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Djebel Ressas

  • Grade context: FR
  • Approach time: 30-45 min.
  • Aka: Jebel Ressas
  • Aka: جبل الرصاص

Summary

Djebel Ressas is a high and rugged outcropping of Jurassic limestone situated on the horizon southeast of Tunis.

Description

Along the highway between Tunis and Hammamet there are excellent views of Djebel Ressas as one looks south from near the tollbooths, just past the exit to Mornag. Competing in the foreground, the iconic profile of Djebel Boukournine may appear taller, but at 750 meters Ressas is the dominant peak.

Access issues

Regional Status:
Most of Djebel Ressas is now an excellent setting for a day of rewarding outdoor activity. But the site hasn’t been developed in any formal sense as a recreational objective. Perhaps that’s partly due to its official status as a “nature preserve”. Just as likely, though, it’s because there hasn't been much of a demand for that kind of development in Tunisia. Ressas is a bit off the beaten path, and most folks prefer to spend their leisure time nearer the beaches or in other venues. At this writing there are no maintained hiking trails, trail markers, or service facilities at the mountain. Images viewed on Google Earth™ give some idea of the approaches and the general landscape.
Access:
Until January of 2007 hikers at Djebel Ressas could come and go as they pleased. That winter, however, stricter regulations were established following a brief police action against fundamental Islamic insurgents hiding in the surrounding region. Since then, permission is needed in order to explore the mountain legally. This can be arranged by checking in at a national guard station in the nearby village of Mornag and receiving a permit. Later, you might be required to present the permit to an officer waiting at the base of the mountain.

If you don’t mind flying under the radar, an unofficial approach would be to arrive early enough in the morning (say before 8:00 am) to reach the trailhead before the officer, thereby avoiding the annoying detail of acquiring and presenting a permit.

It may be possible to arrange for permission in advance by contacting the regional security officer at your country’s embassy in Tunis. I do this when I’m scheduling a group excursion to the mountain, just to avoid any hassles. You’ll be asked to provide basic information about your trip such as the date, number of your party, names of participants, and a brief itinerary outlining your plans. Working with the U.S. embassy, it usually takes me from one to two weeks to secure a permit in this way.

Approach

Driving Directions
(45-50 minutes; good roads.)

Djebel Ressas is about a 30 km drive from Tunis in the direction of Mornag. To get there…

  1. Travel southeast on A1 for about 15 km, following signs to Hammamet and Sousse.

  2. Take the “Mornag” exit, just before the tollbooths. Turn right at the top of the exit ramp, then down and left at the first stop sign you’ll see.

  3. Keep to the road for 0.5 km and take the first right you come to, now following signs to Mornag.

  4. Drive about 2 km straight into Mornag proper, crossing the first intersection you reach and making a left turn at the second intersection. (A right turn at this intersection would put you immediately at the last gas station en route.)

  5. Now you’re in the middle of town and traveling southeast on C35 (although the road is unmarked) toward Djebel Ressas. On most days you’ll probably notice a bustling open market along the right side of the road.

  6. Stay on the road for about 7 km, following signs for Bouficha until you see a signpost on the left with markings for Fonderie and Jebel Ressas.

  7. Turn left at the signpost and follow the rural road for nearly 2 km, past orchards and farmhouses, until you see a small, unsigned lane branching off to the left. Follow this winding lane for 1.5 km to its end.

  8. You’ll know you’re there when you’ve reached an empty lot adjacent to a sleepy farming settlement and framed by Djebel Ressas in the background.

Parking:
The locals are friendly and hard working, but most adults speak no French and certainly no English. Occasionally, small children will approach with playful curiosity. The area is usually quiet and, if your car is locked and your valuables are inconspicuous, you can expect things to remain undisturbed while you’re gone. It’s smart to park near the edge of the lot, as sometimes the local kids use the space for a soccer pitch, and if your vehicle is at midfield they’ll just play right over it.
Hiking Directions:
All paths described here begin a short distance from the car park area.
  1. Orient yourself by facing the mountain’s highest visible peak (The Terminator Buttress), which is due south of your car.

  2. Walk southwest on a little dirt lane that leads to the right corner of the settlement, and then behind a group of sheds. Try to ignore the grumpy, barking dogs that will likely approach and threaten as you go by.

  3. Once past the buildings, you’ll notice to your left and higher up, a blocky, white-washed cement structure with a distinctive blue door that houses a cistern.

From this point you can choose to follow one of the routes described here or make a path of your own. A handful of neglected utility trails exist on the slopes that once served the many abandoned mines. Nevertheless, most of the hiking on and around the mountain involves navigating rough paths etched by herds of foraging sheep and goats. Naturally, these tracks are scrappy and ambiguous, and they tend to chaotically intersect one another like irregular runnels in a dry riverbed. Adequate route-finding skills and a good sense of direction (or a compass or GPS) will be appreciated during initial attempts at finding your way around.

