The Seeker: Said Belhaj
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.
Then … yep … there it was, the drum roll of awful thuds beneath.
“Jeeee-sus!” Said said. “He came out of nowhere! I wasn’t speeding. Was I speeding? I know I wasn’t speeeeeeding-fuuuuuck!”
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.
Our trip had been quite sweet until now. Last week, Said, 32, redpointed the iconic Punks in the Gym (5.14a) at Arapiles. Today we were planning on checking out the ultra-classic Serpentine (5.13b) on Taipan Wall.
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.
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.
“Jeeeee-sus,” Said said again. “I hope that was it.”
But the joey twitched and began using its stumpy arms to claw its way across the road. We both moaned.
“What do we do?” Said asked.
“I don’t know, man,” I said.
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.
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.
Then the body reanimated. It jerked and writhed horrifically.
“We have to kill it,” Said said.
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.
“OK,” Said said. “We have to kill it. Shit. What other choice do we have? OK? OK.”
“OK,” I said.
Said turned to me. “You can’t tell anyone about this,” he said, slapping his hand on the steering wheel for punctuation. “Ever.”
I pulled my beanie over my eyes and lowered my head. Said hit the accelerator.
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.
Suddenly the car lurched. Said screamed:
Chris Sharma, Said and I were standing outside the public library in Horsham, the only major town between the Grampians and Arapiles. We were using the library’s WiFi to check e-mail. Inside we’d had an interesting interaction with a local Horsham girl who had sat down at our table, and quickly cozied up to Chris. She seemed smitten with him, and was asking him questions. Chris answered each one genuinely. When he told her that we were from America, she lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to visit America!” she exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to meet Shred-dah!”
Shredder, as in the fictional villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Her favorite. She pointed to her sweatshirt, which, sure enough, contained a faded, peeling picture of Shredder.
Now we three stood on the sidewalk, reliving the funny, if sweet interaction.
“Answer this question, please,” said Said. He lifted a single finger into the air. “What is Shredder’s real name? Is it A: Hamoto Yoshi? Is it B: Oroku Saki? Or is it C: Yoru Sensei?”
“I dunno, man,” said Chris, chuckling. “Hamoto Yoshi?”
“Hmm, Hamoto Yoshi sounds right. Sure. Why not?”
“The correct answer is B: Oroku Saki!”
Said speaks English better than most Americans, including me. He enunciates consonants perfectly and pronounces proper names in their native patois, so Melbourne is the Australian “Mel-bin,” while, say, Patrick Edlinger is “Pa-TREEK Eh-lon-zeh.” All of it peppered into the same sentence. When you first meet Said, you might think he is some kind of elitist Oxford prick. But then you realize that English isn’t his first language, nor his second or even his third. Said is fluent in Swedish, Finnish, Arabic, English, French and Spanish.
“Man, how d’you know that shit, Said?” I asked.
“I absolutely loved Ninja Turtles as a child,” he said. “Only in Sweden they weren’t called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.”
“Because apparently ‘ninja’ was—hmm, how do you say?—too extreme for Swedish children.” We laughed.
I first met Said six or seven years ago in Rifle, Colorado, through our mutual friend Joe Kinder. Back then Said had dreadlocks that must’ve weighed 20 pounds. He was clearly a good climber since he onsighted a few notorious 5.13s despite carrying an excess of patchouli pounds.
I pulled Joe aside. “Who is that guy?”
“That’s Said,” Joe said. “He’s from Switzerland or something. He’s all into onsighting, man. It’s weird. But it’s, like, his ‘thing.’ Like, he won’t try any route more than once. I keep telling him he should maybe try to redpoint something hard. But he doesn’t care! It’s COMPLETELY fucked up to me!”
Said, actually, was born and raised in Sweden, though he hardly looks the blond-haired blue-eyed part. His mother (Finnish) and father (Moroccan) were both “traveling hippies,” according to Said. They met in Gothenburg, got married and settled down there. At first they communicated in English before learning each other’s native languages, in addition to the language of what was now their new home country.
