Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Keep right at the Prickly Pear

Right now I'm sitting by the woodburner, all togged up in my winter gear (luckily lofting insulation is on test for the next issue of Outdoor Enthusiast), and the last two weeks would be a distant dusty memory, if it weren't for a little bottle of Argan Oil, from a Berber womens co-operative, carefully carried home from Morcocco in my hold luggage. I'm trying to recreate my favourite dish from the Kasbah Restaurant in Tafraout- a subtly fragranced take on a classic, chicken tagine with olives and lemon. Some incredible smells are wafting from my kitchen and I reckon I've just about nailed it, with the help of that argan oil, (although I might have gone too heavy on the preserved lemon...).

The Ameln Valley, Anti Atlas of Morocco
Sadly I can't recreate the ferocious sunlight, the big views and the lurid orange quartzite of the Jebel L'Kest range in the Anti Atlas of Southwest Morocco.   I've just returned from one of the most exciting climbing trips I've ever had, and luckily it all went pretty much to plan. 

We flew in to Agadir, and picked up a hire car.  After much angst we shelled out for a 4x4 which turned out to be a good call as not only are there lots of rough tracks to negotiate to get to the crags, but while we were out there they were also digging up pretty much the entire stretch of main road from Agadir to Tafraout. Tarmac was in short supply.

The climbing is situated on either side of the Jebel L' Kest escarpment, giving distinct north and south regions. We headed south to start with, and a rented apartment in Tafraout, giving us easy access to the crags of the Ameln Valley. We don't climb hard, but there was plenty to go at amongst the easy routes.  Highlights of this part of our trip included the fabulously alpine Sun Ribbon Arete (S) on the bizarrely shaped (and named) Bunny Ears at Robin Hood rocks, and some superb cragging at Cheshire Cheese Crag and Tizgut gorge.

Bunny Ears, Robin Hood Rocks
 Blacksticks Blue Slabs (S), Cheshire Cheese Crag
Tafraout itself is a busy if scruffy town, not yet given over to all things touristy, but well used to receiving trekkers and climbers, and with a few good eateries and basic hotels. The Kasbah was the place to eat and be seen, and seems to be in league with the brothers over the road at Maison Troc, who will sell you a carpet if you wish (or even if you don't). The food is excellent and I was happy to eat salad and all sorts of other contraband without ill effects. Elsewhere in the town I can recommend the Hotel Tanger for dinner (no idea about the rooms), were the food is almost as good, a quarter the price, the service a bit more relaxed, and the locals dine. Expect to be offered a small selection of delicious tagines with bread.  Couscous generally has to be pre-ordered as round here it isn't the 5 min prep type. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning there is a souk in town. Its a good place to stock up on picnic goodies such as olives and dates.

On non climbing days we wafted around the hills and scrambled on remote peaks on the edge of the Sahara. On a particularly gentle day headed down south to the oasis at the Gorge D' Ait Mansour. Here actual water sloshes along the bottom of a spectacular palm filled sandstone gorge. The towering walls here are hundreds of metres high, with villages perched on their lower slopes to avoid the occasional flash flood. A clamber to the summit of Jebel L'Kest (2359m) was quite literally the highpoint of the holiday.  We approached from the precarious vilage of Anergui (the drive is an experience in itself), and negotiated a maze of rocky alpine valleys to locate the South Ridge, a great wee scramble to the top with stunning views that stretch accross Morocco from ocean to peak and desert. 

The Summit of Jebel L'Kest 2359m
Gorge'D'Ait Mansour
Moving north and leaving Tafraout behind, we based ourselves for a couple of days at the sumptious Tizourgane Kasbah (a fairytale fortified guesthouse, refreshingly quiet after the town) and barely scraped the surface of the acres of rock located within easy driving distance of Igaoudnidif. We tried  a friendly if occasionally loose little crag at Tizi Gzaouine, and some very accessible (if a little hot) cragging on south facing Ksar Rock,  The classic severe, Desert Man at Ksar is aptly named, as we sweltered in the direct sun at midday.

Wally feeling the heat on Desert Man (S) Ksar Rock
As a finale we went big, with a day up in the high hills at Adrar Asmit. The 1 hour walk in seemed intimidating after a couple of weeks of roadside rock but we soon remembered that we are from Scotland and it's basically still cragging, and got on with it. The highlight of our trip was here: Wild Country, a mere V Diff, with occasionally scrappy climbing, but a fabulous mountaineering experience and stunning views across the northern valleys of the L'Kest range, with the sea visible in the west and the snowcapped main Atlas peaks to the north.

Getting some exposure on Wild Country (V Diff)

Suspect belay (cairn- but the base was good...!)) summit of Adrar Asmit.
With guidebook descriptions that read "keep right of the prickly pear" and "descent straightforward if prickly", it was never going to be an pain-free trip. The climbing was at all times exciting, although this was often as much due to suspect rock as the situations.  The rock is baked in the desert heat of the summer and is prone to fracturing, often without warning.  If in doubt, hit it!  Even in the lower grades, trad climbing here is a serious undertaking, with self rescue being the order of the day. At Tandelt Crag in the Lions Face area of Ameln for example, we found a scary array of loose rock not mentioned in the guide, which may have developed recently? We also witnessed apparently spontaneous rockfall at this crag.

There have been a lot of new routes put up in a short time, and as a result many have seen only a handful of ascents and although we found the grading to be fair, if even quite friendly, stars seem to have been awarded quite enthusiastically so take these with a pinch of salt. However, for us the destination was a superb choice, with lots and lots of rock, at grades to suit all comers. The objective dangers and need for self reliance combined with good mountain sense served mainly to heighten the sense of adventure rather than detract from the experience.
More info and guidebooks: