A very Personal Account of Adventure in the Moroccan High Atlas
By P. Jack
PART 1 : SOMEWHERE IN NORTH WEST AFRICA….
I was at 4,100 metres above sea level in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. There were only 67 metres of altitude between me and the summit. I was holding on to my ice axe as if it was a life saver. Because it was. My crampon-ed boots dug deep into the ice as if my life depended upon them. Because it did.
A Mancunian voice drifted up towards me from around a rocky crag, “Pete, do you not want to look back at the view?” “No thanks” I weakly replied. I knew already what the view consisted of – about 1,000 metres of ice and snow at a 60 degree angle and if my ice axe and crampons didn’t work, then it was ‘good night Irene’. I would have been a fine looking corpse but still, I decided I would cling onto life, if not sanity, a bit longer. As long as I concentrated on this one metre piece of glistening ice in front of me I would be fine. Finally Ibrahiam, our Berber guide, shouted up at me, “Mr. Peter, it’s ok, you can go ahead now”. I slowly withdrew the ice axe and stepped gingerly forward to try to find somewhere equally safe and comforting. I had only to keep calm and concentrate for another 15 minutes and I would be at the top. I didn’t even want to think about the journey back down because I would definitely have to look at the view… . What on earth was I doing here, perched to the side of a cliff in North West Africa, trying to resemble a limpet? I have always admired climbers, not quite understood them but always admired them. I mean, they would have to have a screw loose, wouldn’t they? What type of rational human being gets his kicks being scared to death? I read “Touching the Void” and saw the movie of the same name about guys climbing to – and beyond – their limits. I am a huge fan of people like Chris Bonnington, Edmond Hilary, Sherpa Tenzing, Bear Grills, Gavin Bate, Hannah Shields and the late Ian McKeever, all of whom had conquered their fears – and also mountain peaks. I however live at sea level. I get vertigo if I go up a flight of stairs too quickly, but I have always loved hill walking. What could be nicer than hacking your way up to Binevenagh Lake and then plunging down through the forest? For the last three years, I had trekked and hiked my way to the top of Kilimanjaro to Everest Base Camp and to Kinabalu in Borneo, all of which were between 4,000 and 5,900 metres, so I proved I could cope with altitude, because it’s actually about attitude, not altitude and I could suffer as long as I needed to suffer. But this would be the first trip where I would have to do some work which was more than your average scrambling, this would actually involve some technical stuff.
As ever, I signed up with the excellent Adventure Alternative team from Portstewart where Chris and Andy guided me expertly through what I would need in terms of kit. At the same time when I was in Morocco, Adventure Alternative had teams away in Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and Aconcagua (South America) and at Everest Base Camp. AA is a phenomenally successful company whose DNA is reliability and experience. I wouldn’t go anywhere without them. I flew to Marrakesh from Gatwick and was met by Matt who was the group leader. I knew Matt from Nepal and his quiet reassuring demeanour and professional leadership was to be a source of great comfort over the next week. There was also the local head honcho, Ahmed and we quickly met the rest of the team including Andy from AA who had actually gone to Morocco for a break away from work and had bumped into Matt at the airport, talk about a small world!
I met the rest of the intrepid travellers at our riad in the middle of a street only a stone’s throw away from the bustling heart of Marrakesh, Jamaa el Fna Square. A riad is a town house which is like Dr. Who’s Tardis, it looks tiny from the outside but when you step in through the gilded front door, there are rooms in every conceivable direction with a quiet court yard (often with a palm tree) to get out of the sun, a roof top terrace to catch the sun and the whole thing is an oasis of peace and quiet. Quiet that is, until 5.30 a.m. when the booming voice of the local iman is broadcast from the ubiquitious minarets. At the end of the week we stayed in a second riad which was caught in a Cross Fire Hurricane of four different minarets and they all started about ten seconds apart so there was there was this constant cacophony of wailing, assailing my sleep deprived ears. If you could sleep through that, you are a better man than I, Gunga Din.
There was six in our team, two Mancunians, both called Andy, one supported City and one supported United, (so I have no idea how they co-existed); Ben and Libby from Leeds and Kevin from Cork, but based in Faro, as he was a pilot for a local airline and was well versed in taking the ribbing that his airline received daily. All of these guys had travelled and trekked extensively - Elbrus, (highest mountain in Europe); Kilimanjaro, (highest in Africa) and Aconcagua, (highest in South America) had all been ticked off by some or all of them so I knew I was with an experienced bunch. It’s the people that make or break a trip and I was so lucky (again) to meet a bunch of like-minded people who were up for some craic, some banter and a lot of thrills, but hopefully no spills. Ben and Libby had actually climbed one of the peaks already, Toubkal several years ago in the summer months, but this was going to be a whole different ball game for them and for all of us.
