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Land of the Cold Sun Land of the Cold Sun

I’ve spent years climbing and hiking in the Atlas Mountains and walking by the north face on Tazarhart (3450 m).

Its hulking face adorned with sharp rocks, thin ice, with five sharp couloirs reaching up to the ridge, running to 550m. The face fascinated me, and my curiosity piqued. Yet I knew this was beyond my level. Feeling I needed to keep my climbing ambition realistic, I tried to forget about this climb.

I live in Morocco, well known for its blue skies, sun, trekking and warm rock climbing holidays. Winter alpine and ice is almost unexplored. There are no rescue services and only a small climbing community. If something happens to you, you will remain in the mountains. This adds an extra layer of risk that makes developing new routes and learning new skills even more dangerous. Yet, despite the risks, I couldn’t forget about the face. A few weeks before Covid closed all the doors in Morocco I spent two weeks in the Atlas Mountains climbing several easier ice lines. I shared a handful of these pictures on my Instagram.

Jeff Mercier commented on my post:

“Hope I could discover them one of these days ????????

As we chatted, Jeff expressed his surprise that we have ice in Morocco. Meanwhile, it is melting in the Alps. I told him about my ambitious project since my curiosity about this bold face had never left me. That was when Jeff made me an offer I couldn’t turn down.

“I can come help you climb it if you want! It would be nice to share a rope with a motivated local”

With Jeff onboard, the doors for winter climbing in Morocco were starting to open. Finally, my project started to become a reality. Then the logistical challenge began. We contended not only with the ongoing pandemic but also with the Moroccan Authorities. Because of the remoteness of the area, you need a permit. Yet to the authorities, ice climbing is an alien idea. It’s symbolic to ask for permission and advice from people in the locality you are visiting. In our culture, it’s important to be polite and to show respect when you are a guest. We stayed in Tizi Oussem in a refuge guardian family house owned by Brahim. Brahim knows the area well and can also predict the weather with good accuracy.

Jeff arrived in Morocco on Friday 3rd November to the refuge. We checked the forecast, which only gave bad news. Cold winds, with a chill down to -26°C. Fortunately, the weather window was more promising the following day. We reached the base of the climb early Saturday. To my surprise, Jeff asked me to gear up as the conditions were favorable.

Jeff climbed hard and fast for the first 150 meters. I trailed behind, struggling to keep up. The route was physically demanding and technical, with some weak ice lines. Jeff advised from above on how I should place my axes on the rocky sections. The holds and small edges helped me to climb through some of the difficult moves and sequences. Seeing Jeff’s moves, his crampon placements, and his mental game was an unreal, and surreal experience. The mental game was the real challenge, leaving me wondering, as I held the rope below Jeff how I was going to do the same. I met this challenge through my ability to deal with these tough moments. So when it was my turn to climb, I simply climbed, putting everything I knew into each axe, and crampon placement.

When we reached the top, and the climbing was behind us, I was filled with emotion. Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined I could climb such a route. Yet here I was, on top of Couloir de Glace with one of the finest alpinists. Life is crazy. We continued climbing the whole couloir up to the 3990m summit. After all this time the project was finally complete! The feeling of joy brought me to tears. I found the climbing difficult, and particularly struggled with the mental side of managing fear and self-doubt. On our way back to the hut, Jeff noticed the potential of the area and asked to open more routes, since we had the whole week ahead of us. We ended up opening 3 multi-pitch routes in the High Atlas Mountains. 

Couloir de Glace (featured above) – 500m – AD/M4

IBID - 300mt - PD+

Le jardin de brahim – 50m – M6 

The challenges of climbing in Morocco

My regular climbing partner Is Adnane. We met in 2018 when I was trying to buy his used winter down jacket. From there we got talking. We learned that our values and aims aligned, and started climbing together. We had no access to tuition so learned from YouTube tutorials, and Instagram. The issue is that Morocco does not have a climbing school or climbing guides to learn from. Our guides trek, yet most don't climb. We have no official outdoor stores in Morocco apart from a few big sports stores selling poor-quality kit. And with the monthly average wage being around 350 euros, it's difficult to buy gear from overseas from new.

So instead, climbers use public markets to buy outdoor gear or save for months to afford a new piece of gear. I’ve researched outdoor gear, so I know what I am looking for, from the technical information to good quality brand names. The energy I’ve put into this has helped me to find good items from Jackets, to tents and ice axes. I’ve even found 4 ice screws and DMM cams before! Of course, this kit is all used, but with few options, I have no choice but to buy secondhand kit.

Here is an example of the prices I’ve paid on the market for gear:

Pants: €5.00
Down jacket: €10.00
Hardshell: €3.00
Midlayer: €2.00
Crampons: €30.00
Ice axe: €20.00 - €40.00

The future of climbing in Morocco

I am so passionate about climbing in my country. The Atlas Mountains are unknown, wild, and dangerous yet full of opportunity. I’m working to develop alpine climbing in Morocco by mentoring younger generations and inviting foreign climbers to discover our winter climbing. I mentor teenagers from the Club Alpin Français de Casablanca (CAF for short - an official club of the FFCAM, French Federation) but what excites me are the younger generations living in the Atlas Mountains. They are fit enough, and with good technical training and developing trust in gear, we can inspire them to continue what we started. This will take time, but I hope the authorities and tourist boards work to make it easier to get permits.

It would be excellent to see a rescue service established in the coming years. This will help to make climbing in Morocco a less risky destination for foreign climbers. These changes may help to invite foreign climbers and adventurers into Morocco. In turn, we can open more routes, access better gear, and progress within our climbing scene. Our unexplored terrain is full of opportunity.

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Words by | Faiçal Bourkiba

Words & images by | Athlete Name


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