Climbing Jebel Toubkal

As usual, the riskiest part of any climb is the descent. You’ve concentrated hard to get to the top, expended all your energy, sweated all your sweat and all the training, planning and mental preparation has been to get you to the summit. At the top, you’re cold or dehydrated or tired, or all three. Coming down is an afterthought (although quite an important one). Anyway, it’s all downhill from here, right?

We had three nights booked in the Atlas Mountain Refuge des Mouflons. Mouflons, I hear you ask? It’s a kind of mountain goat local to those parts. So yes, I was in a mountain goat refuge. Get the jokes over with now so I can continue.

The plan was to quickly get to the refuge on day 1, climb Toubkal on day 2, climb Ouanoukrim (another 4000m peak) on day three and combine a swift ascent of Tizi n Ouanoums with the descent back to Marrakech on the fourth day. The trek started well – we got to our start point, where the technical kit was handed out. I’d picked this particular trek because of the winter skills training and experience and so I was expecting the crampons and ice axes. I wasn’t expecting the avalanche transceiver, which we all had and were told had to be worn at all times while we were in the mountains. The transceiver would enable members of the group to find other members of the group in the event some were buried by an avalanche. Or it would enable the trekking company to recover their ice axe and crampons. Either way, the concept that we were at risk of an avalanche was sobering.

We walked for 7 hours in the increasing heat of a North African day to get to the mountain goat refuge. It was tough going – climbing around 1300m in total. The accepted norm once you get to the mountain sickness altitudes is to climb no more than 300m per day. But the idea was that we would be at altitude for no more than three days and it shouldn’t be a problem. And apart from exhaustion, it wasn’t. Almost immediately after we got to the refuge, we started our technical training with the ‘ice axe arrest’. Rather than some local constabulary technique for apprehending villains, this was a skill that would (hopefully) stop us from sliding too far down a snow or ice covered slope while climbing. The basic drill is this: Once you find yourself sliding towards a horrible and drawn out end, you twist and roll and dig the sharp bit of the ice axe into the snow/ice. The skill is in the twist, in the grasp of the ice axe and in not skewering yourself with the sharp bits of the axe. Our instructor picked a gentle slope, created a slippery channel in the snow and demonstrated a perfect ice axe arrest. Then it was our turn.

The risk was minimal – if we got it wrong on this bit there would be laughter which would probably continue as the unfortunate soul trudged back up the slope to have another go but no drawn out slide as the refuge was in the way. One by one we shot down the slope, twisting like it was last summer and rolling like it was the 1950s. Eventually, we got it and we took the opportunity to keep practising because it was important to do it without thinking and not because it was great fun. Then we tried it left handed.

They all laughed as I lost control of the ice axe and ended up sliding head first for a few yards until the slope tailed off. I did too. And I laughed as other people got it wrong. But in the end we were pretty good at the ice axe arrest, as we found out the following day when one of the group slipped for real on a properly steep section of ice and executed a perfect arrest. We all clapped. And we all gripped our ice axes a little tighter.

The morning after our training we were due to climb Toubkal. But we woke up to a howling gale, sleet and mist. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go up and indeed we saw the group that had left the refuge early to catch the sunrise returning a few hours later, having turned back before the top. The weather cleared up in the late morning but it was too late safely climb and descend the mountain, so we went on an acclimatisation walk up the valley for a couple of hours and practiced more crampon techniques. It was here that our real ice axe arrest took place.

On the second full day with the mountain goats, the weather was perfect for an attempt on the mountain so we set off just after dawn. Despite being only a few miles north of the Sahara desert, there were great sheets of frozen snow for most of the climb up and the technical kit was most definitely needed; the first 2 hours would have been impossible without crampons, and the next hour extremely difficult. Unusually, the higher we got the less snow there was an the final hour of climbing was on relatively snow free scree and rock. Our crampons had been left at the snow line. The wind picked up at around 4000m and despite the strong sun and cloud free sky, it was bitterly cold. The summit marker, a large pyramid frame, was invisible on the way up until we were only a few tens of yards away. It was a welcome sight as we had climbed another 1000m in 4 hours. Our guide later told us it was -8c on the top but I didn’t feel any of that.

The views from the top were fantastic. As the highest peak in the High Atlas, there was a 360 degree panorama of North Africa, with the Sahara just visible as a hazy patch to the south and the village we’d set off from three days before to the north. East and west, the High Atlas mountains stretched as far as I could see. The guide pointed out a squirrel, slightly smaller than the UK native brown ones, and with stripes running the length of its back and tail. It was checking out the latest batch of visitors to see what scraps we’d leave behind. Rock thrushes and Alpine Chough also waited patiently for tidbits. We had the top to ourselves and after the inevitable summit photos, there was a chance to just stop and take in the beauty of the place, and the achievement we’d managed.

