Unearthing Moroccan Gold
- Tuesday 22nd October 2019
Quality easy and mid-grade climbing on the north side of the Jebel el Kest
Words and photographs by Don Sargeant
In the late 1970s Frenchman, Jaques Desautels, climbed some routes near Tamdkrt, a remote mountain village hidden deep in the Jebel el Kest mountain range. The Waterfall Walls, an imposing 500m high slabby buttress alongside a spectacular waterfall, was an obvious attraction. Although his precise lines have not been recorded, it is likely that they are today covered by a handful of eight or nine-pitch routes in the HVS to E2 grade. Some adventure… he must have thought he was in a climbers’ paradise, surrounded by acres of unclimbed rock in an exotic location seemingly cut off in time; relatively close to Europe but virtually unknown to Western climbers and off the normal tourist trails.
The Jebel el Kest form part of the Anti-Atlas in south-west Morocco. A compact area, about the size of the English Lake District but rising to 2,374m this range was easily ignored in favour of the more obvious draw of the Sahara to the south and, for the mountaineer, the snow-clad high Atlas (indeed Toubkal is often visible 200km to the northeast). So initial exploration (by Les Brown and Trevor Jones which was soon followed by regular bi-annual trips) did not occur until the 1990s – the forays of, amongst others, Joe Brown and friends are well-documented. These were concentrated on the south side of the range, based on the main town of Tafraoute, and resulted in Claude Davies’s 2004 guide Climbing in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas. However, the north side of Jebel el Kest, and especially the ‘lost valley’ of the north remained hidden and Jaques’s secret was maintained... for a while.
Thirty years later, in 2007, his rock-climbing ‘Shangri-la’ was discovered and made popular by British climbers. Road improvements in that year opened up the Afantinzar Valley and made it possible to drive a complete circuit of the massif (a popular rest day jaunt for climbers today). And so it was that driving a high pass to the north side of Jebel el Kest, Ben and Marion Wintringham, Paul Donnithorne and Steve Findlay spotted the distant top of a smooth buttress (now called the Flatiron) peeking out of this ‘lost valley’. Further exploration (along with Jim Fotheringham and Mike Mortimer) of an initially innocuous looking dirt track led them through increasingly impressive scenery to their mystery crag and the first recorded routes. Known today by climbers as the Samazar Valley, this title is actually a mistaken transliteration of its true Berber name of Tamza but a suitably exotic name for this special place. Strictly speaking, it is two valleys where dramatically situated Berber villages (Tamdkrt, Ogogn, Tamza) are surrounded by soaring buttresses of orange quartzite, which form the backdrop for some first-class multi-pitch climbs of all grades.
That very same week Steve Broadbent, of ‘rival’ Oxford University team (another prolific new-router with an eye for an enjoyable line) drove along the same track… and the race was on. Just six short seasons, and two (no, make that now three) guidebooks and one supplement later, there are now some 1,300 recorded climbs on the north side of the Jebel el Kest range of which almost 200 are in the Samazar Valley. These numbers will certainly increase with each climbing season.
Between May and September, it is generally considered too hot to climb in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas. Yet in the 2012/13 ‘winter’ season – the first since the publication of the Morocco Rock guidebook in September 2012 by Emma Alsford and Paul Donnithorne – a further 190+ new routes were climbed and repeats made of many existing lines confirming grade and quality. (For the latest up to date info it worth checking their website at www.moroccorock.com) Many climbs are fast gaining a reputation as ‘must-do’ routes and are featuring on the hit lists of visiting climbers. The great thing about this relatively recently developed trad climbing area is that there is something for everyone. The crags seem to offer multi-pitch lines at a remarkably consistent standard, three-star routes abound and can be climbed at all grades from V Diff to E5.
Approaching the Samazar is part of the appeal. A government programme of road building has yet to reach these mountain valleys and the single lane, rough tracks of the Anti-Atlas can be vulnerable to landslides and flash floods. So without a four-wheel-drive, it may be best not to think too much about the ‘no off-piste’ clause in your car hire contract (or to attempt more than first gear) as you negotiate up to 10km of winding trail. The driver will need to be particularly attentive – difficult given the distracting scenery – as passengers “ooh” and “aah” at yet another impressive expanse of rock.
Cars are still a relative novelty there and parking or passing places are scarce. Fortunately, you are unlikely to meet much traffic. However, please be aware that the small layby that you squeeze into may well be somebody’s field, that patch of verge-side grass someone’s crop. Whether we like it or not our presence there will change these mountain valleys – we are privileged to visit them at this moment in time, so park with care and tread lightly.
