia by the way of public transportation, you must first take a bus to Azilal from Marrakech, and then a collective taxi or private taxi to Zaouiat Ahansal. The bus from Marrakech leaves from the bus station, ”Gare d’autobus Bab Doukala” at 12pm and costs 70dhs (it is common to charge tourists an extra fee for baggage). Right outside the bus station there will be people asking where you want to go. They will guide you to the right bus leaving for Azilal. The ride takes a bit more than four hours. From here there are two options: to take a private taxi or try to find a collective taxi. The private taxi costs 400dhs, and the collective taxi around 80dhs. The ride to Zaouiat Ahansal takes about 2 hours.

If a donkey to porter your gear into Taghia is desired, it is recommended to set this up with your guest house prior to getting there. The donkey costs 100dhs each way.

The way back to Marrakech is much easier. You can share a private taxi with other climbers. I shared a large taxi with two other climbers and it cost us each 400dhs. Another option is to share a taxi to Azilal (120dhs) and then take a collective taxi (80dhs) or bus back to Marrakech. Although I have heard the bus back leaves early in the morning, so this may not be a possibility unless spending a night in Azilal.

Weather/Best Season

The best time to climb is in the spring and fall. The winters are too cold and snowy and the summers blazing hot. When I was there in the spring of 2019, it rained/snowed half the time. Although the rock dries quickly making it accessible for half day climbs. The temperature was between 15°C and -1°C on cloudy/ bad weather days and upwards of 26°C on the perfect weather days.

Time Needed

It is recommended to spend at least two weeks in Taghia. Between transportation to and from and rainy days, the perfect climbing days may be limited. If seeking the larger multi-day routes, we suggest treating Taghia like a Yosemite climbing vacation, spending at least a month.

Level of Experience

In Taghia there are options for most levels of experience. Although less experienced and weaker climbers may run out of options. The average climbing grade is 6c+/7a and routes are very sustained. There are routes fully equipped with bolts for those seeking the style of sport climbing and even more routes of the traditional style. Trad climbing on limestone can be much more involved than on granite or sandstone. The cracks aren’t perfect, the virgin rock textured with spikes, and sometimes brittle. So that being said, Taghia is not a good destination for novice trad climbers.

If rope-soloing, a higher level of experience is required. Relying solely on oneself to scale a big wall is accomplishing but requires a much larger skillset than if climbing with a partner. Knowledge of self-rescue, and having a back up plan for your back up plan is necessary to succeed and be safe. Rope-soloing is very safe if done correctly, but climbing alone can be dangerous if corners are cut and mistakes are made which happens more often when alone than with a partner. This being said, and the fact that Taghia is located in a remote area within a third-world country, it is not recommended to rope-solo if your level of experience as climber is not high.

Accommodation

There are many options for guest houses in Taghia. The price varies from 120-150dhs/night depending on the place but also includes breakfast, dinner, and as much bread and tea you can fill your stomach with. The typical breakfast is tea, coffee, bread and pancakes with spreads, and sometimes an egg. Dinner is a rotation of tagines, couscous, and pasta.

I stayed at the Rezke family house for two weeks. The house is near the top of the hill the village is built upon providing excellent views of the village and the great walls of Taoujdad, Oujdad, and Jbel Tagoujimt n’Tsouiannt.

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Gear and Supplies

Food: Most guest houses only provide food for breakfast and dinner. Food for lunch and snacks are best bought in Marrakech prior to your arrival. Because it is common to be ripped off at street markets, it is recommended to shop at an official grocery store for most supplies. Nuts and bread are best bought in the street shops.

Fuel: Butane canisters for small camp stoves can be found inside the Medina in Marrakech. I was only able to find one shop that sold them.

Water: Bring a water filtration system. There is a large natural spring that flows out the bottom of Oujdad, but there have been many reports of climbers becoming ill after drinking the non-purified water.

Clothing: Even though the first thought that comes to your mind when you think of Morocco may be sunshine and desert, think again. The Atlas mountains rise up to more than 4,000 meters. The temperatures and weather are normal of the alpine, which can vary from winter storms to tee shirt weather all in the same day. A winter insulated jacket is recommended for those cold mornings belaying on the wall.

Climbing gear: Many of the routes are fully equipped with bolts, but the longer and more adventurous routes require traditional gear and use with a creative style (this is limestone after all). If only sport climbing, 20 draws should be ample for any route in the massif. A single rack of Friends which includes small pieces as well as a rack of nuts should be sufficient if climbing the free climbable routes. If aid climbing is your specialty, then bring all of your gear. There are plenty of intermediate to advanced aid routes.

If rope-soloing, a soloist device (I used the Silent Partner), jumars and ladders, a microtraxion (optional but useful), an extra rope (for safety), and many locking carabiners are needed in addition to the normal gear brought.

Resources

Guidebook: Christian Ravier has recently published an updated version to his last guidebook. This new text contains more than 300 routes. To purchase his guidebook and find more information on Taghia, visit his website.

Justin Bowen

Justin Bowen

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