DESTINATION GUIDE - Morocco: Jebel el Kest

Andi Turner writes about blood, sweat and tears in Jebel el Kest, with some facts and logistics to boot...

Can you remember the last time you really tried? It's not an easy question as it's not simply down to putting it all out and refusing to shout "take!" as you might imagine. There are certain criteria which need to be met before an all-out, take-you-to-the-limit battle can be achieved. The kind of pain, fury and exhaustion that you may once have felt in a school yard scrap; where fear of loss of face as well as fear of injury and trouble all combine together to cause both you and your well matched counterpart to slog it out to within an inch of what you could possibly stand. The fragile balance of masochistic ego, primal preservation and burning desire all mashing together towards that quest for glory.

Jebel el Kest - A lesser-known Moroccan gem, 126 kb
Jebel el Kest - A lesser-known Moroccan gem
© Andi Turner

It's sometimes found in a deep, soul searching run out, where you almost notice yourself moving further into trouble in an out-of-body dance with danger; other times it's that crucial dead point being hit, the perfect poise of balance achieved at the critical moment with power and finesse complementing your movement. But really, what you want is the unknown opponent. Only your sight gives away any clues and the rest is left to what skills you've honed. To bite off more than you can chew but still swallow it all – this is what we're searching for, and indeed what I found curving up an orange patch of quartzite deep in the Samazar valley in Morocco.

I've known Bob for some years now. We first met when sharing a room on a training course in North Wales. We were polar opposites in many ways: Bob being meticulous and precise in his habits, if something was ever gonna cause him a cropper, it wasn't going to be because he'd failed to tidy his loose ends away or because he'd miscounted his runners – he's a measure twice, cut once kind of guy, which is a fair contrast to my own Inshallah kind of attitude. However, instead of it grating on him when I would arrive back to the room and promptly sling my rack and damp rope under my bed and declare "pint?", he would take a break from putting his slings in straight lines and length order and turn to me, smile and say "why not?".

Tuske: a severe (felt more VD though) on the pinnacle at Boar Walls very near to the Kasbah , 193 kb
Tuske: a severe (felt more VD though) on the pinnacle at Boar Walls very near to the Kasbah
© Andi Turner

Still waters ran deep in Bob and one of his many hidden talents was his ability to speak fluent Arabic: we agreed that one day we would climb together in an Arabic-speaking country. And so it came to pass that many years later Rebecca said to me that she would like to go to Morocco, to visit the markets, climb the rocks and have an adventure. The plan then came together.

Landing in Agadir airport as the sun set, the wildness of the place immediately hit home. We all strolled across the active airport runway to passport control, no barriers, signage or health and safety. In the main building we funnelled into the checkpoint. The shifty man in front of us ladened his passport with cash as he saw his colleague being hassled by the security, after some sweet talking though he was waved through and with a well rehearsed slight of hand the man in front promptly removed the bribe from his documents. After negotiation, we too were ushered through, where we efficiently met the car hire man, paid for our vehicle and were then promptly told we would have to wait three hours until the car would be available, the shyster then vanished into the crowds and we settled in for a disgruntled wait.

However, it did arrive eventually and we set off across the plains in search of the Kasbah a few hours to the South East. A relatively uneventful journey, only occasionally punctuated by fleeting glimpses of bizarre wildlife, obscure road signs - and in the absolute middle of nowhere, a man lying in the road – leading us to Kasbah Tizourgane. We arrived shortly after midnight beneath an inky black Saharan sky bejeweled with so many stars that familiar constellations were made unrecognisable. I began to doubt Olber's paradox. Our bags were winched onto the ramparts of the structure which would be our home and we were led like mice through a labyrinth of snickets and gunnels into the bowels of the building where we ascended and descended more ramps and steps until we arrived at our quarters and slept an excited sleep.

