Climbing Mount Toubkal in Winter – A Brief Introduction

We have been leading winter climbs of Mount Toubkal in the Moroccan Atlas mountains for a few years now. It is a superb trip and one that people often sign up for as a great little winter break and also a chance to try out trekking and mountaineering in winter conditions for the first time. In many ways it is an ideal trek to do this; it is a short and inexpensive flight away, it is a short trip, it is only to moderate altitude, weather and snow conditions are generally reliable etc etc.

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Approaching the Summit of Toubkal in February

However, when people make the step up from trekking in summer conditions to winter conditions they nearly always have reservations and concerns about whether they are ready to make that step. From talking to many people in this position, we note that the same questions nearly always come up. We will try to address a few of these common questions below:-

  1. I have never used crampons before.

This is one of the most tangible differences between summer and winter trips. For some, the idea of using crampons is one of the key points of interest, for others it is one of the key concerns. A lot of this seems to be influenced by the image of crampons being used in their most extreme ways. Ie hard core ice climbing up vertical sheets of ice. However, at their root, crampons are just an upgrade for the sole of your boot to allow you to get some purchase on snow and ice. They make things that would be very difficult in just your boots extremely easy.

They say that learning to use crampons takes half an hour to learn and a lifetime to perfect. This is true to some extent, but the crampon skills needed for a winter climb of Toubkal can easily be learned within the training session that we will have on our first day above the snowline. We will then also have ongoing training and tips on this throughout the trip. Learning and practicing these skills is a big part of the interest and focus of the trip.

ice climb

Not Winter Toubkal!

  1. Your info says I need an ice axe; are we going to be hanging off cliffs by our arms?

The short answer is – yes you need a (walking) axe – No you won’t be using it to ‘climb’. The type of ice axe we use on trips like this is different to the one alpinists use for ice climbing.

We use a walking axe which is longer and straighter and is used in a similar way to a walking stick almost all the time. It does also have an adze which can be used to cut steps and a pick, which can be used to stop you sliding if you end up lying in the snow. In reality you won’t need to do either of these things, but we do carry and learn how to use the axe in case of an emergency.  Again, learning and practising how to use these techniques is actually great fun and part of the interest of the trip for most people.

At no point on the normal ascent of Toubkal would you normally need to use your hands. There is an alternative descent route on the north cwm where you might hold on to the rocks as you walk down some of the upper snow slope. It is really very easy and the guides will decide whether to go that way based on the group and if we do then they will help show you how to do it.

Another peak we usually climb is called Ouanoukrim. The climb starts with a walk up the frozen valley with a steeper section near the head of the valley, but it is walking all the way. There is then a section along a ridge to get to the easy broad slopes beyond. A couple of sections of this ridge do have steep slopes dropping off to one side and we use our hands to steady ourselves on the rocks. However, the weight is on your legs, not your hands and it is actually very easy and the guides will be there to help show you the best way to tackle it.

Looking at Ouanoukrim from Toubkal

Looking at Ouanoukrim from Toubkal

  1. There is a lot of expensive gear on the kit list. I don’t think I can afford all that.

It is true that if you bought everything on the kit list it would add up to quite a bit of cash, especially of you bought it all new and top of the range. However, most people hire at least a few of the more specialised items if they are not sure they will use them again. This would often include crampons, axe and harness, and also often B1 mountain boots, sleeping bag and down jacket too. Companies such as expeditionkithire.co.uk offer packages and also the opportunity to buy the gear at the end of the trip, at a used-price, if you really liked it.

A lot of people also borrow gear from friends or get some items second hand from places like ebay. For this trip it is also important to remember that you don’t necessarily need top of the range gear. It is worth targeting your expenditure, boots are somewhere where it is well worth getting good ones that fit the shape as well as the size of your feet. Safety gear like a harness, axe and crampons clearly need to be in good condition. Your warm and weatherproof layers can quite easily be of a shop-own-brand level of quality. Sleeping bags can be cheaper but heavier and bulkier synthetic insulation rather than down-filled as we are not carrying them. We sleep in a refuge so the comfort temperature only needs to be just below 0degC, and you could always upgrade an existing bag with a fleece liner.

