The Seeker: Said Belhaj

Said Belhaj has sent over a thousand routes from 5.13b to 5.14d, many onsight. Why haven't you heard of him?

By Andrew Bisharat | April 1st, 2014

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 216 (February 2014).

Said Belhaj rounded a gravel bend in the road and promptly ran over a young kangaroo. I’d looked up just in time to see a thin, torpedo-shaped shadow dive headfirst in front of the car.

Belhaj and <em>Gaia</em> (5.13d), at the Sector Odyssey during the Petzl RocTrip, Kalymnos, Greece, 2006.” src=”” style=”border: 0px; float: right; margin: 0px 0px 10px 10px;” title=”Belhaj and <em>Gaia</em> (5.13d), at the Sector Odyssey during the Petzl RocTrip, Kalymnos, Greece, 2006.”>Then
    … yep … there it was, the drum roll of awful thuds beneath. </p>
<p>“Jeeee-sus!” Said said. “He came out of nowhere! I wasn’t speeding. Was I speeding? I know I wasn’t speeeeeeding-fuuuuuck!” </p>
<p>I’d come to Australia to climb the world’s best sandstone. My main partner was Said (saYEED) Belhaj, a Swedish professional climber and one of the great
    unknown sport climbers of our time, with over 1,000 ascents from 5.13b to 5.14d, many climbed onsight, his preferred mode of ascent. His onsights include
    four 5.14a’s, and he was one of the first climbers to onsight that grade. Eqallly interesting, he speaks six languages, is a practicing Sufi—a
    sect of Islam—and is a musician specializing in playing rare African religious instruments. </p>
<p>Our trip had been quite sweet until now. Last week, Said, 32, redpointed the iconic <em>Punks in the Gym</em> (5.14a) at Arapiles. Today we were planning
    on checking out the ultra-classic <em>Serpentine</em> (5.13b) on Taipan Wall. </p>
<p>But when you run over a kangaroo, you gain some perspective on your frivolous life as a climber. By and large, we all just float along from one rock to
    another and rarely face meaningful, character-defining moments. </p>
<p>Said and I craned our necks and looked through the rear window at the kangaroo lying in the dirt. It was motionless. Suddenly the body leapt into the air
    as if the ground were a hot skillet. It writhed and twitched in the dirt before once again going limp. </p>
<p>“Jeeeee-sus,” Said said again. “I hope that was it.” </p>
<p>But the joey twitched and began using its stumpy arms to claw its way across the road. We both moaned. </p>
<p>“What do we do?” Said asked. </p>
<p>“I don’t know, man,” I said. </p>
    <blockquote-right>“We have to kill it,” Said said. Said turned the car around, solemnly. </blockquote-right>Australia is basically a cultural fun-house mirror to the
    United States—with one huge exception: kangaroos. The kangaroos are ubiquitous in the Grampians the way deer are to our woodlands. They move
    in herds and spring about with that distinctive, cartoonish hop. Yet when they stop and stand upright in a misty field at dawn, they look like Civil
    War soldiers—gray and stoic. </p>
<p>Said and I sat in the car 50 feet from our young fallen soldier. The joey had stopped twitching, and you could almost hear us praying that it was dead.
<p>Then the body reanimated. It jerked and writhed horrifically. </p>
<p>“We have to kill it,” Said said. </p>
<p>Said turned the car around, solemnly. Now we were looking at it. Another excruciating moment of stillness passed before the joey continued its moribund
    crawl across the road. </p>
<p>“OK,” Said said. “We have to kill it. Shit. What other choice do we have? OK? OK.” </p>
<p>“OK,” I said. </p>
<p>Said turned to me. “You can’t tell anyone about this,” he said, slapping his hand on the steering wheel for punctuation. “Ever.” </p>
<p>I pulled my beanie over my eyes and lowered my head. Said hit the accelerator. </p>
<p>It felt like there was a gas pedal to my anxiety, too, as I awaited the thuds on the undercarriage. Faster and faster we went. </p>
<p>Suddenly the car lurched. Said screamed: </p>
<p>“I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I CAN’T!” </p>
<p><img src=“Finland is a Christian country. Morocco is a Muslim country. But it doesn’t mean that we practiced Islam or Christianity. Now my father is married to a Moroccan woman, and he’s practicing religion more. Same with my mother. She is now becoming more spiritual with Christianity.” Said has a half-brother, Amr, from his father’s second marriage.

