Here it is – the mega blog about a mega route. Beware – it’s long! I put important parts in bold, to be cheesy and assist the skim-reader.
Taghia is one of the most beautiful places in the world and it just so happens to have world class climbing as well. I went there for the first time last year with Alex Honnold. It was a very different scene from this trip; it was just us, a rope, some gear, no film crew, no photography bar our iphones and a lot of climbing got done.
This trip has been organised by Emily Harrington, a fellow North Face athlete and funded by The North Face, under the premise that it will be documented by the Reel Rock film tour guys, for the up and coming Reel Rock 8. Reel Rock is a very successful enterprise and we were psyched that they wanted to film our trip, and of course The North Face is psyched that they get the exposure when the film comes out with us in it wearing nice North Face jackets. So what does that mean for us?
It means we get a free trip to one of the most magical climbing destinations. But it also means that we have 2 or 3 film guys with us most of the time documenting what we do. A free trip, free jackets and all you have to do is get a camera wagged in your face every now and then? Of course things aren’t always as simple as they seem and having done a bit of this now, I knew this trip was going to be a lot different from mine and Alex’s almost exactly a year a go.
The idea of the trip was for Emily and myself to climb (and for those guys to film) one of Taghia’s hardest routes. ‘Babel’ put up by Titi Gentet, Nicolas Kalisz, Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit. I really have to hand it to those guys; they spent 15 days putting up a magnificent route, in a very admirable style.
Quoting Arnaud Petit from this Alpinist news article (http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web07f/newswire-morocco-taghia-babel) because he puts it better than I could:
The route is consistent at variations of grade 7, and the climbing is always runout, sometimes dangerously. We opened the line with minimal bolting, free climbing between the protection points and hanging on hooks, nuts, or pitons to haul the drill and place the bolts. This approach is referenced by some as “Larcher style”: sparse bolting and mandatory, engaging free climbing between bolts. On our route, the obligatory free climbing between bolts registered as difficult as 7a+ (5.12a). On the hardest pitches, bolts were spaced 4 meters apart. On easier sections, around 6c (5.11b), we placed bolts every 7 to 8 meters
The psychological aspect of the climb is just as (if not more) important as the physical and the technical
The overall difficulties, the beauty of certain pitches, and the environment and breadth of the wall combine to make Babel an exceptional big-wall free climbing experience
With big wall free climbing being the thing that most excites me in climbing, looking at this picture and hearing Arnaud’s words, I couldn’t not try Babel. Although not as high as El Cap, the style of climbing and run out nature of the pitches put Babel up there with routes such as Free Rider and Golden Gate. Having now done both Babel and Golden Gate, I must say that this is true. The crux pitch is 7c+/5.13, which is the same as Golden Gate and Free Rider, but nonetheless it’s hardly cutting edge standards of rock climbing. Despite having such low graded pitches Golden Gate and Free Rider are sought out prizes in climbing, with a free ascent of El Cap being a life time goal for many climbers. I think you could happily put Babel into this category; where it is less of a route in terms of height, it’s certainly more of a route in terms of (in the words of Tim Emmett) SPICE, with some pitches having 4 bolts in 60m and sustained climbing, with only 3 pitches of grade 6 in 20. For the brits out there – it’s a 800m E7.
So how did it go?
We arrived in Taghia on the wrong foot harbouring some Moroccan fauna of the diarrhea and vomit inducing variety. We climbed the first day (which resulted in a little accident) but found ourselves too sick to climb for a few days after that. Eventually our stomachs grew accustomed to their new inhabitants and we managed to drag ourselves up Fantasia. Fantasia (read about it here http://www.alpinist.com/doc/ALP14/climbing-notes-kaszlikowski) is 700m, 7c and a great route.. an amazing route! I tried it up to pitch 6 last year with Alex, but we got too cold and tired and came down. This year me and Emily did it, I did it free and onsight (apart from vague memories of last years efforts), which I was proud of, and Emily came close, falling only whilst onsighting this really tricky 7b+ pitch. It’s a must do for those climbing the grade.
Although Babel is ‘only’ 100m bigger and one + grade harder, having done them both – they are not in the same league. We hoped, having done Fantasia that we would be in good stead for Babel, but we were soon to find out that the brutalities of Babel were far and above anything we saw on Fantasia.