A view on the walk in to the White Dome area showcasing the vast array of unclimbed rock., 213 kb
A view on the walk in to the White Dome area showcasing the vast array of unclimbed rock.
© Andi Turner

A clear blue sky hung above us the following morning. A short drive then a winding trudge uphill through dilapidated buildings and crumbling terraces led us with trepidation to our acclimatisation crag. Surprised that I hadn't yet been killed by a snake, we racked up and decided to find out what Moroccan climbing was all about. We swarmed over the rock for the day until sated. From the shadow of the mountain we strode back into the heat of the late afternoon, our bones thawed a little. This place was good.

The weather cooled and much needed rain moved in. The locals seemed stunned yet grateful by this, but we were able to tap into our British psyche and deciphered the tracking of the clouds. The South West should be brighter, and we wound our way up over the pass and rolled into the wild west – Tafraoute. An hour from our home, but this town was another world. Double and triple parked Renaults from the early eighties clogged the streets and men, bicycles and pedal and pops competed for the tarmac which remained. We picked our way through the bustle.
The granite surrounding Tafraoute has been compared to the likes of Joshua Tree, and upon distant inspection this would appear true. However, the climate here hasn't been kind and when first touched, grains sprinkle from the abstract forms of the boulders. Incredible sculpted lines, sharp formed ribs on crested giant's marbles all glimmer with hope against the mountain background, yet each promise melts with a Midas touch with your final footstep as you reach out and stroke the rock.

The typical Taskra sunset whilst returning over the mountain pass. The layers of mountains just go on and on., 48 kb
The typical Taskra sunset whilst returning over the mountain pass. The layers of mountains just go on and on.
© Andi Turner

Some lines however just screamed out to be climbed as I spotted an enormous boulder beside the dry river bed, maybe this one would be different. I closed my eyes and reached out after sliding my way down the thorny hillside. The rock felt good, like Ramshaw on a bad day, scrittly but useable. A javelin of a crack screamed up the centre of its Western face, I taped up and went wild. Thin hand jams and tip toe cramming led past pebbly nuts and rocking cams until it was no longer jammable. I twisted my balance out of the crack and squeezed hard into a layback to drain every last move from this fissure. Then, up and to the right of me winked a solitary bolt hanger, a tormented crux clip ensued and I lowered; dissatisfied with what happened and thinking of what could've been. The true trad ascent awaits, but even as nine tenths of a route, it was a special thing nonetheless.

Bob Thomas getting to grips with some of the Tafraoute sugary granite on this amazing E4/5. The area abounds in such lines, 270 kb
Bob Thomas getting to grips with some of the Tafraoute sugary granite on this amazing E4/5. The area abounds in such lines
© Andi Turner

Morocco was giving a lot. But I knew there was something else yet. It was keeping things to itself and we needed to delve a little deeper. A dinnertime conversation with some almost-native Brits who were sharing our accommodation eked out a nugget of information, which I then casually suggested to our team. A place called "The Dragon" deep in the Samazar Valley, supposedly had the best rock of all. Strong words, but worthy of investigation.

Another picture of Transaharania, the cool E4 at Tafraoute, 163 kb
Another picture of Transaharania, the cool E4 at Tafraoute
© Andi Turner
The following day we travelled out, after so many miles of tarmac we exited the road and onto the single track. For ten kilometres we gently trundled along, swerving potholes and navigating natures' speed bumps; each desperately pawing at our sump and prodding our tyre walls. A mechanical issue out here would be some minor disaster, in fact, coming across another vehicle heading in the other direction would be emotional enough. The valley opened and closed and opened and closed, teasing us with enormous ruddy walls of every conceivable angle, the geology screaming at us from millennia of elastic folding now frozen in majestic poise. Like Sharpnose and Mousetrap Zawn moulded together and then super-sized and flung against valley side, countless dead ends, seracs in rock form. Splendid.

The valley flattened and we made sense of the crags around us, each more formidable than the next. We parked behind the Dragon sleeping in front of us and we contoured around its tail to face its fire. The crag stood proud. In its belly there was a glowing orange patch which stood out from the surrounding rock. And within that patch hung a slender thread. A steep, bottomless crack forced its way through the very centre, hanging from easier ground above like a vine. I frantically thumbed through the guide, only to find it was yet to have a free ascent. A moth to a flame, I was tying on at the routes base. Bob eased himself up the shallow groove, gardening as he went. The long run-out on insecure smears now gently sprinkled in sandy soil seemed of no issue to him, home from home for this Symonds Yat sensei.

