The Seeker: Said BelhajSaid Belhaj has sent over a thousand routes from 5.13b to 5.14d, many onsight. Why haven't you heard of him?
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.
“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.”
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 8a.nu.
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.”
“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 8a.nu 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.”