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Moroccan multisport

By Scott Willoughby
Warren Miller's Snow World
Special to CNN.com

A Warren Miller film crew journeys to the top of Mount Toubkal in Morocco.
A Warren Miller film crew journeys to the top of Mount Toubkal in Morocco.

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Named for its founder, a legendary filmmaker and a pioneer in ski films, Warren Miller Entertainment is a 50-year-old production company based in Boulder, Colorado. In the feature film "Journey," Warren Miller crews follow athletes across four continents. During the African leg of the trip, four athletes find physical and cultural adventure among the peaks and rapids of Morocco.

As music blared over the piercing squawks of unruly monkeys and the chaotic shouts of a group of Moroccan tribespeople, Christian Santelices froze in his tracks and considered his next move. A cobra was staring him in the face, apparently with deadly malice (though it's hard to tell with a cobra). He could only ask himself, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?"

The answer was the north African Kingdom of Morocco, where just an hour earlier Santelices, a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based mountain guide, had arrived to join fellow Nike ACG (All Conditions Gear) athletes Ben Dolenc, of Boulder, Colorado; Sarah Clemenson, of Salt Lake City, Utah; and Brad Ludden, of Vail, Colorado, on a multisport adventure for the Warren Miller cameras. Soon after his van left Marrakech International Airport and merged with the cabs, mopeds and mules streaming past, Santelices found himself at Marrakech's infamous nerve center, Place Jama‚ El Fna. And now he wasn't going anywhere until he kissed a cobra.

"While I'm taking a picture of all the chaos going on around us, one of these snake charmer guys came up and put his arm around me, and in his hand he has the head of a cobra," Santelices, 35, remembers. "For 'good luck' he pressed the cobra's head against my forehead, both cheeks, and my chin, then he made me kiss it. I e-mailed my wife about it later that day and got a reply that said, 'Oh good, I'm glad to see that your judgment has faltered so early in the trip.' "

The athletes' Moroccan adventure began in Marrakech, an ancient desert city with an incongruous backdrop -- the snowy Atlas Mountains to the southeast. From snake charmers to the labyrinthine old-city center, from merchants hawking colorfully woven carpets to the ornate mosques, Marrakech embodies many aspects of Morocco's fascinating heritage. Yet there is more to this vivid land of contrast.

It reveals itself to the Warren Miller crew not only as a mountain vista viewed through groves of palms and pomegranates from the valley floor in Marrakech, but also as great cirques and vast skiable terrain in the High Atlas itself. The rich diversity is also apparent in locales such as a river that springs from a limestone cliff, where one can engage in quiet contemplation amid the sound of gushing whitewater worthy of a kayaking epic, or an ocean beach where surfers share the sand with camels and casbahs.

"The whole country is filled with adventures, but there is [also] adventure just in the visual landscape alone," says photography director Chris Patterson, the instigator behind this trip, Warren Miller's latest African foray. "There is always something familiar, but if it looks too familiar, you just have to look a little farther for the oddity."

Arriving in this exotic and definitely foreign land with a collection of skis, snowboards, crampons and kayaks and attired in brightly colored technical garb, the ACG Team made its mark on the Moroccan landscape. But perhaps no one stood out more than Clemenson, a striking blond telemark skier whose athletic frame is better suited to a tank top than a veil.

"I'm a little more liberal at home, so I had to be kind of careful about what I wore," says Clemenson, 25. "When we walked the streets, everyone would definitely stop and stare. I was kind of hard to miss. But I never felt threatened. I felt very comfortable the whole time."

As the United States was poised to wage war on Iraq, there was no shortage of concern among the athletes when they arrived in this predominantly Islamic nation last February. But among the skills they brought to the playing field were diplomacy and open minds, tools that would prove valuable. And as luck would have it, Morocco's version of Islam proved to be equally moderate, open-minded, and tolerant.

"I was a little apprehensive about being perceived as an imperialist American, but I tried to go into the trip with a positive attitude," says Santelices. "These people are striving for the same things as everyone else: food on the table, friends and family, basically a secure and happy life. Understanding that, my attitude got even more positive once I got there."

"As far as war went, it was definitely in the back of everyone's mind," agrees Ludden, 22. "But immediately we all realized there was nothing to worry about. If anything, the people there went out of their way to show us how welcome we were." Time and again the group was overwhelmed by the hospitality pouring forth from their hosts, whether in the city or the countryside. Kindness and generosity proved to be as much a part of Moroccan custom as supersweetened mint tea and calls to prayer. To help ensure the group's safety, Patterson had enlisted the guiding skills of Allen Burgess of Salt Lake's Camp 5 Expeditions, who is as much an expert in Islamic tradition as he is in Alpine ski touring.

"He's seen and done it all," Patterson says. "If Allen said it was safe, I took it to the bank. He educated us about the culture and let me put my effort into making the movie the best I could." Indeed, the attitude prevailed on both sides of the camera as the athletes moved with confidence into the mountains to lift the veil from Morocco's High Atlas range.

For more on the Moroccan adventure: Part 2 -- High Atlas range


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