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Photograph by Sam Elias

Morocco: Climbing and Cultural Preservation in the High Atlas

Sam Elias is a professional climber for The North Face. He has traveled all over the world for climbing. Currently, he is living in Morocco in a remote mountain village, developing new climbing and working with a humanitarian aid organization called the Atlas Cultural Foundation.

The Atlas Mountains are a series of mountain ranges that stretch across northwestern Africa. These ranges separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert. They extend about 1,600 miles through Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The heart of the range is within Morocco and contains peaks up to 13,665 feet tall. This area, known as the High Atlas, is one of the most striking natural features of Africa, and is internationally revered for its beauty, and also as a place for recreation. Climbers have been visiting this region since the 1950s–skiers since the 1970s. The High Atlas sub-range of Morocco offers the easiest access to climbing and skiing in Africa, and some of the best of both on the entire continent. The range also offers exceptional trekking and mountain biking opportunities.

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The village of Zawiya Ahansal, High Atlas, Morocco; Photograph by Sam Elias

Located deep in the central High Atlas sub-range of Morocco is a rural commune named Zawiya Ahansal. It is comprised of the established villages Amezray, Aguddim, Taghia, and Tighanimin, as well as the surrounding area. It is the largest rural commune in the country. Sidi Said Ahansal, who was a traveling North African Islamic scholar, founded it in the 13th century.  The current population of Zawiya Ahansal is between 10,000 and 15,000 people and includes permanent residents, transhumants, and seasonal nomads. It is rugged and remote, and the weather can be harsh. This combined with a historical lack of basic infrastructure such as roads, health care, and electricity makes difficult living conditions. Once a thriving area, it’s had a steady decline in prosperity since the beginning of the 20th century due to the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956 and the resulting change in the political landscape. Now, it is considered the second poorest region in the country, and the inhabitants of Zawiya Ahansal are among the the most rural people in North Africa.

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Chloe and Kris Erickson with their daughter, Noor; Photograph by Sam Elias

The Atlas Cultural Foundation (ACF) is a U.S. based NGO that focuses on cultural preservation, health, and education in rural Morocco. The efforts of the organization are currently focused in Zawiya Ahansal. Cloe Medina Erickson founded it in 2009 with a mission to collaborate with rural Moroccans to improve their quality of life in the fields of cultural preservation, public health, and community education. Cloe has been in Morocco part-time for more than ten years, is a legal resident of Morocco, and speaks Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and Berber. She oversees the initiatives on the ground in Morocco and has developed partnerships with the local tribes, authorities, and the Moroccan Ministry of Culture.

In addition to the ACF, Cloe with her husband Kris run Atlas Cultural Adventures (ACA). ACA creates and operates international service learning projects and guiding of all types, primarily climbing and skiing. Kris is a professional photographer and athlete. He has a degree in the former from Montana State University, and one in the latter from The School of Hard Knocks. He has done international expeditions all over the world, climbing and skiing the most serious objectives, always documenting the journeys with his camera. His foremost mentor was the late climber Alex Lowe, and the tutelage continued with Conrad Anker after Alex passed. He has been guiding for 14 years and is nearing the end of his international guide certification (IFMGA). Over the years as Cloe has been building the ACF and ACA, Kris has been exploring the area’s climbing and skiing, as well as guiding other people in these activities in the area.

In the past few years, the ACF and the ACA have grown substantially. Because of this, in early February, Cloe, Kris, and their five-year-old daughter Noor moved from their home in Livingston, Montana, to the village of Aguddim in Zawiya Ahansal. Their family is fully committed to their life in rural Morocco, living in the Atlas Mountains with the Berber people. They are simultaneously helping the underprivileged local population, and exploring the natural landscape through their passions of climbing and skiing.