They were together 20 years and had two boys—Younes and Said, four years younger—before separating.
“My father’s name is, of course, Muhammad,” says Said matter-of-factly. “Always the first-born male of a Muslim family is named after the Prophet.
“And my mother is Raya, a typical Finnish name.” Raya teaches kindergarten and Muhammad has his doctorate in environmental economics.
“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.”
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 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.”
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.
“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!’
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.
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 a muerte on one or two 5.14’s or 5.15’s. Then, often, he’ll be done for the day.
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.
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.
“I don’t need to do all the routes at every crag,” said Chris. “I just want to do the best, most inspiring one.”
“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!”
“Onsight has always been the thing I’ve been most attracted to,” he says. “I think it’s more of an adventure.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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 Moonlight Buttress.”
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.
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.
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
Said and Legrande climbed together almost every day for a year.
“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.’
“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!’”
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.
“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!
“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.”
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.”
By age 20, Said signed a contract with Salomon, who at the time sponsored a few climbers, and had some support from other companies. He lived cheaply, hitchhiked all over Europe and lived in caves for weeks at a time, eating from a giant Ziplock bag containing five pounds of spaghetti that he’d cooked. Even today he hasn’t held a real job. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional climber,” he says. “I don’t have an education to do something else. Climbing is all I know. Climbing is all I want to do. Sometime that will change as well.”
In those early days, Said would hitchhike to World Cup venues and sleep on a park bench the night before qualifiers with “the prostitutes and the rats.” Or he’d climb a building and crash on the roof. In between road trips he lived with his parents.
“This lifestyle shaped me a lot as a person. It has always been the hard way. I had to fight for everything,” says Said.
Said observes that maybe this “hard way” is absent among many young climbers today. He recalls being baffled by one strong young European climber who spent all spring training indoors for the World Cup in Montserrat, Spain.
“There are 5,000 routes there. She was there for months and didn’t climb on real rock one single time!” says Said, exasperated. “How is that even possible? I asked if she’s climbed in Gothenburg. ‘Yeah, I’ve been to all the gyms there.’
“The youngsters are doing well, but they don’t seem to quite have what it takes to be truly great. I don’t mean in terms of how strong they are. They are very strong. But they’re not ready to sacrifice everything for climbing. Today, if you start climbing in the gym, it’s all so easy and convenient. For this new generation, it’s an indoor sport. To me, climbing will always be an outdoor sport.”
To that end, Said travelled across the United States on a Greyhound bus which, “[brought me] to some of the scariest places I’ve ever been. … But after all these years of doing that, you meet so many interesting people. Now I have friends all over the world.”
Said says he encountered some of the most generous people in the United States. “I flew into Salt Lake, and everybody I met at the crag that day asked, ‘How’s it going? Do you have a place to stay? Please stay with me.’ It was amazing.”
But often, the lifestyle was a struggle. Once, when traveling in Australia, a climber who had been letting Said and a friend sleep in his garage, told them they now had to leave. It was 11 p.m. and pouring rain; Said and his friend were dropped off at a campsite at the witching hour, feeling dumbfounded, irked and now soaking wet. Even today Said has no idea why he had been kicked out.
Despite his nomadic lifestlye, Said has had many girlfriends (he has one now). Most didn’t climb. His relationships are like his music or dancing: something in his life separate from climbing.
Said traveled to Yosemite in 2001. Right away, he hiked to Separate Reality. Strangely, he found the first ascentionist, Ron Kauk, just standing at the top of the route. “I don’t know what he was doing there. But, wow, what a humble, nice guy,” says Said. “He was interested in where we were from, and just so happy to see us there.
“I had a similar experience the first time I met Chris Sharma. We were at a RocTrip in France, and there were hundreds of people. All the French pro climbers were in a competition to onsight these routes. It was a big scene, everyone trying to be the center of attention. Out of nowhere, Chris came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m Chris. You want a belay or something?’ … ‘Do I want a belay? Of course I want a fucking belay from Chris Sharma!’ But who of the French climbers would offer me a belay?”