We enjoyed a feast of lamb cooked in a tagine (basically a slow cooker shaped like a mini volcano), then we had a walk around the madness of the Jamaa el Fna Square square. This basically is a market place which is jam packed for about 20 hours every day with donkeys, monkeys, acrobats, drummers, shysters, traders etc. – you could literally buy anything here. The turquoise light from toys, which were catapulted up into the air by local ten year old sellers, illuminated the night time sky even further. The smells of cooking, fresh oranges, and spices enticed our nostrils as we made it back for a night’s rest before the fun would really begin….
The next day we were transported in a “grande taxi “ to Imlil. As the native tongue of Charles de Gaulle is the country’s second language, I had my annual opportunity to show off my school boy French. The locals however not only spoke Arabic but also Berber and English, thankfully. In Imlil, we quickly settled onto the roof top veranda of our latest riad and it was a pleasure to lie down in the warm rays of the African sun. Later we went for a 2 ½ hour acclimatisation walk which was led expertly by Ibrahiam. We seemed to pick up both a dog and a horse out on the hills and they accompanied us back to base just as it was getting dark. My new boots were serving me well and I had just purchased a set of B1’s which apparently could be fitted with C1 crampons. I didn’t understand any of the technical lingo and just just hoped for the best. I was lucky not to have any blisters later.
After a hearty meal, we retired for the night as we had an early start. The call to prayer ensured there was no rest after 5.30 a.m. and a few hours later we walked down the dusty main street (the only street!) of Imlil before turning left and heading off onto a rocky trail. The street was the last time we would see a paved road or a wheeled vehicle for four days. Everything above this altitude of 1,750 metres was carried on a porter’s back or on the side of a mule. That was the first of many parallels with the Himalayas in Nepal where their preferred beast of burden is the yak. The Atlas mountains are basically mini Himalayas. Whilst the latter have a range of 8,000 metre peaks, the former have a whole bunch of 4,000 metre peaks and the scenery is equally stunning. Quickly our dry and dusty valley was transformed into a twisting and turning combination of gorges and ravines, of snow and ice. After about 6 hours of easy walking we made it to the Nelter Refuge, which was going to be home for the next four days. In here, we would eat, sleep and socialise together. If you weren’t up a mountain you would be in the lodge trying to keep warm. There were trekkers from all over the world including Alberto from Gran Canaria whom I later bumped into in Marrakesh. I met two Dutch blokes who were going skiing down the slopes of Akioud (a name which was later to strike true terror in my heart!) We listened to loud Americans discussing their daily conquests and we slept, all 7 of us on the top bunks, where the only way to keep way was with a four seasons sleeping bag and hot water bottle. It was either wet wipes or a cold shower for hygiene but the food was great. We needed about 3,000 calories a day just to keep ticking over – at altitude you are pulsing your metabolic rate or both up. After trying to huddle round the fire we retired for the night. We were to be up at 7.00 a.m. which was to be a positive lie in compared to the next two days. Earlier Matt had given us lessons on how to use our crampons and ice axe. He showed us, if we were hurtling down an icy slope towards imminent doom, how we could use the ice axe to stop, using the well known technique, known as “self arrest”. I thought that the only arrest I would be capable of doing over the next 72 hours would be of the cardiac variety. We climbed up onto our bunks supposedly to sleep.
Join me next week to see if we make it to the top of all four vertical leviathans, all over 4,000 metres, in the Atlas mountain range of North West Africa.
PART 2 : TRIUMPH ON TOUBKAL!
Our intrepid team of explorers from Adventure Alternative were in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and our aim was to summit Four Peaks, all over 4,000 metres high, in the North West of Africa. The description of the trip in the Adventure Alternative blurb was that on day three, we would “make an attempt” at Akioud, why just an attempt? What could be so tricky about it? The delights and difficulties of Akioud would have to wait for another two days because today was an attempt at a double peak – Timesguida and then Ras Ouanoukrim (which funnily enough we shortened to Ras).
