Icelands loss and Morocco's gainMuch as we all love Scotland the time had come for us to look overseas for something a little different. Iceland was the choice and plans were made. Cheap flight, yep, now what about transport and accommodation? Bloody hell, it was going to cost us an arm and a leg and as we all know Edward Whimpers poem stated “Climb as you will, but remember no mountain is worth the loss of a digit never mind an arm or a leg”. As such going to Iceland metaphorically speaking we’d loose the proverbial arm or leg. We needed other plans. What about Morocco? Mark had been there on a few occasions and had tried to get into the high Atlas fourteen years ago, but transport had let him down. A bargain cheap flight was sourced (Atlas Blue, £89 return from Gatwick), Mark knew of decent accommodation and that was it. All we now needed was to work out who would go. In reality the only likely addition to Mark and I was Mike, however Mike had work commitments and also a certain exam to complete, Paul reckoned he’d no holiday availability, however I am starting to believe that he’s scarred of flying and Stu had the best excuse of all, Lorna was due to produce Ellie.
Missing the football game and almost the plane.
On arrival at Marrakech, inevitably we were stung by the taxi driver for the fare to our drop off point at Djemaa al Fna I suppose the old town centre was just what I had expected, noise, smell and activity everywhere you looked. After checking into the El Sherazade Hotel we took a quick look around the square before an early night and an equally early rise the next morning. In fact I hadn’t realised that there was one hour difference from Greenwich Mean Time and so found myself wandering around a virtually empty Djemaa al Fna at six in the morning. My only company were a few street cleaners who armed with great brooms certainly looked like they had their hands full. Rather embarrassingly before I’d realised my timekeeping error I even questioned the hotel staff over the late provision of the breakfast buffet. I am sure they must have regarded me as yet another impatient Englishman who was trying to pull some class rank. Having duly gorged ourselves on a mixture of bread, jam, eggs, tomato and onion (quite a breakfast concoction) we heaved our great lumbering sacks on our backs and headed off through the hustle and bustle. In no time at all under the baking hot sun we were sweating like a pair of pigs. To make matters worse when we thought we’d reached our taxi pick up point of Bab Rob, directions were asked and we were sent on our way apparently another mile and a half up the road. Needless to say the Moroccan taxi drivers didn’t let us struggle too far before they were tapping us up for the fare. 350 dirhams!! He obviously didn’t realise that Mark and I were from Yorkshire. Two minutes after he was sent packing another great old merc pulled up to offer us a lift at a much more respectable 200 dirhams. He was quite a laugh, OK he couldn’t speak any English or French, but he did a fair job of drawing on a pad of paper whilst driving! A conversation in Arabic, broken French and a little English followed. Quite a laugh really. The most alarming statement made was the need for us (read Mark as I didn’t have one) to take off our seatbelts when we came to a series of sharp mountain bends. Apparently the reason was that if the car was heading for a great drop and we suddenly needed to get out of the car we could do so quicker. He was serious about this as well. Through Asni we went and then off up the mountain track towards Imlil. It was around here that we realised all was not well with the old merc. God knows what speed he was doing, there was no needle on the speedometer, however at times we’d have been as quick to get out and walk. Maybe we’d have been better off paying full whack and making sure we actually arrived at Imlil. Then after passing the mule lot our Arabic friend chugged his taxi to a halt right outside the Imlil mountain guide hut. We paid our fare, gave him a few grapes as an extra tip and proceeded to book ourselves in to the Hotel de Sol. Having dumped our gear, ordered a drink (orange and coke, as no beer was to be found) we sat down on the terrace to take in the views. There were mountains everywhere, however as we looked back on the turning circle we could see our taxi driver friend with his head under the merc bonnet and steam billowing everywhere. To use the phraseology of John Clease this bloke appeared to have “an ex Merc, a deceased Merc and it had definitely expired”. A quick walk around Imlil revealed a growing settlement that was a mix of tourist facilities, but also had a very local feel; about the place. I could imagine that for all bar a couple of months a year life would get on as it had always done with everything revolving around the locals. No doubt the road and more recent electricity (installed ten years ago) will eventually make this place more touristy.
The plan comes together.
