Moroccan Sufferfest and Side Quests
The train rolled into Marrakesh late in the evening on Thursday 22nd March 2018. I had been accompanied by three other travellers from Medina Surfing Association Hostel. The three were photojournalism students in London and had arranged a trip to explore Morocco together focusing on a mixture of anthropological and wildlife photography.  On our train journey we talked about life and our adventures and played card games to pass the time over our four-hour trip.

We parted ways at the station heading to our respective hostels and Riads, not without agreeing to meet the next day to explore the city.  

I arrived late at night at Kaktus hostel.  Still, some people were up, we ended up drinking tea together on the roof and sharing stories. One guy from Denmark,  now living in Spain was an ex-climber, who had climbed with the likes of Chris Sharma.

The next day I met up with the girls that I had travelled with from Rabat. Gea, Alex and Sienna.  We met in the main market of the Medina of Marrakesh. We travelled around taking in the sights and smells of fine herbs and spices, food and traditional garments. We explored the Arabic and Berber leather tanning stations,  which for a vegetarian wasn’t the best place to be, with the stench of dead animal flesh. I was further saddened in the markets seeing monkeys chained up for tourists to pose for pictures with, snakes that had been defanged and donkeys in crippling health after being burdened with excessive loads. I felt sick to my stomach,  knowing there was little I could do now. I was starting to feel angry and disappointed, but this was a different culture to mine, I knew their views on animal rights were very different.

Later I went with the girls to their Riad. We star gazed upon the rooftop terrace,  taking in the beauty of the natural world. Tomorrow the girls would travel to the Sahara.

The next day I investigated my route to take to travel to Todra Gorge for the next day. I spoke to one of the guys in my hostel,  he suggested taking a tour that they run, which would first take me to the Sahara desert and then back to the gorge. It would cost me 750 dirham (£62),  for 2 nights accommodation on the journey, 5 meals, and transport. I had read for a private taxi straight to the gorge it would cost approximately 300 dirham,  so I thought why not, I would want to go to the desert at some point any way.

So after booking the tour,  I set out for the rest of the day gathering some supplies that I would need over the next 2 weeks in the gorge. I visited a Decathlon shop in Marrakesh to get fuel for my camping stove,  some protein powder to help keep me fuelled and recovery from climbing and running almost every day, plus Oreo’s as a treat for myself. I stopped on my way back from the Decathlon at Madison Cafe, got myself a  proper espresso, waffles covered in Nutella and bananas, that was a damn good treat.

Sunday 25th March I embarked on my journey to the Sahara,  stopping along the way to get pictures of the High Atlas Mountains, still peaked with snow from winter. On the tour I was joined by a group of Erasmus students from the university of Lisbon,  a Canadian, Jes and her Australian friend Raphael and an elderly Italian woman that didn’t speak much English but was very friendly. We stopped along the way at the Kasbah where film’s such as Gladiator had been filmed. On the road I was reading a book about infectious diseases,  which got me excited for my future studies at the Royal Veterinary College, when I return to the UK. We arrived that night at a hostel in Dadés Gorge near the town Tamellat. We were surrounded by beautiful landscapes of high rock faces on both sides forming a valley. At the hostel I was taught about the Berber language and how to spell my name in Berber and what their culture was based upon being a free people,  nomadically travelling the mountains, desert and down to the cities trading their goods.

The night quickly past and we set off the next morning towards Merzouga. We had a quick pit stop at Tinghir to pick up food and water.  Then continued on briefly stopping inside Todra Gorge. I got to marvel at the rock I would be climbing over the next few weeks. I couldn’t help myself,  with my La Sportiva tx4 approach shoes on I did a bit of scrambling and traversing along the rock. It was incredible, heavily friction based but with the quality of holds found in limestone. Volcanic rock called Ouartzite after the region we are in,  classed as a form of limestone, it had volcanic pores that made the friction great for slab climbing but also solid finger pockets and edges for overhang climbing. It had been two weeks since I’d last climbed back home in the UK, being on the rock felt like I had been given a grand feast after an extended period of fasting. I felt alive and excited for the coming days.