Back home in Ireland, the Ras is the toughest amateur bike race on the Island. It’s been won by Sean Kelly amongst others, but in Morocco the Ras was our first goal. We were stationed at Nelter Lodge nestling in the middle of the high Atlas, an impressive swathe of mountains which stretch nearly from the Atlantic sea board in the West to Algeria in the East. They are 500 miles long and up to 60 miles wide. These mountains in previous centuries have been a place of refuge for the population from invaders. For us they were merely to be a high altitude playground where we could pit our wits against precocious Mother Nature.
As the seven of us were sharing a dorm with about 10 to 12 others, every team had a different mountain to tackle and therefore a different start time. One morning one bloke opposite us got up at 2.30 a.m. and started fumbling about with his head torch. We heard him put all his gear on and he was obviously going to start his climb in the dark and the cold. For us on day one we had a civilised lie in to 7.00 a.m. and by 8.30 a.m. we all assembled outside the Refuge bright eyed, if not, bushy tailed.
We had our crampons and our rucksacks and we set off, more in hope than in expectation.
We quickly got into a pattern of making slow and steady progress with the accent on slow. No matter where you trek in the world, the right method is the one used in Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. The Swahili word for “Slowly Slowly” is Pole, Pole and I have heard that phrase used in Nepal, Borneo and now in Morocco as well. Matt, our leader, showed us how to synchronize our footsteps with our breathing, better long and slow than fast and choppy.
Crampons would be a boon on ice and were necessary to prevent us from falling. Putting on a set of crampons is an art in itself and it took me three days to master it. In fact I obviously didn’t because on the very last day coming down the last slope one of my crampons fell off!
With crampons you have to walk with your feet wider apart than normal, so you don’t catch one on the other i.e. you have to trek John Wayne style. It may not be pretty, but it works. Matt also showed us how to kick a hole out of the ice with the front of the crampon and he explained that it was fairly hard work for your calf muscles if you had to do this for hours on end. Me? – I just crossed my fingers and listened to Ibrahiam who said we would get to the top,” Inshallah” (God willing).
After a few hours of snowy ridges we had some technical scrambling on bare rocks to remind us that this wasn’t just going to be a ‘walk in the park’. Omar, one of our guides just made the whole thing look ridiculously easy. I tried to follow his footsteps in the snow. Although I was the same height as him, his gait was much longer than mine and I felt myself struggling to keep up with his ‘Finn McCool’ type steps. Eventually we summited our first peak on Ras and it made us feel good. Why do you go and trek all over the globe in these places,? I am often asked. It’s hard to encapsulate it into mere words, but up here, the warm comfort blanket of security and network systems and support of friends and family and office is stripped away. You have to fend for yourself, it’s you against nature. It’s not a case of conquering these mountains, God forbid, I conquered nothing – except my own fears. These mountains merely allowed us to stand on their top for a few minutes before we shuffled off their peaks.
Why do it? In a nutshell, standing up here, seemingly on top of the world, you can practically hear the silence. Hannibal Lector waxed menacingly about the Silence of the Lambs, but up here it’s about the Silence of the Souls. It’s so quiet it is breath taking. The second reason for being up here is the scenery and the peace. I am fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the world – at sea level – but even I have to admit that these views are world class. The weather was kind to us, every day was blue sky, no clouds and no wind. Roger Daltrey of “The Who” sang years ago, “I can see for Miles and Miles”, I now know what he means.
Up here, you are not worried about the nonsensical decisions of the Northern Ireland Court Service to close Limavady Court House or the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission abolishing Legal Aid, you just relax and go with the flow and enjoy the views. The Atlas mountains are the African equivalent of the Himalayas, albeit half their height, but they were no less challenging and there was no less sense of achievement when you got to the top.
One hour later I was on what is called a snow-bridge. Our second goal of the day was Ras. To get across to it we had to place our feet – and our well being – and entrust them to a snow-bridge. Now I have stepped across quite a few bridges in Nepal and Borneo and they are made of good solid stuff. Here however, the fate of the organiser of this year’s Roe Valley Sprint Race on the 11th May, was dependent upon negotiating very carefully a narrow enough carpet of snow. If you slipped down to the left, you fell only 300 metres, but if you slipped to the right you would tumble twice that. The whole idea was not to tumble in the first place.
We all made it across in one piece and celebrated with chocolate, group hugs and energy bars. We hadn’t budgeted however for being out so long and so it was a fairly hungry and thirsty Adventure Alternative party that made it back to base camp 8 hours after setting out. On the way down, we put on our crampons for the first time to help us cope with a big steep icy decent and after an initial reluctance we all got to grips literally with our new iron clad feet.
