What to expect and some advice
The High Atlas Mountains are an amazing place, both culturally and as a location for mountaineering. They offer us the chance to climb in an alpine environment, close to home but in an adventurous location, with amazing weather and without the danger of crevasses.
Through the day you might experience warm temperatures and sunshine suggestive of the proximity to the Sahara, sometimes +20C even at 3000m. Drinking mint tea and topping up the sun tan outside the Refuge in this case is a pleasure. It is not always sunny though, temperatures in the shade can be significantly lower and at night can reach -15C, also just like in Scotland it can be very windy and when it does snow there is often a significant amount.
Down off the mountains in Marrakech however it will be pleasantly warm during the day and cool in the evenings. It is worth considering packing with this in mind, especially for a nice meal out in the Jemaa el-Fnaa just around the corner from the hotel.
Alcohol, the Law, Social Etiquette and Religion
Morocco is mostly a dry country. Alcohol is available in some hotels (Riad Omar where we are staying) and at shops called bottle shops. It is fine to drink at hotels but would be considered quite rude to over consume. It would also be considered impolite to drink at the refuge, but don’t worry there will be plenty of Berber whisky (mint tea) for you throughout the trip.
We might not notice it very much in the mountains as it will be cool anyway, but in Marrakech it will be warm enough to wear shorts and t-shirts. With this in mind Morocco is very liberal as a Muslim country but is quite conservative compared to what we may be used to here in the UK. Men should wear shorts below the knee as should ladies. Women should also try and ensure all clothes are below the knee and shoulders are covered. Loose fitting clothing would be considered most appropriate. We may see other westerners doing otherwise however you’ll find the reception you receive will be much happier and warmer from the local people.
Couples are welcomed in Morocco as it is such a loving culture, however too much public affection is discouraged. Modesty is usually the best policy here.
Tea can be drank in either hand, however you should always eat with your right hand and sit cross legged to avoid showing the soles of your feet.
The local currency is Moroccan Dirham(dh), and is a closed currency, meaning you can’t get it from the post office here in the UK, you have to get it in country. There is only one exchange rate, and it varies little from place to place, with the exception in my experience being the airport on occasion. I normally change a small amount at the airport to pay for the taxi, and then get the rest from an ATM to avoid traveling with large amounts of cash.
Some things not to miss here. Only take English sterling. They will not exchange Scottish pounds anywhere in Marrakech, we have tried. Euro and US dollars are also fine, however often only crisp dollars are accepted.
There are ATM’s right next to the hotel which are safe to use, and an exchange just around the corner. This is a cash driven society so work out how much you’re going to need before we leave the city. The biggest denomination is 200dh, about 20 euros. It may prove impossible to break for purchases of less than 50dh so make sure when you’re traveling in country you have plenty if 20 dh and 50dh notes. Be aware the 20 euro note is very similar to the 200dh note and a 50 euro note to 100dh note, there’s some great stories of taxi drivers getting paid 50 euro for a taxi that should have cost 100dh.
Getting from the airport to the hotel
The first part of the adventure, and probably your first experience of haggling in country.
You need a “grand Taxi” usually a large Mercedes, you can find these just outside the terminal. They will take you right to the Riad Omar, you may have to walk 5 minutes depending on the time of day. As the Medina or Jemaa el Fna (Main square) is closed to traffic at certain times of day. It should cost around 150Dh or thereabouts. They will try and charge 300Dh, stand your ground, smile and don’t be scared to walk away.
There are a few languages spoken in Morocco, French, some English Moroccan Arabic and Berber. As with all foreign adventures giving the local dialect a go will get you miles in terms of favour amongst the locals. Here’s a few ones to get you started.
Hello – Salam
As-salāmu ʿalaykum - peace be upon you. To which you should reply,
waʿalaykumu as-salām- and upon you, peace
How are you - Keef dayer
I am good - koulshi labas
What’s your name? - Ashno smytek?
My name is Sydney - Smyti Sydney
Thank you - Shouk-ran
Bits and Bobs
I’m stood next to Adam on a 45-degree moss-covered slab on a little ledge in a sea of granite in Arctic Norway. I’m tied to Mark, who is leading off into the darkness and is now just a little blob of light in the distance.
“Are we having an epic yet?” asks Adam.
“Nah, it’s not even raining” I say, as I look up and see Mark placing yet another micro wire as a runner.
