Climbing in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas

Morocco had never been a country I longed to visit, until I actually went there.

On arriving in Marrakesh, the classic hustle and bustle became quickly apparent. The taxi ride into the old town miraculously dropped us off very close to our accommodation, from where we were coincidentally met a man who worked there. We were greeted with mint tea and delicious toasted sweet fennel bread, settled in and set off to explore the streets and find some dinner.

The next day we managed to get back to the airport, hire a car and drive south. The terrain outside Marrakesh was flat and featureless, but became more mountainous as we reached our destination for the night, the Kasbah de Tizourgane.

Morning at the Kasbah de Tizourgane
Morning at the Kasbah de Tizourgane

We arrived after the sun had set, giving a more adventurous feel to the steep dirt track up to the gates. However, once our bags were hauled up to the reception in a luggage lift and we were led through the cosy corridors, it was clear we had found a comfortable place to rest. A warm but calm greeting that felt a world away from Marrakesh preceded a delicious meal and sleep. The place seemed to be patronised largely by climbers of varying European origin. We decided to stay here a while.

Approaching Adrar Iffran
Approaching Adrar Iffran

Our first task the following day was to stock up on food and water. Once done, we were able to walk in to wrong crag, giving us a grand and adventurous approach to the south west face of Adrar Iffran, where we managed to get in a 3 pitch VS route to get a feel for the rock. It was at the top of this climb as the sun was setting that it dawned on me how beautiful this landscape could be, that had previously held no appeal. As we descended, the peace and stillness was only broken by the call to prayer resonating around the valley. We arrived back at the car as the light faded and made our way back to the Kasbah.

Sunset at Adrar Iffran
Sunset at Adrar Iffran

The following day we set off to the Samazar valley, our objective lying an hour driving up and down a rough and rocky dirt track. The Hyundai i10 was truly in its element. After a very short walk we found ourselves at the foot of our route, the central buttress of Knight’s Peak, a subsidiary summit of Aylim, The Great Rock. For nearly 500 metres we worked our way up pinnacles, ridges and faces, culminating in the cracked pillar, a battle of an overhanging crack.

Topping out on Knight's Peak
Topping out on Knight’s Peak

Topping out on this outstanding route, the descent lay before us, which turned into the crux of the day; a carpet of thick, thorny undergrowth which lined the valley between us and the car. After a few errors we eventually reached more amenable terraces and the dry riverbed that was the return path.

Finding a way down through the dense spiky undergrowth
Finding a way down through the dense spiky undergrowth

We managed to fit some other climbing in, then the weather deteriorated for a day or two, turning the quartzite rock instantly slick with the first small drops of rain.

Samazar valley view
Samazar valley view

With a new day came better weather and renewed enthusiasm for climbing. We headed towards Tafraout and the Lion’s Face. The approach to this crag is a fairly involved affair through a complex system of gorges.

On the approach to the Lion's Face
On the approach to the Lion’s Face

Our ascent was a combination of following the most natural line and occasional consultation of the guidebook description. The route featured big exposure and sparse gear for protection, but always with good holds. There were frequent patches of loose rock which added to the adventurous feel of the route.

Eventually reaching the ridge which led to the summit, we moved together to the top with an incredible light display unfolding around us.

Descent from Lion's Face
Descent from Lion’s Face

The guidebook struck again on the descent, seeming to avoid using any obvious features of the terrain. A good path became obvious and we found our way down through more spectacular scenery back into the gorge and to the car, just as the last light of the day was fading.

We finished the trip with a night in the beach town of Taghazout, something a little different to end the trip.

The sea at Taghazout
The sea at Taghazout

A winter morning in Houffalize

E25 Transeuropean Road Trip

The E25 is a long distance European journey between Hoek in the north and Palermo in the South. Circumstances necessitated that I drive a large part of this from Cagliari near the southern end in Sardinia to IJmuiden, near Amsterdam in the north.

I arrived in Sardinia via the sprawling beast that is Rome airport in early December; the heavy crowds attracted in summer thankfully not evident on the island.

To break up the drive through Sardinia, I stopped off at Nuraghe Losa, fascinating Bronze Age structures that are thought to have been used for storage and distribution of products of the land.

Bronze Age structures at Nuraghe Losa
Bronze Age structures at Nuraghe Losa

After finally locating the ferry terminal in Porto Torres (hint: look out for the enormous ferry), I embarked, ate and settled in for my first night sleeping on a boat. Sailing across the nocturnal Ligurian Sea, I awoke the next morning at Genoa.