All too soon it was time to descend. Our guide pointed out clouds edging in from the north, from where the wind was blowing. We set off down and for the first time I realised how steep it really was. The loose rock and gravel was extremely treacherous and we all slipped and slid on the way down. The danger with descent is that any fall forward is usually a fall down the slope and far worse that falling on the way up, where the fall is usually uphill. At some points we were negotiation narrow sections with steeper drops either side and while we were on the scree, there would be no ice axe or crampons to help.

Eventually, with aching knees, we got to the snow line and a chance for a rest and a mini picnic. The wind was cold here, at 4000m, and as I tied the straps of my crampons on I could feel my fingers aching and stiffening with the chill. It was important to get the straps as tight as possible as any slippage would translate to difficult walking and possibly a demonstration of exactly how good I was with the ice axe.

It took about two hours to walk down the snow slope. It was steep and hard going on the knees and thighs and by the time I’d zigged and zagged down, all the while stomping to make sure the spikes dug in and gripped, I was shattered. But I remained upright. Just.

There was a subdued celebration as we were all tired, and an early night with the prediction of bad weather for tomorrow. It’s the nature of the High Atlas that the weather changes completely from day to day. A few year ago, heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to cause flash floods in the foothill villages that killed 60 people and destroyed vital farmland Only now are they restoring the land to production.

Sure enough, the following morning was grim with high winds and driving snow coming up the valley, and temperatures well below zero. There was no question of us doing the short walk tot he mountain pass. Instead we delayed departing for Marrakech as long as possible in case the weather improved. It didn’t, and we set off in a blizzard that had deposited more than 18″ of snow overnight. The path down, so obvious in the sunny weather when we’d come up, was hidden, as were the valley sides. We trudged along, bent forward against the wind and with faces covered, in the footsteps of our guide. Here was the sense in paying that little extra fro a professional, experienced trek leader. Cheaper guides were available in the foothills but as we were to find out, they didn’t care about the people they were guiding, just about getting their money.

Very soon after leaving the refuge, our guide stopped us and pointed out a large shoulder of fresh snow. “Avalanche”, he said. “It’s just happened.” All hands dived inside jackets to ensure the transceivers were switched on. We made our way quickly over the snow, which was hard going as it was soft and deep. It had come down from the left but I couldn’t see where because of the poor visibility. We carried on as fast as the conditions would allow. Little rocks and stones hidden by the snow threatened to turn ankles and I was grateful for decent walking boots, which saved me a couple of times.

On a flatter section we stopped for a few minutes to regroup and take a breather. We were still at altitude and it was below freezing. I could feel snow and ice on my beard and my sunglasses (despite the cloud and mist it was too bright not to have sunglasses on at this altitude). There was a layer of ice on the glasses and in my beard. It was the only positive I’d felt so far – I’ve always wanted a photograph of me with ice in my beard.

It took us another 7 hours to get back to the little hotel where our bus was waiting to take us to Marrakech. For most of that time we were walking in blizzard conditions with the wind directly in our faces. For the last hour, the wind abated and we walked in decreasing mist but on slushy ground which was equally slippery as the snow and ice further up.

The steaming glass of mint tea, known as Berber Whiskey in these parts, that was waiting for us in the hotel was delicious.

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Business as usual

It was a hard weekend. A last minute gig on Friday night, preceded by a visit to Swansea that I decided should be made on foot as I am now in training for my trek. It was 8.2km in total. Then I pottered about in the garden on Saturday morning and spent most of Saturday afternoon and evening at a charity gig in Parc y Scarlets. I didn’t get home until 12.45am, and after missing the teapot and pouring boiling water over my hand, I didn’t end up in bed until around 2am.

Sunday was a more leisurely affair and after a late breakfast, Rufus and I took a short drive to the hills, where we climbed Fan Nedd. It was cold and very windy but I was wrapped up in several warm layers. Rufus, with his built in thermals and fur coat, was fine despite a fine covering of frost on his fur. We walked along the ridge heading south to the trig point and then the small cairn marking where the hilltop drops away towards the Forestry Commission woodland. We’ve done that walk before, and it’s tough on the ankles, with lots of tufts of grass and ruts. It wasn’t for us today.

