Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mt Toubkal Trek Febraury 2009

At 6pm I left a very cold and snowy Luton Airport on Wednesday 11th February 2009 and 3hrs 20minutes later I was in a totally different world at Aeroport Marrakech Menara, baked in sunshine and recording a temperature of 23%c with massive snow covered mountains in the background – just a spectacular setting. I was here to visit the City of Marrakech and to stay with my friends, the Wren family, Noubda, Dan, Sophia and Chloe the dog and then join a trekking Group bound for the High Atlas Mountains led by the experienced mountain guide, Tom Richardson, on the evening of Saturday 14th.

The Atlas range of mountains is the largest in all Africa, extending through Morocco for some 500 kilometres north-east to south-west and characterized by steep sided valleys, rocky peaks, and the picturesque terracotta coloured villages of the Berber people.

The weather is just lovely every day and here I am in my shorts and tee shirt and some “locals” have their coats on!! Dan showed me round the City after lunch. The food is ever so good. In the evening we visited Jemaa El Fna (La Place) to soak up the atmosphere over two bowls of spicy snail soup – wonderful. It was then into The Souks and to a roof top bar – Café Arabe - for a couple of beers before returning to La Place for some dinner and to observe the constant varied activities going on in this massive square. Across the square was the KOUTOUBIA MOSQUE, some 252 feet tall and built in 1147. It is just fascinating to look at and Dan advised me that this was a good landmark to remember which of course I did. The City can be split into two areas:

- the Medina, or old city, within 30ft walls which were built around 1126 to protect the city.
- the new city – everything outside the city walls.

Over the days before and after the trek I was able to fully discover both areas, visit two palaces (Badii and Bahia) and the famous quranic school Ben Youssef Medersa. The school was founded in the 14th Century and was dedicated to the teaching of Islamic scripture and law and was still in use until 1962. Grand Hotel Tazi, Afric’n Chic and Kosybar were establishments that sold alcohol (I could not find Café Arabe again) so these became key places to slip into to refresh yourself as you continued to discover this unique and wonderful city.

You could not go to Marrakech without seeing belly dancers and here Noubda and Dan took me to Comptoir Darna which was both a restaurant and club and I had a great evening. We visited some lovely cafes one being Grande Café Poste where the fruit juice, orange in particular, is fantastic. There is a large “café society” around most areas of the city and as well as non-alcoholic drinks you get food/snacks and coffees/teas. I found all of them very relaxing with excellent courteous service.

Friday 13th February saw us in the mountains on a lovely hot day for lunch at a most picturesque hotel called La Bergerie. This ‘other’ Morocco is to be found in the valleys and Berber villages of the Ouirgane area, at the foot of the glorious High Atlas Mountains only a few miles past the bazaar town of Asni. The superb vista of the High Atlas with deep snow covered tops exerts an inescapable attraction. We had a most enjoyable lunch and then wandered through some 12 acres of colourful gardens scented with pine, lavender and rosemary. A very special place to visit.

Saying goodbye to Dan at 5pm on Saturday at the Hotel Mogador (Bab Doukkala) I was joining the trekking Group for a meeting at 5.30pm organized by our Leader Tom Richardson. I had discovered a couple of days earlier there were seven hotels with the same name in the city so with some internet research the correct one was discovered and the panic was over. Dan was away to London next day and then flying his jumbo to New York. My stay with the Wren family was ACE.

Introductions all around were made and Tom gave an overview of the trek ahead. My first impressions were this was a good, talkative and experienced Group. The Group totaled eleven people with two ladies (Dawn and Pia) and nine men (Phil, Graham, Neil, Hugh, Paul, Steven, Dan, Giles and Fraser). It was then to Hotel Ali for a meal and to Grand Hotel Tazi for drinks. Dan and the lovely Dawn were married; they were doing the Munros and had a first class knowledge of Scotland. They had stayed at The Crask Inn some 12 miles north of Lairg, in Sutherland, so we had a massive amount in common. Dawn had been to Nepal before and had also climbed Mera Peak (6,476m). Other than Tom, who has climbed and trekked all over the world nobody else had been so high, but all had trekking experience and a number had previously visited Nepal and other exciting parts of the world. Over dinner we had the pleasure of meeting Rachid Imerhane, our Moroccan Mountain Guide. Rachid proved himself a great young guy who spoke good English, was always in a good and positive mood and was so helpful to all of the Group. I would recommend all his services to anyone who wished to sight see or trek in the mountains or desert. (Details of his website are noted in this blog.)

On Sunday 15th February we spent the morning in the City and after lunch we set off on the short drive to the start point of our trek. We drove southwards out of the City, with the peaks of the Atlas ahead of us. At the bazaar town of Asni, we turned away from the main road and began to climb into the foothills of the Atlas. Our route follows the picturesque Mizan Valley and we begin to see the clustered houses of the mud-brick villages of the Berbers. Imlil is effectively the end of the road for us, as we choose to stretch our legs with a short walk to the village of Aremd. At Aremd we checked into our gite and did relax over a cup of Moroccan mint tea. Altitude at Aremd is approximately - 2,000 metres. The gite is excellent as is the food and service. Our evening Moroccan meal was excellent served in front of a lovely log fire. The Group is blending together nicely and there is good banter.