Though Said didn’t grow up with religion in his life, it has since become something that, like climbing, he discovered and embraced.

Said practices Sufism, which is defined by inner, mystical dimensions and contains philosophical overtones that, when Said explained them to me, seemed familiarly Zen Buddhist. He discovered Sufism as a teenager when he first started traveling from Sweden to visit his extended family in Morocco.

Said’s older brother played violin. “I was forced to play as well,” he says. “I played the classic violin for 10 years. In retrospect, it was great. I learned music theory. But I was never interested in playing early European music. I’m not a violin player by nature.”

At age 13 Said started going to rave parties. “I’ve always loved dancing. I never used any drugs or alcohol, but dancing for me became this trance thing. It really fascinated me. I’ve only experienced these trance states dancing or climbing or playing music. A way to take myself out of the normal context of life. Going to raves took me somewhere else.”

To this day, Said goes dancing in clubs when he needs a break from climbing and climbers who only talk beta. He still doesn’t drink, smoke or eat meat.

Those early experiences of “losing himself” to the 1990s-era techno fostered an interest in percussion instruments. “Music has offered me this opportunity to travel and see the world, and in that sense, it’s very much like climbing. Both have been journeys of self-discovery.”


Belhaj makes music in France in 2006. Photo: Sam Bie.Today Said plays the djembe (the easiest West African drum to find back in Sweden) and a number of rarer percussion instruments from Morocco and West Africa such as the Guimbri, a Moroccan bass lute, and the Dosso N’goni, a six-string hunter’s harp from Mali that is only used for rituals.

“As the world is changing, you can take one of these instruments, not do the ritual preparations, and simply play for your own enjoyment,” says Said. “But it’s super important to understand where this instrument came from. All traditional music is linked to context, and you must first understand it in that context through experience. This is simply a matter of respect.”

Said was exposed to rock climbing when he was 10 through a popular French outdoor TV program that, in one of its episodes, featured Patrick Edlinger climbing a desert tower. Said, an avid tree climber, was intrigued.

After he saw “Pa-TREEK” on television, Said went to the library to find instructional climbing books. He used what little money he had to buy a thin static rope, which was not meant for rock climbing, and a couple of chocks. He made his first harness out of an old car seatbelt. Armed with this ersatz equipment, he enlisted any willing friends from school to go climbing on the Gothenburg rocks.

“The library book never mentioned anything about top-roping, so I was always leading.” Said describes this period as one of complete freedom to climb however he wanted and just make it up. “I didn’t know anything about sport, trad, good conditions, bad conditions. We just climbed, and I really wanted it for myself.”

These experiments didn’t always go well. One time Said was rappelling the face with two friends and looped the rope around a thin, uninspiring tree.

“I told them, ‘Listen, if this tree breaks, hold the rope for me as a back-up.’”

As soon as Said weighted the tree, it uprooted and the three children tumbled down the cliff and landed in a bloody mess at the base.

“One of my friends ended up in the hospital. He hit his head and you could see his skull. I remember that VERY clearly!” Said laughs. “They don’t climb anymore.”

In 1994, Gothenburg had one climbing gym, and you had to be 16 to climb there. Said, 13, snuck in or pestered the employees until they relented. He was often thrown out. But eventually “they gave up” and let him climb under the stipulation that he have a supervisor. The adult assigned to supervise Said was Jens Laarsen, the coach for a team of youth climbers in Gothenburg, and, later the guy behind the website

Says Laarsen: “Within 15 minutes of meeting Said, I was his coach and that’s still what he calls me. But it was more like we were just climbing together. He was in our local group from the very beginning. We’re still very close friends.”

Once Said gained access to the gym and had a coach, things “moved very quickly.” He started competing in 1994. In 1995 he went to one of the first Junior World Championships in France alongside the likes of Chris Sharma, Liv Sansoz and Tony Lamiche.

“I started as a traditional climber,” says Said. “That was the only thing we did at the time in Gothenburg. I saved up for a rack of Wild Country stoppers and bought those.”

Said used what little money he had to buy a thin static rope, which was not meant for rock climbing, and a couple of chocks. He made his first harness out of an old car seatbelt.In the summer of 1994, a 13-year-old Said joined his father on a work trip to Grenoble. Armed with his brand new chocks, Said went out to a new crag and discovered something strange: There were bolts everywhere.

