It’s 3:45am on January 12th 2012 and the alarm is beeping in my ear. Then I remember, we’re off to Morocco to climb Toubkal (4167m), highest mountain in the High Atlas and North Africa.
After a quiet drive to Gatwick, a rather pricey breakfast and a long stroll to our departure terminal, were on our way. There were nine of us in total in our group. All friends, or friends of friends and a couple of Father and Son pairings.
We arrive at Marrakech at around midday, and after a whistle stop tour of ancient city we’re off to Imlil for our first night in Morocco. Once the sun goes down the temperature plummets and it’s on with the down jackets for the rest of the evening.
Our stay in Imlil was at the Café Soleil Hotel. A nice place, with good food and excellent service. We’re now starting to relax before our exertions the next morning. We discuss the merits of hiring mules to carry the gear up to the refuge’s (we stayed in the CAF or Neltner refuge). The consensus was to go with the hiring of Mules. This turned out to be an inspired decision and I’ll take credit for it being my idea!
After a continental breakfast plus Omelettes we pack and make ready for the off. Outside the Hotel our two Mules await our loads. With all the winter kit the sacks feel heavy and I for one was glad they could be carried on four legs, not two. Our Berber Muleteers were Happy to take our kit as far as the snowline. Given the lean snow conditions this looked as if it might be quite high up, and so it turned out. More of that later.
The route out of Imlil takes well established paths which zig-zag out of the village and up to the next village of Armed (pronounced Ara-med). This village seemed more peaceful compared with Imlil, which has the bustle of busy road-head. Unsurprising really, as that’s what it is.
Crossing the Glacial plain, surrounded by moraines, as we head out of Armed, we start to climb again towards the Sidi Charamouch (2350m). This is an important pilgrimage site for Muslims and it offers refreshments en-route to the refuge’s. Stopping for a break at Sidi we’re offered Mint Tea (not free I hasten to add). This is a sweet tasting and refreshing drink which definitely touches the spot for the thirsty mountaineer.
After Sidi we hit a steep section, gaining height fast. The saving grace is that our Mules can carry on. Although the path is now icy in paces our Berber Muleteers are happy to continue. Our next port of call a few Kilometres on is another refreshment stop. These are simple buildings (like the tea houses in the Himalaya) where the local Berber people sell all manner of things, including Coke (the drink) and Mars Bars etc. But the real attraction are the freshly squeezed oranges. There’s a crusher and loads of fresh oranges, cooled by a mountain stream. It takes a minute or so to fill a glass. And the taste… wow, that’s what you call refreshment.
Not long after leaving the refreshments we reach the point where it’s no longer safe for the Mules to continue. Hard snow ice cover the track and this means we now have to carry our kit. Thankfully it’s only a few more miles to the refuge. And though we’re now at c2800m, we’re all feeling good. Plenty of fluid being good for acclimatisation. The refuge is at 3207m, so not much height to gain under our own steam. And although the path is frozen it’s easy going and we soon make the refuge.
Settling in and choosing a sleeping area in the shared dormitories is soon done and we get to spend the last few minutes soaking up the sunshine and warmth, before the mountains take block out the sun. It’s always a shock to the system when the temperature takes a dive and we’re all forced back into our down jackets. These become the normal wear in the refuge, unless you happen to be right on top of the fire.
The next day (Saturday 14th) we wake for a 6am breakfast and a quick getaway at seven. Too early for me to eat and I’m feeling a bit queasy (never been a morning person, just glad this isn’t the Alps). It’s really cold outside, but promises to be a lovely day. After fitting crampons it’s time to head off up the South Col route. Really just a steep walk, though there are places where a slip wouldn’t be pleasant. The route up is straightforward and we make good time. Most of us are in our 50’s, so we’re not as fast as we were!
The top 300m are scoured clear of snow. Just icy patches remain where a path has been forced. Some of us stop to eat, drink and remove crampons. Some leave them on as we still have to cross icy section above very steep run drops. We all reach the summit within half an hour of each other. It’s blowing a bit and the wind chill is probably -15+ (it was -7 when we left the refuge).
Settling on a ledge just below the summit, with the sun bearing down, it actually feels reasonably warm out of the wind (for the top of a 4000m peak that is). We don’t spend to long loitering and are soon heading back down. Crampons are now fitted for those icy sections with the big drops! Our three fittest members cross over the col to bag the next top along the ridge at 4070m. The rest head back down the South Col route.
Now the sun has come into the valley it’s starting to warm up. Though an icy breeze reminds us that discomfort is a moment away. The descending six decide to wait for the other three. It’s lovely in the sun, but that breeze isn’t going to let us have too long loitering. The guys soon join us and we’re all heading back for a welcome celebratory fizzy orange drink and a rest.
The decent seems steeper than we remember on the ascent, and tired legs are very glad to see the refuge below. The last 300m seem to go on forever. We become spread out and arrive back at the refuge at about the same spacing as we arrived at the summit. Everyone is feeling well and after a drink and a rest it’s time to get back inside. The sun disappears, but it’s been a beautiful day and without a doubt we’ve been lucky with the weather.
Sunday dawns cloudy and there’s snow in the air. We have a leisurely breakfast. Some of our number take a wander up to the head of the valley above the refuge. By midday we’re heading back to rendezvous with our Muleteers and those trusty Mules. Walking down is so easy when you’ve spent a few days high up and we’re soon offloading the sacks and back to our routine of stopping for that lovely fresh orange and then the mint tea at Sidi.
We arrive back at Imlil later in the afternoon. We’re spending another night at the Café Soleil before heading back to Marrakech and the tourist trail…