Posted on: June 17, 2008

Don Roth

The day began with a simple enough, 6a sport-climb. But, while I lowered to the ground, a local man took an extraordinarily keen interest in our equipment. Did he need climbing equipment?

The nomadic lifestyle of goat herders in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco lends itself to having the time to watch the recreational movements of climbers while keeping one eye on the goats. We had grown accustomed to the normal gazes of the locals. They always had wishes of good luck, and relished the opportunity to practice a few words of a foreign language. But today, this man, whom we had never met, was pulling on the rope and investigating the stickiness of our climbing rubber. After thoroughly kicking the tires, he decided we were primed for a task.

Hamu had woken in the morning to find seven of his goats sleeping on a high perch far above the riverbed. The cliff walls were too steep for Hamu to ascend, and evidently the goats were also reluctant to down-climb the precipice. He told us, in a combination of French and Berber (neither of which we speak), of his predicament. He needed the goats down, so he could keep moving. He wanted us to climb to the level of the goats and assist in herding them off. He pointed out exactly where they were, and demonstrated how to throw rocks near them to scare them into the intended direction. We had seen this done, and understood our job.

This, however, was not the problem. The true obstacle facing me was a conflict between an opportunity to help a fellow man, and the need to maintain my relationship. Melanja had never climbed more than 30 meters off the ground! Despite my constant pleas to give multi-pitch, traditionally protected climbing a try, this young Slovenian was perfectly content to stick with single-pitch, sport-climbing. To her, the challenge in climbing was in getting to the next grade, not the next peak. I knew diplomacy was needed.

Admittedly, my desire to get a little higher of the ground may have biased my explanation of the situation. But we’re talking about saving goats! We’re going to help an old man. It will be simple climbing. I was elated when she said she was up for it - because she “couldn’t say no to an old man,” and “If the goats can climb it!” If my alpine ambitions had not been enough to persuade her, then this man’s plight had tugged the right heartstrings. She had barely finished saying okay, before I had pulled our rope " draws in place " and was coiling it over my shoulder. Our first goat herding experience would also be her first multi-pitch!

I think Hamu expected the swift ascent that he had seen in my sport-climb warm up. He had no way of knowing that I was coercing Melanja up each pitch, shortening every lead to be able to coach every step of the way. Seemingly, she was motivated by our mission. I was happy to see her smiling " our climb connecting her to the kind people of this area. But our pace was snail-like, and this is what the people below saw.

At about the halfway point of our climb, the whistling began. We turned and looked, but could not decipher their gestures. We continued our ascent. As we got higher, the calls became more pointed. We were having fun, but the crowd had grown to a herd of its own, and Melanja began to fell pressured. We were about ten meters from the terrace, and we could not see the goats. The whistling and waving was clear at this point " they wanted us to come down. We reasoned that we must have scared them down the other side, and essentially accomplished our mission.

After a few abseils, and a little down-climbing, we reached the valley floor. Only Hamu’s family remained, and they were all smiles. We were full of pride, certain we had helped this man, and his goats. “Motos?” I inquired, referring to the goats. Hamu expressed that the goats remained stranded. But he was relieved that Melanja was on the ground. He had not considered her involvement, and felt that those heights are no place for a woman. They called us off because they were afraid for Melanja.

Even though we were disappointed that we could not help, Hamu and his family had prepared some ‘Whisky Berber’ as a token of their gratitude. We were clearly warned to not drink the river water, and the small fire obviously did not produce the BTUs to boil the water. Furthermore, the family’s teacups were made from old plastic cups that probably held motor oil at one point. Aware of this, Hamu’s wife ostentatiously wiped them clean for us with the dirtiest rag I have ever seen. It was clear that we would receive our thanks in the form of a g-track nightmare. Visions of taking turns squatting over a pit toilet for a few days ran through both our minds.

Whatever the risk, the significance of this gesture was not lost on us. And, since I lacked the communication skills to explain that, “We do not want to be insulting, but our poorly developed, third-world intolerant, digestive tracts would never…” we knew we had no choice. So with a shared glance, and a quick prayer to Allah, it was bottoms up.

We never got sick, but that’s not the only reason we considered ourselves lucky.

Amazir is the Berber word for ‘independent man’. These people, who live simply, are free to travel the land as they wish. As climbers, and adventurous athletes, we too revel in the spirit of the amazir " taking pride in our ability to escape social norms. But for as much as we feel our lives are self-determined, we cannot deny our need for community. These chance exchanges of cultures should serve as a model for our lives. It is our differences that bring us together.