“I thought, ‘Wow. What are those?’” says Said. “I started sport climbing that day. And what I quickly realized was, shit, I can do four times as many routes in a day as I can trad climbing. And that’s actually all I wanted. To climb as much as possible. It’s good to know about all aspects of climbing, but for the pure climbing experience, I prefer sport.”

As Said became immersed in the community he found that the freedom of self-expression, the thing that had initially drawn him in, was being diminished.

“When I got dragged into the climbing scene, it all became super narrow,” says Said. “There were all these rules. All these codes.

The freedom of expression was gone in a way. People had an opinion about what you were doing and how you were doing it.”

In particular there was Laarsen, who was mostly supportive but occasionally overbearing—perhaps not a surprise to those familiar with his editorials on about what climbing should and shouldn’t be.

“He put so much pressure on me,” says Said. “He thought I was going to be the best climber in the world. That was never my intention, you know? I just wanted to climb.”

Said was on the Swedish national team from 1995 to 2005. He won the Swedish Championship and the Nordic Championship. He came in fourth place at Youth Worlds, Austria, in 1997. But after graduating high school, he decided his heart wasn’t in competition.

“Competition brings out the worst in people who are really competitive,” he says. “There were some guys who were complete assholes to me.”

But it wasn’t just other comp climbers who were assholes.

“The older generation of Swedish climbers were trying to climb like Francois Legrand and Patrick Edlinger—with ultimate restraint,” says Said. “But I climbed completely crazy. Everyone told me I had bad technique. That I climbed too fast. Now look at Adam Ondra today, he climbs like a fucking speed climber! That’s how I climbed then. And everybody tried to slow me down and tell me how bad I was. But it was because they were jealous and I was kicking their asses.”

Said recalls one national route-climbing comp that was filmed for Swedish television. Having already skipped a clip, Said’s arms were bowing out in fatigue. “And in the video, you can hear Jens screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘CLIP! CLIP! YOU HAVE TO CLIP!’

“But I was in another world. I’d left this state of mind. I didn’t care about clipping. The only thing on my mind was to get to the fucking top.”


