Tag Archives: sandstone

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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Climbing, cous cous and cold beds: a very Berber New Year

Have you ever massaged your food during the cooking process? Well, it was certainly the first time I ever witness such a thing, but apparently that’s the traditional Berber way to cook cous cous! Something Valentina and I found out at 10pm on New Year’s Eve, in a Berber kitchen in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, hungry and tired after a day of climbing and wondering what on earth was going on…

I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to Morocco for an end-of-year climbing holiday, but I loved it straight away, having been to the country a couple of times before and loved it both times. I originally suggested going somewhere like Costa Blanca, which apparently is a great place to climb in the winter, but the price of the tickets and the difficulty getting there, considering we were all going to fly from different places, had put us off. Morocco seemed to work for everyone, and more importantly, it is warm this time of year, and cheap all year round!

So, after painstakingly working out a day when we could all arrive within not too many hours of each other – me flying from Germany, Valentina from Italy, and Gianni from London – we finally had an itinerary.

  • Arrive in Marrakesh on 28th December
  • Travel eight hours by coach to Tinghir on the 30th
  • Climb in Todra Gorge for three days
  • Head back for Marrakesh on 3rd January, 2016!

That meant New Year’s Eve in the mountains, which was exciting and unpredictable, and we all loved the idea!

There is a saying in Russia, the way you welcome in the New Year is the way you will spend it. Well, we welcomed it in with a group of Spanish climbers, in a Berber house, having finally sat down to eat a HUGE dish of cous cous after – I kid you not! – three hours of cooking it. Which involved the said massage – something that had to be performed once after the cous cous was first rinsed, and again after it was cooked the first time. While it was steaming hot.

Now, apologies to all Berber people, because I am probably insulting you here, but isn’t cous cous the quickest thing in the world to cook? Boil water, cover the grains, leave them to stand for five minutes, done! Ok, ok, so apparently there is also this special non-instant cous cous that needs cooking for longer. But I saw the packaging, and it was exactly the same as the stuff we get over here (probably imported from Morocco)! And even if it had been, three hours?!!! Really??!

Let’s backtrack for a second. New Year’s Eve, 31st December, was our first day of outdoor climbing in Todra Gorge. We did not know what to expect in the slightest and had no plans for the evening. From the previous night’s attempts to discover evening entertainment or even acceptable food in Tinghir, a village where we were staying, around 15km away from the gorge, we discovered there was none. So we hoped a plan would materialise once we arrived at the crag, met some climbers and inevitably became great friends with them within half an hour (that is, after all, the way the climbing community works, right?).

And that is kind of what happened. We met two groups of climbers that day – three boys from Ireland and four climbers from Spain, and all of them invited us to join them for celebrations in the evening. They were all staying in Todra itself, which presented a problem if we wanted to go back to our hotel at night – unfortunately, Uber does not work in the Moroccan mountains, and the walk back to our hotel from Todra would be a grueling 3 hours in the bracing cold of night (well…colder than the balmy 22 degrees of the midday sun!). But we decided we should still come and party there, instead of staying in the town where we knew no one.

We chose to stay with the Spanish lot for one main reason – they were hanging out with a Berber man called Sufjan, who was also a climber, but couldn’t climb himself due to an injury. He provided topos for the area (more on this topic in a separate blog!), and also regularly housed climbers in his family home, where the Spaniards were spending New Year’s Eve. They invited us to join them, and we thought the experience was not to be missed. Well…I guess one thing is sure, we will never forget our Spanish/Berber New Year’s Eve celebrations!

After we finished climbing, we got a lift back to our hotel from one of the Spanish guys so we could shower and change, while he and Sufjan went grocery shopping in the town for festive dinner and some Moroccan wine – a novelty in a country as dry as Morocco. Not that wine is impossible to come across here, but it has to be bought from hotels and it is expensive by local standards (though apparently a bottle of the wine we had actually only cost €7). Anyway, around 8pm we got picked up again at our hotel and drove to the Berber house.

When we arrived it was past 8.30pm and Valentina very aptly predicted that the food would not be ready until midnight. I was convinced some vegetables and cous cous could not take so long to cook. After all, Sufjan had “forgotten” (skimped out on??) the meat, so we were in for a vegetarian meal! I was wrong. It really did take three hours. And on top of that, we were made to do all the work in the kitchen – either because we were women, though there was another girl there not participation, or because we expressed an interest in the Berber cooking tradition.