Now followed our first decent climb. It was baking hot and I simply wanted to gain height as quickly as possible. As such, regardless of the company of the other three I put my head down, ground out the ascent on the zig zags and headed off towards Side Chamarouch. En route we passed several mountain huts, all offering drinks, crisps, carpets, some form of Berber clothing and even a selection of fossils. Did they really expect us to buy some hand woven shagpile or great lumps of quartzite? The mere fact that they were selling such goodies meant that they must have some takers. Come to think of it, apart from our party everyone else we’d so far seen had hired a muleteer to cart their clobber. I suppose by having to carry our already full rucksacks we had the best possible excuse not to buy anything else. Still plodding along this track on my own I rounded one more corner and looked up. I had been looking for a settlement by the name of Side Chamarouch. What I hadn’t expected was the collection of half a dozen huts built onto the hillside. I’d never seen anything like this before. There were massive hills around, a small stream gushing down the gorge and this collection of ramshackle dwellings. All four of us entered the village together and found some shade within one small café cum grocers shop. The proprietor Mohammed plied us with mint tea before trying his best to sell us anything he could lay his hands on. When he failed his neighbours all did the same. It was quite funny really, one by one; they’d idle up towards us, sit down and then introduce themselves. It was never long before they were trying to sell us some elaborate gown, carving, trinket or any other undesired memorabilia. It was whilst taking this breather that Mark looked at his watch to find out how hot it was. Would you believe it, we were at over eight thousand feet and his watch was reading 40.5 degrees!!
Having said our goodbyes, all four of us set off up yet more zig zag tracks and then headed off up a great valley with ever increasing mountains on either side. I suppose with good company you loose track of the effort required to make a climb. As such, as we chatted away we really started to make good progress. Talking with Chris I soon realised that I had a pretty mundane job. After he’d stated that he’d just taken a refresher climbing course I became interested. It transpired that in his roll as an accountant with Greenpeace he was expected to get involved in certain campaign work. Whether this involved scaling high buildings to plant an unwanted banner or dressing up in a chicken outfit and racing into MacDonald’s to chain himself to their counter in protest against their contract with a corporation who were apparently responsible for some of the Amazon deforestation. One way or another he had plenty of excitement in his life. Anna on the other hand was a librarian. Quite a balance I would say. Whilst climbing the zig zags we met three Dutch hikers who were making their way back towards Imlil. These three had climbed Toubkal the day before and were complaining about the unstable scree. Looking down at their feet this was no such surprise as one of them was walking in sandals and had done so on Toubkal. When we climbed Toubkal we would realise how foolish/daft/amazing this was. A lunch stop out of the way (yet more Trail Mix) and having passed a great overhang on our right we at last could see a distant Nelter Hut. It was massive. In reality there were two great huts, the original 1920’s version where we would stay and a 1990’s version that had been left part completed for the last seven years. With this target in sight new found energy reached my tired limbs and a need to get there and explore reinvigorated me.
Meeting the world in a Moroccan climbing hut.
Mark was concerned over potential altitude problems and therefore suggested that we leave our gear at the hut and take a climb of a few hundred feet. It was a doddle, with no rucksack our initial movement was free and I bounded upwards. Mark on the other hand was deliberate in everything he did and restrained himself as we made our way to eleven thousand three hundred feet. What a location we found ourselves in. Grand maintains surrounded us on three sides whilst in the other direction we could look down on the hut and the wispy clouds that were hanging around in a distant valley beyond. We took our opportunity to lig art and breathe in the thin air for as long as we had sunlight. The problem was that the sun soon found itself dropping below the great crags to the west and so we had to make a hasty descent back to the hut.
With this acclimatisation climb behind us our next task was to get some grub. Having paid our hire charge of five dirham’s a spare stove was found in the kitchen and our boil in a bag “Wafefarer” packages were soon bubbling away. The biggest downside of the kitchen was the amount of spillage on the floor. This would not normally be a problem, but in an attempt to jettison some weight both Mark and I left our sandals at the Hotel Du Sol in Imlil. For someone used to a wife with fanatical cleanliness the kitchen left a fair bit to be desired. To be honest Mark and I were just about the only non mountain guides who were using the kitchen. We had had our snap and now it was time for a piping hot mug of tea. Now, both Mark and I had identical ex army flasks with drinking caps. When it came to dishing out our brew Mark was somewhat pissed off to find that his mug leaked (or was it mine?) and as the next couple of days went on the leak became a torrent. Needless to say I didn’t offer to swap. When the food and drink was out of the way along with most others we decided to call it a day and have an early night.
Eight o’clock might just seem a little early to call it a day, however I wasn’t alone, everyone else had got the same idea and had taken an early night with a view to an early morning rise. Much to my relief I was off to sleep virtually straight away. My joy was short lived as twenty minutes later I was awake and suffering a nagging headache. “Never mind it’ll soon disappear or I’ll soon be asleep”. If only, my earplugs were working well, my bed was comfy, but my head was pounding and continued to do so for many an hour. It didn’t really hurt, but it was just there, nagging away and affecting me more from a mental perspective. “Was this the start of some form of altitude sickness?” I couldn’t get my head around it and definitely couldn’t get to sleep. “How on earth would I manage to climb that hill in the morning?” Eventually I gave in, donned a pair of walking socks, picked up my toiletry bag intact with headache tablets and blindly stumbled through the darkness to the downstairs bathroom. Would you believe it? I was fast asleep within no time at all.
