Tag Archives: rock climbing

Todra Gorge: The quest for the best climbing guidebook

Over the New Year’s holidays, myself, my climbing partner Valentina and our friend Gianni went to Morocco for a week to climb at Todra Gorge (and eat loads of cous cous!). You can read about our New Year’s Eve celebrations in my first blog about this, but the climbing itself, or rather our attempts to figure out the details, was a whole separate challenge!

We came to Todra Gorge with just a pocket-sized climbing guidebook that we found online, but according to reports we read online a man called Hassan sells hand-drawn topos for climbers on the spot for 250 Moroccan dirham (around £18). Our book was missing key pieces of information, such as the length of the routes, so we were open to the idea of getting another copy. We didn’t realise the search for a good quality guidebook would become such a mission and would teach us so much about the Moroccan ways…

As soon as we disembarked from the coach that took us to Todra from Marrakesh over 8 hours of windy roads, we were approached by a man asking us if we were climbers and whether we were looking for any ‘materials’. He recognised us from the safety helmet attached to the outside of Valentina’s rucksack, I guess, or maybe just the looks on our faces. We ignored him, of course, having already learned this useful tactic in Marrakesh, but he was very persistent!

After we checked in to our hotel (Hotel Restaurant Lakasbah in Tinghir, a town 15 km from the gorge itself), we went for a walk to explore the town and, surprise surprise, got approached by the same man. Yes, he had actually been hanging around waiting for us. I told you, persistent! Since online advice reassured us it was normal to acquire climbing guidebooks in such dodgy ways over here, we thought we would give this guy, who called himself Hussein, a chance. 

The first lesson we learned in the process is that nothing is quick in Morocco. It’s like they run on a clock of their own that’s out of sync with the rest of the globe. Hussein led us to a roof terrace in a cafe, where he offered us tea (one of many, MANY teas we have been offered in this country in similar situations, and which we obviously then had to pay for, including his portion). Time passed as we waited for a friend of his to turn up with, presumably, the books. However, once his friend turned up, he apparently didn’t actually realise we were looking for a topo and said we could only get the book the following day in Todra itself. Fine. We agreed to meet Hussein at 8.30am to go to Todra and pick up the guidebook.

The thing is, he didn’t leave us alone after that. First, he talked a lot. Then he offered us hashish. Then he told us he would show us around the “women’s market”. Then he suggested he would take us for food somewhere when we said we were hungry. We literally had to rush back to the hotel, saying we needed to change into warmer clothes, just to get away from him. But the Hussein saga was only just beginning.

Moroccans don’t like to leave tourists alone after they have made the initial contact and they know there may be something in it for them. And they really don’t understand the idea of privacy. That was the second lesson learnt that evening. Hussein was waiting for us by the main square and saw us as we walked back from our hotel in search of somewhere to go for dinner. He was evidently hoping for an invite so we would pay for his food too. He tried to follow us around until we literally stopped and said “thank you for your help, we’ll see you tomorrow at 8.30“. He sort of got the point then, and left us alone for the night.

Part of me felt bad for getting quite as impatient and angry at the locals for being pushy and annoying – after all, their culture is simply very different to our own. But by the next morning, I was way past being friendly to Hussein, as well as his slightly dim-witted friend, who had also been following us around. He kept telling us he normally lives in Holland and was just in Morocco on holiday, earning him the nickname “Amsterdam”.

The saga continues…

We met Hussein the next morning as agreed, after having breakfast at our hotel. However, he was convinced we were having breakfast together, despite us saying otherwise the night before. He clearly had a plan, and took us to Amsterdam’s cafe for tea, so he could have his own breakfast. Naturally, we had to have tea. We were given no choice in that. When he was finished, it was past 9am, and we were eager to go climbing. But Amsterdam told us the collective taxis to Todra weren’t heading out for another hour (a complete lie!), and we should check out the women’s market in the meantime. We tried very hard to decline, but he just said “Follow me”…and guess what? He took us to the women’s market, of course. If ever you are in Tinghir, getting ready for a day of climbing, never ever follow anyone who tells you about a women’s market!! It is an absolute waste of time and completely unnecessary.

