March 12, 2007

Mountain Toubkal Summit Attempt FAILED

Filed under: Uncategorized — dwmcloda @ 5:33 am


Marcus and I had reached the village of Imlil, a 60 km drive from Marrakech, and our goal was to reach the summit of Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 4167 meters.

The guides around the tourist office insisted that cramp-ons and ice axes were necessary to negotiate the snow and ice during the final day of ascent. Incredulous and fearful of losing $20 in unnecessary rental fees, Marcus and I decided to survey the town for more advice. A pair of French rock climbers told us that yes, cramp-ons and trekking poles are necessary. Thank God we took their advice. Slipping and sliding along we would have certainly given up from pure frustration.  At worst we would have plummeted to an icy death.


Leaving at 6 in the morning, a half hour before sunrise, we passed by the local boulangerie and added four warm loafs to our stock of dried apricots, almonds, and Snickers candy bars. After an hour of hiking, we stopped at a small village for a pot of mint tea and had our fresh bread with Happy Cow cheese and spicy olives.

The dirt road took us through one last village before ending at a vast dry river bed covered in smooth stones of green and grey. From here transport continues by mule, of which we saw many, their droppings littering the path in front of us. We followed a narrow track in a valley above the river bed with dwarf junipers here and there, the rest of the land covered in thorny bushes. Herds of shaggy goats and black-faced sheep were everywhere but remained well hidden and nearly invisible until we were a few steps away. Most of them ignored us altogether, too busy nibbling at the odd patches of green amongst the grey. Others called to us in eerie and disconcerting child-like screams we tried to dismiss but instead left us disturbed and strangely amused.

After a couple of hours of winding and steadily climbing, the valley revealed a mountain range with shadows highlighted by streaks of snow. The ice was melting a little each day, and a little more each day after, and tiny streams rushed down the valley as we steadily moved in the opposite direction in defiance of gravity and the natural order of things.

I spotted a lizard sunning himself on the rocks just beside the trail, a golden opportunity to meet my lizard catching quota – I’ve caught at least one in every country I’ve backpacked – so I toss my gear and flip my sunnies onto my head. He retreated a few meters away but I mirrored his every move, gliding into position with my right hand raised and poised for a strike. With cat-like reflexes and clinical precision I swooped down and pinned him to the rocks being careful not to break his tail. Although he thrashed and squirmed, I had him in the perfect position, right behind the head where he couldn’t bite. Upon close examination our cold-blooded friend revealed some delightful surprises. His underbelly was a brilliant yellow, white, and black.  He had distinctive brows with four scaly eyelashes and a very silly grin that made me feel as if he knew something I didn’t. He agreed to stop squirming and let me take a few macro shots before I released him on the rocks.

Having caught my requisite lizard, the rest of the journey is quite peripheral and I hesitate to continue, except for the summit attempt that I am obliged to recount…

We arrived at the French Alpine Club refuge in late afternoon just as the last of the skiers were coming down the slopes, who in good fun insisted on spraying us in snow as we relaxed on a nearby stone wall. At six o’clock we gather together inside the refuge, hikers and skiers from France, Spain and Poland to share from a communal bowl of spaghetti, before retiring to a sitting room heated by a fireplace. Our plan was to rest until 2 AM before setting off to reach the summit before sunrise. At 10:30 however, the terribly rude mountain guides shut out the lights and demanded $50 from us or threatened to toss us outside the refuge.


At 2AM we slipped quietly out of the dorm rooms, bundled up in five layers of clothes, strapped the cramp-ons to our boots, and with ski poles in hand quickly dispatched ourselves out into the dark cold night. I was discouraged by the first one hundred steps in which fatigue and weariness preoccupied my mind. The next one hundred steps, the snow crunching underneath, the distance between us and the refuge increasing, brought a glimmer of hope. And when we had reached the crest of the first hill a warmth and determination took control which carried us to then next hill and further still, until a hunger caught hold of us. We crouched beside a boulder and ate a Snickers’ bar each before continuing.

We thought it would be easy to follow the footsteps of previous trekkers that were left in the snow. It was true enough the first three hours but at 3856 meters we reached a vast snowy basin and the footprints suddenly disappeared. We attempted to climb higher using our cramp-ons to dig in and ascend step-like a shear vertical wall of ice. Then a terrible wind began to lash us, relentlessly biting into our cheeks and numbness started creeping into our fingers. We had lost the path and sunlight was still hours away. No longer were we hot shot conquerers of mountain peaks. We had become specks of frozen flesh clinging to a wall of ice.  Fatigue and despair had emptied our spirits and we made the pride shattering decision to descend back to the refuge without reaching the summit. 

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