Klaas and I met in Marrakesh. We were travelling together with five friends from Belgium. I came from an astrophysics meeting in Grenoble discussing details about the launch of a scientific satellite in the 2030s and Klaas came straight from hospital after a two week antibiotic treatment. For him, as a Cystic Fibrosis patient, it is an essential part of staying alive, let alone being able to climb.
Our destination for 11 days was Taghia, a remote village in Morocco's High Atlas mountains, surrounded by deep orange limestone faces, several hundred metres high. The journey to get there included a chaotic night taxi ride to Zaouiat Ahansal and spending the night outside in the dust, before taking the last stretch on foot, with a mule carrying our bags. By then we felt well and truly detached from the daily routine of our normal lives.
The major motivation that brought us to Taghia in mid-April, was to try and climb the sustained multi-pitch bolted routes on these amazing walls in the best style—onsight. When these routes are close to your personal limit, this increases not only the mental pressure, but also requires a sort of perfectionist approach. In order to unlock each individual sequence on such a long climb, the only way to succeed is to forget about the overall goal and only focus on the next move, while trusting that your instincts as a climber will lead you the right way. Additional icing on the cake is provided by the vertiginous exposure, clinging onto small crimps and standing on tiny footholds.
All these thoughts crossed my mind while walking-in to our first route, the famous Les Rivieres Pourpres. Graded 7b+/c, the 500 metres of vertical climbing contain plenty of 7th grade pitches. The climbing pioneer Michel Piola called it the most beautiful route he opened on limestone and Alex Honnold brought it to the big screen in the movie Free Solo.
With huge expectations we arrived at the base of the north face of the Taoujdad in the early morning cold. It was finally time to stop dreaming. I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders, as my own expectations were confronted with the reality of the blank looking rock face towering above us.
After weeks spent imagining onsighting this route, now the moment of truth was in front of me. Suddenly I was eager to get it done. I start hesitantly with numb fingers in the easier pitches. Once I arrive at the first harder sections all the movements become more fluid. Joy returns with every move, eliminating the fear of failing. While every hard pitch provided a different challenge—pockets, pinches, crimps, bulges, slabs, traverses—soon and without major problems we were both topping out the crux pitch from the cold north face into the sun.
After this successful route my motivation was boosted and I felt ready to tackle harder routes. Unfortunately, not for Klaas though, as he was coughing badly and had problems breathing. Despite the very recent antibiotic treatment in hospital he felt worse than before his visit, as he'd probably got infected from someone else’s cold. He was unsure if he could do another climb this trip. While sport is generally good for his health, there is a fine line between not doing enough and doing too much.
It got even colder, snow fell and made climbing impossible. Klaas felt better and we decided to give Barracuda, 17 pitches with difficulties up to 7c+ a solid try. We may have been in Africa but it was still freezing, with lots of wind, very little sun and snow on the tops. I almost fell on the first 6c+ pitch with numb fingers and feet. Suddenly all expectations were gone. But instead of disappointment I rather felt relieved to simply immerse myself in the challenge of technical vertical climbing with no chalk on the holds to lead the way—often very close to falling. Pulling hard on painfully sharp edges and balancing on delicate slabs, I found myself onsighting the crux 7c+, the slabby 7b+, and finally a technical 7c. I felt as if the cold skin was simply sticking to the sharp rock, no matter the size of the hold.
Klaas felt very tired the whole way. He could not climb many of the hard pitches, but led the easier ones and was an invaluable mental support. Already tired, mentally and physically, I misread the sequence and fell at the last 7a pitch. After everything, this detail did not matter much in the end. I climbed it and led the way to the summit of Oujdad after a very long day. Briefly resting to watch the sunset over the beautiful half-desert mountain scenery, we put on our headlamps and started descending.
For my major goal I motivated Tim to join me on the very sustained Anthropocene, in the Tadrarate canyon. A special motivation for choosing this route was that Kurt Albert, a free climbing pioneer who also like came from the Frankenjura, was one of the first ascensionists. Graded 8a and with most of the 17 pitches being harder than 7a, this route best describes why I was in Taghia. While Les Rivieres Pourpres was a mental challenge, this was certainly much more physical. The day was perfect in all respects. I onsighted the route, with many beautiful pitches of varied climbing on crimps and pockets with everything from from slabs to overhanging.
Even though Klaas still did not feel so good, he wanted to at least try and climb one more line before we left. While I could see the disappointing experience of Barracuda was still lurking inside him, he had a strong determination to give this last climb all he had. His choice fell on L’Axe du Mal, 500 metres of vertical climbing with pitches up to 7c+. Despite the lack of a rest day I was very happy to follow him on this quest. After a few beautiful, easier pitches in the beginning, we hit the crux pitches halfway up.
I climbed the 7b roof pitch and it was Klaas’s turn to climb what we thought is the 7c crux pitch. It was his favourite style, 25 metres of continuous technical face climbing. Klaas had to climb fast and efficient, as his lungs were still in bad shape. Also, because of his Cycstic Fibrosis he has a significantly harder time to breath at this altitude. After an elegant dance up the wall with a few desperate moves in-between he made it to the anchor with very little to spare. He was so focused that he did not remember anything and could not help me with any proper beta. With much more shaking and much less style I arrived at the anchor to meet a happily smiling Klaas, who was thinking the hard part was over.
That smile quickly faded when just two pitches later we were below a designated 6c, which looked extremely hard. What we did not know at this time was that this was the actual crux pitch, rated 7c+, and our topo was simply wrong. Hesitating first, we soon realised that, whatever the grade of this pitch is, we want to climb it and not fail here. In an impressively close attempt, Klaas gave it all and I followed him up to the anchor. We were slightly scared now about the next 7a and 7a+ pitches, especially because our fingers and bodies already felt very tired. With nerves slightly on the edge, but in the end without major issues, we climbed to the top of the Tadrarate Canyon wall, feeling extremely relieved and happy about our team onsight.
Two days later, after a total of nearly 3000 metres of amazing climbing split into more than 80 pitches, the donkey was waiting to take us back home.