Why I don't believe Said Belhaj's ascent of Action Directe.
Last autumn Said Belhaj claimed the ascent of Action Directe. By this time (6.12.2019) I don't believe that he did it, along with a number of other elite climbers. Since my doubts started creeping in I was always hoping that Said would somehow help to solve the questions and therefore the problem. But he didn't.
As I did a documentary about it, which focused mainly on the history of the route, I don't want to be a partner in crime – and I feel like that was my supposed role in this play.
The last thing that Said said to me about this is that he doesn't has to prove anything and he only climbs for himself. In general it's a great thing, maybe even the best to climb just for yourself. But then you don't need an Instagram account or sponsors I think.
Why do I not believe his ascent?
Before I explain this let me tell you that I spent a lot of days with elite climbers at Action Directe (AD). I'm not capable of climbing it at all, but I think I know quite exactly what it takes to do it. For example I spent a lot of time with Dai Koyamada here. Dai is the only non local climber who repeated boulders in the Frankenjura up to 8c, so you can say that he's totally tuned into the power climbing style here. And he's a great climber anyway. Nevertheless it took Dai YEARS to repeat Action Directe. He came back again and again though he could easily do the moves and somehow the route was made for a boulderer like him. Same as Iker Pou. Or take the local Markus Bock. He grew up here, did endless routes similar to Action Directe, has incredible steel fingers but still needed quite a while to send it.
Said says of himself that he's not a boulderer at all.
How did Said and I come together?
Said approached me on the Outdoor-show in Friedrichshafen in July 2018. As I'm always keen on documenting climbing action, specially when it's history related, I was more than willing to make a proper movie about the history of the route and his ascent. From the beginning it felt a bit strange that Said was putting so much emphasis on documenting the history but not so much on his own climbing. As I didn't have the time to be on his side all the time I repeatedly told him:
1. "If you feel close to the send call me and I will film you, because it's important for the movie that we are making." I live only 30 minutes by car away from AD.
He did not do that.
2. "If you don't do this, film it at least with an iphone" I told him many many times (which is very comfortable at AD as there's a pedestal on the side that many people use to film themselves).
He did not do that.
So here's the story:
We were filming only twice at AD. One time before and one time after the ascent (second session witnessed by Jerry Moffatt). Said was million miles away from climbing even just from bolt to bolt. The moves in the upper part are hard for sure. But if you claim an ascent or you have serious ambitions you must be able to climb it more or less easily. For details ask other AD conquerers like I did. They think the same. Said was blaming his bad climbing on the conditions.
But more importantly is that he never did the legendary jump in autumn. I know people who "repeated" AD a couple of times starting right from the good hold where the jump ends. They could always climb the route but never do the jump though they sometimes tried it over years, especially the smaller ones. This move is simply superhard but also very difficult from a technical point of view.
His regular belayer (that was belaying him during his sessions at AD) says he never did the jump while they were there in autumn. The initital jump is the crux of the route. His belayer says he was only working moves, never making real tries.
When Ray Demski took photos of Said he couldn't do the jump either.
Then Said went to Spain for 5 days while he was here in autumn (he left on oct. 22nd) and then suddenly "did" the route on the day of his return: 27. october 2018. Interestingly I sent him an Whatsapp exactly this day and the day before asking where he is (there is full radio reception at the route), but didn't get any reply - until the evening (9.02 pm): "Hi, had a hectic day, travelled from Catalunya and ... sent Action Directe today."
Later he told me that there were czech guys filming him. I asked him if he got the footage. Said replied: »No, I was too full of adrenaline to ask.«
I was really disappointed that he didn't call me and didn't reply to my Whatsapp, because I was about to make a 20 minutes documentary about it. Is here any climber reading this? Wouldn't you be really keen on being filmed FOR FREE on a route "that you have dreamed about all your life" (as Said said several times)?
We brought Jerry Moffatt here and did an interview in the campus center and on and on. So we were really putting a lot of effort in it to make a proper video and I had the chance to sell it to Patagonia. I still could have sold it in the end if had put my doubts to the side. It was quite tempting to be honest ...
And for sure I, as the filmmaker, wanted to have a highlight in the end. And the highlight in a climbing movie is always the final ascent. By then I still believed that Said was telling the truth though I found all this superstrange. I just couldn't believe that someone is lying directly into my face.
I thought that his regular belayer (who I know) belayed him on the sending day. So I called him to find out details about the day of the ascent and got to know that exactly on the sending day he was NOT belaying. What??? So I asked Said who his belayer was. After 10 days of trying to get an answer Said told me, that he couldn't remember the name properly, but his name was "probably Mike or similar". He said further: "I was in contact with this guy via Instagram, but he seems to have disappeared from Instagram. So I don't have any contact details of him. I only climbed with him twice. I'm sure he will show up one day." (I have this recording on my voice box). The "unknown belayer", here he is again. He appeared from time to time in climbing history.
I don't believe in miracles. And it has never been easier to document your efforts on the rock than today (at least when it comes to bouldering and single pitch climbing). And I've seen a number of climbers doing the moves easily but they were still miles away from sending the entire route. Combining all these evidences I simply can't believe in this "magic moment" which he claims. This moment where he suddenly does the jump and climbs to the top just like that. This is nonsense and everyone I talked to is thinking the same.
I think he should be taken off the list of repeaters until he gets the czech video footage or does the route with witnesses again.