No altitude sickness for us, so onwards and upwards to the summit.
Chris and Anna, who incidentally over breakfast looked decidedly tired, set off half an hour before us. Prior to this we had watched from the hut to see what route the early risers were using. In this particular case Duncan and Jenny could be seen with their mountain guide slowly plodding away up the first great scree slope. We had read that there were various ways to make this initial ascent and some were apparently much more arduous than others. At 06.30 when the time came to leave I chose to take the first stint with the sack. What we hadn’t been able to see was the initial route from the hut and the way over the adjacent stream. As we followed a well worn track towards a small waterfall we met Chris and Anna who’d taken an alternative route and ended up retreating back towards the hut as they had not been able to cross the gully. With a little bit of encouragement all four of us crossed the stream and started the grind over the scree. Initially this was a case of clambering over great building blocks of rock that had been dumped in a haphazard manner. Care had to be taken as a slip could quite easily result in a twisted ankle. Probably a further ten minutes later Anna had started to struggle and bearing in mind our aim of scaling the highest point in North Africa, Mark and I said our goodbyes and wished them well. Later on whilst looking back down towards the hut I didn’t see them again. Mark however commented that he’d seen Chris cuddling Anna as a means of encouragement. Perhaps they had turned back. We would never know. Still following the route taken by Duncan and Jenny we made our way back to the left of this great gully towards another huge prominent rock. For a while we could see a guide cajoling a woman into continuing the climb. The nearer we were to her the more we realised that she’d had enough. Sure enough, quarter of an hour later whilst looking back downhill we could see her retracing her steps towards the hut. Perhaps this hill was proving to be harder than many expected?
When you plan a hill climbing trip to somewhere like North Africa you don’t really consider the need to bring along warm clothes. Having set off before seven when the sun was still hidden behind the crags above we found ourselves well and truly wrapped up against the cold. Just before we came out of the shade after a rather long half an hour the time came to pass the sack to Mark. It was heaven, being able to make the ascent without the weight of the sack on my back. In fact the next thirty minute stretch passed without any hassle. Mark on the other hand was taking things very steady and plodding on at such a conservative pace. Rather than wind up Mr Winderbank, Chris the impatient had to bite his tongue. It was so tempting to chivvy him on, but common sense prevailed and for once I kept my mouth shut. There were others on the hill grinding their way upwards. The couple nearest us were a pair of Germans who had worked their way northwards through Africa and on a whim decided to climb Toubkal. One look at their attire certainly confirmed that they weren’t planning a hike up a great mountain. The lass in particular was frozen and giving a great impression of Queen Victoria. She most certainly was not amused. Her partner was carrying the rucksack and she simply plodded on with each hand stuffed up her opposite sleeve. Having swapped the rucksack a couple times and now walking in the sunshine we came across a guide who as accompanying some poor lass back downhill. She had reached twelve and a half thousand feet (in excess of her previous high point); however she had come across dizzy, tingly and was feeling sick. To be honest she didn’t look that bad, however she must have been pretty concerned to turn around within eight hundred feet of the summit.
We had been climbing towards the col for sometime, but once there it would be my turn to pick up the sack for once last time. The reward for reaching this point was a cracking view south over some pretty impressive cliffs towards the distant Sahara. Looking east we could just see the summit. It almost appeared to be within a stones throw. After a brief natter to a great group of Spaniards who were now on the way down I shouldered the sack and set off on what looked a daunting last ascent. Just about at that time we met Duncan and Jenny who had successfully reached the summit and were now on their way back to the hut. When we got going Mark was now in fine fettle and it was I who was starting to struggle. I couldn’t believe it; I needed to stop for a breather every few yards, my heart was pounding and I now had a nagging headache. Ok, my pride wouldn’t let me stop so often, so I had to play mental games and target a certain rock or distant shape on the ground and head for it without a stop. Those last forty minutes were damn hard work, but just as I was starting to loose heart the gradient started to slow down and the great iron triangular summit marker came into view. We had done it and reached the summit of Jbel Toubkal. For someone brought up on hills two to three thousand feet in height 13,670 feet is a long way up, but it had been achieved and was now something that no one could take away from me.
There's always one.
The time to start the descent had arrived and after forty minutes on top of North Africa I handed the sack back to Mark and started the descent. It was like walking on air. No effort was needed to make the descent. Ok, care had to be taken on the uneven and loose rocks, but I didn’t have a care in the world. That was until my bowels kicked into action and with great stomach cramps I realised that I was about to leave my calling card on this hill. In my rush to find somewhere out of sight I took an almighty tumble and landed with a great jolt on my left arm. Unfortunately I didn’t even have time to feel sorry for myself and simply bounced back onto my feet and continued my hurried search for a little privacy. The descent gave us another perspective of the views to be had. If anything, it made the scenery look even more impressive.