Rushed onwards to the desert I only had a brief window to enjoy my love for climbing,  but it was enough to reinvigorate my spirit and make me passionate about my trip again. We arrived in Merzouga before sunset.  Camels prepared for our journey through the Great Dunes of the Sahara.

It was a strange sight the Saharan dunes abruptly met the border of the rocky desert, it just so happened there was no gradient between the two contrasts. We saddled our camels and began our voyage through the desert to our camp.  The setting sun glowed red against the ancient sands. All of the other camels formed an orderly line following behind one another, mine refused walking to the side of the queue, wanting to roam free, quickly I felt a bond to this animal,  he was rogue an adventurer that didn’t want to follow the normal path of everyone else. It was a bumpy journey, excuse the pun. We arrived at camp at dusk just after sundown. We had time to explore our vast surroundings. Immediately I spotted the biggest dune within our proximity and began to scale it.  Others tried to follow but surrendered only climbing a smaller dune to the left of the grand dune. Using my winter mountaineering techniques, I kicked in steps going up the dune, holding me steadfast. It hurts a lot more kicking steps with bare feet than in mountaineering boots. I was there at the summit,  gazing upon my horizons, looking down at the others on the smaller dune. I rested taking it all in, then I let myself roll down to the group, propelling myself downwards at speed till I was with the others on their dune. We enjoyed dinner, I had to eat around the meat on the tagine, though I still didn’t eat too much,  my appetite still a little stunted from my bout with tourista a few days prior. Later we sat by a fire whilst we played along with our guides on traditional instruments. It was a bitterly cold evening.

I rose early next morning, my feet feeling frozen. I was excited, today I would finally arrive in Todra and the climbing adventure would begin. We embarked after breakfast, in a new van,  as the students from Lisbon separated from us on their way to Fez.

I was dropped off in Tinghir and shown where I would need to go to get a taxi to the gorge.  I drew out some money in town, grabbed some lunch and embarked in a Grand Taxi (shared taxi). I was delivered to my campsite Le Soleil, 6.2km away from the gorge.  I settled in booked for the next 13 nights, then headed into the gorge to inspect the routes and try to find somewhere I could get the guidebook for the region, before heading back to camp.

It was now Wednesday 28th March,  my 15th day in Morocco. My first day of climbing. An early morning having breakfast,  rested for 2 hours then set off running to the gorge at 11 am, all my sport’s climbing gear in my Osprey mutant pack. At the entrance to the gorge I stopped at an Escalade Morocco stall, the company Facebook page I had joined to find climbing partners. Here I picked up my copy of the guidebook for the region and had tea with the owner.  He pointed out his favourite spots to climb such as Petits Gorge, Sous la via and Jardin d’été.

I headed first to inspect the routes in the gorge. I encountered a group of 7a climbs in an overhanging cave region, they looked epic, but also a bit crazy. One started with a small finger pocket that you would have to explosively pull on with your left hand catching a higher hug hold with your right in a dynamic powerful move. I doubted my ability on such a move at the moment, especially with me currently having no climbing partner. I ended up at Sous la via wall,  it had a bunch of easy routes graded around 4a to 5c with one 6a. I decided even though I hadn’t got a climbing partner I had to climb. So I put on my climbing shoes and did the unthinkable and free soloed a 25-metre route graded 4b, I had never soloed anything, I’ve done some slightly high ball boulders but that is it. It was easy going up, coming down was another question. But I did it, I got down and decided to solo another route.

I felt my confidence building but still felt a little scared of soloing. I stopped halfway in the route feeling the moves were harder and I didn’t want to risk not being able to down climb safely. I then saw some people climbing so decided to head over to see if I could climb with them. A nice couple that was from Spain and travelling in their camper van invited me to climb with them,  I got up some routes graded around 5 and a 6a. I felt good but tired and a little dehydrated, so I called it a day after climbing 5 routes in total.

In the gorge, there was a small stream that was clean and safe to drink from, so I refilled my water bottle and set off on my run back to camp.

Day one of my Moroccan Sufferfest was complete, inspired by the climbing and cycling sufferfest that Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright had famously done, I was too combine climbing and long distance running almost every day over my time in the gorge.

