Sam Elias is a professional climber for The North Face. He has traveled all over the world for climbing. He recently returned from living in Morocco in a remote mountain village, developing new climbing and working with a humanitarian aid organization called the Atlas Cultural Foundation. He is @bookofsamuel on Instragram, Facebook, and Twitter.
I spent three weeks in Morocco. I was invited by Kris Erickson to climb and potentially establish some new climbing. But, I also wanted work with The Atlas Cultural Foundation (ACF), in hopes of learning about the local culture and history. Kris’s wife Cloe founded the organization, and it is the primary reason their family, including their daughter, Noor, recently moved to the country. I was curious gain insight into their life and to understand their decision to live in Morocco. It is important for me to try to see the world through different perspectives—climbing only offers a limited view. This trip was an opportunity to broaden my outlook. The three weeks turned out to be enlightening as well as productive.
Kris was waiting at the Marrakesh airport when I arrived, and it was a relief to see him. We went directly to a big grocery store to stock up. Since they live in a very rural area, the access to goods is limited. Then we met up with Cloe and Noor for a mellow evening. The next morning we departed early from the big city. It takes about six hours to drive to their village of Aguddim in the Central High Atlas Mountains. The landscape is flat and uneventful outside of Marrakesh, until about two hours from their village, where the road heads directly toward the snow-covered mountains and runs onto the side of the mountain Jbel Azourki (3677 meters). After two mountain passes, the road descends alongside Jbel Aroudane into the valley that contains the villages of the rural commune of Zawiya Ahansal. It is a lush valley at around 1,800 meters in elevation with a strong river of clear blue water. There are high rocky peaks that loom over the valley to the north and west, and high rolling hills to the east and south. The high peaks were covered with a substantial amount of snow.
After a night in their home, Kris and I set out to explore the cliffs he had previously determined to potentially have climbing. Through years of exploration, he knows this area well, and was eager to share it with me. We hiked out of the village and up a valley toward Jbel Aroudane to the lowest cliff line of the mountain. Then we hiked along the cliff back toward the village, and up another valley for about three hours. By the end, my legs were tired and my head was spinning because the amount of undeveloped high-quality rock was incredible. After lunch back at the house, we hiked a load of gear to the cliff that we determined had the best combination of accessibility and route potential. At the time, we did not have any notion that we would exhaust my entire stay in the country at this cliff and that, in the end, there would be an entire new area for climbing.
Of the three weeks, we spent 13 days at the wall. In that time we bolted and red pointed ten independent new routes from 5.10a to 5.13d. It was a huge effort that left Kris and I completely spent at the end of each day. However, the reward of the process–imagining a climbing line up a piece of stone, bolting, cleaning, finding the grips, learning the movements, and ultimately climbing the route clean–it is addictive. No matter the effort or the hours or the aching body parts, we were happy to get back up there. It was the first time that I arrived at such a fruitful piece of stone that didn’t have any climbing on it.
Here’s a little video showing part of the process of establishing a new route.
We named the wall Azrou-N-Sidi, which is Berber for “My Saint’s Stone.” Zawiya Ahansal is the final resting place for several Sufi Muslim saints, and their graves are found throughout the territory in the form of little shrine buildings. The most important is Sidi (Saint) Said Ahansal. He founded the community in the 13th century, and his tomb is right next to the river below the village of Aguddim. The present Sheikh of Zawiya Ahansal is a direct descendant of Sidi Ahansal. Part of the early prosperity of this area was due to religious pilgrims who came to visit Sidi Ahansal and his descendants.
The days not spent at the wall were due to utter exhaustion, inclement weather, or Atlas Cultural Foundation (ACF) groups and projects. In the middle of my trip there was a proper blizzard that lasted for two days. There was another snowstorm near the end that lasted a day. Apart from making me wish I had skiing gear, these days offered serene contrast through rest, reflection, and interaction with the villagers.
The ACF hosted two separate groups in the time that I was there. The first was a group of artists who came to work in the beautiful and inspiring environment of Zawiya Ahansal. The second group was from Amideast, and included a large group of students as well as the distinguished Dr. Michael Peyron. He is perhaps the world’s foremost explorer of The Atlas Mountains. He is also a specialist in the field of Berber language, literature and culture, and is also well known as a writer on tourism in Morocco. Both the artist group and that of Amidest tended partly to their individual agendas, but were also educated by Cloe about the area, and participated in local service projects that were organized by her. Before the second round of bad weather, Kris, Cloe, Noor, and I with several villagers planted the community garden project. The ACF will tend to the garden and have future groups visit to work on it as a sustainable food systems project. It will hopefully help educate the local community, as well as provide fresh produce to the village people.
Developing a new climbing area of such high quality was amazing, but the opportunity to live in and learn about the culture and history of Zawiya Ahansal has been most special. The immediate landscape, which Dr. Peyron explained as some of the most beautiful in all of Morocco, is a haven for hiking, climbing, and skiing. It was incredible to be there with Kris, Cloe, and Noor with their seasoned experience, to witness the way they interact with the community, and see firsthand the difference they have made in the area. For the time being, it is where they belong, and I easily understand why they moved there. I am grateful to them for sharing it all with me, and I am eager to return. Next time, in addition to the climbing kit, I’ll hopefully be armed with skiing gear and a few more Arabic and Berber words in my vocabulary.