Sunrise over Genoa
Sunrise over Genoa

The road on the way out of Genoa twists up, around and through the mountainous terrain in a bustling arrangement of tunnels and bridges. Eventually a plateau is reached from where the Alps loom in to view. I crossed through the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Entering the Mont Blanc tunnel
Entering the Mont Blanc tunnel

The way north was mostly foggy, with a few frosty trees punctuating the journey to Belgium, where I finished for the day.

The next morning I woke early to temperatures well below zero. With plenty of time to get to the ferry port of IJmuiden, and as I would be passing by, I took a little time in the morning to explore Houffalize, often host to a round of the mountain bike XC World Cup.

A winter morning in Houffalize
A winter morning in Houffalize

Nestled in the Ardennes, it’s a pretty little town in its own right and was a great place to wander around on a cold winter morning.

Boarding the ferry at IJmuiden for another overnight sea voyage was where I left the mainland and returned to the UK. A fun impromptu adventure!

Leaving IJmuiden
Leaving IJmuiden
Bowfell Buttress

Classics: Bowfell Buttress

First ascended in 1902, and featured in Ken Wilson’s Classic Rock (1978), Bowfell Buttress (VD) is one of the Lake District classic rock climbs. For a route of such history and character, the experience should encompass the mountain as a whole; gaining the summit by means of an impressive route.

An ascent of Bow Fell via Bowfell Buttress is just this, a splendid yet accessible expedition in the heart of the Lake District. At 902m, Bow Fell is one of the highest peaks in the national park and Wainwright places it “among the best half-dozen”.

The Approach

Tradition dictates a classic starting point of the Old Dungeon Ghyll. The natural route choice of The Band dominates the view directly ahead.

On the approach: The Band (centre), Bowfell (right) and Crinkle Crags (left)
On the approach: The Band (centre), Bowfell (right) and Crinkle Crags (left)
Showing the way
Showing the way

Stool End sits at the toe of The Band, a broad protrusion into Great Langdale separating Mickleden to the north and Oxendale to the south. The Bowfell aspirant is elevated efficiently along this panoramic shelf.

The path up The Band overlooking Oxendale
The path up The Band overlooking Oxendale

At a flattening in the ridge, as the summit begins to loom above, the main path is left in favour of the climbers’ traverse.

Heading towards the climbers' traverse
Heading towards the climbers’ traverse

This path skirts the impressive arena of crags to the north east of Bow Fell summit. Passage affords magnificent views to the Langdale Pikes, down to Mickleden and Great Langdale beyond.

Panorama from the climbers' traverse
Panorama from the climbers’ traverse

Looking back into the mountain reveals massive features such as the iconic Great Slab, bounded on one side by the river of boulders and on the other by air.

The Great Slab above the climbers' traverse
The Great Slab above the climbers’ traverse

Not to be overlooked are the smaller details, such as the Waterspout, a small spring that is passed on the way.

The Waterspout, Bowfell Buttress in the background
The Waterspout, Bowfell Buttress in the background

At the northern end of this ring of towering rock, you find yourself faced with the unmistakable bastion that is Bowfell Buttress.

Bowfell Buttress
Bowfell Buttress

The Climb

The route works the line of least resistance up this imposing structure. The first pitch provides an amiable scramble towards a smooth chimney, alluding to the very ‘trad’ nature of the route.

Climber on the first chimney
Climber on the first chimney

Belay stances throughout the climb are generous, and allow relaxed enjoyment of the surroundings.

A fine position overlooking the Great Slab
A fine position overlooking the Great Slab

The moves following the initial chimney require a steady composition, stepping out on more exposed ledges as the route weaves its way upwards.

Stepping out to airier ground with Bow Fell summit in view
Stepping out to airier ground with Bow Fell summit in view

The crux is a steep but well protected crack. Arguably surpassing the grade of VD, this feature has become highly polished in the long history of the route.

Climbing slabs having overcome the slippery crack
Climbing slabs having overcome the slippery crack

Although wires are helpful in earlier pitches, the buttress gradually offers up more and more large cracks that hexes will happily seat in.

Big trad gear for a big trad climb
Big trad gear for a big trad climb

The beauty of this route lies in being able to access some superb big mountain situations whilst always having excellent holds for hands and feet.

