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A taxing time on Toubkal in the middle of December


Realising that you “have” to take some time off work before mid-December is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The thought was a long weekend to somewhere in Europe – maybe two days, maybe three. Then, the thoughts progress as they invariably do and you think maybe add a day or two, maybe I’ll head to a further reach of Europe. Within fifteen internet minutes I had booked tickets to Marrakech.

A google search later (via “trekking Morocco”, “mountain treks”, “mountain climbing”, “highest mountain”) I had decided to climb Mount Toubkal while we were there, at over 4,000m the highest mountain in North Africa.

MARRAKECH

The more I travel and see new places, the more apparent to me is my ignorance on first arrival. Having never stepped foot into the region before I was particularly conscious of not rushing to presumption or judgement. From how far to trust a taxi driver (usually not very), to negotiation techniques and greetings, you learn quickly. One of the first things that struck me was that the local women openly looked me in the eyes. This may sound like a strange comment, but there are plenty of places in the world where this level of interaction is rare.

Dropped off on the dusty, crowded street of Mohammed V, we took a seat at a small coffee shop to work out next steps. These places are an institution of Moroccan life, occupied predominantly by older men and chatter. A great place to get attuned to the hustle and bustle of the surroundings. Then to the streets to filter through the plethora of flyer waving salesmen and find somewhere interesting to stay.

We settled for a small room in a dirt cheap, but characterful, old merchant’s mansion. With that as a base, we spent a day and a night wandering back and forth between traditional dead end twisting streets and the souk, a place simply teeming with sights, smells and sounds. Having fended off aggressive snake charmers (Dave came within an inch of punching a guy who slipped a snake around his neck as we passed – he is petrified of the things) we ascended onto one of the rooftop restaurants which overlook Djemaa El Fna, the famed square at the heart of Marrakech. From up above the streets it is one of the great views of the world. To the South, the rooftops stretch far into the distance, littered with washing, satellite dishes and stalks nests, giving way to the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas. Turn around and the wide irregular shaped square is an encapsulating sight. Sprawled with food stalls and hawkers selling everything from rugs to monkeys, not forgetting the throng of humanity in between. It will be a long time before I forget the sight of the sun dropping behind the main mosque as the call to prayer rung over the kerfuffle of the grand square and smoke from a hundred cooking pots drifted into nothingness.

TO THE CLIMB

Arranging the wished for climb proved straight forward. The initial “guides” we met (read rip-off business men) tried to put us off with stories of too much snow, possible danger, real difficulty this time of year… come try our camel trek (read more money, less effort on their part). We persevered and after elongated haggling, struck a bargain that while well below asking price, was still above the going rate if done solo. We knew it, they knew it, we were content, they feigned disappointment while making a good buck out of us. Business over.

We were soon passed from the middle men to our actual guide, an unimpressed looking giant of a man called Aziz. After an early morning trip to the bakery we loaded onto the back of a truck and headed for the hills.

Driving first through the dirty plain, initially littered with water-guzzling golf courses and water parks and then dirt and villages, the mountains slowly approached. Distinct in the clear weather, the Atlas hogged the horizon with their teeth-like snow settled summits. Into the winding foothills and past many a local Berber adorned with Obi-Wan Kenobi’esque brown hooded robes (much of Star Wars was filmed here and the locals no doubt proved an inspiration). Corner by winding, sloping corner, we were greeted with increasingly impressive vistas.

Eventually we arrived at the base of our trek, the village of Imlil, freezing cold in the frosted shade of the morning. In a short time a further 7-8kg of goat, rice and water had been added to each of our packs followed by another couple of kg of climbing gear such that we topped out at a full 20 kg on each of our backs. That was not going to help the climb.

Setting off on foot, we passed a series of increasingly diminutive villages. In the final village we stayed a while in the charming house of a local family. A small dwelling covered in scrubbed tiles. We ate heartening bread with sticky butter and drank sweet tea until we were stuffed. At this point I learned two things. Aziz was a Berber with many a friend in the high mountains and breaking wind is seen as particularly rude amongst these people – a struggle when a step up to altitude is playing havoc with your guts.

The trek out from this last village took us across a snow-strewn boulder field and then, via long trodden tracks, up the side of a mountain and along the widening, heightening valley until we reached a tiny hamlet. Moroccans have a particular tradition of venerating Muslim saints and this place owed its existence to a local saint shrine situated the other side of a small bridge. As non-Muslims, we were not allowed to join the many pilgrims who visit each year.

Our progress was thus far comfortable, but not rapid. Personally I was not quite right, but happy to be far far away from my desk and going further. Up and up we trekked into the deeper snow and ice with, despite my trusty trekking boots, the odd slip here and there. After some hours we passed around a large headland to a mighty view. There is a point when mountains become intimidating. This was that point.