Belhaj on <em>Lost in China</em>  (5.14a) at the Great Arch, Getu Valley, China. Photo: Sam Bie.” title=”Belhaj on <em>Lost in China</em>  (5.14a) at the Great Arch, Getu Valley, China. Photo: Sam Bie.”>Said dynoed for the last jug and missed. He
    took a massive whipper and swung so close to the ground that, like a human wrecking ball, he nearly demolished a cameraman. The crowd went berserk—some
    found it inspiring, many thought he was reckless and dumb. </p>
<p>“It was tough for me to get into this scene and climb the way I wanted to climb. Then I read an article about Chris Sharma winning the North American championships
    by campusing to the top. I was encouraged. ‘Wow, that’s how I climb!’ </p>
<p>Chris, Said and I arrived at the base of the Taipan Wall for the third time in a week. We set our packs down in our usual spots and went about our routines.
<p>Sharma has a unique approach to hard routes. He typically sits around, doesn’t do much warming up, waits until he feels inspired then goes fully <em>a muerte</em>    on one or two 5.14’s or 5.15’s. Then, often, he’ll be done for the day. </p>
<p>Said, on the other hand, had his harness on, rope flaked and shoes tied before I could catch my breath from the hike. He was here to do pitches, as many
    as he could. Onsight. </p>
<p>It was interesting to climb with both Chris and Said at the same time, as they each have different, if also very successful approaches to sport climbing.
    You want to talk about someone being an “onsight climber” or a “redpoint climber,” well, here were two of the starkest paradigms of each. </p>
<p>“I don’t need to do all the routes at every crag,” said Chris. “I just want to do the best, most inspiring one.” </p>
<p>“I like to do the hardest route, of course,” countered Said. “But I also just like to experience as many routes as possible. I would like to do every one!”
<p>“Onsight has always been the thing I’ve been most attracted to,” he says. “I think it’s more of an adventure.” </p>
<p>Jens Laarsen recalls one memorable moment when he was belaying a teenage Said: “He actually let go at the top of his first 8a redpoint because he wanted
    to do that grade onsight first.” </p>
<p>Since then, Said has climbed 20 or 30 5.13d onsights and at least four 5.14a onsights (six or so, if you count the ones that weren’t downgraded to 5.13d).
    His 5.14a onsights are often achieved while hanging draws, and he’s strict about not having any beta in order to call it an onsight. </p>
<p>Said is the most famous climber in Sweden, but outside of Scandinavia, few climbers know of his accomplishments. He says that this might be due to his
    preference for onsight climbing. He hasn’t chased the big grades that generate headlines. </p>
<p>Still, Said has redpointed five 5.14d’s (9a), spending fewer than 10 days working each one—a relatively short amount of time for this type of high-end
    redpointing. </p>
<p>Said notes that he is climbing below the global standard. He is a “second-class citizen of the professional climbing world,” he says, partially kidding.
<p>“If you look at the international standard today, 9a has been onsighted. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. I’ve done 1,000 8a’s and harder. But
    I’m nowhere near Dani Andrada, who has done 3,000. </p>
    <blockquote-right>Said says, partially kidding, that he is a “second-class citizen of the professional climbing world.”</blockquote-right>“I will never reach that level
    … But so what? Jim Karn once said that you don’t have to climb at a super-high level to do some of the best routes in the world. And he’s so
    right about that. You don’t have to be able to climb 9b to do the <em>Moonlight Buttress.</em>” </p>
<p>Said has visited more than 30 countries for climbing—including such remote places as the Hand of Fatima, Mali—and believes that onsighting
    meshes well with his love of travel. </p>
<p>Though Said’s father always wanted him to become an academic, Said felt he had to follow his climbing passion. Once, Said got to climb (toprope) the tallest
    building in Stockholm for an outdoor trade show there. The climb drew a crowd. Despite the tension between Said and his father, his father was in the
    audience and actually cried because he was so proud of Said. </p>
<p>A few weeks later, Said was on a radio station talking about his life as a professional climber, and he mentioned that his father always wanted him to
    take a more conventional path, but now after 20 years his father had “given up on this.” Said’s father heard the interview and called him the next
    day, jokingly saying, “I just wanted you to know … I haven’t given up hope yet!” </p>
<p>After high school in 1999, Said’s mom gave him a bit of money and with it Said moved to Aix en Provence, France, because “it was the center of the climbing
    universe at the time.” </p>
<p>Said’s mother, in particular, has supported his climbing. Besides the gift of money, she once traveled to Spain to watch Said climb, and another time belayed
    him on one of his 5.14 onsights. </p>
<p>The money from Said’s mother was enough for Said to live in Southern France for a year. Here, he met the second-most influential climbing mentor of his
    life after Laarsen: François Legrande. </p>
<p>Said and Legrande climbed together almost every day for a year. </p>
<p>“François was very different from me and how I viewed climbing,” says Said. “But he taught me so much about how to take climbing seriously and professionally.
    Francois was super serious about everything! A complete perfectionist. The way he moved. Everything had to be perfect. If we were training, and my
    foot slipped and dabbed on the mat, he would say, ‘No, you must start from the beginning.’ </p>
<p>“There was one route, a 7c (5.12d) at Les Calanques. We would do laps on it at the end of the day for training. And there was a rest up and right. I would
    try to sneak up and get the rest, but Francois would tug on the rope. ‘No, no, no! We’re not resting here! We’re training!’” </p>
<p>Said and Francois would train five or six hours a day on an indoor woodie. Or, they would train outdoors, doing laps on 5.13a’s. At times, Francois would
    lap a 5.13c, no headlamp, in complete darkness. </p>
<p>“Sometimes he would throw a quickdraw at me,” says Said. “He had two sides to him. Calm, friendly, laid back. But then, when he tied in, he became someone
    else. I’ve never seen someone burst into such rage when he fell. I would be afraid. I’d lower him slowly, hoping by the time he got down he wouldn’t
    kick my ass! </p>
<p>“But I had too much respect for him to say anything. I was just afraid and sad. This was Francois Legrand, the greatest competition climber of all time,
    and one of the greatest rock climbers ever. I was only 18.” </p>
<p>Earlier that year, Said had redpointed his first 5.14a. It was a first ascent in Sweden. But, Said says, “It didn’t mean so much to me at the time. It
    sounds ridiculous to say that, even to me now. But I was just so obsessed with onsighting. I didn’t care about redpointing.” </p>
<p><img src=