Amsterdam led us to a house where a bunch of Moroccan women weave carpets. He kept telling us we were just here to look, and “not for money”. After a short explanation of what was going on there, he told us the women would like to offer us (more!!!) tea, and that this was Berber hospitality, which of course we couldn’t refuse. The women then, naturally, proceeded to roll out ALL the carpets they had in front of us. Definitely in search of some money. To give them credit, they were very pretty, but never in my life have I not wanted to buy a carpet more than at that point. Hussein, who had stayed with us, was of no help whatsoever and just stayed out of the way. Clearly, he had an agreement with Amsterdam to let him do his business. That was the point I decided it was OK to just be rude!

In the end, we had to literally walk out of that house and tell Hussein we needed to go climbing right now (well done Valentina!), because the shopping tour may well have continued for much longer. Miraculously, it turned out we could easily get a collective taxi to Todra whenever we wanted (surprise surprise).

Taxis TinghirIf you go to the big mini-van taxis and pay 8 dirham per person (around 70p), you just have to wait for the taxi to have six passengers and it will leave. It doesn’t seem to take too long to fill up, considering it’s the biggest town in the area, but you can always offer to cover the missing passengers by paying…another 70p per person. 

When we finally got to Todra…

Upon arrival to Todra, we had to refuse another offer of tea flat out. We were told Hassan, who makes the topos, was busy at that moment. Again, that was a lie, because he came out straight away after we made a big deal about it. 

As other bloggers have described him, Hassan is a tiny old man, with very few teeth, but at least he is clearly knowledgeable about the area. He hand draws all his books, which he sells for 250 dirham. They aren’t great quality, but they are quite a cool souvenir to bring back from the area. Also, with the limited information available from the web, we were convinced his topos were the only local ones we could get, so at (what we thought was) the end of this saga he seemed like a breath of fresh air.

But, on reflection, it turned out we shouldn’t have bought his book after all. As great as the effort he goes to is, he isn’t the only one who knows the routes and he does massively overcharge for the privilege. Besides, I hear he does more drinking than climbing nowadays…

So if you go to Todra, avoid Hassan, avoid Hussein, there are better resources on offer. Just act like you know what you’re doing, and hopefully the wrong people will leave you alone. 

How we discovered the other guidebook…

Despite the hassle of trying to get to Todra and get the topo for the area, we were extremely happy. We now had two climbing guidebooks, the weather was magical, Hussein had finally left us alone, and we had the most gorgeous limestone cliffs all around us. It was time to climb!

It took us a while to figure out where we wanted to go, but Hassan’s book was quite helpful, especially as it provides the general route lengths, which was critical for us, as we only had a 60 metre rope. Many of the routes in the area are over 30 metres long, so a 60m will often not suffice. If you are planning to go, I would strongly recommend bringing a 70m or 80m rope!

climbing TodraFor our first climb, we walked quite far into the gorge, to an area called Petit Gorge, where we found quite a few relatively easy slabby routes, loads of sunshine, and the Spanish climbers, with whom we ended up spending New Year’s Eve (read my previous post for my description of this marvelous experience!).

We also met their Berber friend (well…it actually turned out they met him for the first time that day, but they called him ‘amigo’), who had a completely different climbing guidebook…which looked more detailed than ours and had real photos, rather than hand-drawn diagrams!

Yes, did you really think the saga of the guidebook would end there?!

So we ended up buying that guidebook, too. For 150 dirham – cheaper than the first one. This latest acquisition gave us the length of the ropes needed for each route, making it far easier to figure out where we could and couldn’t go. Hassan’s book just gave the length of the longest route in any given area, but this wasn’t very helpful in places where the routes are quite different lengths.