With the exception of a few stragglers still making their way up towards the summit the next group of people we saw were the party from the summit. By Ech, were they slow and tentative? For a while we sat down, had an apple, took in the scenery and more alarmingly the progress of this group and then set off straight over one of the great patches of snow before we caught the group up again. Once more they appeared to have taken a detour to avoid the more immediate hazards and again we decided to stop and watch their progress. After all, we were descending at quite a rate and would soon be back down at the hut with our task completed. This time they were struggling on some really unstable scree and one chap in particular looked like he was on ice. It was our accident prone friend from the summit. Almost in slow motion I could see his feet slipping on the scree. Instead of digging his heels in or simply falling back in his backside he continued to slip as though on skis. Because he started to lean forward his center of gravity shifted and his momentum increased. He was now heading for a tumble, but in an attempt to avoid it he started to lollop forward with the inevitable result that after taking an almighty head first dive he went arse over tit a couple of times. The Moroccan guide closest did a great impression of Gordon Banks as he dived in vein to arrest this fall. For a moment both of them lay there in two separate heaps, the guide being the first to recover. However, with Terry shouting instructions to the crumpled heap “Stay still, do not move” it was a minute or two before our accident prone Yorkshireman finally revealed himself to be fine. After showing a little consideration Mark and I set off down and caught up with this group. They were sat around and all seamed well. In fact the casualty was laughing and joking, no doubt out of shock, but at least he appeared fine. When I told him that I tend to write up reports on all of my walks and that I would feature his acrobatics he asked for royalties and gave me his name, Kev Firth was his reply and with that I introduced myself Chris Firth. I’m not sure who offered the hand first, however when two people meet in such circumstances and have the same surname it’s only natural to shake hands. What both of us had forgotten was that he’d broken a finger or two yesterday when he’d fallen in the river. Oh, how he winced as I firmly gripped his outstretched bandaged palm. Everyone else just looked on in alarm as they watched me inflict yet more pain on this poor bloke.
Back towards civilisation if that's what you can call the hussle and bustle of Marakech.
Next morning after a slightly better night’s kip we made a relatively late start and set off to retrace our steps to Imlil. As per usual the sun was still shining, but for some reason the hike had now become a need to do rather than a want to do. I ambled on without the enthusiasm I’d had on the way up. This was not really surprising, as we were covering old ground and were pretty tired. Shortly before reaching Side Chamarouch we met the first of a group of trainee Moroccan mountain guides. They were on their last field trip before they would be thrown out into the big wide world and expected to answer to just about every whim of the lazy foreign tourists. They all seemed a great bunch, were pretty happy to talk to us and of their plans for their future employment. I’m not too sure what they thought of Mark and I going it alone and not paying for the service of one of their brothers. Apart from stopping in Side Chamarouch for a rather pathetic omelette and subsequently having to stop just short of Aroumd for another emergency pit stop our return to Imlil was pretty uneventful.
On arrival min Imlil, we changed our plans. Mark retrieved our gear which we had left with the hotel whilst I somehow kept at bay a trinket salesman and an hour later after naff all conversation with the taxi driver we found ourselves back in the hussle and bustle of Marrakech. The Hotel Sherazade was full so alternative accommodation was found. Mark was now content to take it easy, so I went off on a long, long wander around town only to bump into Chris and Anna. Before leaving the hut they had left a note in my sleeping bag only for me to find it and discard it without realising that if was meant for me. How had they got on, on the hill? Unfortunately Anna didn’t feel safe on the terrain and so reluctantly they turned around and called it a day. Poor Chris. He’d now been to the Nelter Hut twice and failed to go much higher on two separate occasions. Either way, as a social with England playing a further world cup game later in the day we arranged to meet up at the Café Du France with Chris, Anna, Duncan and Jenny. That was another strange feeling. Sitting there in front of a great wide screen tele, watching England play in the world cup, listening to French commentary and drinking soft drinks as no alcohol could be found anywhere. The next two days in Marrakech were spent sightseeing like the other tourists in town. The highlights or perhaps lowlights were ending up with a snake around my neck as I posed for a picture, watching Mark virtually rob the local salesmen as he bartered for various goods and of course meeting yet another Mohammed, who tried his best to sell me some local Viagra equivalent root. What a place and in particular the square of Djemaa al Fna.
Following one final early morning we found ourselves at the airport waiting for the return to Gatwick. We had successfully managed to spend our very last dirhams and were leaving behind this crazy city. Back in England we managed to find ourselves stuck with a couple of hours to kill. Guess what? Even southern beer tastes good after a weeks abstinence. Would I be back? I would hope so. The people are so friendly, the cost of living is for next to nowt and there are so many things to see or do regardless of the Atlas Mountains. This has to go down as one of my best trips ever and hopefully it will spur me onto take on board more foreign hill climbing holidays.