The Samazar Hairpins – Honeycombe Buttress 130m (S)
One March, a few years ago, I encouraged the Cruse brothers into risking their hired car on the 'Samazar experience'. To be kind to the vehicle and its anxious driver, the passengers frequently walked the worst sections. We paused below the Flatiron to admire its impressive 230m sweep of north-facing slabs. The guidebook was consulted to seek out a suitable intro climb at an amenable grade. Amidst some fine looking HVS to E2 neighbours the name and grade of Ben Wintringham’s A Stroll in the Park (S) looked tempting. However, from the Flatiron there is a spectacular view further to the west where the track continues down to Tamdkrt, before zigzagging via the steep Samazar hairpins to a distant high col. At this col, Agouti peak sends down an attractive looking orange buttress, the profile of which stood out in the sun against a clear blue sky. We could see the toe of this buttress enticingly close to the road. The guide revealed it to be Steve Broadbent’s Honeycombe Buttress (S) and promised stars, exposure, big holds and easy route finding after a short approach… and so it turned out. An added bonus was the photogenic situation from a wonderful viewpoint above the col.
There be Dragons…
With so much rock to explore one of the many hidden secrets of the Samazar was not fully discovered and explored by climbers until early 2012. Situated slightly lower than the stupendous faces visible from the main valley track Dragon Buttress was easily overlooked. Despite a short and easy approach the full potential of the Dragon’s North West Dace was only revealed in distant views from Safinah across the valley. In the afternoon sun Emma Alsford’s climber's eye spotted a golden pillar stretching the full 180m height of the crag. This was a tempting target for Alsford and Donnithorne’s first forays. What better way to spend a January day than in a T-shirt establishing quality routes on solid, honey-coloured quartzite. Brisingr (HVS 5a) and Firesword (E1 5b) are three star routes that meet the main challenge of this pillar.
Though if you fancy something a touch easier in grade and angle then Sisters of Mercy (VS 4b) tackles the large black slabs to the right of the pillar in four pitches of excellent rock. This was my introduction to new routeing on Moroccan rock and I was so taken by the situation I insisted Emma reverse the top pitch so I could photograph the exposure against the golden pillar. The panorama from the top also took my breath away. Off to the east, the Flatiron was clearly visible alongside the col and the Samazar approach track while to our left, on the north side of the valley, row upon row of glowing buttresses were picked out in the sun. We waxed lyrical about the several lifetimes' worth of adventure climbing waiting to be explored. Prominent amongst these was another Boadbent classic, the fine 260m VS expedition Scimitar Ridge, which was easily identified on Safina’s Central Buttress against the dramatic dark slash of a full-height gully – one of only half a dozen lines so far established on those south-facing cliffs. However, it was soon time to escape the heat, and fortunately our Dragon Buttress routes finish conveniently close to a simple descent gully immediately behind the slabs. This provided a quick waymarked path back to our 'sacks, by now in the shade, at the foot of the face.
Patrick Winter and Bryan Rynne on Sisters of Mercy (VS 4b). Photo: Don Sargeant
The following year Sisters… acquired a bigger sibling when Paul and Emma created Brothers in Arms (E1) filling a gap on the steep slabs to its right. Further right again the Donkey’s Lament (HVS) offers somewhat more varied climbing. This provided me with my second new routeing experience at this crag, when Marion Wintringham and I followed Emma up a challenging chimney (if you like that sort of thing), a tentative teeter across a slab via a narrow foot ledge, a steeper spur with some reassuring jugs, and a bold traverse from an exposed perch. The name evoked for me one of the definitive sounds in these mountains where donkeys are still the main beast of burden. Another sound, regular and more melodic, is the distant chant of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
I like a good solid slab myself – preferably with holds – and was pleased when Paul suggested a visit to Tramline Slabs on the Tizi Escarpment. Emma and Paul, of course, had their eyes on a new line – there’s no stopping them! So I teamed up with Anna Gilyeat to climb Edgware Road (VS) on the left of the crag. It was a first visit to the area for both of us, and one of the few overcast days of the trip. To be honest I was glad of the relief from the unaccustomed heat. We shared the lead in two enjoyable full rope length pitches on solid grey slabs. I had only taken a 50m rope with me so it was a tight call. Fortunately, there is a good wire placement for a belay immediately at the top of the slab. (I made full use of this later that week with Marion Wintringham when we climbed an alternative first pitch and I got to lead the top one – just possible with my 50m at full stretch, but I’ll take a 60m next time). Rather than abseil, we elected to descend the long way via the descent gully on the right. Anna then led the second ascent of Emma’s The Orient Express a fine VS crack and one of three new lines Emma and Paul had climbed so far that day.
Climbing with a guidebook author makes new routeing a certainty. Paul must surely have lost track of the number of visits he has made (he says “errgh… 20 so far”) and Tramline Slabs has seen much recent development. The guidebook’s count of eight lines on the main slabs has recently risen to 17 routes. Of particular interest to the VS leader is Day Tripper, two pitches of delightful 4c slabs to the right of Edgeware Road. A variation to the top pitch, From the Bat Cave (the clue’s in the name) looks fun and goes at only 4b, but still awaits its own first pitch. Both lines are courtesy of Paul and fellow Morocco enthusiast, Bob Brewer.