We encourage you to speak to us about kit and especially before buying or renting anything so that we can advise you and make sure you save your cash for buying pretty trinkets in the souks of Marrakesh instead!

  1. Its Morocco, in Africa, surely we don’t need all these warm layers.

This is a very common misconception, mainly on the summer trip rather than the winter one. There is a lot of detailed information on our website about it but the brief answer is – Yes, you do need all the warm layers, and; Yes, it does get very cold at times. (even in the summer)

The cold is mainly due to the altitude but also due to wind-chill if there is a breeze. Normal temperatures drop by around 5 degrees per 1000m of altitude, Toubkal is 4167m high, therefore it is likely to be 20 degrees colder on top of Toubkal than at the beach in Essaouira. Therefore, even if it was 25degC on the beach you would expect it to be about 5degC on Toubkal. Add to that a light 15kmh wind and you are down to -5degC including windchill. As the wind may also have blown up the valley over a load of snow, and your feet are stood on a pile of it and you can see that you need to have a good set of warm clothes to stay happy!

'Hero Shot' with Toubkal behind

‘Hero Shot’ with Toubkal behind

These are just a few of the most common questions and we are happy to answer all these and others in order for you to feel happy and prepared for the trip. A winter Toubkal trip is a superb little expedition and we can’t recommend it highly enough for a short, exciting winter break and as a first introduction to trekking in winter conditions.

Winter Mountaineering Gear Pt 3 – Choosing and Fitting Winter Mountaineering Boots

Winter is coming!

For some people that is not a welcome statement, but for those of us who love winter sports then the first dusting of snow on the high ground gets us excited about getting out on the ice and snow.

The third in our series on winter mountain gear will give you some tips on choosing and fitting winter mountaineering boots.

CHOOSING AND FITTING BOOTS

Remember – On a mountain trip you will spend a lot of time in your boots and your feet will be working hard. You will greatly regret cutting any corners with selection and fit of your boots!

If you are buying expensive boots for an expensive expedition it is strongly recommended that you visit a specialist retailer with trained staff, proper foot-measuring facilities (length & width) and a wide range of brands and models. This will allow you to try out a range of different boots before committing to one. Another important thing is to take the exact socks that you will wear on the trip with you to the shop. You need to try the boot on with the right sock as this can make a huge difference to the volume and comfort of the fit. Good shops will have also have some simulated terrain so that you can walk up and down hill in the boots. When you get home, wear the boots around the house for a few days, walk up and down the stairs etc. Most shops will allow you to exchange boots within a certain time period as long as they haven’t been used outside.

When fitting your boots, you often need to go up a half size or so from what you would buy in a normal shoe. This will allow for thick socks and some extra space as your feet often swelling a bit at altitude. Generally on high mountains you are walking very slowly and deliberately and will not experience the same amount of movement that you would with an approach boot. However, you do need to ensure that when walking you do not experience any ‘heel-lift’ inside the boot and that there is sufficient space around your toes for you to wiggle them. Any tighter than this and it is likely that they will either rub and give you blisters or be so constricting as to restrict the blood supply and lead to cold toes.

Note that certain boot brands commonly produce boots of a certain shape, ie. a narrower or wider fit. If your feet are of a certain shape it is worth identifying the most appropriate manufacturer for you. Some manufacturers such as Scarpa have ‘thermo-fit’ liners for their plastic boots; these are heated in an oven and then put on with special toe-spacers, the liner then moulds to the shape of your foot and when it has cools it stays in that shape. When the toe-spacer is removed it leaves some space for your toes with the rest fitting snugly. You will need to go to a shop with this facility to get this done properly.


Below the snowline it is possible to use B0 graded hiking boots, make sure they are worn in, but not worn out, and have good ankle support. However, a good solution for smaller peaks is to use a B1 or B2 Four-Season boot which can then be used on the peak too. This means that you don’t need to bring another set of boots.

