After not having been able to go out and do much, i had planned to go to Scotland for fall, with my girlfriend Maresa.
Due to her academic duties, it soon became clear though that she could only get about 2-3 days off, leaving us very little time to do anything but a quickie up the Ben and maybe a night on the town in Edinburgh, which i was very reluctant to spend yet another few hundred euro's on.
While browsing the Ryanair website i noticed that they had started operating direct flights from Nijmegen (Dusseldorf-Weeze, interesting geography those folks at Ryanair practice) to Marrakech for about 100 euro return.
While discussing it over a pint in the pub that night with friends, i was called stupid if i would decide to spend 200 euro's for yet another slug up the Fort William hill in horrendous weather and celebrating it at the Whistle Binkies in the Auld Reekie, over flying off to sunny Marrakech to enjoy a couple of days in a range rivaling the Alps in height and beauty, topped off with a cultural experience so much different from Northern Europe.
That night i tried to talk Maresa into slacking college for a few days extra and going off to Scotland for 5-7 days instead, but she didn't want to. So i booked Marrakech that night.
When Mehran, a friend of mine heard about my plans, he immediately booked that flight as well. Too bad only that our Geophysics teacher did not agree and told us she would void our internships if we went along with this plan during a regular college week. I told her to shove it where the sun doesn't shine, but Mehran was not in such a luxury position, since he hasn't got all of his credits yet for his "propedeuse" diploma, and i do. He chickened out at the last day, although i'm still sure that he could've gone along and just appeal to the university board if she would take such a drastic action. However, he did not want to go through all of that.
So, on the thirteenth, i found myself flying alone to Morocco.
Marrakech is a great city, once you get used to all the hassle and bustle, and you can deal with it. A few la shukran's directed towards touts and hash sellers will solve this problem quite rapidly however.
I once read in a geographical magazine that the amount of economic development and growth could be measured by the amount of cranes and construction equipment present in a town, and by going by that definition, Marrakech is definitely doing good. Very good, in fact.
On the first night i met up with some Italians, and hung out with them for a few days, until they had to catch their flight on the 15th, and i decided it was time to head off to the hills. Got me a taxi to Bab-er-Rob square, where i managed to find me a "Grand Taxi" towards Imlil. (1,745m/5,727ft)
Although it's possible to get to Imlil as cheap as DH25 from Marrakech (about 2 euro, or $3) you will have to share it with 5 other people. I would not recommend sharing it with more than 3, because the ride takes about an hour and a half, and having two people sit in the front seat and four in the backseat is already sheer hell for 10 minutes, let alone 90. I just paid the man DH150 and was on my way.
At around 2 in the afternoon i arrived in Imlil and went for a quick tagine, after buying a map and some water.
The hike up to Neltner
I didn't want to use mules, instead carrying everything in myself, besides that i didn't leave Imlil until somewhere between half two and three, so it was a race against the clock. Was already close to four when i passed a few Berbers who told me that it would be wise to spend the night at Sidi Chamharouch at 2,310 meters (7,580 ft), the last "village" of any kind.
Sidi Chamharouch is a wee village, not more than 30-50 inhabitants in a narrow valley build around an old Islamic shrine. The trail bypasses the hamlet mostly, although the Berbers living there will try to get the attention of passing thru-hikers. If you ever get there, it's well worth pausing in Chamharouch for a mint tea. (or Berber Whisky, as they like to call it - I did make sure i didn't mention about the Irish Whisky in my pack; although alcohol consumption isn't much of a problem in Moroccan cities, you still want to be careful about it when in remote Berber villages)
In Chamharouch i rented a hut for the night, and promised a local that on my way back i would trade my Maghreb-Arabic/Berber to English phrasebook for some jewellery.
At 7.30 the next morning i finally set out for the refuge, where i arrived around 11 am. Here i stayed in the newly done Gite du Mouflon
(3,201m/10,506ft), which was luxury compared to the old Neltner hut (3,207m/10,525ft), but unfortunately also quite empty.
That night i met Tomas from the Czech Republic and Julien from France with whom i would go up Toubkal the next morning.
