“Which route you do?”
“The big one, up there.”
Ah, this is nice route,” the old man in a djellaba says. “Ten pitches, all 5, 5+.”
A bit of banter is expected as you run the gauntlet of Berber market traders stationed along the narrow section of the Todra Gorge. Their stalls offering scarves and jewellery add a dash of colour to the almost permanently shaded passage, less than 20 metres wide in places but flanked by walls 300m high. However, they are not normally knowledgeable about climbing.
“Do you climb?” I ask the old fellow.
“Yes, sometimes,” he replies. “I climb with Arnaud Petit when he comes. And I climbed with Gullich when he came many years ago.”
The name bomb – pretty much the biggest you can drop in sport climbing terms – is casually delivered, with no intent whatsoever to blow away cocky western bumblies. In fact, I never saw a Moroccan climb in two weeks cragging there, but at Todra at least there were a few local guides who seemed like they knew the ropes. He climbed with Gullich
He climbed with Gullich
I reverently ask for some directions on the line, the guidebook being relatively vague for such a big route. Reassured that it is a case of following the bolts, I scramble up the north east corner of the gorge, muttering to Sam: “He climbed with Gullich.”
What followed may not have required any one-finger campus board training, but it was one of the best climbing experiences I’ve ever had. Todra is a paradise of multi-pitch sport and we had chosen its longest route for our last day: L’Etute Crue, 5+, with all pitches indeed being around the F5 mark.
Soon Sam and I were hauling up the rock, pausing only to swap a few draws and have a sip of water each at the belays. Being limestone and bolted, the climbing felt straightforward, which was just as well given our mid-morning start and the short November days. By the time we were on the second pitch, the route was catching the sun and conditions were perfect. We enjoyed the sensation of reeling in the pitches as the ground retreated and people and cars on the road below got smaller and smaller.
All the pitches were over 30m and some were more than 50m, so the halfway shoulder felt like an airy perch, with magnificent views down on wreckage of a hotel hit by rockfall in the gorge below. From here a walk is made to reach a higher pillar – which has some amazing potential for harder lines. From below this had seemed like a small add-on at the top, but in fact it was every bit as high as the first section had been.
More delightful climbing followed, although we rued the decision not to pack food. The final three pitches shoot straight up the arête of the pillar, and the walk off was pleasant too, leading us back through the gorge and past welcome refreshment stalls.
We drove off into the desert twilight with some regret
It was our last day, and we needed to start heading towards Agadir airport, so after a few pictures and a snack we left the Todra, the eager Berber sellers still trying everything they could think of to get us to buy something or even swap our climbing gear for trinkets. We drove off into the desert twilight with some regret: there are many more great looking routes at Todra, so we’d have liked to stay another week.
Clearly the locals would have liked us to stay too – Todra doesn’t seem to be much in fashion at the moment, perhaps because Spanish climbers all seem to be skint and for everyone else it is a bit of a trek to get to. That’s a shame, because it offers an excellent playground and with plenty of shade and a breeze prevalent in the gorge, there should be routes climbable from early Autumn through to late Spring. Once there it is an extremely user-friendly venue, with the climbing much more accessible than the other gems of the Morrocan crown, Taghia and Tafraute.
In many ways, it is more like climbing in Spain, although alas the local Berbers are yet to develop a tapas culture and an enlightened attitude to women and wine.
The Todra Gorge lies on the southern edge of the High Atlas, near the town of Tinghir. Although the huge cliffs of excellent brown limestone are far from climbed out, there is a good selection of both single pitch sport and multi pitch, from two or three pitch sport routes to bigger undertakings which top out and in some cases require gear. The Oxford Alpine Club produces a slim English guidebook which has plenty to keep you going, and further topos are available from a local venture which is trying to establish Todra as more of a destination, and offer guiding. Its website can be seen here: http://www.escalade-au-maroc.com/#Accueil.A
The nearest airport is at Ouarzazate but you’re unlikely to get a direct flight there from the UK. However, the gorge is only about five hours drive from Marrakesh, or perhaps seven from Agadir, and once you’re there you don’t need a car at all if you stay in one of the cheap and cheerful little hotels at the entrance to the gorge. Here you will literally wake up to sunny crags soaring above you, but be warned: there’s not a lot to do of an evening, no licensed bar, and they rely on noisy generators for power. They usually manage to rustle up some pretty decent grub, though.
Bigger, more westernised hotels can be found in Tinghir, and along the road linking the town and the gorge. It generally seems possible to just show up and negotiate a price.