So I wanted to travel light, or as light as possible, and this meant leaving any spare footwear at home. B3 Asolo boots it was then, no helmet, a bivy with PHD bags that took me to -5c, food for 5 days and a Villain sack that came in at just over 14kg including petrol and a litre of water. I had visions of maybe doing a long ridge walk, Toubkal at some point and just enjoying being out there.
I met a young climber on the plane out to Marrakech, he was heading to Tafferoute but first we headed into Marrakech for eats and sleeps. Not impressed by the city at all, we both make our escape separately but with plans to meet up in twelve days’ time at the hut below Toubkal. Watching Joe struggle off with his 29kg backpack, I was glad to be doing some easy mountaineering. Ropes and rack add kilos far too quickly.
Taxi journeys in Morocco can be pretty stressful, in fact anything to do with money in Morocco is stressful if like me, you’d rather not barter and I’d been spoiled in Iran a year earlier by their priced goods and general honesty in transactions. Five euros got me to Bab el Robb in a petit taxi (rip off price). A further 30 euros for a grand taxi to my good person and I found myself surrounded in Imlil by guides offering their services. A quick dash into the nearby Hotel Soliel was my avoidance plan and a bed was procured for two nights, a cold bed at that but the food was good and the shower hot. Time to head up towards Toubkal and have a nose about. A stroll up to the mosque at Sidi and back down would help with altitude, as I didn’t want a repeat of the last time’s madness up high – a mad dash to 4500m, followed by seeing things. No mushrooms involved either. Aye, no repeat of that this time round.
Eventually I find myself at the Mouflons hut at 3200m, in front of the brand new log burner and in the company of some Swedish lads who ice climb and take their mountaineering quite seriously. Joining us were a Dutch couple in ripped jeans, trainers and cotton t-shirts, with plans to summit Toubkal in the morning. Clothes were loaned, boots borrowed, advice given and fingers crossed. As it turned out, this was pretty common on Toubkal and it would leave most experienced hill folk shaking their heads. They managed well enough however and I, in the meantime headed up Ras and Timeguida just across the valley with Joel and Daniel, two of the Swedish party. Along with Anders, they departed next morning and left me terrific amounts of food and fuel, for which I was hugely grateful and from this moment my plans for the trip changed.
The snow had turned out generally to be windslab of around three inches, over powder that hadn’t adhered to the rocks below. It was hard going and the trip across the ridge I’d planned would have been pretty laborious. Having somehow procured all this food, I decided to stay at the hut for a few more days. Toubkal was despatched the next day by the quiet North Cwm, with some scrambling to be found and my opinion on the snow conditions was confirmed. It was quite an emotional summit; I’d booked to come out here twice before and not made it either time. Once due to a pretty horrendous bike smash and the other due to having a brain tumour removed. Third time lucky then and I had the summit all to myself.
Had a crack at Akioud by the PD+ rated NNW ridge but turned back at the exposed traverse not far from the summit. At points I’d fall through the slab to my ankle, the next step to waist and I couldn’t read it at all. Time to turn back, a little disappointed perhaps but happy with myself for not just pushing on. It was a cracking day out and I learnt a lesson or two, which was the whole reason for coming here and yet again, I saw no one at all after leaving the hut. The body was slightly shattered by now as I was off the back of a hard few months work and I made the decision to head down to Imlil for some R & R. Dar Adrar has a pretty good rep on the interweb, it’s in a good position, with wicked views and for fifteen euros I found I had a double bed in a salon all to myself. Breakfast was pretty good as far as it goes round these parts and a day was spent lazing on the terrace reading, whilst my clothing dried in the sun rays.
