Twid Turner and a psyched team return to the world class climbing destination of Taghia in the Atlas Mountains of eastern morocco to complete the final pitches of an incredible 850m new route – No rest for the wicked.
Armed with his camera Mike Hutton follows them up the big wall to capture the action as it enfolds and shares with us his experiences on this monumental climb.
The team (left to right) consisting of Simon Hitchens, Twid (Mike) Turner and Mark Thomas after completing "No Rest for the Wicked"
Summit bivi on the last night
Four climbers and two Moroccan Berber friends sat, feet dangling over a dizzying precipice, quenching their thirst with a ‘Flag’ beer whilst finally resting their shredded hands. Mohammed’s beat box chanted melodic Berber tunes which competed with the screeching of a bearded vulture soaring overhead. A juniper wood fire threw up high flames, warming freezing hands as the cold, clear night encroached. The vast, rolling and silent panorama glowed orange as the sun melted over the horizon and the team stared down from their precarious perch, at the top of Tagoujimt n’Tsouiannt‘s 850m north face they had just climbed. A job well done, and a satisfied team, after making the first ascent of a brilliant new climb - No Rest for the Wicked. The new route had taken three weeks, two expeditions and a lot of suffering to create a fabulous free climb. At 850m it is the longest sport route in Taghia and arguably the whole of continental Africa itself. 25 pitches of fully bolted sports climbing from the river bed to the summit plateau which needed many bivouacs on portaledges and narrow rock shelves during the time it was equipped.
This was Twid’s 9th trip to Taghia, a remote, hidden high Atlas ‘sangri la’ of multipitch climbing. Fifteen years previously he had visited Taghia and marveled at the twisting rivers carving out the clean limestone walls and deep gorges. The biggest and most impressive is the north wall of Tsouiannt, standing directly in front of the tiny village. Its challenge obvious, and the difficulty all too clear - it had to be climbed!
The view from the accomadation
In 2007 Arnaud Petite and friends established the incredible Babel on Tsouiannt climbing ground up with a mixture of trad and bolts. The route rightly gaining notoriety for quality and it’s seriously run out pitches. Twid had previously spotted the long tapering pillar that ran the full height of the big wall to the right of Babel, and mused at creating a modern, safer, accessible climb for many climbers to enjoy; this seemed the way forward. With fellow mountain guide Mark Thomas, sculptor Simon Hitchens, and climbing photographer Mike Hutton, Twid returned to complete the climb on a second attempt in October of 2019. On the first attempt the previous year, Mark, Simon and Twid grafted for 12 days, each day starting and finishing in the dark, drilling and climbing from the ground up. After placing over three hundred bolts, they eventually failed to finish the climb in this two-week trip. No Rest for the Team/Wicked was 80% finished and the return adventure was inevitable, but this time Mike Hutton joined the crew to help and document the climb.
Mike Hutton recounts on his big wall experience
Mark Thomas enjoying the last rays before a rather cold bivi
I knew right from the outset that photographing Twid and the team on an 850m big wall wasn’t going to be a pushover. Various attempts to obtain a drone license had failed miserably and it soon became apparent that there was the biggest ever haul of confiscated drones in the customs office at Marrakech airport. It seemed the Moroccan authorities were quite paranoid about security and I would have to do things the traditional way.
By day 3 of the trip the team had added 3 new quality pitches to the bottom of the route. Simon and Mark were already pe-occupied fixing 400m of static rope up to an advanced ledge that they would later use to bivi on before an attempt on the upper pitches. I ended up being the lucky person who was to second Twid up the lower 7c+ crux pitch. After several valiant attempts Twid put in one almighty effort and put the pitch to rest in fine style. The crimpy and technical climbing on bullet proof limestone was engaging and as good as anything I had ever climbed.