Approach:
:

To reach the main climbing area (The School of Rock) follow these directions:

  1. Walk the primitive lane from the car park to the back of the farming settlement and below the white cistern.

  2. Instead of continuing on the farm lane (which proceeds straight & level, and then bends right), follow an inconspicuous footpath that diverges to the left and upward, toward the mountain. This path climbs above the lane (which you’ll see below and on your right), taking you through scattered trees and eventually above and parallel to the east bank of a dry creek bed.

  3. After hiking for about 200 meters, cross a dry bed. At the crossing point, leave the trail and hike several paces up a rocky ravine to somewhat burned and especially gnarly old tree in the center of the drainage.

  4. Continue beyond the tree for another 30m, then exit the ravine to the right and head 100m west toward a large clearing.

  5. Upon entering the clearing, turn south (left) to again face the highest visible peak. Then walk 50m in that direction, toward a lone boulder that’s roughly 2 meters in diameter.

  6. Just a few meters beyond the boulder, locate an indistinct goat track and follow it 100 m southwest (right) until it enters trees and develops into a clearly defined path.

  7. Hike south (with the mountain to your left) for about 150 more meters, passing boulders and trees, to reach a grassy slope immediately left of the path. A stone cairn, has been placed along the trail to mark this spot and hopefully it will still exist when you arrive!

  8. Turn left and scramble for 50 meters, up the steep slope, through the last of the trees and onto loose scree and talus.

  9. Move upward for another 50m along the western (right) edge of the scree.

  10. After passing a scraggly tree in the main current of the scree, keep ascending on loose rock until forced to choose between continuing onto a dirty outcropping or crossing the scree flow to climber's left.

  11. Choose the left option and carefully traverse for 15 m over the scree, to yet another gnarly tree on the opposite side of the flow.

  12. Now it's just a few more steep paces to reach the first of two large buttresses, which are divided by the upper terminus of the scree slope. The surrounding crags in this vestibule make up the School of Rock.

Where to stay

This agricultural area is rural, remote, and several kilometers from basic services. Simple lodging could potentially be arranged in the nearby town of Mornag. Camping on the slopes around Djebel Ressas is not permitted.

Ethic

Guidelines

The development of climbing at Djebel Ressas has been gradual and sporadic. In the absence of an active climbing community no rules have been established beyond those personally dictated by good form, common sense, and respect for the local herdsmen who graciously allow access to what is essentially their backyard. While sport climbing has taken hold on Djebel Zaghoan to the south, the climbing on Ressas has remained traditional. Some old isolated bolts can be found on the higher cliffs, but no bolted routes had been established at the time of this writing.

Grades:
The ratings indicated for these climbs are tentative and have only been backed up by a very small handful of experienced climbers. Besides, the folks I partner with aren’t much concerned about that side of the business, anyway. As long as you’re climbing with pals, and the rock is fun and safe, it’s all good.
Future Development:
The projects described here are just a fraction of what could be done, and there’s plenty of potential for new developments. Undoubtedly, stronger climbers will put up higher caliber routes in the future.

History

View historical timeline

Geography & Geologic History

The geologic origins of Djebel Ressas and the neighboring peaks date to earlier than 100 million years ago. Then, the very largest of all carnivorous dinosaurs, Spinosaurus aegyptiacus (the massive menace in Jurassic Park III) hunted in a vast and swampy tropical paradise much different from the Sahara desert we know today.

Meanwhile, just to the north, prehistoric radiolarians thrived in a primordial sea that was the ancestor of today’s Mediterranean. Covering much of what we now call the Maghreb of north Africa, massive quantities of these crustaceans inhabited that exotic marine environment and settled on the bottom when they died. Countless layers of their organic remains compacted and cemented into calcified rock on the base of the ancient seafloor, ultimately forming the limestone fabric of an emerging mountain range.

Over eons, tectonic forces laterally compressed southern regions of this sedimentary basement, thrusting buttes and peaks above the waves and nudging the sea north to its present shoreline. Gradually, the Atlas Mountains wrinkled across the upper, leading edge of Africa, with Ressas at the northeastern terminus of the range.

Today, astute hikers can discover a variety of marine fossils and hefty, angular calcite crystals in the high crags; emblems of the mountain’s organic genesis in the distant past.

Human History

Earliest references in classical literature suggest the countryside adjacent to Djebel Ressas was the setting for a legendary military engagement, fought and won decisively by the empire of Carthage against rebel mercenaries and other local enemies late in the second century B.C. Known as the “Battle of The Saw”, this event is historically significant for the 40,000 lives it is said to have claimed.

During the Second World War, the mountain was effectively defended by an isolated German artillery until the retreat of Axis forces in May of 1943.

Contrasting with earlier hostilities on the slopes, agriculture is currently the focus. Today most of the mountain is a quiet host to olive orchards and small herds of domestic livestock. The nearby town of Mornag has become the capitol of a flourishing wine producing region.

In Arabic, the name Djebel Ressas literally means ‘mountain of lead’, a reference to the ore that was mined there, perhaps from Roman times until the late 19th or early 20th century. The southeastern slopes of the djebel still support an active rock and gravel quarry. Materials from this site are used to produce cement and stone matter for meeting the demands of Tunisia’s rapidly expanding road systems and building infrastructure.

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