Helping young people scale an unforgiving landscape of rock and rubble in the North African heat; if that already sounds tough then imagine that none of them have any climbing experience. This was the challenge facing Blacks' own Chris Starkie this summer.
Chris, along with other volunteers from Greater Manchester West Scouts, gave ten scouts the chance to take on the heights of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. It was a week of challenges-met, fears-faced and friendships forged.
The group of young men and women, aged 14-21 came together from all around the country. A few of them had scrambled up an indoor wall or two, but none had any experience of the terrain awaiting them. Thankfully, by the time the group set off to Morocco they had at least gathered for some training.
Those few weekend trips to Welsh rockfaces were a toe-dip into the world of climbing. More importantly, they were a chance for the group to get to know each other. This bonding would be crucial if the group were to rely on each other both on and off the rope. With different ages and hometowns, this was a very disparate group initially. Mountains are a great leveller, though.
The North Face had eagerly offered their support, contributing a sizeable amount of gear to the project. By the time the group was boots down in Morocco they were fully-equipped to tackle the mountains.
Even the highest-quality equipment can’t climb a mountain for you, though. Each of the ten adventurers would have to overcome their own limitations and stretch way outside their comfort zones to achieve the expedition goals. This was not a baby-step operation. Rather than aiming for altitude or a single summit, Chris had instead focused the trip on breaking new ground, both personal and geological. The group, most of whom had never climbed before the trip, would be attempting never-before-attempted routes. Often this would mean drilling entirely new bolt anchors into virgin rockfaces.
It wasn’t all handholds and belays either. During the eight-day adventure the group would tackle abseiling, controlled descents and zip-lines. This isn’t even to mention the trekking and mountain biking needed to reach the daily start point. It was a high-octane series of days that began early with breakfast and mule-packing.
Yes, mule-packing. Getting around the mountains isn’t straightforward and, though the group trekked or cycled in, a little four-legged help was needed to transport all the equipment (remember those new bolt anchors? Well a seriously big drill was needed for them). Getting the group and the kit into the wilds of the mountains was a challenge in itself. Especially when, on the first morning, one of the scouts revealed that they didn’t know how to ride a bike!
The isolation of the mountains wasn’t lost on the group either. The Toubkal National Park is high in the Atlas Mountains and 70k from Marrakesh. Jebel Toubkal, the parks highest peak, reaches over 4000 metres into the sky, criss-crossed with an endless array of smaller, technical climbs. Everyday the group made their way into the park from the tiny hamlet of Aremd. For those confronting inexperience and a fear of heights, the distance to the nearest hospital must have loomed large in the mind.
Finally, after a week of adventure and basic-living (far from the convenience of Wifi, Netflix or decent mobile phone coverage) the group returned to Marrakesh for a final night in a “nice” hotel. Chris’s hope is that the thrill of the adventure will linger longer than the luxury though, perhaps igniting a fire that will take some of these scouts back to the high places of the world.
Here at Blacks we hope the same.