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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Race me to the Pole – the last push

Ahead of relaying the final instalment on Gavin’s trip, we want to thank all supporters of Gavin and Moving Mountains Trust throughout this expedition on behalf of Gavin himself and all of the Moving Mountains staff and beneficiaries. 100% of the donations will go towards projects in Kenya, Nepal and Borneo so make sure you follow Moving Mountains in the near future to see the fantastic projects that these funds will help support like the Rescue Centre in Embu, seen below.

RMTTP_Embu Rescue Centre_LoRes

The last re-supply checkpoint was at Cator Harbour on Sherard Osborn Island, right at the Northern Tip of Bathurst Island and at the 310km mark of the journey. Gavin and the team made it here on the 21st April. The re-supply plane picked up one of the guides, Steve, who unfortunately suffered from frostbitten fingers. As a precaution he was flown back to Resolute to have it checked out and we since hear he is doing fine.

The re-supply plane brought extra food and fresh sat-phone batteries. These phones have been one of the only links between Gavin and the outside world, allowing us to exchange brief conversations, and relay information by text. In addition, the Yellow Brick GPS tracker unit has allowed us view his position at hourly intervals on the interactive map and also extract accurate Lat/Long coordinates. In temperatures often reaching -40 degrees Celsius there’s only place for the hardiest electronics, meaning Gavin was not able to relay digital files, videos or photos since leaving Resolute Bay.

From Gav_2013_04_xx Moody Skies Above (2)After Sherard Osborn Island, Gavin and the team continued North West over relatively smooth sea ice that had ‘freshly’ frozen this year. This offered a little respite from skiing over older, broken and re-frozen ice rubble and also the areas where they were forced onto the land at Airstrip Point and Cape lady Franklin; testing work!

During the penultimate week of the expedition, with temperatures still extremely low, a lot of Gavin’s insulating down gear had become wet through condensation from sweating and cooking and then frozen solid. The team had therefore been hoping for slightly higher temperatures and some direct sunlight to afford the opportunity to try and melt and dry out some of their essential kit. Soon after, we received news that conditions had improved dramatically. However, a new concern was raised; the team feared that they might not make it to the Pole in time for their pick-up. After losing ground to the Arctic snow storm the week before, it was looking like the team would have to spend 10-12 hours skiing every day for a week, that’s said to be akin to doing a marathon every day of the week!

On the night of the 27th of April the team had a near miss with a polar bear. The team

polar bear in snow stormhad managed to stay way out of reach of these Arctic giants right through the ususal danger zone close to ‘Polar Bear Pass’ on Bathurst Island, but just days from the pole, the team had a 1am polar bear visit. The curious bear sniffed around, leaving 8 inch wide paw prints circling the tents. Luckily, the creature didn’t commit any breaking and entering, but rather sent one of the team into a mild panic; the dilemma of being the only member of the crew to be awake and hearing the deep breathing of a polar bear...

On May the 29th, at around 03:30 GMT (9:30pm local time) Gavin and the rest of the team made it to the North Pole after a mammoth 35km push over the course of more than 13 hours. Not long after arriving at the pole last night and setting up their camp, a tired and emotional Gavin, called in to leave the message they had been looking forward to uttering for weeks, “We are at the Pole”. To listen to the final audio message, plus earlier stories from the expedition, visit Flickr .

The race may have finished, but the team still have to ski approximately 28km today (30th April) to get to the airstrip at Isachsen. The strip is on the land, considered much safer than landing on the sea ice, although it will of course be covered in snow. There is only one aircraft available to pick the team up tomorrow, meaning that the plane will have to do two trips to pick up all of the team and their kit. They will try and get as many people on the first plane as possible but will have to leave a few for the second trip, along with as much gear as they can. They may have to leave behind gear in the abandoned weather station buildings but this may well be of use to people in the future if they do.

HE DID IT

According to the Environment Canada Climate Severity Index, Isachsen and the surrounding area has the worst weather in Canada with a CSI severity value of 99 out of a possible 100. Trees and shrubs cannot survive this far north, restraining the wildlife to polar bears, Arctic Foxes, seals, muskoxen and a variety of migratory birds. The abandoned weather station will therefore prove to be a welcome shelter, though they will no doubt be praying that it is a very temporary one.

A huge thank you to everyone who has already joined the Donation Team by donating to the Moving Mountains Trust via the Race Me To The Pole campaign. So far we have raised a fantastic £14,278, 40, putting us at the 354km mark.

It is not too late to join the team or even re-affirm your membership with any donation, large or small.

To donate, visit the Race me to the Pole MyDonate page.

Or, to donate via text

send…. POLE13 £5

to…. 70070

On behalf of everyone who will benefit from the work of Moving Mountains, around the globe, we would like to say a huge THANK YOU for donating and supporting us so far.