After my first day I decided I would rest as my legs were not conditioned to the constant long-distance running,  especially after having not run for two weeks. Although this rest day became more stressful day than it would have been if I’d gone climbing. I ended up getting into my head,  contemplating how long I had left of my trip there were still 60 more days, 60 more days of being alone away from my family and friends. I let myself feel sorry for myself. I let out the emotion,  knowing that denying it would make things worse, I contemplated and worked to change my perspective, convincing myself I could handle it and I’d make it through this expedition and come home stronger,  I wouldn’t let myself give in and accept failure. I think it’s important we do let ourselves feel our emotions to help us better deal with them, as hiding and ignoring them I feel leads to those fears and anxieties growing worse eventually leading to potentially dangerous levels affecting our behaviour and lives negatively. I was able to move quickly through this fear and anxiety, but because I accepted it and was honest with myself about what was wrong,  I was able to reframe these doubts and fears into drive and passion to succeed.

After pulling myself back together I ran into the gorge the next day and climbed, doing more soloing,  pushing myself harder managing to climb a 5c solo, and did a total of 4 free solos of routes reaching 25-30 metres within an hour.  I felt good and proud. The heat was getting to me a little so I went back into the gorge and scrambled into a cave in the shadows overlooking all of the tourists passing through.

As I was sat in my cave a group of 3 kids decided they would climb up to where I was, whilst their parents watched from the ground.  They made it up safely, but on their way down they struggled, with the youngest struggling to find footsteps down. I quickly jumped into action,  climbing around my normal safe path to get to a lower point to help guide the kids down to safety with their parents. The parents thanked me for helping their children and began asking me about what I was doing in Morocco.  I told them about my plans to rock climb around Morocco for 80 days, they were impressed and wished me luck as they said goodbye. I then went and explored around some of the boulders in the region messing about trying to find boulder problems that I could safely do without a crash pad. After doing some problems and getting some pictures I headed back. I realised I was starting to run low on money so decided that the next day I would run to Tinghir to draw some money out of the bank. The run home felt good,  my legs felt like they were getting much stronger. Though after running to Tinghir the next day I started to feel a twinge in my IT band in my right leg which had been plaguing me for a while now coming back ever so often. I stretched my leg taking the pain away briefly, but I decided another rest day would be needed.

Sunday 1st April,  I rested up my leg and decided to do some research using the Wi-Fi at camp to investigate what life will be like when I get home and start my masters at the RVC in September.  I checked out accommodations, distances from climbing gyms in London, what I wanted to do while I’m there other than climb and study. I came up with a rough schedule for my training to revolve around the university and work for Endurance Digital. Next day I set off to the gorge, only managing to run a third of the way till my leg gave in and I had to walk the rest of the way. I did some more free solo climbs on some easy routes,  then got someone to belay me on a 6a which I flew up comfortably. I was starting to build up recognition in the gorge for all my free soloing and running, I was given a nickname Sahara by the local people as I would ran by, them clapping me on as I did. I managed to check out the area called Petits Gorge, which had a number of high-grade routes, with three routes at 8a they looked awesome and potentially doable if I could get a top rope set up on them,  they were quite short but with big powerful bouldering moves.

Heading back towards Sous la via wall,  I met with Mohammed a local stall owner who watched me climb frequently and would offer me tea after I finished climbing. I joined him for tea again today near the Muslim prayer hour, normally this is something that is kept private from outsiders. But he prayed in front of me,  it was a peaceful and beautiful moment to bare witness to. I truly felt that he had accepted me in as a friend.

Heading back to camp from the gorge I encountered a lost kitten,  it seemed in good health and was adorable, normally I’m a dog person but I couldn’t help fall in love with this little kitten after it began following me and when I stopped to kneel beside it to check on it,  it jumped softly into my lap looking at me affectionately. I had no idea what to do, I couldn’t leave it by the road alone, but I couldn’t keep it. I escorted the kitten along the road till it became comfortable in this small village where it decided to leave me. On our walk to the village if I got too far away it would stop and meow until I returned to make it feel safe.  I happily got the kitten home safely and carried on back to my camp, it was kind of sad to depart from the kitten.