The following day I strolled up the valley and back, to the tune of 20km with a German lad called Micha, who decided he wanted to climb Toubkal as we pottered along in the wonderful winter sunshine. A quick search in Imlil found him some hinged crampons that fitted his approach shoes well and plans were made to accompany him to the summit of Toubkal, with him using my Fizan poles. It’s always a great honour to accompany someone on their first real mountain day and we shared the journey with a couple of Moroccan chaps, one of whom was summiting for the first time. We all have different reasons for being on a mountain and he just wanted to be the first member of his family to top out on northern Africa’s tallest peak. As we reached the Mouflons hut a couple of hours after summiting Toubkal by the South Cwm, I was spotted by Joe, who had just made his way to the High Atlas from down south a day early – Cokes and Snickers all round and the sun burned fiercely in the late afternoon. Micha said his goodbyes whilst grinning like a Cheshire cat and I dare say he’ll hit the high summits again at some point in the future.
Biguinoussene was the target for the next day, up the Tizi n Tadat and a scramble there after up to the summit. Given a PD grade in the guidebook, it looked an obvious route to the 4007m cairn. Somehow it didn’t turn out like that. Joe traversed off slightly higher than me and by the time I’d worked my way up to him, we were already off route. Not a problem however, as it didn’t look too steep for a bimbler like me and there were escape routes all over the hockey. We stopped to take some photos, got chatting and it turned out Joe is a sponsored climber from South Africa. It showed almost straight away, as the guy just kept going upwards like a machine. Always waiting were I might have gone the wrong way, he pretty much left me to my own devices and I was loving it. Small snow fields (slab and powder AGAIN!) were interspersed with loose rock faces and we pretty much kept to the huge ridge that goes up the centre of the mountain. Loosing Joe’s footsteps, I headed up a chimney but an English 5a move on dodgy rock stopped me in my tracks, so it was back down only to find his footprints in the snow heading right of the chimney. So it went on – cracking exposure on knife edge arêtes, snow gullies and did I mention the windslab over powder? I just couldn’t keep up with Joe at all but this was way harder than anything I’d ever done before and whilst I felt well within my comfort zone, the rock was incredibly poor and care needed to be taken as we were both soloing. Eventually I cleared the last snow gulley with enough sweat in my clothes to start a far eastern shop and then it was a stiff scramble up to the summit. By now the weather was looking a bit changeable, so a quick refuel and we headed down.
I sort of expected we’d head down the way we had originally intended to climb but Joe pointed out that if we headed south, we could come down Irhzer Ikhelloun eventually and directly back to the hut. It would certainly be quicker and with clouds gathering for the first time in my hols, I agreed. Now I knew the start would be some serious down climbing on tragically loose rock but I was feeling in the groove and Joe could certainly take care of himself. One slip turned into a small slide, then later a boulder the size of a suitcase disintegrated as I weighted it and I was pushing my luck I guess but soon we were on easy ground and the stroll back to base was certainly enjoyable. I said to Joe that it had been my ‘best’ day in the mountains, certainly the toughest mentally, as the snow conditions and the rock meant your brain had no time to take a rest.
In the hut we borrowed Mohammed’s Spanish guidebook, turned through its pages to find our route… and it wasn’t there. Our descent was, a nice D+ in ascent but the ridge we took up wasn’t. The start and finish was used by the nearest route, which followed long snow fields and was over to the right of us. Maybe, just maybe, we might have the first recorded ascent – what we did have was a cracking day out! Up there with the greatest of them for me – snow, serious scrambling, no ropes and good company, all combined for an endomorphene rush to rival a rave. Joe commented that it was a harder and looser day out than the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn, seeing as he’s soloed it, I’m not going to contradict him. It definitely had Scottish grade III/IV pitches if you’d have been grading it for a climb up there but this was an 800m route at altitude. Even now, my head wanders off in a daze and I’m back there trying to climb another short pitch of choss.
Toubkal was summited again the next day, for the third time, which really wasn’t the long ridge walk I’d envisioned before flying out here. Marrakech was gained a couple of days later via a twenty euro taxi ride and I’ll be glad if I never see the place again. Friends of mine have visited and fell in love with the city but I guess it’s not what I want from a holiday. We packed quickly on the Sunday morning and headed to the airport to get a beer. Happy days! On reaching home and accessing my laptop, I found I’ve some great pictures to go with the memories and email will keep me in touch with some of the terrific people I shared some time with. If like me you find yourself heading away on your own… don’t plan, just go with flow. Life sometimes has better designs for you.