By James Lucas
“Merde!” Bego screamed in French. Thunder crashed around her. She fought with the crux move of Les Rivieres Pourpres, a six hundred meter 7b+ (5.12c) on Tajoudad in the Taghia Gorge.
A few days earlier, I had met Bego and her partner Pauline over chocolate and tea with a group of other French climbers at our guesthouse in Taghia, a small town in the mountains of Morocco.
With the crack of lightning, the increasing wind, and intermittent raindrops, my climbing partner JT and I could relate. On the tops of the formations in Taghia, the trees were burnt from lighting strikes. The electric storm worried us all, and I stuttered out a nervous laugh. Even though I didn’t speak French, I understood her profanities directed at the rock, the lighting, and the weather. Africa suddenly felt a little more serious than sunny Yosemite.
In late September, Jonathan “JT” Thesenga and I left Salt Lake City, flew to Amsterdam and then to Marrakech. We spent a night at Riad Dar Najat, a hotel near the old town square, and the next morning drove four hours east towards the High Atlas Mountains to Agoudim, a small Berber town. From there, Kris Erickson, a local climber and ex-pat, helped us hire two donkeys to carry our gear while we hiked the approximately six miles to Taghia. The village of about two hundred fifty people was nestled below the impressive Taghia Gorge, and would be our home base for the next two weeks.
The climbing routes in the Taghia Gorge range from five hundred to eight hundred meters long and the elevation of the village is around seventeen hundred meters. The best time to visit Taghia is early April to the end of October, though the summer months can be quite hot. Over a hundred routes run up the huge formations with the best routes ranging from 6B+ to 7c+ (5.11 to 5.13). The majority of the routes are bolt protected with bolted belays and rappel stations. There are traditionally protected climbs, but the cracks pale in comparison to the sport lines, huge vertical faces with crimps and edges on brown solid limestone.
We stayed at a gite below the towering walls, run by a local man named Said. Dozens of other climbers floated through during our two week stay, mostly Europeans. The majority of the routes were established by French and Spanish climbers who began to develop the area in the 90’s, and most of the major formations in the Gorge have been climbed. There is one guidebook for the area by Christian Ravier which is available online, and it is customary for climbers to leave behind trip reports and information on the newest routes in a large folder at the gite.
Siad drawled out the Berber greeting in a slow, deep voice when we arrived in Taghia. The Berbers of Taghia speak slowly, taking three seconds to say a single word. They are predominately subsistence farmers. The women wear swathes of purple, yellow and deep red. While the men, especially the young men, wore dated Nike jackets and shirts that would be the envy of any San Francisco hipster.
There were two dinner options. One night there would be a tangine, a dish with potatoes, carrots, olives, raisins and either a goat knuckle or the occasional chicken. The next night there would be pasta with a red sauce. Before each there would be soup, lots of soup. Both options were always followed with tea. Breakfast was bread and jam. The Berbers eat a high sugar diet and the quality of the food ranges from mediocre to very poor. Said’s gite received no Michelin stars. There was a small store in town that sells canned tuna and chocolate, and we imported Clif bars, beef jerky and bought a few staples at a Carrefour in Marrakech. We decided to hike to the nearby stream to filter our water as most of it ran through pasture land before reaching the gite. The septic system involved squatting toilets and bringing your own toilet paper.
In the past fifty years, few American parties have visited the climbing area. Eight years ago, JT and his wife climbed in the area for two weeks. Alex Honnold climbed in the area twice. The North Face made a brief expedition. Most notably, Emily Harrington and Hazel Findlay filmed a short climbing on Babel an eighteen pitch 7c+ on Tagoujimt n’Tsouiant, Taghia’s largest wall. The ascent was captured in the short film Spice Girls,and featured in Reel Rock 8.
“Maybe we should listen to a song,” Emily asked Hazel as they sat on a ledge on Babel. “Do you wanna listen to a song?”
“We could do some warm-up dancing,” Hazel added.
The ladies had a dance party five pitches from the summit of Tagoujimt n’Tsouiant, giving the Reel Rock 8 viewers and myself the impression that despite the enormity and adventure of North African limestone, in the end it boiled down to a lot of fun.
We attempted to shake off the jet-lag in our first few days. We climbed a classic route on Akka n’ Tafrawt called Canyon Apache, a 280m 6c (5.11b) on our first day. Our second day, we hiked Baraka, a 680meter 7b (5.12b) on Oujdad. We climbed the first four pitches, working the crux and then headed back to our gite to rest. During our rest days, we stayed in a small concrete and mud room with one dangling light bulb and a single plug. Electricity arrived in Taghia in 2013. Before that, the Berber’s ran single light bulbs off of hydro-electric generators for a decade. Having electricity in our room was an amazing luxury.