If you are booked onto an Adventure Alternative trip then you get full access to our experienced staff before the trip so that you can be sure that you get the right gear.

Trips where you would need warm, crampon compatible winter boots include:-

Trip/Peak Reccommended Boots
Mount Everest High Altitude Triple Boots
Muztagh Ata Plastics + Overboots Reccommended
Huayna Potosi Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Pequeno Alpamayo Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Aconcagua Good Hybrids, Plastics or possibly Triple Boots
Mount Khuiten Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mount Elbrus Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mera Peak Good Hybrids or Plastics
Ojos del Salado Good Hybrids or Plastics
Island Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Yala Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Toubkal Winter 4-Season Boots

Winter Mountaineering Gear Pt 2 – Boots for Warmth

Winter is coming!

For some people that is not a welcome statement, but for those of us who love winter sports then the first dusting of snow on the high ground gets us excited about getting out on the ice and snow.

The second in our series on winter mountain gear will explain the differences between boots and how they are graded for warmth.

BOOT GRADING FOR WARMTH

Aside from allowing the fitting of crampons, another very important consideration when choosing your mountain boots is that of warmth. For anything other than technical climbing, this is likely to be the over-riding factor in your choice of boot. Different types of boot are constructed differently, with different materials and built up in layers. Usually on warmer boots, the layers are able to be seperated into an inner and outer boot. This helps as it allows you to warm/dry the inners and also to wear them inside the tent.

It sounds obvious when it is pointed out, but it is not just the ambient air temperature that is an issue. If you are walking on snow, your feet lose heat through the sole of your foot into the cold ground. This is made even worse if the snow is not hard packed, as you may be ankle or even shin deep in the stuff and your whole foot and lower leg may be conducting heat to the snow. Therefore, it is also the condition of the mountain that affect which boots are needed, aside from just the altitude or location.

Invitably, the warmer the boot the more volume and bulk it has to it and usually the more expensive it is too. Using a boot that is too warm can be as problematic as having one that is not warm enough. It will lead to excessive sweating which is uncomfortable and can ultimately lead to greater chance of blisters, cold feet or even frostbite- when you stop working hard, the sweat conducts warmth away from your feet, or can even freeze.

Above the snowline there are four main options, in descending order of warmth:

Triple-Boots‘ for 8000m or very cold peaks (eg Cho Oyu, Everest, Denali) such as Millet Everest, La Sportiva Olympus Mons, Scarpa Phantom 800. These are constructed with inner boot, shell and super-gaiter.

Plastics‘ like the Scarpa Omega or Vega, preferably with a high altitude rated inner boot for warmth (eg for Elbrus). These are a double-boot with a shell and a liner boot.

These can also be upgraded with an overboot (eg 40 Below Purple Haze) if over about 6000m (eg Muztagh Ata), which will usually it up to a limit of about 8000m.

Hybrids‘ like the La Sportiva Spantik or Scarpa Phantom Guide which are a double or even triple boot but the outer boot is not solid plastic so tat is can be more dextrous and comfortable. This may also need to have its warmth upgraded with an overboot over about 6000m which will generally take it up to a limit of about 7000m.

4-Season‘ boots like Scarpa Charmoz or Manta; these are what you would commonly use in UK winter conditions. They would be suitable for mountains like Toubkal or other Moroccan Atlas peaks in winter, Yala Peak, Island Peak and possibly Mera Peak.

If you are booked onto an Adventure Alternative trip then you get full access to our experienced staff before the trip so that you can be sure that you get the right gear.

Trips where you would need warm boots include:-

Trip/Peak Reccommended Boots
Mount Everest High Altitude Triple Boots
Muztagh Ata Plastics + Overboots Reccommended
Huayna Potosi Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Pequeno Alpamayo Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Aconcagua Good Hybrids, Plastics or possibly Triple Boots
Mount Khuiten Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mount Elbrus Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mera Peak Good Hybrids or Plastics
Ojos del Salado Good Hybrids or Plastics
Island Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Yala Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Toubkal Winter 4-Season Boots

Winter Mountaineering Gear Pt 1 – Boots for Crampons

Winter is coming!