The next morning we set out for the summit about a half an hour late (the only problem with the Berbers i've encountered; breakfast at 6.30 means they'll get out of bed around 7.15 to start making it)
The weather was brilliant; about -6C (22F) when we departed and clear blue skies. The Atlas has been very dry over the last fall, and there was no significant snow except on North facing slopes above 3,500 meters (11,500 ft)
We made overall good time, and at 9 in the morning we were already at 3,650 meters (12K) and had a wee tea break there.
At around 3,730 meters (12,240) the scree slope towards the saddle of Toubkal and the West summit of Toubkal starts, which was already fairly iced up.
This is a straightforward 200 meter pitch of class three scrambling on scree, which was starting to get fairly tricky because of patches of ice. It was done sans crampons, but with some careful navigation on my part.
Reached the west end of the Toubkal horseshoe around 10.30, where we waited for the rest to catch up, (met an English couple on the way up, who did manage to start early)
The shape of Toubkal and the kind of rock gave me flashbacks of the Ben, coming up over Carn Mor Dearg. The 500 meter vertical drop on the right hand side fitted nicely in here as well. At around 11.15 we all reached the summit together, as a group of now five, where we lingered about for about an hour. Shortly after twelve, Julien and the English couple went back down, and me and Tomas went for the west summit.
The west summit (4,031/13,230) is technically a wee bit harder than the main summit (some 8-10 meters of exposed YDS 3-4 terrain near the top, and a iced-up north slope to navigate, which i did use my crampons on this time) and the views were much better. Anyone doing Toubkal should seriously consider extending their climb for about an hour to take in this magnificent summit.
At around 3.30 we were back in the refuge, celebrating out ascent with Ireland's finest.
The next day the idea was to summit Ouanoukrim.
The maps we had showed the trailhead to be over the high pass (3,750/12,308), down the glen to about 3,500/11,500, accross the burn to the right and up the mountain. While at the pass, i saw the possibility of scrambling the ridge, but Tomas decided to trust the map. Turned out to be a horrible mistake, leading up to some unprepared climbing through a gully filled with snow.
No possibility of putting on my crampons, i tried to make steps in the 60 degree snow, just as Tomas did in front of me, but when at around 3,875/12,717 i stepped on a patch of ice, lost my footing, slipped with one foot but managed to hold on.
Thinking i might not be so lucky the next time, and hearing Tomas, who was about 10 meters above me say that the gully continued on for another 40-50 meters at least, i decided to go down on a controlled slide, instead of risking an uncontrolled one. At this point i could neither see nor hear Tomas, so instead of putting on my crampons i waited until he came back down. When Tomas came down, we decided to call it a day and head back to the refuge.
Back at the refuge, we met some folks from Scotland who were on a ice climbing trip, who also had some proper maps (the Russian ones) and it was verified that the proper trail towards Ouanoukrim was by scrambling the ridge. Tomas decided to go the next day, and so did i eventually, but when my Berber hosts had once again managed to oversleep by an hour, and the weather was changing i changed my mind the next day. Besides that, i wasn't feeling too good either, and we had to make it back to Marrakech that day as well. The actual summit of Ouanoukrim i decided to save for my next trip down there.
When the first party came down Toubkal that day, they mentioned 40 mph winds and a wind chill factor of at least -20C at the summit. Nonetheless, an ill-prepared Polish couple (the woman didn't even have a proper coat), who came in from Imlil that morning decided to go straight for the summit, without taking any supplies to last them through an unplanned bivy up on the hill. I advised them to wait for a day at the refuge and go up first thing in the morning. A second party that came down Toubkal an hour and a half later told me that they had seen that couple about 20 minutes above the refuge, leaving them with about a 5 hour window of daylight to actually summit and come back. Didn't have time to find out though, because half an hour later, Tomas and those Scots came down and we had to go. I told those Scots about that couple and their planned route and the possibility that they might had to round up an MRT if they didn't come back in time.
At 2.30 me and Tomas packed up and set off for Imlil where we arrived around dusk.