Although many people approach routes like this by coming in from the top and working things out, potentially stashing gear, or even going slow and taking portaledges, we thought that the route was within our means to go for the ground-up, in-a-day approach. We also thought it would be a lot more fun to try it in this style. Unless a route is dangerous (like many UK single pitches) I always aim to try routes ground up. It’s not about ethics, it’s about whats fun, and getting the most out of a route. If you come in from the top, you loose that element of the unknown, you loose that amazing feeling you get when you’re slapping around on a route trying to find the best holds, thinking as hard as you can to unlock a sequence before your timer runs out. They are the most fun and most engaging moments in climbing – and we were bound to have lots of them on a ground up attempt of Babel!
The wall is separated at it’s base by a big ledge and although there are three pitches in the canyon below the ledge, the meat of the climbing is above. We chose to take the advice of the previous ascentionists and try the first pitches before the rest of the route… and we were glad we did! The first pitch is a run out adventurous 7a+, probably about E6, and the second pitch is a run out 7b+, about E6 or 7. I got the second pitch, and I was proud to onsight the weird moves and keep my cool. It’s almost like these first pitches are the gateway to the route; if you get through unscathed, then you can attempt to fight the dragon!
We set our alarms for 3.30am, but in hindsight maybe we should have set them later, not because we were fast, but because I probably lost us more time trying to onsight the first 7b+ pitch off the ledge as a warm up in the dark than if I had tried it a bit later in the light. This type of limestone slab climbing, with no chalk and smeary feet is difficult to read at the best of times, but with my head torch casting weird shadows, I fell off not knowing where any of the good feet were. I think at this point – even though I wouldn’t have verbally admitted it – I knew we were in for a bit more than we bargained for. Not wanting to start the route in a bad style, I looked for the good feet, lowered back down to a big ledge (where the real climbing starts) and re-climbed the hard climbing I’d just done, this time I got past it, only to pull off a hold I couldn’t see was loose right near the anchor. What bad luck! Or bad climbing… Yet again I lowered back down to the ledge and re-climbed the pitch. It was an hour in to our ascent and already I’d climbed the same pitch 3 times!
The next few pitches went a lot smoother and we found ourselves on the 7c pitch, which although not the crux on paper, was deemed to be since it’s a technical slab. Emily gave it an awesome onsight attempt, but fell near the top. Seconding, I got a little higher but committed to a wrong slab move I couldn’t reverse and fell. Neither of us wanted to descend into all-out french freeing, so yet again we lowered to a mid height break/no-hands and re-climbed the crux sequence from there. We weren’t sending, but we were yosemite-freeing and that is better than nothing.
Babel is like many big walls in that the ‘easy’ pitches just aren’t easy. It’s almost like you may as well look at the topo and it read 7c,7c,7c, 7c, 7c…. for 20 pitches, because bar a few, it felt like I was trying 7c hard on all of them. If they aren’t weird and hard to read, then they’re loose, if you don’t get lost then you’re trying to go fast and you’re getting tired in different ways, if you’re feet aren’t screaming then your hands will be, if some of your arms muscles aren’t tired climbing then they will be when you haul the bag, and it goes on and on until you get to the top. If I didn’t love it, I’d hate it.
The biggest heart-breaker, was watching Emily battle to onsight the crux pitch, only to read the last few moves wrong and fall, literally a few feet from the belay. Although I seconded it clean, I knew that at this point the team was loosing its mojo; we were looking above our heads at 10 pitches left to do with little light and arm power left in the day.
The next pitches for me – although easing off a bit – were a big test. We were leading in blocks, so you get a rest in between pitches and I had just started my block after the crux – 7b and 7a+ has never felt so hard! Although I had taken a few falls, I had always lowered to ledges, and although not sending I felt like I was happy with my ascent so far and I wanted to keep it up. But then I had a nightmare 7b+ pitch. It was starting to get dark and I was trying to move quickly, I pulled over a roof into a big undercut flake, only to have it explode in my face. Hmmm, that’s annoying! I inspected the flake, lowered back down and re-climbed the traverse into the roof, only for it to happen again! There just seemed to be no part of that flake that wasn’t rotten! This time I didn’t lower back down (because it was getting silly) and found a no-hands under the roof, but it happened again! I really didn’t want to resort to pulling on the bolt, so I tried again, this time thinking light thoughts ‘don’t break, don’t break, I’m as light as a feather’, and it let me through. It felt like now we were in full desperation mode.