I talked to a couple of journalists about it, but a probable fake ascent of an 9a seems to be not newsworthy. As Jens Larssen from 8a.nu wrote me: "I totally understand your point and if this would have been a 9b+ I would have said he need to come forward with the belayer. I understand that AD is like a 9b+ for you so I totally understand."
But Jens, I think you don't understand me completely: I think everyone who's posting his ascents in public should tell the truth – that's it. Especially if you get money from sponsors for your climbing. Because there might be someone else who is not trying to get fame by faking ascents – and is not getting any money for his climbing.
I just love climbing too much to put these doubts aside. I know it's hard for some people not to get the fame they think they deserve. And it's quite easy to promote yourself on social media which is not a bad thing in general. But until now it was about trust not about a proof. Now we're at a point where we seriously have to start talking about a video proof which is sad but maybe necessary.
I know that this accusation is very serious. But as I'm also a journalist I think that we always have to ask and search for the truth.
And as a climber from the 80's (and as a friend of the Güllich family) I think that the glory of Action Directe should only be for those who put the cards on the table.
There's a discussion going on on my Instagram account, on 8a.nu and on some other places. I don't see myself as the Watergate-journalist of climbing. I only want to share my doubts in this specific case.
Affix (added on 13.12.2019)
I was not surprised by Saids's statements on Lacrux as I heard the same ones before, when we trying to find out what actually happened on october 27th. 2018. This can be summarized as: "Trust me or break my heart."
I liked Said's charakter, enjoyed the time with him a lot and would have loved to simply publish this movie in spring 2019 and sleep well. But I didn't get proper answers to obvious questions from Said. Actually I didn't get any answers at all. Like the Rock & Ice editor who tried to get in touch with him right now but Said refused. I was phoning with the editor for an hour and I hope these guys can shed some light.
In fact this is my last mail to Said, sent on may 2018:
"one more word before the plane takes off and i would prefer to say this personally: the story of your belayer on the send day is just unbelievable. no one has seen you doing even just the jump and then you do it belayed by some random guy you don‘t know? i can‘t believe that and honestly that‘s the weakest thing i heard for a long time. numerous times i told you: if you‘re in send mood call me, within 30 minutes i‘m at the waldkopf. why didn‘t you put up a camera or an iphone? why didn‘t you ask the czech guys who filmed? there are way too many questions to believe your story and actually i feel completely fooled by you. i didn‘t want to make this public before norbert or me had spoken to you personally. i still hope we are wrong and you are right. cheers"
He never replied or talked to me again after this message. Just to one of the sponsors with his "trust me" message.
To wrap it up as someone who doesn't want to be a partner in crime in causa Said my questions to him are:
Why didn't you reply to my Whattsapp messages from oct. 26. 2018 and oct 27. 2018 (oct 27. 2018 is the "send day")? I knew he would come back from spain on this day.
Why didn't you film yourself as we agreed on this point and you know it would be important for the movie we were making? The belayer Wolfgang told me that he offered to lend his camera and tripod to Said but he refused.
Why didn't you ask for the footage that czech guys made of you? You said there was someone filming.
Why did you only mention one belayer in your Action Directe post on Instagram and NOT the one that belayed you on the actual send (this "Mike"). As you posted this shortly after your send he must still have been on Instagram at this time.
Why do you say now (in the interview of lacrux.com) that climbing Action Directe is not such a big deal and not newsworthy? In the video sessions we made you said that it's the dreamroute of your life since you are a child.
Why do you say now in the Lacrux interview that I was asking for the send footage (of the random czech guys) half a year later? You know that this is not true. I was asking you for the footage directly after you told me about it and I was trying to find these guys (via Wolfgang, the belayer mentioned in your post). This footage appeared nowhere until now (13.12.2019)
And the last one is: Why are you not willing to answer any of these questions?
The discussion shows how big our sport is. There is a lot of money and possible fame involved. BUT: You can still go under the radar, climb La Dura Dura just for yourself and party the send with your five real friends and don't tell anybody else. We all know that these real climbing heroes exist and I admire them. But if you want to party with the world and your Instagram fans you can't just say "trust me" and refuse to answer questions which are not esoteric.
That's all I have to say.
Affix (added on 31.01.2020)
Sarah Burmester, editor of the german climbing magazine »klettern«, spent quite some time investigating »Die Akte Said«. Unfortunately Said Belhaj was not willing to talk to her. The only thing he did was telling her that one of the "Michaels" (that appeared and said that they would have been Said's belayer on Action Directe) was not his Michael. Still Said is not willing to recreate his Instagram communication with his belayer he claims to have. Several people posted how you can do this. This wouldn't prove anything again, but at least it would help a bit.
Thanks for all the nice emails I received and the support that I get. "In dubio pro reo" is a good idea in general, but I think that that the doubts concerning Said and all his other hard ascents became so strong that he has to prove it. There are already some people investigating the ascents of his other routes.
People frequently ask me the question: What's the hardest climb Said has done with known witnesses? I don't know really. At least 8b. Has anybody information about this? I mean real information. "He was looking good on this or that route" doesn't count.
I did an interview with the well respected journalist and mountaineer Malte Roeper, who was investigating in the case of Tomo Cesen back in the early 90's. The interview is very interesting and will soon appear on kletterszene.com.
Affix (added on 26.11.2020)
"You shouldn’t balk when folks ask you to provide proof."
Owen Clarke, editor of the american Rock & Ice magazine, wrote a brilliant article that sums up the topic of lying in the best possible manner.
You can read it here.