Morocco: Climbing and Community Service 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. His first report can be seen here.

In early February, an American family from Montana uprooted themselves and moved to the rural village of Aguddim, one of four villages in the rural commune of Zawiya Ahansal, Morocco. The area is situated in the Central High Atlas Mountains.

Kris and Cloe Erickson have been visiting the country since their honeymoon in 2003. However, their connections to the country were established before either was born. Cloe’s parents met each other in Morocco, and Kris’s grandfather was stationed at the US Air Force base near Casablanca for three years with his whole family, which included Kris’s father from the age of 11 to 14. Their daughter Noor, since her birth in 2009, has spent more time of her life in Morocco than in Montana. Cloe began formal study of the Arabic language in 2002 in anticipation of an eventual visit to the country.

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Zawiya Ahansal panorama; Photograph by Sam Elias
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The first Igherm project in Amezay; Photograph courtesy the ACF

Their honeymoon in 2003 focused on rock climbing in the tall limestone gorges of Taghia, one of the other villages of Zawiya Ahansal. This trip confirmed the connection that each of them felt with the country, and left them eager to return. It wasn’t until 2006 that they would get the opportunity.

Kris, a professional athlete for The North Face, had a project through the brand for a climbing expedition with a philanthropic component. In the spring of 2006, Kris and Cloe returned to scout locations, make preparations, and organize logistics. They returned in the fall, partnered with Global Giving, with a larger team of athletes to establish new climbing in Taghia, work on the trail systems of the area, and rebuild the school’s roof in the village.

Cloe acted as translator and organized all the logistics of food, lodging, and transportation. At the end of the expedition, while staying the night in another village, Amezray, the couple found themselves admiring one of the Igherms. Igherms are the historical centerpieces of the community. They were built as communal fortified granaries, and some were also the homes of Sufi Muslim saints. They are the largest and most ornate buildings in the region. There are nine in Zawiya Ahansal, ranging from 200 to 600 years old. Each needs restoration. On this particular evening, Cloe and Kris found themselves wondering about restoring the beautiful building in front of them. Cloe as Chair of the Board of Historic Preservation Commission of Livingston, Montana, with a Master’s Degree in Arcitecture from Montana State University, not only decided that it was possible, but that she was going to be the one to do it.

It took from 2007 to 2010 to complete the first Igherm restoration project. The work was done in phases as Cloe battled through her first large scale fundraising effort, as well as the weather through the changing seasons. She also became pregnant in early 2008, and had Noor on Jan. 10, 2009.

That same year, to help finish the project, Cloe established the Atlas Cultural Foundation (ACF) in February. It would also serve as the platform for any future projects. 2009 marked the first student groups to arrive and work on behalf of the ACF. After the first Igherm restoration was completed in 2010, the ACF refined its mission and expanded its areas of focus from just the cultural preservation by way of architectural restoration projects to also include both health and education branches. In 2010, Kris guided people in the Atlas Mountains for the first time.

As the Erickson’s found themselves spending more time in Morocco, they began to contemplate having a permanent residence there. Because of the incredible impact that they had on the community to date, the Sheik of Zawiya Ahansal outright gave them a parcel of his own land, and by the fall of that year, construction was under way. In 2011 and 2012, Cloe spent more than six months of each year in the country.

By the end of 2012, a second Igherm was restored and projects were underway as health and education initiatives. A tutoring program with a dedicated teacher was created for Kindergarten through 6th grade children. They started Health Awareness Days as a communal event with a specific topic, the first was personal hygiene. Computer training and English lessons commenced as well. In addition, the Erickson home was completed, and they moved in and became the only foreigners in history to be accepted by the community and take residence in this area.

The start of 2013 saw the third Igherm restoration, the addition of a second dedicated teacher to the tutoring program due to demand, and the second annual Health Awareness Days with a focus on trash.  This included the construction of a community refuse oven.

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A village man walking with the restored River Igherm in the back ground in Aguddim; Photograph by Sam Elias
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Planting the community garden project with the locals; Photograph by Kris Erickson

This year will be a very busy year for the Atlas Cultural Foundation and the Erickson family. The third Igherm restoration will be completed, and funding is already secured for the fourth, so the work will begin before the year is up. The tutoring program now sees 160 local children, six days a week.

The third annual Health Awareness Days is scheduled for the last week of May and first week of June. The topic this year is nutrition and farming. A large community garden has been planted and it will serve as an agricultural project in sustainable food systems to both educate the community, as well as provide fresh produce to the village people. There will be a community wash station constructed for the village women to congregate at together. It will be a place for them to come together and interact, which will be more ergonomic and environmentally friendly than when the women wash their family’s clothes bent over in the river.

Two separate foreign groups that have visited Zawiya Ahansal for education and service projects on behalf of the ACF, and another 10 different student groups scheduled for the remaining months of the year. Over 300 students will visit the area this year.

Living in Zawiya Ahansal for the last two weeks, I have seen firsthand the impact that Cloe and Kris and The Atlas Cultural Foundation have had here. The restored Igherms are impressive in size and beautiful central elements of the villages. Cloe and Kris explained that the sense of pride amongst the community was tangible after the completion of the first Igherm. Walking through the villages with them and their daughter Noor, it is apparent that they are very respected and welcome, even loved. It’s been quite remarkable to see their life here. Though there has been difficulty at nearly every turn, and stark contrasts exist–being outsiders living in a Muslim country, and being avid outdoor recreationalists in an area where people are far too poor to pursue a similar lifestyle–their commitment to this area is unwavering.