Climbing Morocco: A 24-Hour Big-Wall Adventure with Emily Harrington and Hazel Findlay
Climbers Hazel Findlay and Emily Harrington are tackling big walls this month in Morocco. Recently they took on “Babel,” a 3,000-foot route in the Atlas Mountains, from the ground up. Here Emily shares their adventure. Read more about their expedition at http://www.neverstopexploring.com/blog/morocco/.
Hazel and I attempted an onsight of “Babel” two days ago. I’m proud to say that we came pretty damn close to freeing every pitch in good style. In the end, it wasn’t all onsight, and it wasn’t all totally free, but we gave it absolutely everything we had, topped out after 16 hours of climbing on the wall, and still had smiles on our faces.
We woke up at 3:30 a.m. to begin our climb. We forced down some food and caffeine and hiked an hour and a half to the base of the route, beginning the first pitch at 6 a.m., just after first light.
The first half of the wall is characterized by difficult technical slab climbing—meaning very few holds, spaced bolts, and little room for error when it comes to balance and technique. We were also onsighting which meant we had no idea where the holds were. There was no chalk on the wall because no climbers had been up there recently. It was the ultimate unknown challenge: just a 2,800-foot blank wall before us.
We climbed slowly through the first six pitches, freeing nearly all of them, but not as cleanly as we wanted to. I fell at the very end while trying to onsight the hardest 7c+ (13a) pitch. After 45 meters of battling I failed, slipping off in a zone where no holds seemed to be (there were, I just wasn’t finding them). I let out a heartbroken scream followed by a few sobs. There would be no repeating this pitch. I was already feeling tired and my skin was thin. We had far too much climbing left to keep moving so slowly. Hazel sent this pitch while seconding, and we continued to push, higher and higher.
We climbed onto a steeper, orange head wall, replacing grey slabs and micro crimps with massive “Swiss cheese” holds that we could almost sit down in. The change in angle was welcoming for our skin and toes, which were aching from all the slab climbing, but now the pump was setting in and our forearms began to suffer. We finally reached one of the easiest of the pitches – a long 6b+ (5.11a). I was looking forward to this pitch, to moving quickly on easy terrain. I offered to lead it and set off, motivated by the possibility of gaining some height and letting my mind and body rest for a bit. I was so, so wrong. I soon discovered that the nearly 60 meter pitch had only three bolts. It was so runout I felt like I was soloing. The climbing was confusing and there were bushes and loose rocks intermingled among the solid stone. I finally committed to the runouts – actually grabbing one draw after I placed it because I felt off balance while trying to clip. I arrived at the belay on a massive ledge, confidence shattered and nerves fried. My mind and body were wrecked. I couldn’t think straight. It was nearly 7 p.m. already. We had five pitches of hard climbing left and only one hour of daylight.
It was still my lead and I faced a runout 7b (5.12b) next. Hazel offered to take the lead but I said no. I wanted to turn it around. I focused and set off. I ignored the runouts, committed to the small holds that had begun to feel like razor blades, and just kept moving up in the fading light. I reached the anchors with a renewed attitude and psyche. But it was short lived. Hazel seconded and then took over the lead.
Now it was dark and freezing cold. I shivered and tried to be supportive as she quested up the next 7b pitch in the dark. Three times she broke a hold and came flying off the wall—a fit of frustrating screams and cursing. She kept trying again though, and eventually succeeded. The next pitch was a 6c (5.11b) and yet again it did not let us take our guards down. This time it was so dark and cold I could barely move or talk. I watched Hazel climb higher and higher without finding any bolts or solid gear (she carried a small set of wires with her but it proved fairly futile).
In the end, she clipped maybe two bolts and placed a sketchy wire before reaching the anchors. I followed on top rope, feeling weird and shaky and desperately wanting to stand on horizontal ground after nearly 15 hours on the wall. When I reached the belay Hazel expressed that se felt it was too dark, and we were too cold and tired to safely continue on Babel. There were only two pitches remaining, but the next pitch was a 7a (5.11d) and it looked like another cryptic horror fest. We opted to walk along the ledge until we reached a class 3 gulley we had previously scrambled up when we climbed another route on the same wall the week before.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
We quickly but safely simul-climbed up the gulley, reaching the top at 10:30 p.m.—16 1/2 hours after leaving the ground! Relief melted through me. We had reached the end. Our priority had been to free all of the pitches, but our main objective was to get to the top—a proud feat in itself.
We were stoked with our effort, but wasn’t over yet. We still had to walk back down to Taghia. The hike is usually about three hours, but this time it took us five. We got horribly lost trying to find the trail that leads down through the cliff band. My headlamp died, and Hazel’s was weak so we relied on the moonlight to guide us. We eventually found the right path after several failed attempts and a few conversations about whether or not to just try and sleep until daylight when we would be able to see better. We stumbled into the gîte at 3:30 a.m.—24 hours after we left it to set out on our journey.
I woke up the next morning with a deep ache in every muscle and joint in my body. The skin on my finger tips was so tender I could barely dress myself without wincing, and my hands were so sore they wouldn’t close into a fist. It felt glorious. There’s a certain blissful exhaustion that comes with completing such a journey, a joy in pushing oneself to the absolute max, feeling totally spent and empty. It’s cathartic and invigorating. We didn’t send the route, but in the end, that meant very little to me in comparison to the deep satisfaction I experienced after such an adventure.
Read more about their expedition at http://www.neverstopexploring.com/blog/morocco/ .