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Rock the Kasbah – Toubkal 2023…

Morocco had always brought me bad luck.  When I say that, I mean that every time I’d tried to visit, something bad happened.  I’d been halted by terrorist attacks, COVID and sadly, the death of my father.  It was about time that luck was on my side.

Darren Hunt, a fellow Buxton Mountain Rescue Team member, was running a trip to climb Toubkal and I happily jumped on board.  Standing at 4167m (13,671ft), it is the highest peak in North Africa and an ultra-prominent peak (whatever that is!)  My girlfriend, Helen, joined me alongside Darren and Jim.  We left a chilly and wet Manchester in early March, and were soon baking in the pleasant sunshine of Marrakesh.

This ancient city which has been built and raised at least twice is a maze of twisting streets, open squares and chaotic traffic.  Scooters weave through the crowds; horses, donkeys and mules clip clop across the lanes and cats do their best to miss them all. The souks require an ML to navigate but bring great life and colour to the city.  Traders shouted ‘hey moustache’ as I walked by, for now resisting the temptation of tourist shopping, but we would return in a few days’ time. The taste of dust filled our mouths and we wished for mountain air.  Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long.

We left the city early the next morning, and drove swiftly along the plains, until the road began to climb and weave through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Urban sprawl was replaced by terraced fields, bubbling cascades and high cliffs as we bounced our way into the valley of Imlil and the town by the same name.  Here we relaxed, repacked and replenished, before putting our boots on and beginning the long plod to the huts, high in the snows of Toubkal.  Initially we crossed an open river delta and checked in with the authorities before ascending the dusty and rocky path. Walnut and Juniper trees lined the hillsides and farmers tended to their goats. Though it is a very busy trekking route, there was plenty of peace and beauty to be found.  Snows began to line the ridges, striking a bright line against the blue sky above. We walked on, guided by the wonderful Said.

We stopped at a small wayside watering hole and drank the most wonderful orange juice I have ever tasted. The food miles are almost nil and the fruits are literally crushed before you. I’ve always found overseas fruits in the UK taste nothing like they do when you’re in the groves and orchards. I’ve always struggled to enjoy something which is hard and tasteless at home, when you’ve pulled it from the tree and tasted the real flavours.

We stopped again at ‘The Temple’ for freshly made tajine and by the afternoon could see the mountain huts, clustered in the valley bottom. The weather had cooled down and we were now on the snowpack, which was unexpectedly low on the mountain for this time of year.  There was a fair amount of slipping and swearing as our crampons had been taken up in our main packs, but with care, patience and a few walking poles, we made our way up the compacted slopes and crashed through the door of the French Mountaineering Club Hut. Time to rest what was left of my feet and eat.

The hut was hot, sweaty and brought an odour only found in such environs, but it felt homely.  A slap-up meal was delivered, and  our beds were found on the top of a huge bunk which required a move above HVS to access it. Here we piled ourselves and our gear before falling into a suffocating night’s sleep.

My alarm sounded at silly o’clock and I donned my mountaineering kit, ready to head up Toubkal. Sadly, Helen hadn’t been feeling great and decided to stay at the hut. This was a wise decision as there is little chance of rescue and sickness can come on very quickly at altitude.

Jim and I clipped on our crampons and headed up the firm snows with Said, following others who moved in packs on the mountain.  Like many places in the world, Toubkal is a busy mountain, both summer and winter. The path was easy to follow, and conditions were good for the day. The peak isn’t technical, and keeping your thoughts in check is the important thing. I sang to myself to keep in step and knew we had time aplenty to summit. There had been much talk of the ‘headwall’ being difficult, but I placed my feet carefully and kept one foot in front of the other.

The sun peeped its head over the summit ridge as we entered a cwm, bringing a little warmth to my fingers. The shade had been bitter, but now it was sunshine all the way!

One cwm gave way to another and above I could see people descending from the summit. The early birds really had got the worm.  We ascended steeper ground in deep snow and attained the main ridge, to find the summit approach was around a huge curving mass of ice and rock. A few minutes rest was needed, before the final approach. The summit cairn was plastered in rime ice and below us lay mile after mile of unbroken mountain, stone and sand.  The Anti Atlas lay to the south, sporting a dusting of snow, with the endless sands of the Sahara disappearing into the horizon. In every other direction there were endless ridges and routes, many sporting gullies well known for their mountain skiing descents; before the distant glisten of the Mediterranean.

I stood silently and took a dram from my flask, toasting my parents and thanking them for everything they’d done for me over the years. My eyes filled as I stared blankly into the distance, perhaps my grieving had finally begun. Mum died over a year ago; but work, life and lord knows what else had distracted me from coming to terms with her loss.

We unfurled our flags, celebrated and smiled before the cameras and began our journey downhill.  A group had followed us after stashing their skis a little lower down and as we strode, they slid down the snows with great speed. I felt a little envious, but knew these slopes and snows were above my skills.

Within a couple of hours we were back at the hut. The sun was burning and I was running with sweat as I took off my rucksack and unclipped my crampons.  Helen and Darren had been out for a wander in the snow whist Jim and I were up high and we all met out on the sunburned terrace, exchanging stories of the day.

The next morning, we headed back down to Imlil, leaving the snows behind and standing clear of the increasing number of mule trains as they headed up, followed by the next group of mountaineers.  Imlil sat high on a hill, overlooking the river delta and it was a pleasure to enter its streets, navigate the weekend visitors and peel off my boots once back in the hostel. We relaxed with a delightful meal, packed our bags and left the mountains for Marrakesh.

The souks saw Helen and I again, this time to shop and the cries of ‘hey moustache’ rang out above the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh again and we warmed up in the balmy 25ºC sunshine.

It had only been a short trip, but it was filled with endless sights, sounds and smells. The Berber people are a true delight to spend time with and the mountains are accessible enough for a short altitude break.

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