“When I come back from my walk, there better be five snickers bars wrappers,” JT said the day before we attempted Les Rivieres Pourpres. Prior to leaving, JT spoke of a monotonous diet of the diet of soup and tangine. He had suggested we supplement our diet and import food. Along with the Indian food packets, I had bought forty-eight candy bars at a Marrakech store. Since we arrived, I had regularly failed to meet the quota. JT didn’t want to leave all that candy uneaten, adhering to a pack it in pack it out attitude. “You got to pull your weight.”
Sugar is one of the most prolific ingredients in the Moroccan diet. Bitter tea is a sign of an unwelcome guest. The overwhelming amount of sweet tea and jellies had satiated even my ravenous sweet tooth. When JT left the room, I stuffed candy bars into my pockets and ran to the communal area of Siad’s gite. Perhaps the Frenchies would join me in my tooth decaying binge. This could strengthen foreign relations plus, I desperately needed the wrappers.
Most mornings, I slept through the pre-dawn call to prayer. On the fourth morning, it woke me and I stuffed a bar into my mouth as I searched for my chalk bag and gear. A half hour later, we were scanning the base of Taoujdad. Les Rivieres Pourpres was scrawled into the wall. At least it appeared to Les Rivieres Pourpres... The barely discernible writing faded in the gray rock. For a world famous multi-pitch route, something just didn’t look right.
“I don’t think this is it,” JT hung from a bolt twenty meters from the ground. Grass sprouted between the limestone. He climbed higher, eventually reaching a belay forty meters from the base.
The French probably never use chalk, I thought. Two French climbers had sent the route a few days before and I searched for signs of recent passage. I busted through a hard section. Maybe this was 6c?It felt more like 7a+, far more difficult than the supposed start of Les Rivieres Pourpres.
“This definitely isn’t it.” JT said when I reached the belay. He threaded the ropes to rappel. At the ground, I hiked along the base, eventually finding the initials RP etched into the wall. Scanning up the wall, bolts appeared at regular intervals. A few dots of chalk ran along inviting climbing.
“This is definitely it,” JT flaked the rope at the base again. Our aborted mission of the wrong route had stolen two hours from our day, but we left our shoes at the base and began climbing anyway. Half way up the wall, we decided to descend. Our late start and the difficult climbing made topping out the route before dark impossible.
On our sixth day in Taghia, we attempted the route again. We knew the route, and we were getting used to the pumpy, athletic climbing. As we began the 16 pitch route, we saw Bego and Pauline beginning the route far below.
The higher we climbed, the darker the clouds became.
Even with our reconnaissance and leading in blocks, the women quickly caught up. We decided to rest on the ledge below the final hard pitch to let them pass and give ourselves time to redpoint the steep forty meter stretch of pocketed climbing.
After struggling again and again with the move, Bego returned to the ledge. The wind whipped around us as we contemplated our next move.
“You go?” Bego asked. Cold and tired, neither the Basque woman nor her French partner wanted to attempt the long move and risk a huge fall so high off the ground. There was no cell service on the side of the wall, and if injured, the trip to a hospital would take a day of travel.
The ladies had moved through the 7b (5.12b) cruxes on the lower part of the route. The first four hundred meters of Les Rivieres Pourpres are steep and continuous with seven pitches of 7a (5.11+) and harder to the last difficult head wall. Fatigued and with the rumble of thunder in the distance, they contemplated rappelling the route. But we had other plans.
JT cruised through the initial steep moves. He had climbed well all morning, only falling once on a cryptic 7b (5.12b) section. On the eleventh and crux 7b+ (5.12c) pitch, he reached Bego’s highpoint. He wound up and threw between two holds, making the giant reach.
He stuck it, for a second.
“I’m off!” He flew twenty feet, riding only air on the steep limestone.“I couldn’t hold on.”
On his second attempt, JT continued to the ledge above, bringing Pauline up behind him. We had switched partners to finish the route in two teams of two.
Now it was my turn. “Go James!” Bego said. After watching Bego, JT and Pauline climb on the steep limestone, I climbed the difficult pitch without falling. I was pleased with my effort of flashing the route. When I reached the ledge above the dark clouds were churning above.
“Are you gonna keep going?” I asked JT.
He pointed at the dark clouds. “Do you have your jacket?”
“See you at the top.”
Bego and I swung leads and simul-climbed to the top where we met JT and Pauline.
“You are my hero James,” Bego hugged me. I cinched the hood around my head to hide my blushing. We made a short rappel and descended down the gully, the ladies leading the way in the dark. The gully would be a long two-hour descent.
“Should we have a dance party?” JT asked me on the hike down.
A few headlamps met us at the bottom of the gully. Bego and Pauline’s boyfriends had been worried. We all walked back to Said’s, for once happy to eat soup that night.