Steep, snow and ice clad slopes leading to jagged imposing summits. We trekked on, up and past the last hut. Breathing suddenly became a lot more difficult and I was all too aware of the thinning air. Before I knew it I had to stop every 5 minutes to catch my breath. Then 2 minutes. Then 30 steps. As we climbed up and into the long stretched out valley I slowed down to a staggered snail’s pace. Strange, for this was at barely 3,000m and I’ve been up twice that without similar breathing problems. When it strikes, IT STRIKES.

A combination of limited daylight and my obstinacy pushed us on rather than back. Dave and Aziz were encouraging, but I was slowing. A trick of perspective added a degree of cruelty. In the distance the small refuge did not seem far, perhaps only 30 minutes ahead. Soon I realized that it was not a small refuge close by but a large refuge a good hour away at my current pace.

I was down to 20 steps between stops, heart palpitations and general weakness. A headache kicked in. If I trudged more than 15 steps my vision blurred and I had to stop. No point in turning back, the lower refuge was hours behind and I could see my destination.

The passing of a group of shorts and skate-shoe clad freezing Aussies brought passing distraction from the discomfort. Their mates had come through a couple of weeks earlier on sun baked dirt. The snow had come and they were left high and anything but dry, wisely quitting the mountain. I even afforded myself a little chuckle with one of the guys and his boogie board.

On again as the light began to fail. Behind us sheer beauty. A “V” between the slopes of the valley lit up in darkening blood red, fading as the stars came out. Breath-taking was a rather apt expression for my situation.

Climbing Mount ToubkalThe final 300, 250, 200, 150, 100… 80…. 60…… 40……… 20………… 10 meters. Pain, pain… RELIEF! We had made it to the refuge just as the final light gave way to black.

In a pretty terrible state, I spent the evening staring into space in front of the fire, warming the numb feet and fingers. Retreating to the freezing bunk room, I had a bitter headache as I tossed and turned fully clothed in my sleeping bag.

SHALL I STAY OR SHALL I GO?

Aziz shook me awake before first light. I turned away. A couple of hours later the same. A splitting headache, weak, and short of breath, I was going nowhere and certainly not further up a mountain. Aziz got the message and set off with Dave to the summit. As the temperature in my room rose to above zero I finally got some sleep.

Past midday I scrambled out of bed. I felt better than the previous night but the walk to the toilet left me gasping for air. For the first time I properly took in the surroundings. At the head of the steep long valley a concrete building, part of the French mountaineering association (Club Alpin Francais de Casablanca), keeps continual groups of keen climbers in varying conditions of warmth. Freezing dorms, kitchen, Asian toilets and dining area contrast with the sympathetically heated communal room. Kneeling on the far edge of the latter room, staring out at the valley before me, I drew in a deep breath. What a place! I felt sick but very alive.

I was there to greet the guys as they made it back from a successful ascent. Dave had a big grin on his face. Good on him. A night of cards, recovery and doubt followed. Should I attempt the climb the next day? The thought was spinning around my head. Seriously in two minds, my situation had rather shaken me up in a way I am unaccustomed to.

Woken up by Aziz the next morning, I was 60% at best. Just about enough to give it a go. Dave was a great sport and up for a re-climb. Aziz was not quite so keen, but was convinced eventually. Toubkal is not usually an especially challenging climb, but the unseasonably deep snow was beating back most of those who were trying to conquer it.

With doubt and caution, the layers were shoved on one by one, as I tried to supress my shivering. Underwear, thermals, ski gear, beanie and gloves. Crampons strapped on, ice axe in hand and we were off. Sod it. No more doubts, no point.

So we started the slow ascent, criss-crossing the steep first face adjacent to the refuge. Trudge by trudge, over the next 4 hours up and over the first two faces we made it to the pre-summit. The others raced along. I made steady progress but took my time lagging a bit behind – better to make it slowly than to have to be forced back by symptoms like I suffered just 36 hours before.

A very giving climb, every time I looked around I was blessed by newly adjusted picture perfect views. An excuse to stop and replenish the body from the thinning air. Some snacks, an encouraging smile as usual from Aziz, and we transversed the most precipitous bit, inching across a thin ledge which gave way to a very long drop. Making good use of the ice-axe, we persevered up the final climb and found ourselves on the summit.

WOW! I get it. A moment of pure bliss, relief and beauty. Self-significance drained away by gaping open eyes. We were perched at the summit of the Atlas, a great spine thrusting out the African earth. A long line of snow-capped peaks falling down into foothills and, belatedly, far-off hot plains. Through the clutches of the southern cloud, a glimpse of desert. The endless Sahara beckoned.