Day two saw us leave the comfort of our lodge at 7.00 a.m. Quickly we were on our way across a fairly scary looking face but it was covered in snow and ice and our crampons worked a treat. Today was Toubkal. At 4,167 metres it was the loftiest of our challenges. Many people come here just to do this one, but we had wisely had four goals in mind. On this trip, I was to more than double my number of 4,000 metre peaks that I had bagged in my life time.
Again we went Pole, Pole and we were rewarded with cracking views and spectacular scenery. There were a few ‘seat of the trouser’ moments on the way up but when we were there we were amazed to see a canny canine companion with us! Apparently this dog would routinely work its way up (without crampons!) the slope knowing that any climbers would share their tinned mackerel with him. We obviously obliged – please don’t tell Roxy! After opposing for the obligatory “King of the World” shots, we started to fight our way down. This was undoubtedly our trickiest assignment to date as we descended over a seemingly glass like stretch of 400 metres of sheet ice at a precipitous angle, where if you had started to slide you would end up on a spot marked oblivion. I learned that you had to have confidence in your equipment – crampons and ice axe and also yourself. I learned a lot about myself and we all made it down to our temporary home after a ten hour day, full of fun, and a bit of fear as well.
It was day three I was worried about…. I had spoken to a bombastic mountain guide the night before who greeted it as “PD”, this was a French climbing term meaning “Peu Difficile” It was quite obvious to me that the French had never actually been up Akioud because to me it was a BD i.e. “Beaucoup Difficile”! I was very apprehensive about it and tossed turned most of the night and I already decided that if I couldn’t hack the technical upper reaches that I would turn back, preferring to be a living coward than a dead hero, but adrenaline does funny things to a bloke. We set off at 6.00 a.m. head torches and with the sky illuminated by the sparkling stars and a crescent moon. Three hours later after a massive hike up a steep ice wall (off which Ibrahiam told us helpfully a skier had launched himself, couldn’t stop, hit another skier and killed him). We were at decision time. It was Fight or Flight. The only thing I wanted to do was get cracking. The rest of the team were fairly relaxed and were posing for pictures. I only wanted to pose for photographs at the top and not on this col. I set off and there was only one thing on my mind, get to the top a.s.a.p. I went at it like a bull at a gate. Soon the lines were stretched and I was told to wait. Matt had brought ropes in case one of us fell. I am not sure if I wanted a rope in case I caused all of us to fall. We were at a 60 degree angle and I have never been so grateful for the ability of crampons and an ice axe to do their job. After an interminable wait I got the go ahead to continue the push to the top. This was without doubt the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. Thirteen Ironman was one thing, but at least all you have to do is swim, bike and run, there are no life threatening situations to confront but here, half way between Hell and Heaven, I knew that one slip could be fatal. It tended to concentrate the mind wonderfully.
After what seemed like hours we all made it to a rocky crag where we celebrated the fact that we were all still alive. I knew however that going down would be even worse as I would have to look at the drop. Forty five minutes later we made it back down to the relative safety of the col. The relief of the Siege of Derry was as nothing compared to how I felt and where a call of nature was necessitated…. I had stood on top – and lived to tell the tale.
On the way down, the atmosphere in the warm sunshine was one of “Schools Out for Summer”. We practically frolicked in the deep snow and laughed when we fell over. After negotiating the tricky icy gorge, we were on the home run except that we had another four hour hike after lunch to get to Imlil where a surprise birthday party lay in store for Ben and I. Ahmed managed to bring us some beer from Marrakesh and we had no difficulty in persuading a visiting Dutch guy and an Australian girl in joining us for some cake and to listen to Moroccan drumming and singing. Ahead of us lay a night or two in the souks, medinas and kasbahs of Marrakesh but in the meantime we could reflect a on a Job Well Done. The aim was to summit four 4,000 metre peaks, we accomplished that and more importantly we made it back down.
Morocco has everything from the wild sea coast in the West to the biggest desert on earth to the East. Adventure Alternative are looking into planning a new trip along the lines of “From Surf to Summit to Sahara”. You might want to check it out. I just wonder how I will get my surf board to the top of Toubkal…..
Peter traveled with Adventure Alternative on the Winter Toubkal trip. For more information see;
This article originally appeared in the Limavady Chronicle, N. Ireland