The team fixing ropes up to the ledge at 2/3rds height
The plan for day 4 was for the boys to fix the remainder of the static rope to a point 500m up the wall. Half way along the approach we parted company and I veered off to follow an ancient Berber trail that would eventually lead me to a prime viewing spot on the summit of the hill opposite. The trail was mostly good and I had the enjoyable experience of clambering up several Berber bridges (stones and logs skillfully packed to create rigid ladders that would stretch over various technical sections of the path). The air was cold and still and although the lads were several hundred meters away, I was able to hear every word and track their progress. By nightfall they had successfully fixed the ropes and climbed many new pitches in the upper 7 grades. As they crawled into their sleeping bags for a long night, I made my way back to the comfort of Youssef’s gite and formulated a plan for the next day. At the crack of dawn, I threw down some flat bread, grabbed my camera and skulked off into the darkness to the base of the route. After completely missing the path and loosing time I eventually arrived bleary eyed at the Tyrolean approach to pitch 4 on the route. For logistical reasons we had found a way to reach this point on the route by traversing in from the right side. By this time the dawn was breaking and I knew the boys would be keen to reach a new high point on the upper section of the route.
Twid Turner feeling the exposure on one of the quality 7a+ pitches at approximately 500m up the wall
My challenge was to jumar to the 500m point and over-take them so I was strategically placed to photograph them on some of the higher pitches. Armed with just a single jumar I stormed up the wall like there was no tomorrow. Progress was slow as many intermediate belays had to be passed (we had been very keen to avoid rubbing ropes so had had sensibly tied off the rope at various points). After several hours I reached the ledge of all ledges and realised this was where they had spent the night. Then things started to turn for the worst as I embarked up the final fixed rope. The sky had turned an incredible shade of indigo and the wind had picked up. As drops of rain fell on the dusty rock my heart sunk as Twid’s voice yelled down that I would be best descending to the cave and sheltering till we knew what the weather was doing. Reluctantly I retreated and negative thoughts filled my mind. “Were all my efforts about to be thwarted as the weather destroyed any chances of me getting any photos and of the boys completing the route” Twids advice had been right as I was able to keep warm under the cave.
Twid Turner getting stuck into yet another quality 7a pitch high on the wall
Soon the storm passed and a glimmer of sunshine lit up the valley basin and my mood picked up. It was game on and I made my way back up the ropes to join the team. It transpired that Twid and Mark were just about to climb two incredible looking pitches of about 7a and that I was just in time to witness the action. As Twid set off up the fine-looking corner groove the exposure was jaw dropping. The river bed below seemed a million miles away and there was a gentle sense of urgency that we needed to climb the pitches and get down before dark. Twid climbed his pitch well and I then had the luxury of photographing Mark on his which he completed in good style. Simon and myself abseiled down to the base leaving Twid and Mark with the mammoth task of stripping the route before nightfall. As Simon and I embarked on the tyrolean to escape the base of the route we became acutely aware of the risk that we were right under a section where goats often dislodged rock near the cliff top. Twid and Mark soon joined us with their bulging packs and we all collapsed into a pile on the ground. It had been a grand day out but what stood out most to me was the way every worked together as a team and took care of each other’s safety. We dragged out wavering bodies back the gite but there was more work to be done on the days that would follow – No rest for the wicked – became the theme of the trip!
Local village scenes
The Berber village of Taghia is nestled deep in a fertile grain basin between mountains Jebel Timghazine, Taoujdad, Oujdad and Tagoujimt (2977m). Taxi Access for Taghia is by a long 5-hour drive east from Marrakesh then a rough winding road crossing the high atlas passes to where it finally reaches the road head village of Zaouiat Ahansal. The ancient kasbahs and mosques of Zaouiat are soon left behind as climbers weave up the narrow gorge on foot for two and a half hours until a last twist in the canyon reveals the impressive Taghia cirque. Breath taking scenery accompanies you on the final stroll through potato, carrot and onion fields that drop down to a meandering river that leads to the village of smiling faces, playful kids and sounds of donkeys braying. The climbers lodged with Youssef Rizki and brother Abdul in their family run Aoujdade Gite. This warm, friendly and welcoming gite has an outstanding elevated view over the village and is square on to the huge orange walls and canyons. They provide delicious tagines and classic home grown and reared food, comfortable and safe accommodation, donkey support and taxi travel, all in a relaxed a friendly manner that makes you feel part of the family: a classic Berber household and certainly a hassle-free experience for female climbers.