Exposed positions but always positive holds
Exposed positions but always positive holds

Topping out on the route brings you to Low Man and within a short amble of the summit of one of the highest peaks in the Lake District, Bow Fell.

Bow Fell casting its shadow over Mickleden
Bow Fell casting its shadow over Mickleden

The Descent

To complete the mountain day, it would seem improper having climbed Bowfell Buttress to return down without visiting its namesake peak. Taking just a few steps beyond the top of Low Man quickly rewards with stunning views to the Scafell massif and over Eskdale.

Sunset over the Scafells
Sunset over the Scafells

Even on a sunny summer day, if you pick the right time you can find yourself sharing the hills with only the true locals.

The locals. Herdwick sheep overlooking Eskdale
The locals. Herdwick sheep overlooking Eskdale

Descending south from the summit of Bow Fell, Three Tarns is a tempting place to bed down for the night in good conditions.

Three Tarns col. Pike of Blisco is to the left. To the right, Crinkle Crags. Beyond, the Coniston fells
Three Tarns col. Pike of Blisco is to the left. To the right, Crinkle Crags. Beyond, the Coniston fells

Returning to Langdale and the Old Dungeon Ghyll allows you to look back once more on your route.

Sunset skyline looking towards Bow Fell
Sunset skyline looking towards Bow Fell

Notes

Bowfell Buttress is a classic route and as such there is a high probability of having to queue. However, starting particularly early or late in the day can mitigate this possibility. Pretty much any Lake District select guidebook will contain this route.

Map and guidebook for Bowfell Buttress
Map and guidebook for Bowfell Buttress

A simple rack of protection is adequate for this route; a set of wires, some hexes and a few slings of different sizes should more than cover your needs.

Lac du Ninu

Classics: Corsica’s GR20 North

Corsica is a mountainous island in the Mediterranean Sea off the south coast of France. Due to this location, the population of Corsica has experienced a turbulent history of colonisation. However, it is the sparsely populated, rugged interior of the island that concerns the GR20, a north-south traverse of Corsica.

Reputedly the most demanding of the Grande Randonnée long distance itineraries, the GR20 involves scrambling on the main route and optional adjacent summits making a superb objective for adventurous walkers comfortable on this terrain. The northern tranche of the route, from Calenzana to Vizzavona, casts the spikiest section of the profile.

Taken in the classic north to south direction, the GR20 begins in Calenzana, a small town in the north of the island. Before going to Calenzana, most will first visit Calvi on the north west coast of Corsica. If your journey begins in Bastia, it’s worth taking the train journey across to Calvi to get a taster of the beautiful scenery you will encounter.

Views from around Calvi: a busy street; the citadel; and the view to the mountains from the citadel
Views from around Calvi: a busy street; the citadel; and the view to the mountains from the citadel
Taking off from the back streets of Calenzana, an unassuming start of the GR20 trail, the first stage is predominantly uphill.

Leaving Calenzana and the sea behind
Leaving Calenzana and the sea behind
Panoramic views rapidly unfold as lizards scuttle across the parched terrain.

Early views on the GR20
Early views on the GR20
Keep an eye out high and low for the flora and fauna along the way.

Flora on the GR20: big and small, dead and alive
Flora on the GR20: big and small, dead and alive
Flocks of mouflon range across the rocky slopes of the island
Flocks of mouflon range across the rocky slopes of the island
The early morning sun makes the mountains glow, and early starts can help deal with the extreme heat that is possible in the summer months.

Morning sun on the GR20
Morning sun on the GR20
One of the most spectacular situations on the route is encountered after climbing to the Bocca Piccaia: the towering rocky spires surrounding the Ladroncellu valley. The route circles the head of this grand arena with some entertaining walking.

Morning light in the Ladroncellu valley
Morning light in the Ladroncellu valley
Further into the route lies the spectacular Spasimata gorge, where sprawling slabs are crossed.

Spasimata Slabs
Spasimata Slabs
It pays to keep an eye on the weather; forecasts can be obtained at mountain refuges. Hot sunny days can easily turn into thunder storms.

High in the mountains and dark clouds gather
High in the mountains and dark clouds gather
The first tarmac met since setting off is the access road for Haut Asco, an old ski station.

The descent to Haut Asco
The descent to Haut Asco
It can be worth staying in Haut Asco an extra night so a day can be spent tackling one of the peaks close to the GR20, Monte Cinto. The way up requires more challenging scrambling than yet found on the main route and at 2706m, Monte Cinto is also the highest point on the island.