Sufiane
Me and Valentina with Sufiane, author of the second book and star of my first Morocco blog

We now had three books. Never in my life have I had to acquire three different climbing guidebooks for an area just to try and figure out where to go and what on earth I’m climbing! But I suppose this is what makes this area that little bit more exciting, the fact that it’s only just being developed to global climbing standards now, and much still remains undiscovered and new.

Todra itself is a gorgeous place – red limestone cliffs overlook a winding road, with a small river meandering on each side of it. There is climbing on each side of the river, and taking my shoes off to cross it was my refreshing morning ritual. We could have spent far longer than three days here!

So we carried on climbing with three guidebooks, until on the last day…

…we met a local teenager, Mohammed, who took us to a climbing shop, owned by his uncle Abdul. This was after he watched us climbing for a few hours, so we offered him to climb a route. He did so, in one of our harnesses and his trainers. And he was better than any of us in our rock shoes!

The shop is situated in a small village around 15-20 mins walk from Todra back towards Tinghir, and can be seen on the left hand side if you take a taxi up from Tinghir. It has some gear hanging outside, including a life-sized doll of a climber in a helmet. It’s pretty hard to miss really, so not sure how we managed to do so for three days going up and down from Tinghir!

Abdul is unlike any other locals we met in the area. Firstly, he never tried to sell us anything. He simply waited while we took a look around the shop. He had organised a sport climbing competition that day, which we had heard about but chose not to participate this time, and he also told us he has put a lot of work into bolting up the area and renovating the existing bolts. This guy is putting a lot of effort into looking after the place and promoting climbing in the area.

And of course – yes, you guessed it! – he sells climbing guidebooks. And they really are pretty good quality ones, far better than the other three that we now own…they cost 250 dirham, same as the hand-drawn version by Hassan, but trust me when I say they are far more worth it!

So, at the end of the last day, we found the best topo…and then we had to leave! But when we go back, Abdul will definitely be the only one we go to for advice, guidebooks and anything else we may need. And if you are going, please support this guy by buying his guidebook, and refusing anything else the locals offer you. 

Summary and other useful information for climbers in Todra:

  • Guidebook:
    – Buy your guidebook from Abdul, who owns the climbing shop on the way up to Todra from Tinghir
  • Equipment:
    – Make sure you bring a 70m/80m rope if you want to be flexible in your climbing
    – Apparently some trad gear is necessary on multi-pitch routes, but they look awesome!
  • Accommodation:
    – If you want to stay somewhere with electricity and comfort, I would recommend Hotel Restaurant Lakasbah in Tinghir, but you will have to get a taxi every morning; the rooms are around £15/pp per night, pricey for Morocco.
    – Alternatively, you can stay in Todra itself. You will be closer to the climbing, it will be a third of the price, but the conditions may be pretty dire. Heating is not a given, and it gets pretty cold at night.
  • Food:
    – The food in the area is very samey and in many places it’s really not great! However, we discovered an awesome little place in Tinghir, just off the main square, next to the CTM bus stop, called Cafe Central. It looks like nothing special, but compared to the food we had everywhere else, this was genuinely incredible! I mean, it had flavour. You can’t imagine how important this becomes after a few days here!

An Italian version of this blog has been written by my climbing partner, Valentina. Even if you are not Italian, please check out her new blog here, you’ll find some cool stuff.

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Addiction to adventure: in love with the pain

Every step I take up the steep winding steps sends shooting pains up my knees and thighs, and the worst thing is I know it will hurt twice as much on the way down. But I can’t help laughing at the crippled predicament I’m in, that we’re all in.

Slowly we shuffle up the staircase, wincing every time we put weight on our tortured limbs, all the time wide ecstatic smiles dancing on our faces. We made it to the top of North Africa yesterday!!! What’s a few extra flights of stairs?

There is something addictive, something so appealing and irresistible about the pain and struggle we put ourselves through in our fight to get to the top, to reach the finish line, to fight until we have nothing left to give. We are all drug addicts, who, having tasted the bittersweet poison of adventure, battle through our day-to-day activities like zombies in anticipation of the life-giving elixir of the next challenge, the next fight, the next push.

