Old, familiar muscles in my forearms begin to wake from a long hibernation as I wrap my fingers around the porous, red limestone of Morocco’s Todra Gorge. I never realized limestone could feel so rough, but relish the satisfaction of letting it carve calluses in my fingers and the sticky ease with which I move 60 feet above the valley. My body remembers the movements but nothing about the stinging smell of smoke and the day’s first shouted greetings between souvenir shop owners fits my registrar of what-it’s-like-to-rock climb.
I am a dot on the wall of the massive, towering, rock face that all but engulfs the gurgling Dades River that long ago dominated the landscape before cutting the gorge into existance. It feels unconquerable, yet each year hordes of climbers gather to clip in to the ancient stone. Gracefully, they balance, crimp, and grip their way thousands of feet upwards to where the rock meets the sky. I set my goal lower.
My feet find refuge on a wide ledge while I scan for my next move, but call and response bleats among a herd of sheep interrupt my focus. They lethargically envelop my partner Mohammad, like an army of invading clouds, led by an elderly Berber wrapped in the traditional, hooded, djellaba, and an uncanny resemblance to a Jedi master. Before climbers began trekking here for steep ascensions, nomadic pastoralists like the Jedi followed the natural eating patterns of their livestock throughout the High Atlas Mountains. I pause to watch these representatives of modern and tradition collide before yelling, “Take!” and continue along the vertical route millennia of weather has constructed and only recently humans have attempted to conquer.
The bleating fades out, the rush of water becomes a meditative rhythm, and intuitively my body sends me higher and higher until… “Fin!” I shout to Mohammad. Immediately, a burst of claps and shouted applause from a group of urban Moroccan teenagers shatter my peaceful sense of accomplishment and I snap to attention. It isn’t just the rock and me today – it’s me and the rock above a whole microcosm of life; the quiet gurgle of glacier water competing with young children splashing each other and the muffled hum of tourist vans. He slackens the rope while I try to pretend it’s totally normal to repel down from a climb to the congratulatory soundtrack of picnicking youth who gather here each Sunday. My expression, unsurprisingly, gives me away.
My arms, pulsating strained energy, prevent my fists from closing and urge an end to the climb. I coil up the rope and my partner tosses the heavy load of gear on his shoulder to prepare for a slow shuffle down the black tarmac that runs through the gorge; the river demoted to a curbside attraction. Off the wall, we re-immerse into the activity brought on by the mid-afternoon sun; the gorge has awoken.