Continued: ‘The Difficulties of Being an Indoor Climber – First Ascents in the Atlas Mountains’
As soon as my partner Katya, my friend Aidan (who filmed our exploits) and I had arrived after driving from Marrakech for a couple of hours, we could see immediately that…YES! A seemingly endless amount of boulders were surrounding us! Not only that, but we found ourselves right above the clouds with stunning views of the mountains. Full of excitement, we wasted no time and quickly dropped our luggage off at the chalet to set out to the nearest climbing area, just a 5-minute walk away. As a side note, one of the biggest benefits of the area was in never having to drive or walk more than 15 minutes to find unclimbed boulders. We spent the evening climbing a few established problems and adding a few fresh ones – my favourite being a ridiculously dynamic line straight up a nearly blank 45 degree overhang (definitely my sort of climbing!).
Immediately I realised what would become a recurring puzzle for me throughout the trip – what difficulty had I just climbed? I always find grading climbs difficult; it’s such a subjective thing, and now having to put my name on something permanent made it feel even more so. Then paranoia started setting in…did I use the right holds? If I used the right holds, did I use the easiest beta, and if so, did I execute that beta as efficiently as possible? Did the holds feel worse than they will be in the future because they were dirtier? If you watch any climbing videos of me, you’ll see I’ve got really long arms (Blurr, one of my sponsors, describes me as having “a huge ape index”):
Now what if the next person to try this can’t make the span between the two holds I’ve used? If they can’t, they’re going to have to stick the next hold one-handed, and that’ll definitely be a LOT harder than what I did! After re-climbing it a few times to try and get a better idea and painstakingly revisiting all of these questions, I eventually decided on the simpler approach: “This is getting too complicated, it felt like V6…”. Easy.
The rest of the trip followed a pretty similar pattern of our first day: a wonderful mix of climbing easy problems, struggling on harder problems, getting sunburned and struggling to grade everything. I’m not exactly sure what the rock type is – much like sandstone, but with thick layers of iron ore running through it and creating some incredible shapes, features and textures, all leading to a fantastic variety of climbs. There were powerful overhangs, delicate slabs, font-style sloper problems and enormous highball boulders with thin crimps and tiny footholds. I could go on and on about all the great experiences we had trying to scrape our way up everything we could, but I’ll limit my ramblings to the two climbs that stood out the most:-
On our second day out we went to an already established area called “The Bakery”, where Keoma and other climbers had already put up loads of climbs, but which had plenty of potential for more! After warming up all morning sending a couple of highballs and overhangs, I found a boulder which got me really excited. Whereas a lot of the rocks were covered in holds, (not a bad thing at all if you just want to climb, but a bit of a difficulty if you’re looking for something a bit harder) this one looked like it had just enough to make it climbable and nothing more. After cleaning and chalking the holds, I got to work trying to work out the sequence and quickly realised it was by a wide margin the hardest climb we’d come across! About 11 moves long, the line followed a hanging feature and started off with some powerful compression moves on pinches, leading into some very elaborate toe and heel-hooks before the final section of small, sloping crimps and awkward body positions. After an hour or so of changing beta and complaining about the heat, I managed to send it, giving it the name “I’m Moroccan Hard” (that’s supposed to sound like I’m a’Rockin’ Hard, sorry). Based on how long it had taken me, how hard it felt on the send attempt, and comparing it to the holds found on indoor climbs of similar difficulty, V10 felt about right, which would make it the hardest climb in Morocco and possibly all of North Africa! Exciting!
To confirm this, we headed straight over to another area called “Rivers of Babylon”, which included a climb called “Sinkcrimper”, graded V8+ and the other contender for hardest problem. After my success on my new boulder, I was full of confidence; “I’ve flashed V9 outdoors before, and I LOVE crimps, maybe I could flash this, that’ll make me pretty happy giving V10 to my climb!” Frustratingly, after a good hour of whining about the heat and my sore fingers while trying my absolute hardest, I was no where CLOSE to sending “Sinkcrimper”, which obviously cast a lot of doubt on my climb being V10! We left empty handed with plans to return the next morning.
I’ve never paid too much attention to the difference conditions can make to the feeling of a climb, but I definitely noticed it when we returned and I was able to send the whole thing first try with ease! At first this made me think that my climb was significantly harder and worthy of the V10 grade, but quickly I was full of doubt again. Had my climb only felt harder because of the heat? And if I’m using this other climb as a benchmark, how much can I trust anyone else’s subjective sense of grades? I ended up going back and forth on the grade for the entire week, realising that, however much I want to avoid it, ego definitely plays a role in trying to grade something. If I give it a higher grade than everyone else who tries it, people could think that I’m trying to impress with high numbers. If I give it a lower grade than I think it is, people might think I’m trying to impress everybody with how easy I found the climb, even though it definitely wasn’t easy for me!