Approach to Monte Cinto
Approach to Monte Cinto
Leaving Haut Asco behind, the GR20 climbs once again to more remote terrain.

The climb to the Col Perdu
The climb to the Col Perdu
The Col Perdu overlooks the famous Cirque de la Solitude, where the path descends steeply into the basin; several fixed chains were set up here to assist in the passage through the cirque. However, after an accident resulting in seven deaths in 2015, the GR20 has been rerouted from Haut Asco. The route now crosses very close to Monte Cinto and the fixed chains have been removed from the Cirque de la Solitude.

Cirque de la Solitude views: the view down the valley; the characteristic red and white flashes show the way on GR routes; and ambient clouds at the start of the descent
Cirque de la Solitude views: the view down the valley; the characteristic red and white flashes show the way on GR routes; and ambient clouds at the start of the descent
Once these difficulties are surmounted, the route briefly dips back into more verdant land before rising above the tree line again.

Climbing to the Bocca di Foggiale
Climbing to the Bocca di Foggiale
The Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori sits near the source of the Golo, the longest river in Corsica. A short excursion involving exposed scrambling to the summit of the Paglia Orba can be made from here.

The view from the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori towards the Paglia Orba (right)
The view from the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori towards the Paglia Orba (right)
Sitting at 1991m, this refuge can be a cold place to spend the night, even in the middle of summer.

Early evening at the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori
Early evening at the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori
Waking up high in the mountains means the next day is off to a good start. Coming down from here, the GR20 crosses a rare section of road at the Col de Vergio; coaches full of people arriving at the hotel here give a fleeting glimpse back to the world away from the journey.

Morning light at the head of the Golo
Morning light at the head of the Golo
Leaving the asphalt and moving south from the Col, the next section of the route unfolds over flatter ground. The high standard of scenery is maintained, with the highlight being the serene Lac du Ninu.

Lac du Ninu
Lac du Ninu
This is a fantastic spot to have some lunch, but beware the horses which have no sense of personal space and go from group to group in the hope of scrounging a morsel of food.

Horses on the GR20. Watch your lunch
Horses on the GR20. Watch your lunch
From the Refuge de Manganu, an abrupt boulder-laden ascent gains higher ground.

Boulder strewn slog to the Brèche de Capitellu
Boulder strewn slog to the Brèche de Capitellu
The GR20 has resumed its mountainous character after a sojourn across the planes.

Lac de Capitellu
Lac de Capitellu
From the Refuge de Petra Piana, it is worth leaving the often busy main trail to take in an ascent of Monte Ritondu, Corsica’s second highest point at 2622m. Reaching the quiet of the Lavu Bellebone basin is a welcome break from the crowds.

Looking to Monte Ritondu from Lave Bellebone
Looking to Monte Ritondu from Lave Bellebone
The final climb to the summit is along a spiny ridge, an entertaining scramble from the pinnacle at Col du Fer de Lance.

View from the summit of Monte Ritondu back along the ridge; and the Lance
View from the summit of Monte Ritondu back along the ridge; and the Lance
As Vizzavona draws closer, there is a final optional summit of Monte d’Oru.

Approach to Monte d'Oru
Approach to Monte d’Oru
Requiring some scrambling to reach the summit, this is the perfect way to conclude the northern half of the GR20.

Monte d'Oru
Monte d’Oru
Arriving at Vizzavona there is the option to take the train towards Ajaccio to the south and west, Calvi or Bastia in the north. Alternatively, continue with the southern half…

Notes

Navigation is straightforward, but maps are still essential and a guidebook helps you get the most out of the route. For the main path, follow the red and white flashes on the rocks. Variations and optional summits are usually signed with different colour flashes.

Guidebook and IGN maps for GR20 north
Guidebook and IGN maps for GR20 north
Packing for the GR20 can be done in a fast and light style, which is recommended for days of back to back walking; a 35-45l pack can be perfectly adequate. Accommodation is in refuges or camping in designated areas near the refuges. The refuges have outdoor stoves, bring something to light the gas with and you will soon be popular. The amount of food on sale at the refuges varies, make sure to take enough to keep going for a few days if you don’t intend to dine in and of course take plenty of water each day. Refuge showers are refreshing.

Sunrise and sunset on the GR20
Sunrise and sunset on the GR20