It is now nearly a year since a group of us hiked to the top of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains (4,167m). The altitude and long hours of hiking took their toll on us. There were illnesses, arguments, and exhaustion, but what I remember most vividly now is the exhilaration of getting to the top, and the sense of accomplishment and deserved rest the following day.

I miss that feeling terribly, and I want to experience it again. And again. And again.

I want to push myself to the top of a mountain again, suffering the headaches, the nausea, the exhaustion. I want to be forced to search for those last reserves of energy to cover the remaining few hundred metres, to stand at the top and spread my arms out to the sides, breathing in the cold, crisp air. I want to feel like I’m on top of the world again. I don’t care if it will be physically painful, because I know it’s SO worth it!

People often ask, what it is about climbing and mountaineering that’s so appealing? Adventure sports is a drug that’s so much stronger than the chemically induced highs that keep people dancing throughout the night in clubs. It’s an addiction so powerful that no amount of going “cold turkey” could ever cure it. It’s feeling bright amid a nondescript grayness.

When I’m climbing a route outdoors, or scrambling up some crumbly scree, my mind goes blank, in a way I have never managed to achieve through any amount of meditation (I usually just fall asleep!). All the everyday worries, insecurities and petty annoyances just slip away, leaving pure focus. On the rock in front of me, the pebbles under my feet, the steel pieces of equipment in my hands, and the rope tied into my harness. Beautifully simple, the uninterrupted concentration on staying safe and making it up to the top.

That’s what I climb for – that inner calm and composure, more than the adrenaline, or even the gorgeous views at the top of a mountain or a multi-pitch route.

Falling in love with mountaineering isn’t a phase, nor is it an unhealthy obsession. It’s simply the elation of finally discovering what it feels like to be alive, and holding on to that feeling with everything you have. Because nothing else compares, and nothing ever will. And it’s worth all the money in the world.

So…….who’s up for doing a 5,000m peak with me? 😉

A look at Cape Town from Table Mountain

The hardest thing about being surrounded by gorgeous rocks is not being able to climb them. That was the only downside of my mini-trek up Table Mountain in Cape Town.

This 1,085m (3,558ft) massif dominates the skyline of Cape Town the way the Shard dominates London’s, but I find its natural beauty a little more exciting than the glass construction back home.

I was very lucky with this mountain. It is often covered in thick cloud at the top even on the clearest of days, which has been dubbed the ‘tablecloth’ by the locals, but on 28 December 2014, when I chose to ascend it, it remained clear for the whole day.

The top of the mountain can be accessed in a number of ways – via the easier, but longer, Back Table route, the steep but direct, Platteklip Gorge route, or by cable car.

Though the cableway is technically the quickest way to reach the summit, and not super-expensive at R225 for a round trip (around £13), the mountain is so popular that queues to get to the top can last for hours. For me, that was just an extra reason to use my own feet to reach the summit, but not for Zayn. No matter how much I tried to talk up the walk, he outright refused, saying he would “die on the way” and leaving me to plod up with his sister and her husband (both of whom I am very grateful to for coming with me).

Our ascent took around 2 hours. Zayn joined the queue as we left and arrived to the top just 15 minutes before us. Considering the journey up takes just minutes, that means a good hour and a half in the queue. Just saying!

The views from Table Mountain over the city are worth every second of the trek, too, especially when visibility is as good as it was on the day. It is really worth checking out the weather forecast, though, to avoid the disappointment of being stuck inside a cloud.

Botany geeks would also be excited to know that Table Mountain is home to 2,200 different species of plants – more than the entire United Kingdom! There is even a plant that can leave you with nasty burns that take three weeks to heal, so careful what you touch up there.

In 2012, Table Mountain was officially named one of the seven new wonders of nature, along with the Amazon rainforest, Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, so it really is worth a visit.

If I go back again though, I am bringing my climbing gear. The mountain itself, and the region around it, is just begging to be climbed (and it is already popular with climbers worldwide)!