Although Emily had done some cheeky french freeing on the 7c+ pitch (she stood on a bolt to get to the anchor) I was impressed to see her try her up most hardest not to resort to out-right french freeing. At the start of the route, having both fallen, we could have got to the top in no time at all, if we’d moved quickly, pulled and rested on bolts, etc, but either because we’re stupid, or because we’re determined we free climbed the most we could, and in the end we were only a few meters short of an all-free ascent.
But then, perhaps I let us down! We got to a big ledge and above us there were only 2 more pitches – a 7a and a 6a. By this point, about 9pm, I have to say, we were very tired. I was still having fun… just about, but looking at Emily I could see that for her it was questionable. I was a little bit concerned for our safety. The pitches were getting more and more run out, some of them with only 4 bolts in 60m. I had just lead a really nice 6b+ pitch, and although I did it quickly and found the climbing not too bad, I was becoming aware that bad things could start to happen. It was dark, we were FREEZING cold, dehydrated and I was suffering from bad cramping. I would take my fingers off a crimp and my fingers would be locked in that position and I would have to bend them back against my leg. At this point, I was also too in-the-zone and too tired to be afraid. I found myself climbing, with no thought to the consequences of a fall, essentially I was getting complacent, and this is dangerous. I felt like, in our state it would be very easy for one of us to make a mistake and with 20 meter run outs above slabby and ledgy rock, that mistake could be disastrous if not fatal. Knowing that there was a gully system to the right of the last two pitches, I suggested we climb up that instead. In hindsight I feel a bit bad for this, perhaps I should have sacked it up and lead the last two pitches, they probably weren’t that bad. But like many of my potential critics I say that sat in the comfort of a nice warm house, not 700m off the ground, in a bitingly cold wind, feeling my muscles cramp uncontrollably, worried about our safety. In our position, the choice of climbing an easy gully, was like having a chocolate cake sat next to a bowl of rotten sprouts – you’d be an idiot not to take it.
So that’s what we did, I soloed up 4th class terrain to the summit and there we were – on the top! What a massive day! We were in really good spirits, mostly to be alive and well and not strapped to the side of a mountain any more. The film crew had reached the top before us and we gathered around their fire. Having Kris and Frosty film on the route, surprisingly didn’t make a huge difference to the way the route felt. They always seemed to be way off to the side or above, and for the most part we felt alone, especially on the first 5 and last 5 pitches – where we were actually alone – and I thank them for that. I’m not massively in to climbing ethics, but one thing I was strict about, was making sure the films guys didn’t support us. Even once we’d got to the top, they offered us food and water, but we declined. I was very defensive about the fact that this was a sponsored trip and it was paid for and all the rest of it, and I didn’t want that support to affect our ascent in any way. It’s one thing getting the trip paid for, quite another to have a load of subbies carry up your food and water, bivy gear and trainers.
5 hours later… I think we were both thinking the same thing – I bloody wish we’d taken them up on the offer of food and water! We had exercised for 23 hours straight and eaten maybe a 1000 calories, and drank a few liters of water. The walk down, in some ways, was the mental crux of the day. Usually I bounce down paths and love hiking around over rough terrain. On that night, my legs felt like jelly, like they could just give way at any second. We’d done the descent before (off Fantasia), but not in the dark and our head torches were failing. We spent about three hours trying to find the cairns leading the way down. Going down a gully, looking, not seeing anything, then having to hike back up, getting more tired and irritated by the second. I remember being stood on the edge of a cliff, looking to see if I could see the descent, a hundred meter drop below, thinking that I could easily just sway off it. At one point I think we were both close to all-out hallucinations, with cairns revealing themselves from all directions, taunting us, only to be a weird shaped rock, or a bush.
There are things about that day that I am not so proud of (taking the cake gully) but one thing I am really proud of is that we kept our cool 4 hours in to the descent after a ridiculously long day. We were so close to just curling up in a ball and waiting for the sun to rise, or close to loosing our cool and shouting at each other. But we didn’t and I think that is a testament to our partnership. Eventually we found the cairns and we staggered back to Said’s gite at 3.30am – 24 hours after we’d woken up!