The cous cous was cooked in an aluminium contraption consisting of a pot at the bottom, in which the vegetables were boiling, and the cous cous in an aluminium sieve on top, with the steam from the vegetables rising to cook it over time. Except the device didn’t really work, so Sufjan used an old torn up plastic bag to seal the gaps between the two dishes, to allow the steam to seep through to the top. That I will also never forget. Then, at the crucial moment, the gas stove ran out of gas and we had to use a portable gas cylinder, except the dish would not balance on it without spilling over, so we had to crouch on the floor, holding it up from either side with a towel, to avoid burning our hands. It was around 10.30/11pm by this point. Simply epic.

Now you would think three hours of cooking would produce stunning results, with subtle flavours and delicate aromas, but unfortunately it did not. Which makes me that little bit more amazed at how long it all took. Because it was literally a mountain of cous cous, covered in boiled vegetables and a bit of broth, flavoured with a tiny bit of salt and cheap saffron. Luckily, Sufjan had some spicy sauce, which made it all more bearable. Apart from this masterpiece, we had the usual bread, which comes with every meal in Morocco, fruit and pastries for dessert, and one bottle of wine between nine of us. This was particularly surprising, since we chipped in €10 each for the groceries, an amount that usually goes a very long way in Morocco. But that’s a lesson learnt – do your own food shopping, no matter how little time you have and how badly you need a shower instead!

But it certainly wasn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. For one thing, I managed to start working on one of my New Year’s resolutions right there and then – to go back to learning Spanish – as we spent the entire night speaking exclusively in that language. I understood…some of it. We also met some wonderful people. One of the Spanish climbers was blind (!), but climbed harder than us and was planning to do a multi-pitch with his friend the following day. The girl in the group had been climbing just over a year, but could comfortable flash a 6c lead outdoors. They were a cool and impressive bunch, and I’m really glad we met them!

And did you know what the Spaniards do as the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve? They take a small piece of fresh ginger, chew it and swallow it while making a wish. It’s supped to bring good luck and good health. That was probably the most flavoursome thing we’d eaten all night! And we washed it down with a couple of shots of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage which comes from Mexico, made from the maguey plant. The blind man brought a bottle of the stuff with him, and at 41% alcohol it kept us toasty in the late hours. Because Berber houses don’t really have heating, apart from some coal burners or an old camping stove, and it gets pretty chilly in the Moroccan desert and mountains that time of year, so we had to resort to everything we could to keep ourselves warm.

We ended up staying in that house, as there was no way to get back to our hotel room, and spent the night dreaming about a hot shower and sheets that didn’t smell of goat. But looking back, I already cherish the memory of that experience. The simple joy of waking up in the mountains and taking a walk up to the bottom of a sheer sandstone cliff, glowing orange in the morning sunshine, ready for a day of climbing, cannot be spoiled by a cold bed and a badly cooked cous cous dish. Nothing compares to starting the New Year that way, and I’m grateful that this was the way I walked into 2016.

Why trad climbing makes you a geek

“This is just a Diff, it should be really easy!” – I was furiously thinking to myself, as I scrambled around for somewhere, anywhere, to put in a piece of protection for my climb up. But apart from the wide cracks, into which I couldn’t even jam my (admittedly tiny) hands, there was nowhere that I could see with the naked eye to place my metal pieces of gear…was I supposed to solo this thing??

It amazed me how different I felt trad leading in Stanage, Derbyshire, compared to my first ever trad lead in the Wye Valley. There, I led a VDiff and moved quickly onto a Severe without any problems.

Severe is the next level up from Hard-Very-Difficult, or HVD for short. Trad climbing grades go from Moderate to escalating Extreme grades, denoted by the letter E with numbers from 1 to 11, which is explained in detail here by Rockfax.

You can read about my impressions of my first trad leading experience here.

The reason for such a difference in the way I felt this time around compared to the Wye Valley became apparent pretty quickly: the type of rock. In the Wye, we climbed on limestone, while Stanage is popular for its abrasive gritstone.

‘But surely rock is just rock?’, I hear you say.

Well, that is exactly what I thought before I really got into climbing. When friends with a bit more outdoor experience would talk passionately about the differences between limestone and grit, and complain about how hard it is to climb on sandstone, I admit I thought they were a little boring, and ever so slightly mental.

It suddenly became all-important when I finally made the proper transition to outdoor climbing, and my addiction to the sport flourished.

