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.

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‘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.

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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!

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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.