For some people that is not a welcome statement, but for those of us who love winter sports then the first dusting of snow on the high ground gets us excited about getting out on the ice and snow.

The first in our series on winter mountain gear will explain the differences between boots and how they are graded for use with crampons.

BOOT GRADING FOR CRAMPONS

Boots for any climb over snow and ice need to be of a type that will allow fitting of crampons. Boots are graded according to their compatibility with different types of crampon.

Boots graded B0 are not suitable for use with crampons. The sole is not stiff enough to prevent them moving differently to the crampon with the result that the crampons will move around and may come off all together. They are also not very stiff in their upper section and may not provide enough support to your ankle or enough rigidity to allow ‘edging’ of the boot in snow when not using crampons.

Boots Graded B1 are suitable for use with strap-on C1 crampons for use on moderate snow and ice conditions. They have fairly stiff soles so that the crampon does not loosen or come off as the boot flexes during walking. They are also fairly stiff on the upper part so that they provide good ankle support and allow edging in the snow when not using crampons. They are however not so stiff that they are too uncomfortable to walk in off the snow.

Boots Graded B2 are suitable for use with C1 or C2 crampons. C2 crampons have a clip lever at the back and therefore require the boot to have a protruding shelf at the heel for the end of the heel lever to engage with. The boots have a stiffer sole than B1 boots and will help to keep the crampon in place on moderate mountaineering climbs. Some B2 boots are still flexible enough to be used on an approach walk although this is very dependent on the materials and construction of the upper.

Boots Graded B3 are suitable for use with technical C3 crampons. The boot is fully rigid and allows the crampon to be used on more technical climbs (where there is likely to be sustained use of the crampon’s front points) without the crampon losening. B3 boots are likely to be very uncomfortable for approach walks and trekking as they are rigid and often heavily insulated.


On all climbs or treks where crampons will be used, your boots will need to be rated at least B1 or B2 for use with crampons.

If you choose to purchase your own crampons prior to the trip please ensure that you take your boots to the shop and ask a suitably experienced person to check the fit of the crampons with the boot. Some combinations of boot and crampon do not provide a good match and can lead to poorly fitting crampons and consequent problems on the mountain. If you are planning on using overboots to upgrade the wrmth of a boot you will also have to check carefully if the crampon will be secure. You may need to cut out sections of the overboot to align with heel or toe bails.

If you are booked onto an Adventure Alternative trip then you get full access to our experienced staff before the trip so that you can be sure that you get the right gear.

Trips where you would need crampon compatible boots include:-

Trip/Peak
Mount Everest
Muztagh Ata
Huayna Potosi
Pequeno Alpamayo
Aconcagua
Mount Khuiten
Mount Elbrus
Mera Peak
Ojos del Salado
Island Peak
Yala Peak
Toubkal Winter

‘Super-Human’ ‘Sherpas’?

OK first off, before we get started, a matter of definition that grates every time a newscaster reading their script gets it wrong…. The word ‘Sherpa’ (big ‘S’) does not actually mean someone who carries stuff or any Nepali who happens to be up a mountain.

Just to clear up any confusion, the name ‘Sherpa’ refers to an ethnic group, hence the capital ‘S’. It is derived from “sher-wa” meaning “people from the East”, because the Sherpa ethnic group originally crossed from Tibet which is East of their now traditional homeland of the Khumbu area of Nepal. The Sherpa also have their own language, culture, and they are slotted into the mainly Hindu-Nepali caste system, en-mass. Almost all Sherpas have the last name “Sherpa” too. So if a Nepali, up a mountain, introduces themselves as Pasang Rai or Nima Tamang, they will be from the Rai or Tamang ethnic group rather than Sherpa. There are many Nepali mountaineers, guides and high altitude porters who are not Sherpas.

So, next time you hear someone say ‘Sherpa’, you can ask them if that is what they mean, or if they actually mean Nepali porter or Nepali mountain guide. When they stare at you blankly, you can educate them!

So, that’s the ‘Sherpa’ bit dealt with, now on to the ‘Super-Human’ bit.