Watch a video of my first ever trad climbing experience here.

The UK, for its small size, is home to a very diverse range of rock types, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in Wales, which is home to everything from fairy-tale slate quarries to limestone sea cliffs, from granite to rhyolite.

The diversity of rock types in this country means one weekend I find myself slipping off polished limestone footholds in the Wye Valley, and the next I’m scraping the skin off my knuckles in the abrasive gritstone cracks in the Peak District.

It also means very different approaches to the art of trad climbing, as different rock types are best suited to different types of gear.

Which one do I go for...?
Which one do I go for…?

In general, I found my first go at trad leading on limestone in the Wye Valley far easier than our latest trip to Stanage, where the easiest route felt alarmingly unprotected.

In the Wye, I had great fun playing around on a 63 metre VDiff multi-pitch. In Stanage, I thought I was going to fall off and die on an 8 metre long Diff route. (Although I did eventually man up, and led an 18 metre HS 4b, but that took every little bit of courage I had!)

As I have previously written, trad is all about feeling safe and confident, and Stanage tested my faith in myself to a far greater extent than my first limestone leads, and more than once I wanted to just come down off the rock face and call it a day.

I think it partly comes down to the fact that I found it far easier to place protection into the limestone rocks in the Wye, with lots of useful cracks in the rock that are just perfect for nuts and hexes (you can see one of those in the picture below).

A beautifully placed hex, even if I say so myself.
A beautifully placed hex, even if I say so myself.

The gritstone in Stanage, on the other hand, is famous for its large and wide-mouthed cracks which are just perfect for cams – a much more expensive piece of gear, which we are for now lacking in out trad rack (partly due to its cost), and which is tougher to use.

Cams are popular in the US for that exact reason – the rock in many parts of the country lends itself really well to camming devices. However, it takes a bit more experience to place these pieces of gear correctly.

Cams are an active type of protection, which can move around inside the crack as it gets loaded, and therefore jam and get stuck. The advantage of nuts and hexes, traditionally preferred in the UK, is that they are cheaper and much less likely to get jammed. That’s our British style, always choose simplicity.

We really did think we could get away with not owning any cams in the lower grades, but the trip to Stanage suggests otherwise, so we will have more expenses coming our way before long. I guess me and my climbing partner Valentina have our birthday and Christmas wish list sorted for years to come!

A special thanks goes to Tamsin for the amazing photos she took of the trip – check out her portfolio here, she really is a wonderfully talented photographer.

She has also written a guest blog about her experience, so check it out too.

Thanks also to  Wild Country for our set of quickdraws and to Sterling for our super-light and super-colourful rope! (Fusion Nano 9.2mm Dry in bright purple, if you were wondering)

Lessons in being patient

“I really shouldn’t be doing this!” I thought, while hanging upside down in a tunnel and trying to push my foot into the next black foothold for balance, as a searing pain shot up my right side, again.

Sometimes, injuries happen by accident or as an unfortunate consequence of doing something inherently correct and safe, but more often than not they are exacerbated by impatience.

Impatience that stops us from warming up before jumping on a difficult or technical climb; impatience that drives us to the pub half an hour early after a day of climbing outdoors, instead of stretching; impatience that brought me to the climbing gym on a Tuesday night after a weekend of climbing, when I already knew I had an injury.

“The bad news is, intercostal muscle strains often take many, many weeks to heal completely. Best case scenario is complete recovery in about three weeks. Worst case is 6 months.”

That was not what I wanted to read the day after, as I sat in my office chair, desperately trying to come to terms with the fact that there is no quick fix for this injury, while I found out what an intercostal muscle actually is.

The most frustrating thing about it is that it didn’t seem anywhere near this bad when I did it. A few twisty moves on the sandstone rocks down at Harrison’s made my right side feel distinctly sore, but it didn’t feel like anything a good stretch couldn’t fix. I made sure I didn’t skip the stretching that evening, and even (owing to circumstances, more than prudence) took the week off climbing.

I didn’t even think about that muscle the following weekend, the next time I went for a climb. But for the whole day it felt like I was walking a fine line between performance and injury, and any twisting move made me wince in pain.

Why on earth did I then go climbing again on Sunday, and again on Tuesday, you ask?

Because I have no patience.

At least I got some new climbing shoes that day. Which I can’t break in, because I can’t climb now.

But I can try and learn to be patient.

5.10 Anasazi
5.10 Anasazi