Monday 16th February is a day for acclimatization and we reach a col Tizi n' Tamatert at 2,279m. The walk up the valley gives a good introduction to the type of terrain and trails we’ll be covering on our trek. The path is stony but clearly defined and winds its way up above cultivated terraces and walnut trees to reach the col before returning to the gite some three hours later. At the col we are in deep snow and are able to look down on various villages in the valleys below and look up to the snow covered mountain peaks. This is a lovely setting and a Group picture is taken by Tom. We are treated to dates and nuts as we rest by a small mountain café.

It is a relaxing lunch back at the gite and while some relax at the gite others pay a visit to the village of Imelil. Tom made a kit inspection that afternoon where he did look at the kit being used by each member of the Group and also wanted to see crampons being fitted to boots. There was a very heavy fall of snow and from being a bright and sunny day it has now become cloudy. How quickly a day could change high up in these mountains was fascinating to me. An enjoyable evening meal was had by all with some wine and beers. All are tucked up by 10pm as we all have a hard climb ahead of us the next day. Once again it snowed overnight.

Tuesday 17th February at 8.15am saw us leave for the Neltner Refuge at 3,207m. on a lovely morning. Our kit bags and food etc. went on five mules to the snow line and then were transferred to twelve porters at the holy shrine of Sidi Chamharouch at 2,310m. surrounded by snow covered rocky peaks. On reaching Sidi Chamharouch we were into six/seven inches of soft snow and a recognized path so crampons were not worn. It was a white wilderness as you looked up at towering mountain peaks. We arrived at a small café at 12.30pm where we did have a break. An hour later we had a short break for lunch on a rocky outcrop, with a few snowballs being hurled around. At 3.30pm we arrived at the Refuge. It was very hot on the way up with a bright and hot sun in front of us. I was down to my base layer. We had all made a steep ascent of some 1,307m / 4,287ft (like climbing Ben Nevis) and we were tired.

The Refuge sleeps around 80 people in dormitory accommodation. Though basic the refuge has bathrooms and showers, a couple of large dining areas and a lounge with an open fire. We are here for three nights and we have our own good cook with us. Considering the height of this “hut” and the outside cold temperatures I found it comfortable and welcoming.

After our arrival there was a heavy snow shower but by 5pm this had cleared so it was on to the steep slopes in our crampons and ice axes to get some expertise tuition from Tom. We were out for an hour or so undertaking various walking and ice arrest attempts. As we had made considerable height Paul had suggested we should make an “attempt” on Mt. Toubkal, but this was for another day and it was back to the Refuge for dinner as a Group at 7.30pm. After dinner it was our normal get together with Tom providing us with stories of his many treks around the world. At 9pm approx., with water bottles filled with hot water (our drinking water for next day), most of us made our way to our dormitory (Room 1) where we all slept in bunks on two levels. We were here for three nights with a few other trekkers also sharing the dormitory. Various accusations of snoring and other noises were being against certain members of the Group in the morning. Dan, like myself, Graham, Hugh, Steven fell into this category but where it differed for Dan being on the top level and beside Dawn; whenever he began to snore, a ruffle could be heard and then a sigh and complete silence once again – Dawn had once again terminated (some how) any emitted noise!!

On Wednesday 18th February Tom has made a decision (due to a good weather report) to go for the ascent of Mt. Toubkal at 4,167m. This is North Africa’s highest peak. After an early breakfast (alarm call at 6.45am), we set off on the steep ascent at 8.15am. The assault of Mt. Toubkal had begun and all were in awe but with excitement at the real prospect of getting to the top. Our route zigzagged eastwards, directly above the Refuge across deep snow covered scree slopes, before passing between two rocky guardian peaks to reach a high corrie. We continued upwards across angled snow slopes to reach the ridge-line which drops off steeply to the east. We had a number of breaks on the way up as it was hard going and people had to “dig deep”, as Tom described it, to get to the top. At 11am we arrived at the metal tripod which marks Toubkal’s summit. It was snowing with low cloud so alas there are no fantastic views of the snow covered peaks of the High Atlas away to the north-east or of the Anti Atlas and the Sahara to the south. We had all as a Group made it and this was very special. The shaking of hands and the odd hug and a Group picture recorded these very special moments. For a few seconds I was the tallest man in North Africa, a dream come true. We dropped to a col below the summit and had lunch (nuts, dates, sardines, cheese, bread and water). By 1.30pm we were back at the Refuge with a welcoming lunch awaiting us. A temperature of -12%c was recorded as we climbed. An ascent of 960m / 3,151ft. but had we left Mt. Toubkal until Thursday we would not have got to the top due to weather conditions. Around 4pm we had tea, coffee and biscuits and at 7.15pm we had dinner and by 9pm we were all drifting to bed. The dormatory was a bit busier with more people sharing the room.