Climbing in Taghia has been explored, mostly by french and spanish teams, since the early 1960s. But it wasn't until the energetic Michel Piola and world champion Arnuad Petit started their amazing onslaught of long, super sports routes that the place appeared on the map for quality climbing. In 2004 Twid repeated Les Rivieres Pourpres 500m 7c and l’Axe du Mal on one of the first British climbing trips to the area, previously visited by the climbing nomads Di and Tony Howard. The quality of these two climbs elevating them to possibly the best multi-pitch sports routes on the planet (says Twid) and started a fifteen-year love affair with the steep, clean, vertical walls of perfect limestone. Now with over 150 quality multipitch climbs, many fully bolted; Taghia is a world-class destination and in season is home to 50+ climbers each week. The longest wall, Tsouniannt, now holds 20 plus big wall climbs. Some aid, some trad/sports mix and now a fully bolted sports route. To access the wall the team initially made use of an easy climbable 100m traverse to access a large grassy ledge 150m above the riverbed. During the first attempt the team climbed ground up from that point, bolting the impressive wall above; the rough, pocketed rock perfect for fantastic free climbing possibilities. The climb was direct and followed the eye-catching pillar 50m right of Babel.
Mark Thomas and one of our wondeful Berber guides warming their hands after a long cold night
Bolting ground up is hard work utilizing traditional gear, pegs and skyhooks. 500m of fixed ropes allowed daily access to the high point and eventually hanging bivouacs in a multi-day effort to reach the summit. With free climbing in the grade range of 6 to high 7s but mainly 7a and 7b, the summit was gained in 2018 but still six additional pitches needed climbing and bolting, so the following autumn season was required to finish the project when four amazing pitches, including the 40m 7c+ crux pitch, were added starting from the river bed. The independent line has 13 pitches above 7a with most pitches worthy of 3 stars in classic sports climbing destinations. A minimum leading grade of 7a is required to ascend the climb, and aficionados of big wall free climbing will love the challenge of a long day ascent or climbing over 2 days, enjoying the luxurious cave bivi at half height. Eventually, after 20 exhilarating days of climbing Twid, Mark, Simon and Mike hauled themselves over the final 6c pitch and scrambled the final 500m of class 2 rocks to the summit of Tsouiannt. Met on the summit by their berber friends Mohammed and Abdur, a strong donkey carrying provisions and hydrating ‘Flag’ beer, a memorable night unfolded with stories, banter and laughs under a huge Moroccan sky with the warmth of flames from a blazing juniper fire. To return again - inevitable. Inshallah!
Twid Turner on the approach walk
Donkeys come in very handy for carrying big loads
Fly to Marrakech then undergo a 6hr taxi journey north-east through the planes to the mountain village of Zaouiat Ahansal. From here it’s a 2 and a ½ hours hike to the remote village of Taghia. Mules can be hired to transport your kit to your base.
Walk out from the summitt on the last day of the trip
Taghia is situated at an altitude of 1900m and the highest routes climb to 2700m meaning it will often experience snow in the depths of winter. There are options to climb in and out of the sun which means it possible to climb for many months of the year. March-May and September-November are the best times.
One of our friendly local guides
We stayed at Youssef Rezki’s gite (www.gite-aoujdad-taghia.com) where we received excellent hospitality from Yousef’s family who speak French. Breakfast and a hearty evening meal were provided, cooked in the traditional clay Tagine pots. Bottled drinking water was available to buy and there is a small local shop selling basic provisions.
The views of the crags from the patio are the best in the village. Its highly recommended to stock up on hill food and beer at one of the many markets during your drive over.
Christian Ravier has just published the 2019 2nd edition of his guidebook which is well worth getting as many new routes have been added since the 1st edition 2008 guide. www.christian-ravier.com
Twid Turner going full force on the drill . This was the 7c+ crux pitch
No rest for the wicked is a fully bolted sports route so 20 quick drawers should suffice. It would be advisable to take two of the modern 9.2mm fully rated ropes. One to climb on with the second allowing 2 ropes to be tied together in the event of an abseil retreat. Many of the other routes require the odd piece of traditional gear so it is advised that you do your research carefully before embarking on one of these. Many of the older routes are pretty run-out so not for the faint hearted
Posted on Monday 3rd August 2020