Either way, I decided I was thinking way too much about what other people thought. The climb felt pretty hard and I’m a relatively experienced climber; V10 felt like a fair grade for the level of effort I gave when I sent it (also it’s double digits, that’s an impressive number, and it would be great to have put up the hardest climb in Morocco!). I don’t want to over-grade it; maybe it only felt like V10 because I climbed it like an idiot; the next person to try it could find a much better sequence and think “why on earth was Louis power-screaming like a maniac on this? It’s not V10!” After going back to look at it a few more times, and confirming that, yes, the handholds ARE very little, I decided to just go with my gut feeling; it felt hard, like V10s I’ve climbed before, and if it gets downgraded so be it, I think I’ll live.
Despite being the hardest problem of the trip, “I’m Moroccan Hard” wasn’t my favourite. Mid-way through the week we went to another established area called “Friends”, at which was a truly huge boulder with a couple of lines already on it. What hadn’t been climbed before was an overhanging arête leading to a VERY highball slab to reach the top. This was exactly the sort of challenge I liked, and after working out the sequence for the overhang I decided to go for the send!
I floated through the steep first section of crimps and slopers, cut loose on the high pinches, reached for the decent ledge above the lip of the overhang, and effortlessly performed the most complicated, precarious mantle I’ve ever done. Standing on the ledge, I had a chance to chalk up, get my breath back, and take in my surroundings. The view of the mountains was amazing. I wasn’t too high up, but the ground below me sloped away quite steeply and overall the landing wasn’t fantastic, but that was ok. I looked up to plan my attack on the slab, and fear entered my mind. What I saw wasn’t too steep, but looked utterly blank. No one’s ever climbed that before, it might be easy or it might be really hard. It looks REALLY hard. I don’t see any handholds, and the footholds are looking pretty small too now. And that’s HIGH! If I fall from where I am now it’ll hurt, but if I slip off from up there I’m going to be pretty seriously injured. I could just do it, it’s probably not that hard, but I’m going to be smart about this; I’ll down-climb, go get the rope from the car, and abseil down to at least look at where the holds are, maybe even try the moves a bit. But actually now I think about it, that amazingly technical mantle I was so proud of a minute or so ago, that’s DEFINITELY not going to work backwards…OK, I’m stuck, but let’s not panic; I’m standing on a pretty decent ledge, just keep calm and work out what to do…
I ended up stuck on that ledge for a full 25 minutes, gradually getting more and more scared that I’d have to a) commit to the climb above me and most likely plummet from the top and die, b) try to down-climb, mess it up and land in a broken heap anyway, or c) start a new life for myself on the stupid ledge. It all came to a fairly anticlimactic end: Aidan and Kat moved the pads around and stacked them on top of each other, and I climbed down a foot or so (weeping slightly by this point) and jumped down to the pads, realising as soon as I landed that I had fallen far further before and been completely fine. That’s the strange thing about fear; I see it a lot when I’m teaching people, I remember it from when I first started climbing and had just had a lovely reminder of how powerful it can be – fear makes holds feel smaller, you feel weaker and the ground look further away. It makes you forget all the things you know you’re capable of. I was determined not to let the fear beat me, but for that day I was done with climbing; I had never been so petrified for so long and not been able to move. When I got back to the ground I was a shaking ball of adrenaline, shock and tears; I was in no state for another attempt!
The next day we returned so I could try it again. I was feeling incredibly nervous, but exhilarated by the challenge. I warmed up quickly on a few other boulders, then got to it! Quickly finding myself standing on the ledge again, I chalked up and set off on my planned path with as little hesitation as possible. Having had a good look at the slab from the top of the boulder (there hadn’t been anywhere to build an anchor so I couldn’t abseil down), I had decided that going directly to the top of the boulder from the ledge looked far too blank, but it did look possible to traverse a few meters and reach a nice big seam in the rock, where I was fairly convinced I’d find some jugs. It went with surprising ease! Catching a quick glimpse of the drop below me and quickly muttering the phrase “I can do this I can do this I can do this”, I stepped out onto the first smear and put all of my weight on it. I didn’t slip, and I was immediately filled with confidence; if I can stand on this foothold, I can stand on any of them! Within a minute I was at the top of the boulder, feeling absolutely elated! The slab section was far more of a mental challenge than a physical one, but it was a challenge I was proud to overcome.
However, the next day I was left with a nagging feeling. Had I really overcome my fear? I had challenged myself, I was sure of that, but it felt like I had taken a slightly easy option to finish the climb. Instead of questing straight up the blank face of the boulder, the original source of my fear, I had scuttled off to the side to look for better holds. Surely the REAL line, and real challenge was going straight up that slab…
On our last day before we left Oukaimeden, we returned to the boulder for a final attempt at what I now considered to be the true line. The same as before, I warmed up, chalked up, and got on with it…