I followed and then made one of those awkward groin-in-face set-offs from his belligerent belay stance - where there's not really enough space - desperate to escape the coils of rope and get amongst this splitter above. Porcelain flakes rung a death knell as I all too quickly started draining my rack on the first few feet of climbing, each move stalling me even before the main event. I engaged a Gogarthian mindset and started gunning for the goodness above. I found myself at an uncomfortable knee bar, the kind that requires your whole body to be tense in order for it take any weight, but it did at least free my arms for a few moments to get some money in the bank. I made a little bomb shelter with two cams. And then I was in. Up to my shoulders I contorted my body through numerous positions. A series of algorithms unlocks the first sequence and I get my foot where my knee had been and I start swimming for the surface. Every jam was deep in the belly of the beast. I plunge my fist in and scrabble for friction, my head pushed back by the cheeks of rock at the crevice's edge. Pushing my thumb between my fingers, I get enough width from my fist to release my lower hand and I start trying to crack the code for the next position.

Painted rocks. First painted in 1984 by Belgian artist Jean Varame as a tribute to his late wife. , 193 kb
Painted rocks. First painted in 1984 by Belgian artist Jean Varame as a tribute to his late wife.
© Andi Turner

I'm in my schoolyard scrap. It's not about winning or losing, it's about saving face, it's about getting as far as I can. I'm going to give this one everything, and it's not every route that lets you do that. But I keep making progress. It shouldn't happen like this. I stand on tiny shattered flakes which I would expect to be able to peel off with my fingertips, yet they hold true; wrist searing jams with arms bloated with blood hold on just long enough to find the next position of respite.

The beast is trying to choke me out, but I keep rolling out, gasping for air and getting back in. The rock steepens one last time before the crack opens out and I dash for it. Leaning from the edges I hunt for anything, an armbar is in, but it won't hold for long, I throw up a futile heel but I just can't reach it. This is it, last chance, very last chance. I haul my body onto a tiny edge, rocking up and right I throw the crack away to my left and beach myself on the easy ground. I shout with joy "Yes!", then gasp noisily between dry wretches as I slump against the quartzite. I thank The Almighty.

Jebel el Kest - Factfile

  • There's an awful lot of unclimbed rock, and a lot of awful climbed rock, however, the good stuff is really, really good. Take an open mind and a sense of adventure and you won't go far wrong. It's an excellent place for mid grade climbing (HVS-E3) but it is developing a few good hard routes now and some truly excellent multipitch lower grade climbs in the Severe to HVS range. These have a definite mountain route feel to them, so give yourself plenty of time to descend, as this can be quite involved at times although having to short rope off the top of a crag does have its charms.
  • Flights from Manchester to Agadir were close to £300 return, although I'm sure these would be cheaper in term time, I'm bound to taking my holidays in the expensive months due to working as a teacher.
  • We stayed in the Kasbah Tizourgane. This was very climber friendly and an excellent base. Expect to pay £25-£35 a night for an ensuite room, breakfast and dinner. The food is good, we didn't go hungry. The staff team are all wonderful people.
  • Take good insurance, but bear in mind that there is no "Mountain Rescue" service or a helicopter that can winch you out if it goes wrong. There were signs for pharmacies in the main towns and a hospital in Tafraoute, I don't know what its facilities were like and I didn't intend to find out.
  • The "Morocco Rock" guidebook by Emma Alsford and Paul Donnithorne is an excellent resource. We had the other guides with us, but this was the one most commonly reached for.
  • Hire a robust vehicle. Many of the crags are quite literally "off the beaten track"; a Fiat 500 isn't going to cut it.
  • A full rack is required, double 60m ropes and personal kit. I placed everything from 00 C3's to size 6 camalots. Where the rock is at its best, it is absolutely bullet hard quartzite, in other places it is less inspiring.
  • Alcohol is very hard to come by. If you need it, take it.

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