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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Summit Fever

Ahead was a wall of broken rock, covered in ice. To my left, a drop steep enough to give my acrophobia a phobia of its own. To my right, the scrambling route was covered in ice like a glass waterfall. The wind was gusting unpredictably and had just tried to push me off the path. I took a moment to recall why I liked walking in the hills and mountains. I looked back along the way I’d come and found the answer. In a 180 degree panorama were a range of snow topped hills and mountains stretching away into the distance. Immediately below me was a beautiful valley with the remains of slate quarries and the associated ruins covered in snow and ice. The sky was blue and despite the wind, the sun was warm.

The wind, taking offence at my ‘despiting’ it, nudged me closer to the drop.

Rewind a few days. The long term forecast looked good, so I booked a few days at a cheap hotel near Bangor and settle down with some maps and my planning head on. More mountains, more training – I knew I had to get some longer walks in with more serious climbs to prepare for trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

They day before I set off the forecast suddenly started talking about snow and more importantly, heavy drifting snow along the route I’d use to drive to North Wales. Although the days I was due to spend there were going to be cloud free, I knew that conditions might be more difficult that first thought. But on the other hand, it would give me some experience of winter walking in challenging conditions, which was what I could expect in Morocco. So with some trepidation about the driving conditions, I set off early in the morning to head north. The road conditions weren’t as bad as I was expecting but there was a lot of snow, and I could see it beginning to form drifts in the wind. Nevertheless, I managed to get to Snowdonia earlier than anticipated and with time to spare before I could check in, I parked in the Ogwen Valley and strolled up to Cwm Idwal to get some photos of the snowy conditions. A cold wind blew along the valley and in the cwm, but I was wrapped up warm and enjoyed the short walk to the lake. By now the snow had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. The waters of Llyn Idwal were a cold grey and very choppy. Ice formed on the grass and reeds at the water’s edge. Ahead, the Devil’s Kitchen looked decidedly frozen.

The hotel was warm and comfortable and, coffee in hand, I settled back to plan the next few days. Tomorrow, I would climb Snowdon on the Watkin Path. This I had first done 11 years ago when I met up with two fellow trekkers to train for my first Everest Base Camp trip. We’d set off along this route, one of the longest paths and one with the greatest height gain, full of confidence. We were all well into our training routines and very fit. At first it was clear but as we neared the top the mist descended and the last 100m or so was a steep, slippery and pathless scramble in near zero visibility. Similarly, on the way down we struggled with the steepness and the lack of firm footholds. Only later did we find out that we’d missed the path and scrambled up a near vertical face with ridiculous drops beneath us.

This time, I knew the route I was going to take and it definitely didn’t involved scrambling. The correct path went off to the left and I was determined to follow it, not being good with heights. I set off in cold sunshine and followed the lower part of the path through an ancient woodland to a valley and waterfall, before reaching a gateway which featured in the film ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’. Much of the film was shot in and around the area. Beyond this, the path rose steadily into slate mining country and I passed a number of ruined buildings, inclines down which the slate bearing trucks dropped, and water mill workings. A large rock bears a memorial to commemorate the opening of the path in 1892 by William Gladstone, who was 82 when he addressed the crowd here. He didn’t go on. I, being younger, did.

Now the snow began to make a difference. Until this point, it had merely been a coating on the mountains, making them even more photogenic than usual. Soon, I found the going underfoot was slippery and as the depth of snow increased, it became tiring too. I found myself wading through knee deep snow for large parts of the ever steepening pathway. I was the first person up this way since the snow and while it was great to be walking in no one’s footsteps, it made route finding difficult as the snow was deep enough to obscure the twisting route. In places, ice had formed beneath the snow and while the deep snow prevented me from slipping too far, it was like walking in sand with every step forward resulting an a slip backwards. This became tiring very quickly and I found I was out of breath far quicker than I would normally expect.

On one of my rest stops, I was passed by another walker who, without pack or poles, was making light work of the conditions. His foot falls were confident and I guessed he was very familiar with the route. Although I couldn’t keep up with him, his foot prints were a useful guide to the route. I was careful not to follow blindly (after all, he could have walked off the edge of a drop) but it gave me some clues as to which way to go.

It was getting warmer now and eventually, the gradient dropped off as I reached the saddle between Snowdon and Y Lliwedd. I remembered this from the first time I came this way, and also from the time I walked the Snowdon Horseshoe, when at this point I found I’d run out of water. Now I stopped for a rest and a snack, and to enjoy the views East down towards Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw. Ahead, the bulk of Snowdon disappeared into low cloud and I spent a few minutes identifying the route up the steep scree slope to the top. It was difficult to make out the path as it disappeared amongst the loose rock and snow. I could see a diagonal line of snow leading up before fading out. Then there seemed to be an outcrop of rock before another, fainter diagonal heading into the cloud. There was no sign of the walker that had passed me.