For anyone who has been trekking in Nepal, the most immediately obvious example  of this notion will have been seening local Nepali porters (not necessarily Sherpas!) achieving apparently unbelievable feats of strength and endurance by carrying extremely heavy, and sometimes extremely awkward, loads up steep and rough terrain. All of this at altitudes of up to perhaps five thousand metres, where the available oxygen in the air is down to 50% of that at sea level.

When stopping to catch their breath, half way up a moderate slope, weighed down by the grand total of a few kilos of camera, water and a few spare clothes, many a trekker can be heard to exclaim….

“Wow, look at that, that is really impressive, they are superhuman”

….or words to that effect. Perhaps taking a photo to preserve the moment and jovially applauding the feat.

This is a common reaction and made innocently enough. But let’s look a bit closer….

Fundamentally; No, that porter is not super-human – he or she is very much human.

This may seem like semantics, but it is an important distinction. They are often very highly conditioned through a lifetime of being physically active and probably many years of carrying heavy loads. Plus, most of the people from communities who have lived at altitude for many generations have physiologically adapted to altitude, and of course they are probably well acclimitised in any case.

But they are made of the same stuff as you or I.

There is a limit to what force a muscle of a given size can produce. There is a limit to what stress a bone or ligament can sustain. Pain and injury are universal. By labeling them as super-human, perhaps we are creating that ‘otherness’ that excuses us the empathy of imagining ourselves in their position. Instead of marveling, maybe we should be asking ourselves:

  • What damage is being done to their body by carrying such huge loads?
  • What pain are they in after a day of carrying that load?
  • What pain will they be in every day as they age?
  • What is the average life expectancy of a porter?

These are the same questions that would almost certainly have come to mind more readily had it been a mule or a yak carrying an apparently unreasonable load. Perhaps under the argument that an animal had no choice in the matter.

In the same vein, on one level it is impressive that they are moving that huge load over such difficult terrain, and usually with such tight-lipped resolve and lack of drama. But on another level, perhaps we should be asking why they are doing so:

  • To what extent was porter-ing actually a decision of their own wider free will?
  • What are their other employment options?
  • What level of education did they have access to them as a child?
  • How much are they being paid to carrying those two full sized sheets of half inch, 8 by 4 foot plywood weighing up to 35kg up a mountainside? How much would I expect to be paid for that?
  • Why aren’t they carrying one 17kg sheet instead of two?
  • Why are they wearing flip-flops?
  • Do they have spare clothing? – What happens if the weather changes?
  • Where are they going to sleep tonight? – Do they have a sleeping bag or blanket?
  • Do they get enough calories and nutrition to sustain and repair their bodies?

Super Human Sherpas?

Maybe next time we see a porter struggling under an unreasonable load, instead of remarking….

“wow, look at that, that is really impressive, they are superhuman”

Perhaps we should instead be asking ourselves all the questions above and saying….

“wow, look at that, why are they having to carry such an unreasonable load, I wonder what pain they are in and what damage it is doing”

Then instead of applauding and congratulating what you are seeing, find out about them and take an interest (perhaps through your guide) and make it clear that it you are interested in their well-being. And if it is a porter carrying excessive luggage or gear for a trekking or climbing group, ask them who they are working for then get in contact, ask some difficult questions and let them know that their organization appears to be working in an unethical and irresponsible manner.

As a paying client, you have the power to influence this.

To find out more about Adventure Alternative‘s policies on porters’ rights please see – http://www.adventurealternative.com/trips/page/940/porters_rights – and please do speak to us directly for any other information.

How fit do I need to be to climb Kilimanjaro?

This is the most commonly asked question I’ve received in the last fourteen years of organising Adventure Alternative climbs of Kilimanjaro. And the answer – well it depends more on your approach to the climb as a whole, rather than just your fitness.