Do Scorpions Fly?
Our earlier descent from Tramline Slabs had revealed a great view of an unclimbed pinnacle at the foot of the gully. Not unclimbed for long. These quartzite hills abound in pinnacles large and small – this one was only 25m but held a potential sting in the tail. I photographed Emma as she made the first ascent of Tram Spire (S). Belaying on the tiny summit she moved a small rock to reveal a shiny and very angry black scorpion. “Do scorpions fly?” “That one does,” we replied. With no room to spare (or share) she had no choice but to encourage its departure with a flick of the rope.
Most climbers on a first visit to an area like to choose a route that will introduce them to the style of crag, the rock type, the nature of the climbing. So where to start? The chances are you will be staying at the perfect base for the north side of Jebel el Kest. Namely the Kasbar Tizourgane (a medieval fortified village recently restored as a guest house, and providing a touch of climber friendly comfort after a hard day on the hills – at a very reasonable price). The roof balcony of the Kasbar provides a stunning panorama of possibilities for the eager rock-climber. One such venue, visible (if you know where to look) is Adrar Iffran, which already has a couple of dozen established lines. Easily approached, by a pleasant half-hour stroll through terraces, its South-West Face is home to a handful of popular VS lines.
“One of the best VSs I’ve ever climbed” Ruby Groove 125m (VS).
These were Andy Prickett’s words after completing what is fast becoming one of the area's most sought after routes. Ruby Groove straightens the line of its fine VS neighbour Guillotine Direct, by providing a direct first pitch and tackling the capping overhangs to finish the fourth pitch. By all accounts an outrageous position but on big holds – sounds reassuringly like my sort of climbing – that deserves a place on anyone’s tick list. One Easter this face of Adrar Iffran proved so popular during a CC meet that queues formed below Ruby Groove. I was more than happy to play the photographer’s card that day as the rock and the crag really did look that good. A word of caution, however solid the rock appears there can sometimes be loose stuff on the ledges. Indeed the previous day a loose rock from a ledge was dislodged by a team‘s rope. The ensuing injury required a hospital visit and stitches. The drops of blood on the path were a sobering reminder of a narrow escape. So the usual health warnings apply and a helmet a useful precaution especially if seconding a new line.
Andy Prickett on the final overhangs of Ruby Groove (VS 4c). Photo: Don Sargeant
New route Sir? New line Madame?
You can’t go all the way to the Anti-Atlas and not climb a new line. (Well, I suppose technically you could, what with more than 1,000 routes already recorded – but you know what I mean) Andy and his wife Joan, and Syd and Eileen Clark were on their first visit to the Anti-Atlas. With a few classics already ticked they had gauged the feel of the rock and Andy was intrigued by the sweep of slabs on the distant South-West Face of Afantinzar Peak. During a rest day (haha) he and I had trekked to the summit peak of Jebel el Kest, and this high viewpoint afforded more tantalizing glimpses of an arched overlap below a strange black rock section. A few days later Lun Roberts and I joined them to explore Andy’s mystery slabs. Lun is a seasoned Morocco hand (and with her partner Pete Johnson is responsible for one of the very best long VS adventures in the area, Pink Lady on the stunning Lower Eagle Crag) – and she welcomed a relaxing break from Pete’s rather more intense new route habit.
Andy had his eyes on a direct line below the distinctive sickle-shaped overhang near the top of the slabs, the angle of which increases slightly as height is gained. In six pitches Orange & Black (VS) is graded for the 4c breaks through overlaps. Above these Joan wisely stuck to the reassuring ‘orange’ and cunningly avoided the ‘black’ (a band of steep blocky slopers up to the left). Meanwhile, Lun and I chose a line further right so I could frame the others against the backdrop of the Afantinzar Valley spread out to the west. Three easy-angled initial pitches quickly led us to a steepening alongside the overlap. Lun then led the best pitch of our route (the slab immediately above) while I enthused about the photos. Rock & Mod was really nowhere harder than Diff in grade but it certainly proved to be an enjoyable romp to the summit.
Orange is not the only colour…
There are also soft reds, yellows, ochres, and browns – choose any hue from the warm end of the spectrum. My visual memory of this wonderful landscape is of orange rock set against an intense blue sky. What a place. If the winter has been kind and you visit in the spring a verdant green and carpets of flowers may have softened the desert harshness. What a backdrop for some great winter sun climbing. No longer a secret preserve of British climbers the Anti-Atlas is increasingly attracting international climbers, trekkers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Of course, a select few have always been ‘in the know’ drawn by the trad climbing ethos and way the routes suit climbing at all grades and abilities. I’m definitely going back – there’s always another horizon to entice you, enough blanks on the map to fill a lifetime’s exploration and adventure.
Now, how do we get to… there…?