Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pillar le Classique

After months and months of dreaming of climbing the mystical route that would begin in the heart Todra Gorge, the time is finally upon me. The original line of the gorge, established in 1964 by a French team, ascends the face of the most prominent pillar. It follows cracks and continues directly up the face of the Pillar, 1,500 feet to the summit. The route requires a "trad rack", which is comprised of nuts, cams and aliens, which we place in the cracks and rock face for our protection as we climb. We were even able to borrow a #4 camelot (a big piece) from the Norwegians, which brings a little added comfort, knowing we will be able to protect larger cracks... All that heavy luggage is paying off!

Ryan wins the roe-sham-boe and takes the "sharp end" or lead, for the first pitch of about 150 feet. A "pitch" in climbing terms is the length in which climbers advance in one rope length. It is typically between 100 and 200 feet in length. During a pitch, the leader goes first, placing gear in the rock to protect a fall. Once at the top, the leader makes an anchor and belays the follower up. The follower collects the gear that the leader placed on the way up as he climbs up to the leader. The climbers then typically switch roles, and the follower now becomes the leader for the next pitch.

The climbing is cold as we are not in the sun yet, and the first pitch is difficult. Ryan prevails through the crux with stemming and finger locks, all with nearly numb hands!

The second lead pitch is my turn, and we are in the sun now. The way to go is not exactly clear, as the crack that looks like I should be climbing appears very steep, dirty, and lacking in places to place protection. The only gear I can see is the ring of an old, rusted piton, probably placed in 1963!

I make the first moves and begin to stem, which is where you have your feet very wide on two opposing walls. One of the walls is very dirty, and I reluctantly clip the old piton ring. I have very little confidence that this will hold if I have a fall of any significance. "No falls, stay strong," I tell myself. The sun beats down, and beads of sweat roll down my neck as I crimp hard on the side wall and shift my feet up the dirty counterpart.

I am surprised this is so difficult and I begin to wonder if I am going the right way. Doubt begins to creep. My forearms flare, my heart pumps rapidly, and fear begins to rear its ugly head. I notice the physiological changes in my body, coupled with this familiar emotional state. I tell myself to breathe, and repeat my mantra: smart, smooth, and strong. I must continue on. My breathing keeps my physiology in check and my mantra keeps me mentally in focus with the task. Inch by inch, I make my way through the challenging crux, which leads to a beautiful diagonal hand crack. I feel at home jamming up the remainder of the vertical pitch to the belay ledge. Feelings of relief, happiness, confidence, and excitement flow though me. YES.

We still have 8 pitches to go! The climb continues up steep yet clean rock to a beautiful overhanging roof, which Ryan leads in style. We are getting into the groove now. Our belay transitions are fast and gear management is flowing smoothly. Pitch after pitch, we continue upward, overcoming consistent challenges while we shout words of support and communication to each other.

Pitches 8 and 9 are supposedly rated somewhere between 5.6 and 5.9 - so I decide to combine these pitches together for a long 230 foot pitch. (This turns out to be quite challenging, as I used up all of my gear, with difficult moves at the end of long run-outs (a run-out is the distance in between gear placements, which means the longer you "run it out," the bigger the distance of the fall becomes).

I create a natural anchor with the resources I have and bring Ryan up on belay, where the final pitch awaits. The last pitch looks beautiful and I liken it to a golden friction pitch (like on the Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton). Ryan climbs up and wonders out loud if we are off route because the climbing is supposed to be easy at this point. It's not. Ryan gets to the last exit move through a blank corner with very suspect protection, and he is stuck.

He searches for gear placements to protect the move. Nothing Ryan finds yield much confidence. The sun passes over the face and I remain ready in the shadowed belay ledge. This last move is a committing, hard face move, with no guarantee that the commitment will lead to better holds! Eventually, Ryan summons his courage and goes for it. He makes it through the move and we both are relieved. I follow the pitch and can see why this move caused such a dilemma! It turns out that one of, if not the most, difficult move of the whole climb was the final exit move off the face! I finish off the last pitch and soon we are on the summit celebrating the successful ascent of the Pillar le Classique!

We meander down a forty-five minute walk off trail through shepards and sheep and beautiful Moroccan Landscapes. At the base we meet Hassan, and share a glass of Berber Whiskey over tales of the ascent....


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