Just finding a belay, it seems, can be quite the global adventure. And this journey into the unknown—whether musically, or through travel, or through onsight—ties back to a core philosophy that is, ultimately, Said Belhaj’s life work.
“When you go traveling, it’s an open book, an unwritten page. You don’t know who you’re going to run into. And that’s what I love about onsight. I like that feeling of not knowing. Going up a 50-meter route, it’s impossible to know what will happen from the ground. And you just have to let go of everything. Just be in that moment of trying to solve things as they come.
“I see a lot of climbers onsighting or even redpointing, and it’s like they are battling this huge internal angst. They’re not having a good time. You can see that there’s a war going on in their head.
“But when you learn to let go and climb, you just move forward and follow this energy. That’s when you climb like Adam Ondra or Chris Sharma. It’s a trance. Only one thing matters: grabbing the next hold. And once you get that one, it’s the next one.
Back in the car, Said’s scream of “I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I CAN’T!” was still echoing in my head.
We drove up beside the young kangaroo in the road.
“Dude!” Said said. “I think he just has a broken leg!”
The joey’s leg was broken, for sure, but he was far from being horrifically maimed, as we’d assumed from a distance.
“We should call the park service,” I suggested. “Monique and Simon have cell phones. They’ll know what to do. We’ll call when we get to Taipan.”
Our friends, the uber-Aussies Monique and Simon Carter, were at Taipan Wall with their daughter, Coco. Said and I sprinted up to that looming shield of perfect sandstone and explained the situation. Monique called the park service, reporting a “downed joey.”
It was a relief, to be honest, to not have to deal with this shit any longer. Soon we learned the kangaroo would be OK.
“Jeeee-sus,” Said said. “Thank God.”
Now we could return to our frivolous climbing lives. It would’ve been comforting had we not been so intimidated by the day’s agenda: Serpentine (5.13b). The route begins on the second pitch of Taipan. From a belay station, it meanders (hence, its name) up a consistently 15-degree overhanging mostly blank wall for 45 meters. The sparse pro consists of eight bolts and random trad placements. You summit atop the mighty Taipan, and then have to jump off onto the last bolt 20 feet below. Like many routes in Australia, there are no anchors.
Fortunately, our friend Jonathan Thesenga had spent two full days equipping the route with his gear—extending slings, etc.—which is sort of necessary, to be honest.
“I’m kinda scared,” said Said.
“No shit!” I said. “This thing is a monster!”
The wind was whipping, adding to the overall feeling of exposure. To top it all off, the first moves go through a big roof and were no joke.
Said whipped up a battle cry. “Wahooo!” We both bobbed and swayed, firing up the stoke. “OK, climbing.”
Said campused through the roof on two-finger pockets. He paused in a blank obtuse corner, taking his time, pressing his palms against the smooth orange surface and carefully smearing his feet. He crimped through an improbable traverse, and let out another whoop when he reached a stance beneath an insane rib of rock, which yielded refrigerator-hugging compression moves: sloping palms and dueling heel hooks.
Onsighting is a game of making instinctive, spontaneous decisions. Take the crimp with the right hand instead of the left. Go this way instead of that way. Perhaps it’s even a bit like choosing at the last second to not run over a kangaroo.
And in climbing, these distinctive, decisive moments of action become like the notes or riffs of an improvisational jam session. They arise from within, and in their harmony, create a feeling, an emotion, in both the musician and the audience.
At the hanging belay of Serpentine, I was very much like that engaged audience as I watched Said follow that fluid, decisive energy upward.
“Climbing Serpentine,” he said later, “I left this place in my mind. I was somewhere else. And that’s what’s so fascinating to me. After 20 years of climbing, it still fascinates me. There’s so much to learn. I still get nervous. I still make mistakes. That’s amazing. And I think it’s always going to be like that. Climbing will be a never-ending challenge.”
Andrew Bisharat is the former editor at large for Rock and Ice.