Mount Toubkal - Morocco 1997
Low clouds clung to the terraced mountainside and an all-pervading dampness filled the air as we setout from the village of Imli heading for Mount Toubkal (4165 m), Morocco's highest mountain.
Laz, a Hungarian, an American couple, Andrew and Toby, and myself had all agreed to do the trek together. I had teamed up with them firstly because I had no map of the route, and secondly because, having spent so much time on my own over the past few weeks, it was good to be in company again.
The day's walk proved relatively easy, following a well-worn path up the Mizane valley. The coolness of the day came as a welcome change from the searing heat of the desert and, thankfully, the rain stayed away. The only problem came when, fairly early on, when we were faced with crossing a reasonably large river. The choices were either pay the local Berbers to be ferried across by mule or boots off and wade across. I immediately chose to wade and after some time searching eventually found a good place to cross. The fast flowing water made crossing a little tricky but the icy coldness of the mountain water did wonders for the feet. Laz soon followed and, after much dithering and because the mule ferry was otherwise engaged, so did the Americans.
As the day wore on the terraced lower slopes gave way to stands of Holm Oak and Juniper, which in turn gave way to sparse, stunted vegetation dotted amongst the boulder strewn upper slopes. I also increased my verbal assault on Laz because, although his English was excellent, perfected during an extended stay in Australia and used frequently in his job, he had the unfortunate misfortune of sounding exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger. An escalating string of "Hasta la vista baby", "I'll be back" and other such "Arnyisms", kept us both in fits of laughter.
By mid-afternoon Toubkal hut hove into view. Perched at the head of the valley we had been following and just at the edge of the snow line, the small, stone walled hut looked really quite basic and closer inspection only confirmed this. Detached toilets (holes), minimal cooking facilities and very uncomfortable looking communal beds gave it a kind of "quaint" feel. Still, for only a couple of quid, and to remove the need for carrying a tent, I wasn't complaining.
The evening in Toubkal hut was spent playing various obscure card games with Laz, the Americans, and an English couple, Richard and Heather with whom we'd done the second half of the trek, after loosing the Americans to illness. Andrew had suffered a reoccurrence of giardia, picked-up a few months earlier in India but, albeit much slower, eventually made it to the hut. As the evening progressed spirits rose and, whether due to the prospect of the climb ahead or the lack of oxygen, things soon degenerated into a kind of surreal farce. Reduced, for much of the evening, to streams of tears and severe stomach cramps, due to fits of uncontrollable laughter, at one point I physically had to leave the hut to regain control.
The following morning, as we stood staring at the alarmingly steep, snow covered first ascent to the summit, I briefly regretted my earlier decision not to hire an ice axe and crampons. Based on my recently constructed "Scientific Theory of Moroccans", which goes something like "all Moroccans are out to con you, so don't trust any of them" I had happily turned down the Toubkal hut resident guide's persistent urging that we really needed them. Laz also declined an ice axe and crampons, though not based on my theory but rather on the grounds that he hated all "bloody Berbers", as he called them. However, as all scientific theories hold true until disproved, I was pretty confident my theory would work. Looking now at my worn, split, treadless five-year-old pair of Clark's boots, as the guide had also done earlier (an expression of incredulity plastered all over his face), I was no longer quite so sure.
The first section involved following a steep, snow-covered valley, which proved fairly straightforward even with my shockingly gripless boots. However, as if trying to tell us something, everybody we passed or who passed us was properly kitted out with ski poles, crampons, and ice axes. It also soon became apparent that the lack of oxygen this high up would be a constant enemy. This was my first real experience of "thin air", I'd had plenty of experience with "thin hair", but that horrible sensation of gulping down bucket loads of air with little or no effect was really quite scary. I guess it must be the same feeling an asthmatic gets when no matter how hard he tries he just can't seem to catch his breath. Laz nodded in agreement when, after three or four rasping attempts, I managed to ask if he was experiencing the same thing.
The second section loomed ahead and to the right, and came in the shape of a steep snow covered ascent. It was now quite obvious why everyone was wearing crampons and carrying ice axes. This was definitely going to be interesting! Taking great care, and digging in with each step, often using hands as well, I slowly made my way up the valley side. High above the clouds now, the sun hammered down with all its fury, scorching the back of my neck and nose so quickly I barely had time to cover up. Looking back over my shoulder a grand view of snow speckled peaks stretched away into the distance. Momentarily distracted I promptly lost my footing and began to slide down the slope flailing like a windmill. Clawing with hands and feet I ground to a halt several feet down and, spitting snow, started up again.
Once up the valley side the final section required zigzagging up a boulder strewn scree slope, sparsely dappled with melting snow, followed by a short ridge climb to the summit.
It had taken a little under three and a half gruelling hours to reach the top, and boy did it feel good to get there! Richard and Heather had arrived shortly ahead of us, and Toby and, a much healthier looking, Andrew shortly after us. Although the sun was quite strong it was actually rather chilly standing around on the summit so, after a short break to take in the fantastic views and plenty of photos to boot, we reluctantly headed back down the mountain.
The decent back to the hut turned out to be much quicker than expected, and this was due in no small part to the invention of a new alpine sport, "boot-boarding". Unhappy with the prospect of a painfully slow decent down the snow-covered slope of the valley side I had decided to take a short cut. Remembering my complete lack of grip, I crouched down on one foot with the other stretched out in front of me, and slid off down the slope, accompanied by compulsory whoops and hollers of excitement. Luckily the leading boot provided an excellent brake when thing started to get a little out of hand. Prompted into action others took up the challenge. Heather unleashed her "waterproof trouser" sledge, and broke the land speed record. Laz just threw himself down the slope!
A breathless hour and a half later we reached the hut and, spirits high, continued on to Imlil. The trek back, though mostly uneventful, was filled with light banter that even the return of rain couldn't dampen. There was however, one final display of Moroccan madness that bordered on the absurd. Whilst re-crossing the river we had waded across on the way up, a group of disgruntled Berbers, who had unsuccessfully tried to talk us into using the "mule ferry" decided to try to stop us crossing. Whilst we were knee deep in water, they actually started to demolish a small, man-made dam a short way upstream of us, presumably in a vain attempt to wash us down the river! We were across much too quickly for them and left them splashing around in the river shouting at each other. Laz was ecstatic having at last got one over on the "bloody" Berbers.
The rain persisted all the way back and by the time we finally reached Imlil I think everyone was secretly relieved to see it.
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