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Couloir de Glace

Building a Climbing Culture in Morocco
Story by Faiçal Bourkiba // Written by Alex Roddie
Photography by Marc Daviet

In 2009, suspended from school for two semesters, Faiçal Bourkiba was at a loose end. Living alone in Morocco, while his parents were in Italy, he had nowhere to go and nothing to do. At first, driven by a desire to see more of the land he lived in, he packed a rucksack and left Casablanca, travelling from city to city, living a frugal life on the road. Slowly he wandered into more and more rural areas. The towns grew smaller. He found his way into the villages and Berber camps deep in the mountains.

In these obscure corners, far from anything, he noticed something out of place: foreign tourists. Climbers with their glinting ice axes and clinking karabiners, trekkers with their bright rucksacks and hiking poles – all heading for the high peaks, along trails that had been used by nomads for generations. What are these guys doing? Faiçal wondered. Why are they going into the mountains?

Faiçal was fascinated. He had never met a mountaineer before. None of his friends had either. Outside a few well-known locations – such as Toubkal for the alpine hikers, Taghia and Todra Gorge for the sport aficionados – climbing was an almost completely alien concept. Especially for Moroccans. But when Faiçal came face to face with those high peaks, their upper snowfields gleaming in the pure blue skies over the Atlas Mountains, he saw a secret world of exploration just waiting to be discovered.

He had no gear, no outdoor clothing, and little money. But he had a winning smile and an eagerness to work hard.

The climber looks him up and down. The man is leaning on his trekking poles, breathing hard in the thin air at altitude, his trousers scuffed brown-grey from the dusty trail. As Faiçal smiles at him, he shifts the weight of his massive rucksack on his shoulders. ‘Sir, I can carry your bag for you,’ Faiçal says again. ‘You are here to climb Toubkal?’

The climber smiles wearily back at him. ‘I am,’ he says. He has a European accent, maybe Spanish, and his face is red from the sun. ‘Just a few of us here with a guide. It is hot work. Are you a porter?’

‘I can be! I want to help climbers – anything to get me up into the mountains.’

When the guide catches up with them, he agrees to bring Faiçal onto the team as an ad-hoc porter. And he begins the trek, up towards the heat haze shimmering on snowfields high above. The weight of a rucksack on his shoulders feels just right.


Faiçal made friends easily and got to know all the guides, who were always looking for people to help haul loads up to higher elevations. Gradually he acquired gear – some given to him by appreciative climbers, other items picked up at second-hand public markets (jotya in Moroccan dialect). With better equipment, he acquired experience and confidence too. Crampons and an ice axe helped him roam above the snowline. He pushed his grade on rock. After he returned to school, and later went to university, he dedicated his weekends to a single goal: spending as much time in the mountains as possible. From Casablanca most places could be reached within a few hours. Even after starting a career in logistics, his focus did not waver. Work was simply something he did to earn money, in order to climb and have more adventures.

But obtaining the right gear still remained a challenge, and finding people to climb with was even more difficult. His friends and colleagues would laugh when they saw him packing a rope into his rucksack. ‘Climbing is something kids do!’ they’d tell him. Even his family struggled to understand. He knew better, though. He knew about that secret world of the upper snows. And as he climbed, he started to wonder how he could bring this mystery, this revelation, to more people – especially young Moroccans.

Eventually, Faiçal joined Instagram, and it opened his eyes to what climbers were doing around the world. Enthusiasm and raw talent had brought him far but he wanted more. He knew that he could only push things so much on his own, or with the small group of self-taught young climbers that he teamed up with at weekends. Within a few years of starting to climb he had joined the Moroccan French Alpine Club and was beginning to share what he had learnt. Later he became an instructor in the club, guiding small groups of climbers as a volunteer. He wanted more people to discover the potential of the Atlas Mountains. Morocco offered bountiful possibilities for new routes, and he was beginning to explore the frontiers of both the mountains he had grown to love and his own abilities as a climber

In February 2020, just before Covid closed the refuges and stemmed the flow of foreign climbers into Morocco, Faiçal was searching for ice. He discovered a huge line. Though he only owned four ice screws, ancient things from the ‘80s, he and a friend decided to go for it anyway. And when he posted a picture of the route on Instagram, it attracted the attention of Jeff Mercier, an elite climber, guide, and mountain rescuer based in Chamonix. Jeff messaged him: ‘You have ice like this in Morocco? What grades are you climbing?’ Faiçal said, ‘Look, I’m not a professional, just an amateur. I’m trying to build things over here.’