Over the next 3 days, I was joined by Domonika, the Polish student I had met in Rabat. We spent the next few days climbing together,  the first day we hopped on some easy routes then sent the biggest route I had ever done in a single pitch, reaching about 60 metres in length.  Initially, we planned to do the route and connect it in a multi-pitch to the summit. I let Domonika lead the easy first pitch, whilst I climbed up second carrying our water and our ordinary shoes in my rucksack. After waiting an age for Domonika to finish the routes,  I finally went up with the weighted load on my back. I decided that our abilities were too off from each other deciding I didn’t want to do the rest of the routes as it was already getting too late, and with the rate we had made it up just the single pitch I doubted we would make it to the top before nightfall, plus we had to check her into her hostel before it got too late.

On our second day together I decided we would head to  Petits Gorge so we could try some harder routes. When we arrived we found some sort of school group that had pretty much occupied every single route in the crag with top ropes that they weren’t even using.  If I was a more petty person than I am I would have gone and started ripping down the top ropes that were not being used, but I’m not so I ended up going over and having a polite, slightly passive aggressive conversation with one of the teachers,  till we came to an acceptable agreement that allowed us all to climb freely together.

We went to a spot, reading from the guidebook we determined the route was a 5c, nice and easy for me to warm up on.  

I went up the route,  immediately I was stopped in my tracks moving through sketchy a hold for the first clip.  Damn this is a hard 5c I thought. I kept going, struggling constantly. What was going on? I got to about half way,  were I hit the crux. I had to sideways traverse, using terrible finger pockets, with almost non existent footholds, and move through and reach for a really far off side pull to a mantle to get the next clip.  It felt doable but also insanely run out from my last clip. I fell onto the rope in a controlled fashion, unwilling to commit to such a risky move, especially since I thought it was only on something meant to be easy.  After a 6th fall onto the rope, I shouted to Domonika to lower me down.

Moments after I’d began the descent, one of the guides with the school group announced that the route I was on, was, in fact, a 7b+. The highest graded route I’ve ever attempted, I made it halfway up the route without any warm up or mental preparation for the route.  Yeah, I didn’t complete it, but to get that far in the conditions I was in, I felt pretty damn pleased with myself.

Next, I did one of the most dangerous things I’ve done on all of my climbing education, over the years.  I went up the route, got to the last clip I had reached, which was only a peg that had been hammered into the wall, not an actual bolt screwed into the wall. I attached my sling to the peg, unclipped the quickdraw from the peg. Then I completely untied my rope from my harness,  threaded it through the peg and tied a new figure 8 knot to myself. This went against all the safety lessons I had ever been given when climbing. It worked and I was safe, though I’ll only ever use that in dire cases when I need to get all my gear back and there is no other safe way to do it.

This day I learned a lot about myself when climbing,  how to deal with fear better and had a boost in confidence,  knowing I could do harder routes. Later on, I did the scariest climb of my life.  It was only a 6a+ but it felt so exposed and run out, I constantly felt a fear I could fall and seriously injure myself at any point,  the moves were easy just untrustworthy. I onsighted the climb despite wanting to constantly back down, but I refused to give up and ended up successful. I ran back from the gorge to camp after, my IT band in my right leg now felt like it was going to completely give up on me by the time I made it back,  as well my left ankle had begun to throb with pain. I pushed through the pain entering an adrenaline filled focus mode to help push myself to sprint home.

The next and final day of climbing in Todra Gorge,  we decided to go to Jardin d’été wall, I managed to run all the way to the gorge despite the pain,  bringing my tablet to play music to keep me inspired. Fallout Boy’s song “Immortals” came on toward the end sending me into a super psyched mode, pushing harder entering into an all-out sprint. I made it to the gorge by 12, but I felt broken and unmotivated,  so I ended up letting Domonika take the first lead on every climb. We got a few good 6a’s done, I refused not to climb, despite how broken I felt, it was too be my last day climbing in the gorge. I made the most of the day.

The next 2 days I spent preparing for my exit from Tinghir back to Marrakesh.  I left Todra Gorge on Monday 9th April, hiking the 7km uphill from camp with approximately 30kg of luggage (half my body weight)  at 2:30 am under starlight to reach Tinghir for my bus leaving at 5 am for Marrakesh. The next stage of my adventure would take me to Oukaimeden to boulder and compete in my first international climbing competition and the first ever bouldering competition in Morocco.

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