Glacier kiliIMG_1884

A long standing client of Adventure Alternative has done numerous triathlons, marathons, duathlons, ultra marathons and any other thon that you can think of, yet he felt climbing Kilimanjaro was one of his toughest achievements to date! Saying that, another client, who again has been on many different trips with us, found it challenging, tough at times but very achievable and rewarding. And her training? Well she’s a working mum of two who escapes for a few hours at the weekend and once or twice during the week when she’d hit the hills with a light pack, go for a jog or jump in the pool for a few lengths. So it isn’t just physical fitness that gets you to the top.

My advice is to prepare as much as you can within the possibilities of your lifestyle and don’t let worry or stress enter that regime! You don’t need a hardcore training schedule and for most people some lifestyle changes such as escaping to the countryside, beach or hills at the weekend or even walking to work will be a great step in the right direction. You really don’t need to be a super fit, highly tuned athlete but you should work on stamina, general well being and be comfortable with living outdoors for prolonged periods of time.

AA Kilimanjaro (2)IMG_1662

Rather than asking how fit do I need to be to climb Kilimanjaro it would be better to ask ‘How should I prepare for climbing Kili?’ That’s a better and more holistic approach to summiting the roof of Africa. You can’t train for altitude, well not on UK or Irish hills, but you can work on all other aspects of the climb. Read up and learn about the route, weather and living conditions on (for example) the Machame Route, then how you can best prepare in terms of health and altitude on Kilimanjaro, also look at kit and the right gear for the climb: Kilimanjaro kit list and of course consider your training for Kilimanjaro!

KathKilimanClimb 143

Remember climbing Kilimanjaro is a holiday, an adventure and not a forced march! The secret of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is to go slow, enjoy the scenery, drink well, eat well and sleep well – it’s better than any exercise or diet book! A regular, consistent and slow pace will ensure proper acclimatisation and in terms of training; well it should include regular hill walking with a small pack of around 10 kgs, or regular visits to the gym for the final two months before departure. Work on strengthening calf and thigh muscles and exercise your cardio-vascular stamina on a step machine or cross trainer. If you do all of the above you’ll be well prepared mentally and physically for a climb of Kilimanjaro.

What on earth is a Huayna Potosi or a Pequeno Alpamayo?

The mountains of Huayna Potosi and Pequeno Alpamayo are both within 40km of La Paz in the Condoriri Group of the La Coordillera Blanca part of the Bolivan Andes of Latin America, a bit of a mouthful! If fact on a clear day you can see both peaks from the edge of the city. Confusingly, Bolivia has two capital cities, the official one being Sucre but the second is La Paz. The government sits in La Paz but the ‘seat of justice’ is in Sucre (one for the pub quiz?). At 3200-4100m, La Paz is at the limit of the human body is prepared to accept as a permanent home. Arriving here on a plane from sea level therefore needs to be followed up with some proper relaxation to let your body catch up with its acclimitisation. As luck would have it, lake Titicaca is nearby to offer up some relaxed days ahead of the climbs.

Huayna Potosi and Pequeno Alpamayo are shapely pyramids in form, with ‘proper’ cartoon-book summits at the culmination of nicely Matterhorn-esque ridges, they are very photogenic.

Pequeno Alpamayo_Bolivia_Summit ridgeThese features make the peaks look like they should be the preserve of craggy-faced, square-jawed alpinists with triangular upper bodies throwing out one-arm pullups at will. Thankfully for the rest of us, there are actually some relatively straightforward ridge-routes graded at around Alpine grade AD.

That isn’t to say that this is an easy climb that anyone can do though. Anyone considering it does need to have previous experience of altitude, a head for heights, composure, experience with crampons, ice axes and basic rope-work. This will not only help to ensure your safety, but also your enjoyment and how much you are able to take in and get the most from the climb.

Pequeno Alpamayo_Boliva_Ridge

Along with climbing in the Himalayas, an expedition to the Andes has to rate as one of the great adventures that all aspiring mountaineers have on their bucket list. So in answer to the question; ‘What on earth is a Huayna Potosi or a Pequeno Alpamayo?’ – it is a great opportunity for the aspiring mountaineer to come out to Bolivia and climb not one but two beautiful ‘Andes’!

Take a look at the Adventure Alternative website for more info.