They kept talking. Jeff – who had never been to Morocco – found himself intrigued by the potential for new routes, and to support the growth of a nascent climbing community. And Faiçal was eager to learn from a climber operating on another level entirely. They made plans to get together for a route. Faiçal already knew what he wanted to climb: a notorious couloir, Couloir de Glace, filled with 500m of steep ice that had repelled (even killed) climbers before. Support from Rab eased the equipment bottleneck. With the help of a more experienced ice climber, Faiçal felt that they at least had a chance – and that this could be the clarion call needed to open up climbing in Morocco.


‘You have got this, my friend!’ Jeff calls from a rope’s length above. Faiçal, fuelled by a rising sense of pure elation, lifts an ice tool and aims another placement. Thwack. The pick makes a good stick in a dished-out scoop in the ice, and a few chips slither away back down the glassy surface of the couloir. Conditions are good. The gear is all there too – nuts and cams as well as a few rusty old pitons from earlier climbers, most likely a Spanish team. And Faiçal feels amazing. The top of the route is within reach.

Just a few more moves.

Thwack. The bite of crampons in the ice. The burn of muscles. The jangling of gear hanging from his harness, and the tug of the rope. The encouragement from a climber he admires – someone he saw as almost an alien being, operating on another level of competence, confidence, and efficiency. They had only met two days before and already this route is in the bag.

Emotion hits him in waves after he joins Jeff at the top of the route. Snow crunches under their crampons. High five. A whoop of joy that echoes all around the cirque, startling an Alpine chough from its roosting place. Then, suddenly, Faiçal can’t control himself and drops his axes, puts his face in the snow, and begins to cry.

‘I am so happy,’ is all Faiçal can say as they rack gear and begin to think about the descent. ‘I think this may be the first time a Moroccan has climbed a route like this,’ Jeff tells him. ‘But it won’t be the last.’

Now Faiçal has turned his focus towards the future of Moroccan alpinism – for Moroccans.

The couloir they climbed that bright morning in March 2022 is only one of many in that cirque, and that cirque is only one of many in the Atlas Mountains. Visiting climbers have left their mark over the decades, but countless more routes remain unclimbed. Faiçal is well aware of the effort ahead. Mountaineering in Europe has established huts and trails, gear shops in every town, and formal mountain rescue. In Morocco all this is in its infancy. Accidents in the mountains are all too often fatal. You can call a rescue helicopter, but with no medically trained rescuers – or even pilots experienced in flying in the mountains – an accident is far more risky than it would be in the Alps. Faiçal, with his contacts in the Moroccan French Alpine Club as well as his growing network of friends in remote communities, began to draw up ambitious plans. A rescue base. Trained personnel. Fewer deaths.

Jeff, who works as a mountain rescuer in Chamonix, is conscious of the formidable barriers Faiçal faces; the required funding will be immense. But Faiçal is all the more determined after their success on the couloir, and feels optimistic that the government will listen. ‘This is a big opportunity,’ he tells Jeff later, ‘and with the help of the French Alpine Club of Casablanca I think we can do it. The Alpine Club president wrote to the government. Now that politicians are aware climbing exists in our country, they know what is possible. We will try to establish a rescue base if the authorities give the green light.’

Meanwhile, Faiçal has never stopped living for his weekends in the mountains. He’s driven by curiosity and the attraction of a simpler life away from the city. ‘When I travel, it’s simpler. It’s not like in Europe. There are people who have lived in our mountains for generations. These are their places, and I eat with them, talk with them about their traditions.’ He has noticed the start of a culture change amongst Moroccan climbers, too. ‘Some of us have become more humble. We have Toubkal – the highest mountain in our country, 4,167m. Once someone does it they think they’re on the top of the world! But in the mountains you’ve gotta keep it humble, keep it cool. Nature gives us this opportunity. Hard experiences help us make the right decisions. I am blessed.’

This story was first published in Sidetracked Magazine: Volume 26

Story by Faiçal Bourkiba // @faical_fay
Written by Alex Roddie // @alex_roddie
Photography by Marc Daviet // marc_daviet