Very out of place, I did my best to ignore the iron frame pyramid which hogs the sight, but derived some satisfaction from its sign – 4,167m. The highest point in North Africa. Time at the top lasts for an eternity and a minute. Manly hugs (we convince ourselves), thoughts staring into the distance and we were off. Like that, we leave this staggering place behind.At the summit of Mount Toubkal
DOWN AND OUT

Contrary to the insinuation of the title, getting down and then out was pretty straight forward and pleasant. The couple of hour descent from the summit to the refuge was slow, steady and beautiful. A couple of slips, purposeful bum slides and many a trudge were followed up by a celebratory last night in the refuge.

The next morning, the four hour descent to the origins of our climb was slippery and gorgeous. The Atlas hold their own majesty and mystery and we were soaking it up. The sliding, bum-bone breaking nature of the descent was not helped by Aziz having to go down in sandals due to a damaged foot, or by having to dodge donkeys carrying bags for those who did not see fit to carry their own.

HAMMAM, HOSPITALITY AND HOME

After the last few days, all I wanted to do was get back to Marrakech and relax. We were pretty knackered in all truth and Aziz’s generous offer of another hour’s journey beyond Marrakech to his home village seemed like too much. After a slightly frosty start (originating from a combination of us coming through middle-men whom Aziz clearly had very low regard and, I inferred, Aziz’ experiences of many a disrespectful tourist), our relationship with Aziz slowly warmed until, by the end we got on brilliantly with this knowledgeable, proud Berber. Against the wishes of aching muscles, we could not refuse his kind offer. My word was it worth it.

Stopping by some market on the edge of Marrakech in the dark early evening, we bundled from the taxi into the back of a little van. We travelled for 50km or so through god knows where to, at least from my perspective, god knows where. We stopped at a smallish village beside a shallow valley, disembarked and, via some dusty streets, arrived at Aziz’s house. He has built himself, with the help of tourist money and a lot of hard graft, an expanding mansion of a place. The new part is adjourned with a greeting room which could comfortably fit 50. The old part is cosy and warm. His children, boy and girl of not many years, were cute but a little shy. I don’t blame them. His wife was quiet, but smiled.

Before we settled in we had bucket, towel and soap in hand and found ourselves headed back down and through those dusty streets to the village Hammam (Turkish bathhouse). A multi-roomed complex complete with old man smoking hashish on the door. We were welcomed in, stripped down to our boxers and were giggled at by all the young boys. The Hammam is single sex, but alternates men/women through the week. It was men’s night.

Beyond the first room were three rooms connected with open doors. Mud-brick, domed ceilings and dripping walls. A claustrophobic dark atmosphere full of sweat-sodden men. We sauntered through to the far room. The heat built up as we moved through the complex. In the final room was the heat-source. We knelt down working up a sweat by a large boiler, adjacent to a couple of older men who did not know quite how to deal with us, avoiding our eyes. Here at my most exposed – naught but a modern loin cloth – my mind suddenly focused. Here we were in a place I did not even know the name of, in the depths of a local hot house. No one knew we were there apart from those around us whom we did not know. The odd uncomfortable look heightened such thoughts, but then a ramble of kids came in and lightened the atmosphere. Chucking water all over the place and being told off by their elders, they were all cheeky smiles.

Aziz reappeared and started to rub me down with strange gluttonous soapy stuff. A little awkward but when in Rome… This was the first stage of a cleaning ritual with several stages that resulted in me being cleaner than the cleanest I have ever been. From sweating to soaping to dunking to rubbing to sweating and eventually to the climax. A bone-breaking massage from the big man. Pain. Then the scrubbing. A coarse hand-brush scraping off layer after layer of skin. As my back was rubbed near to the point of bleeding while Dave looked on laughing (half in amusement half in concern – he was next), I realized what an amazing experience this was. The smells of soap and sweat. The echoey sounds of splash and rub. The steam. The mildewed arching walls and peering faces in the dim light.

Exhausted, but as clean as whistles, we laboured back to Aziz’s for a tagine feast and collapsed asleep. This incomparable hospitality was topped off with gifts of robes and fossils Aziz had collected on his travels through the desert. Words cannot describe his generosity. This was not for payment – we paid nothing and he would not have accepted it if we offered – this was humbling Berber hospitality the likes of which I have rarely witnessed before.

Back to the road and via a taxi, a horse-cart and long thankful good-byes, we were back on our own in Marrakech. Then home. A simply fantastic few days a world away from my world, yet only four hours away by plane. Another place that grabbed a small piece of me – and not only the layers of skin I left in the Hammam.

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