The day had begun at 7am with an early ferry from a little port called Rhinefjord, followed by a walk to our campsite and a further walk to the base of the route called The Next Best Thing. Graded Norwegian 6+ it could be anything from E1 (manageable) to E4 (absolutely red lining). We had climbed quite a few at this grade and some harder as a team, and we all felt ready for a big adventure.
We arrived, set up the tent, racked up and made lunch. While this was all going on I was having a nosy in the guidebook, and it left quite a lot to the imagination. There were no pitch-by-pitch descriptions, there were four lines of route description and a photo with a red dotted line on it. There was nothing about the approach, which should be simple enough, however the descent looked to be a different beast. The route is 300m long on the right end of a huge face above the sea. It tops out on a pillar of rock, the perfect top, and from there it looked like an easy scramble up some slabs to the top. This my friends is what is called a “sandbag”.
Since arriving on our grand Lofoten tour, we realised that none of us could “jam”, a method of climbing involving torqing hands and feet in cracks because nothing else is available to hold onto. We had quickly tried to fix this by getting stuck into some crack routes, and the problem had been remedied (kind of). We (myself mainly) still felt pretty green jamming our way up the granite. The first few pitches were easy enough and the face’s concave angle meant the bottom of the face was less steep - probably about HVS or E1 by British standards, or 5+ at your local wall. Around about the third or fourth rope length, Adam set off on a slightly steeper looking corner. The route was definitely steepening up and the rope fed through my belay device slowly. I pondered how hard this pitch might be. I was cold so I pulled up my hood and tucked my nose down into my jacket. Arctic Norway rock climbing - whose idea was this? “Half way!” I shouted.
I went back to bantering Mark who was hanging next to me off the belay while keeping an eye on the rope pile at our feet. He looked colder than I did which made me in turn feel warmer. We started cracking jokes at Adam, shouting up asking him if he “needed a knife and fork up there?” or “is that a table cloth on the back of your harness?”
Normally I would expect an insult in return from Adam’s incredibly potty mouth, but all we got was a loud grunt from him. We both shut up at the belay. I’m not sure what Mark was thinking inside his jacket - probably something about cheese wraps or biscuits but I was certainly thinking “balls, this looks hard”.
Another glance at the diminishing rope pile. “Fifteen metres!” I shouted. More grunts. “Ten metres!” Adam had now been climbing for 50 meters and was coming close to the end of the ropes. “Five metres!” I looked at Mark. It was a tense moment. Adam was flying by the seat of his pants as he pulled out of sight round the corner. “Safe!” wafted down from the top of the pitch, and I felt myself breathing out.
It was still bloody freezing as we began climbing and so I kept the belay jacket on. The layback corner just kept on going but the crack got thinner and thinner - so small that I could just fit the tips of my finger into the sharp crack. Then it got steep and then steeper, and the smears for my feet were definitely getting worse. Looking up, all I could see was chalked hand prints flat on the wall. Did he levitate up here?! I eventually arrived at the belay after pulling on some gear with sore fingers, breathing hard and sweating like a pig, wishing I’d been bold enough to take my jacket off at the start of the pitch. “That was too much” and “I was peaking” came out of Adams mouth.
We climbed another five long hard pitches to reach the top of the pinnacle at dusk. It was still light enough to realise that the “easy scramble up slabs” was bullshit. Time to put the head torch on and eat something. The tent was very far away and not getting any closer. The last of the food and water gone. Mossy, greasy slabs here we come.
Darkness properly arrived along with some cloud as we found ourselves standing on an island of moss debating whether we are having an epic or an adventure. After deciding it was not yet an epic and still firmly an adventure, we climbed a total of 300m of mossy slabs in the dark to reach to top of Helvetestinden - the peak of the route. A long scramble down the ridge and a very wet walk back to the tent.
We had climbed about 650 metres at about E4 6a and got back to the tent at about 1 am. Not one of the pitches on the actual route was easier than E1. It was at the tip of what we could climb and the hardest route of the trip; bold, technical and uncompromising. Two swigs of victory whisky then bed time for the conquering heroes.
During our three week stay in Lofoten we climbed more routes than I can remember, drank two bottles of whisky, had six of the most expensive pints of beer of my life, and had more Tex-Mex sausage pasta than I ever want to see again.
Thanks to Jöttnar for their continued support in the form of warmth and dryness, and to