There was another fall of snow overnight and it was snowing and recording -2c as we left on Thursday morning at 8.15am for Tizi Ouanoukrim, a col at 3,750m. from where an ascent of Mt. Ouanoukrim at 4,058m. might be an option. This is Morocco’s 3rd highest mountain but on reaching the col at 10.30am due to again low cloud and heavy snow showers and the danger of avalanches Tom made the right decision that we were not going further. We had a short break to eat and drink and to take a Group photograph. It was a case of retracing our steps, with the odd snowball fight and Neil being attacked and covered in snow as we made our way back to the Refuge at 12.15pm followed by lunch at 1pm. After lunch it was sunbathing until 3pm. Neil had left the Group to go “bolder sitting” and on his return he threw a large snowball, meant for Giles but alas hitting Dawn who had not at all expected such an unkind act. All Neil could do was apologize. Dawn had also earlier in the day been attacked by snowballs!! After 3pm it clouded over but for us it was tea, coffee and biscuits. A dice game was being played, others were reading or in discussion. A French Group of skiers were taking turns of sitting by the fire but it was soon 7pm and time for our evening meal. A bottle of wine had been taken up to celebrate Phil’s birthday and this was shared between a few people. Drinking at altitude – shocking!!

It was again - 2c as we leave on Friday at 9am bound for the gite once again. We say our goodbyes to two guys from the North East who have been with us at the Refuge for the same three nights. They are ahead of us as we make our decent some of us with crampons on but others without. At 11am we are back at Sidi Chamharouch where the two guys are just finishing their coffees. Again goodbyes but what they do not realize is that a pile of snowballs has been accumulated to attack them on there way down the slippery steep snow slope. One landed completely flat on his bag endeavoring to dodge the missiles and I remember him so vividly turning round and shouting – bastxxxx!! We left as a Group at 11.45am with various ambushes carried out on the way down. Rachid was the main target but he was so fast and one minute he would be well in front but the next he would be round a corner but at a higher level hurling snowballs at those below him. Eight porters took the luggage down which was transferred to mules at Sidi Chamharouch. We were back at the gite for 1.30pm where we all had a welcome hot shower (what a treat) ahead of lunch at 2.30pm. Before dinner we had presentations to Rachid, the chef and porters. This was undertaken by Tom. Over dinner a well deserved presentation was made to Tom. This was done so well by Dan with the collection handed over by Dawn (the fittest person along with Graham) on the trek.

On repacking my kit bag/rucksack, I discovered a stone in the bottom of my rucksack and all I could do was laugh. We had talked about doing this to Dawn to try to slow her down, but it had been done to me and I did not know about it. Who had done this, would he/she own up?? The stone from Mt. Toubkal had been planted in my rucksack by Graham thinking it had belonged to Giles’!!

On Saturday morning we left at 9am are back to Marrakech at 11am having stopped at a women’s’ co-operative. It was lunch at 1pm and then shopping and sight seeing with a celebratory dinner in the evening in a city restaurant which was enjoyed by all. It was a lovely hot day in the City with a temperature of 26c recorded. Some had gone for a drink to Grand Hotel Tazi, while others returned to the hotel. A number of people were returning to the UK next day (Dawn, Dan, Steven, Phil, Pia and Giles). Tom and Rachid were away with a new Group from the UK to trek once again.

Sunday 22nd February saw five of us visit the coastal town of Essaouira, a very enjoyable day out. This had been a suggestion by Neil and arranged through Rachid. That evening Paul, Neil and I went to Afric’n Chic, a pub, club and restaurant. While Neil had the sense to leave at around midnight Paul and I do not remember coming back to the hotel!! We were all to meet for lunch next day (Monday) outside Hotel Ali for lunch in Osgar Progress. It was also the last day of shopping for Hugh, Graham, Neil, and Paul they were leaving on an easyJet flight back to Gatwick in the evening. It was then a final drink in Cosybar with bowls of lovely olives that we had become accustomed to. At 5.30pm they left in a taxi; I was all alone in the city.

I stayed in Marrakech until Wednesday morning, the 25th, when I flew out at 10am back to the UK with ever so many happy memories. A great trek, a lovely Group of people I had been involved with and a very special few days shared with the Wren family. I had been ever so impressed with Morocco and in Marrakech I found an absolutely fascinating, addictive and exhilarating city, with so many surprises, there’s no such thing as a wrong turn, only alternative routes of which, I found a number.

Fraser Mackay
25th February 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic account of our great trip in Morocco, so many great memories. Next time you are in London, give me a shout and i will tell you how we got home from Africa’n Chic! Paul

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