Instead, we turned about and headed back to the car. Rufus took the stile in style (see the photos below) and we wandered along the road for a bit until we walked past Maen Llia and down to the stream that becomes the river Llia further down the valley. Rufus wanted to catch stones today, so I threw little ones for him and he jumped up to catch them, flicking water all over me as he did so. By now, the sun was starting to hide behind the clouds so we decided it was time to head home. Despite the cold, I was feeling warm but this was making me tired.

I dropped Rufus off at his house, and went home to a hot shower, hot food and a comfy sofa.

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Here we snow again

Sorry about the title.

I managed to get a last minute day off today (thanks boss). Rufus and I decided to make for Craig y Fan Ddu.I knew it would be white with frost and I knew it would probably be a challenge for the car and I to get to the car park. But what is life without challenges? Just before we set off, there was a beautiful pre-dawn glow in the sky and I took that to be a good omen, since the clear skies forecast hadn’t materialised properly.

We battled through the commuter traffic. Some how it didn’t seem so bad because we weren’t off to work and in no time we were flying up the A465 heading for Merthyr. Beyond the urban sprawl, the narrow lane leading up into the mountains was frosty, with large stretches covered in snow and ice. The car park was empty and the track leading to it covered in about 2 inches of snow. Great!

We set off on the steep path alongside the river, which tumbles and crashed down a series of waterfalls on my left. After 5 minutes, I realised I’d left Rufus’ snacks behind. Fearing that he’d eat parts of me as punishment, I went back down to get them. About half way up the path, we encountered the first of many sheep. As they wear camouflage at this time of year, they surprised both of us. Rufus was staring in disbelief at a sheep only a few yards away. Ever well behaved (!) he came back to me and we negotiated the ovines until we got to the steepest part of the climb. With my head down, I just got on with it and 10 minutes later, I was panting whilst looking out over a snow covered landscape to the south.

Rufus, of course, was unaffected by the climb and just wanted to get on with the rest of the walk.

We set off north along the ridge towards Graig Fan Las and Craig Cwarelli. The sun was out but not strong as there was a partial covering of thin cloud. A light wind served to chill the air but it wasn’t uncomfortable. For the first half of the route, there was a lot of ice on the path, making walking next to the sheer drop quite a challenge. Rufus’ four paw drive worked but even he was losing grip; probably because he was running everywhere. He was careful not to go near the edge, though.

Then we passed over a stream, an adventure in itself as most of the rocks in the path were covered in thick ice and the stream dropped over the edge of the ridge and down…down…down…

Beyond the stream, things changed. The path was covered in snow, which in places came up over me gaiters (I said gaiters, not garters. It didn’t reach as far as them). That’s knee height. Rufus learnt how to spot and avoid deep snow last time we were up here, so he was okay. I looked for the shortest route and found the going quite hard. We dropped down into the head of the Cerrig Edmwnt valley and the wind picked up. I had to stop to fix my gart… er gaiters and almost immediately I felt my fingers start to sting in the bitter wind. Neither of us waited long and we took off westwards. In the distance, Pen y Fan and Corn Du shone with white snow in the sunshine.

By now, the snow was taking it’s toll on Rufus. Snow balls between his toes where he has long hair and it’s uncomfortable for him to walk. I can usually tell and sure enough, he slowed and then started manicuring himself. I helped him clear the snowballs away and decided to turn around. We had to stop a few more times for snowball clearing, but he was okay. On the way back, I was facing the sun and it was lovely to walk in the sunshine even if there wasn’t a lot of heat coming from it. We met two walkers coming up, and I stopped to talk to them for a while. When I looked down, Rufus was lying flat on the path cleaning his paws again.

Before long we were at the drop to the car park. Despite being down hill, it was no less of a challenge as many of the stones and rocks underfoot had thin sheets of ice on them. But I managed to cope with that (Rufus just went for it and spent his time waiting for me by paddling in the river – which also cleared his paws of snow). At the car park, I put the backpack away, grabbed the camera and set off down into the woods. There’s a lovely set of waterfalls here and with the snow they were even more appealing. I threw stones for Rufus while snapping away at the river.

All too soon it was time to head home. Engaging super mega grip drive (ok, I selected the ice setting), we drove up the slippery track to the road. For a few miles, there was a lot of ice on the road where it had melted, flowed and refrozen as the sun dropped below the hills. Then the going got better and we were back on proper roads. Rufus was sleeping for most of the way back and flopped on the sofa when we got home.

See our route here. I wish I lived closer to the mountains.

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