The next day we felt like we’d been run over by a truck. I tried to have a shower but my fingers hurt to much to light a lighter and my feet said no to going in anything but flip flops. Alex Lowther (film producer) popped his head through the door and said ‘don’t worry it’s amazing what two rest days will do’. I look at Emily and we each with the silent thought ‘he has no idea’.
To go back on Babel? Maybe in a year or 2 or 3, when I’ve forgotten enough for it to be fun again, but for now, our ascent feels like something to be proud of and I don’t have the motivation to go back for the sake of a few meters of free climbing. There have been times where I’ve been super lucky to do a route and I feel like I’ve just scraped an ascent through the skin of my teeth (The PreMuir for example) so I’m happy to say this is one that slipped away.
Sometimes I think our ascent was a bit lame, that we should have sent. Maybe we should have come down after the 7c, rehearsed those pitches and then been in good stead to do the rest another day. But I like the way we tried it – putting all our eggs and beans and energy into one all-out attempt. It felt fun and natural and it was an amazing adventure I think we’ll both take to the old peoples home. You don’t remember the easy sends, the quick ticks, you remember the all-out battles, that take everything out of you, right until the sun starts to rise again. Since getting home I’ve chatted a little to Arnaud Petit over email and it was nice to hear his words of encouragement…. sometimes you need someone else to put things in to perspective… it’s easy to berate yourself and say ‘it’s only 7c+’, it’s not even that many pitches, but I know in my heart that it’s never about that, and it never should be. We can ask ourselves whether we failed or succeeded, whether Babel is cutting edge difficulty or not, whether we’re tough climbers or weak girls, we can ask these questions until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, it felt hard as nails and yet we gave it everything we could and well, I think that’s enough.
So what of the rest of the trip? At first the film guys were a little annoyed when we said we weren’t going up there again, they had a film to make. There is always a contention between climbing, professional climbing and documenting climbing because it’s difficult to know where your motivations lie. Sometimes when I climb I feel like Billy Eliot in that film when he dances down the street, not because I think I’m as good at climbing as he is at dancing (he’s really good at dancing), but because you can see its pure joy, and that he’s totally lost in what he’s doing. My point is is that giving everything to climbing isn’t like giving everything to your tax return, it’s a deeply personal thing, and to be done well it has to be entirely self motivated. You can say down in the village ‘yeah I’ll go back up there’, but if it’s for a film, for some idea of a professional climbing ‘career’, then you won’t be holding on to those crimps at 10.30 at night, above a 10 meter run out in the dark when your whole body says no. That’s just how it is. So we didn’t go back up, instead we got to work on the filming side of things
Making a climbing film doesn’t just involve pointing the camera at the action, it involves a lot of re-climbing for more footage. They need close-ups of hands and feet, they need different angles, they need the stuff that they missed, they need interviews. So we spent the last week, going back on pitches and doing all that stuff. I know by the end, myself and Emily were very mentally tired from the trip. Even though you try to keep the climbing separate and personal we both felt like there were a lot of other people’s energy, time and money resting on our climbing and the film, and this is quite a lot of pressure.
Now I’m home, and it’s all done and dusted and I can say I had a big adventure with a great partner, and hopefully there will be a brilliant film about that adventure. I know as climbers, we all have adventures, some of them push us right to the limit and others not. I feel like this will be a great film because the viewer will have either been in our shoes – and can relate to that feeling of having the perfect challenge, or they will be inspired to get out there and find there own adventure, that pushes them to fatigue induced hallucinations! Because really, these are the moments that we relish most.
A special thanks to the film guys Alex Lowther and Rob Frost who were by no means too annoying and worked bloody hard! To Kris Erickson, for being a true Montana hard man, taking beautiful photos and teaching us the local ways. To Emily for being an awesome partner and friend, and for essentially being the one to make the trip happen. And finally to Titi Gentet, Nicolas Kalisz, Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit for creating a perfect challenge. I must admit guys, it’s a little bit designer danger, but I wasn’t complaining!
VENGA LAS CHICAS!