As I set off from my rest stop, the wind hit me from the east. Cold and blustery, it nearly knocked me off my feet. The next gust overbalanced me and I only stayed upright by grabbing onto a nearby outcrop of rock. The wind, mist and the lack of obvious path made me feel a bit nervous. I’ve walked in these conditions before but only once with such a drop to one side, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Carefully, I set foot on the scree slope and made my way up. It was steeper than it looked and the wind was now gusting in the opposite direction – towards me. Now I was battling against the wind steeply uphill and at any moment, the wind direction could change again and I’d be left leaning in the wrong direction. And then the scree slope stopped abruptly against a wall of broken rock covered in ice.

As I stood and looked at the vista before me, I was thinking about what move to make next. Although I had crampons and an ice axe with me, I was not experienced in using them. The ice axe wouldn’t help as it would probably be torn from my hands if I fell down the scree slope. With my inexperience, the crampons were more likely to cause a fall than prevent one as I would probably catch the spikes clumsily and take the express elevator down. The mist made finding the route after the first few hand holds nearly impossible and without visibility it would be difficult to plan a safe line. Finally, I was very tired after ploughing through the deep snow. So reluctantly, but knowing it was the right choice, I decided to turn around and make my way down. As if to confirm my decision, the wind gusted once again and pushed me down the first few feet of the scree path. Then it tried to push me over the edge.

At the saddle, I turned to look back to see if I could spot the path again but I still couldn’t see a clear route and, disappointed, I made my way back down the path. By now the snow as melting and beyond the deepest drifts of snow, the path was becoming more and more defined. I passed another walker who had turned back before me and another who was heading up. I stopped and chatted to him and he said he was having doubts about the final part of the climb. I left him heading up and made my way down the the quarry ruins. By now the wind had dropped and it was beginning to feel like a summer’s afternoon. The countryside was beautiful and the views down the valley magnificent. But I was feeling deflated after the turn around and some of the magic was gone as I finally made it back to the car, tired and hungry.

Back at the hotel, I went through everything again in my head, and came to the same conclusion. It had been the right choice to turn around. But I also decided to try again the next day, using a different path.

This time, following the Llanberis path, I made it to the top of Snowdon with the aid of crampons. The conditions just past the Clogwyn station were extremely wintry and ice on a difficult slope threatened to let me slip down and over the Clogwyn Dur Arddu cliffs. I used my crampons and while they did give me the ability and confidence to manage the ice, I was clumsy in them as I got used to the front spikes catching in the ground, and I was glad I hadn’t tried using them the previous day. I made my way down in a much better mood, only briefly stopping to wonder at the people making their way up, having ridden half way on the train, and totally unprepared for the conditions ahead.

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Boots

I’ve been looking for new walking boots. The problem with being a walker is that boots wear out. Whether it’s through normal, but constant, use or whether it’s because of damage they will one day give up. And it’s always just as they become as comfy as they will ever be.

My first pair of boots that I went walking in weren’t intended to be full on, hill-bashers. They were thin, canvass trainers with a higher ankle for more support. They were great for general walking but as soon as I discovered more challenging terrain, they showed themselves to be sadly lacking in most of the key areas – grip, waterproofness, comfort and ability to survive. So I went and bought a pair of what I thought were ‘proper’ mountain boots. They weren’t, although to be fair they looked the part to my inexperienced eye. They were big, heavy and clumsy and more like work boots for navvys. They were only comfortable if I cushioned my feet in two pairs of thick socks. I hardly wore them, apart from a couple of times on the Isle of Skye in the snow and once near Glen Coe.

The last I saw of them was after a marathon walking day along the relatively easy Bridge of Orchy section of the West Highland Way. I’d been taking photos and wandering along the rough track near the railway station for most of the day and my feet were aching and hot. So off came the boots to dry in the sun, on went some old trainers and I sat in the car, drinking from a flask of coffee and feeling smug.

Later, in the B&B, I realised I’d left my boots behind in the car park. It was raining and cold, so I didn’t go back to get them that evening. I thought back to what had happened. I’d forgotten to put them in the boot and, given where I’d put them, I must have reversed over them when leaving. I decided that I would abandon them as lost, and invest in a decent, purpose made pair of hill walking boots. I was staying in Fort William and the local outdoor clothing shop was nearby. So in I went, and out I came with a pair of Brasher Hillmasters, recommended by one of the staff.

What a revelation! They were comfy like warm slippers are comfy, straight from the box. I didn’t have to walk them in. I didn’t have to layer sock upon sock to cushion my feet. Walking in them felt like rolling along with little effort. I felt I could take on Ben Nevis. Over the next couple of years, I wore these boots every time I went on the hills. They got a proper bashing when I trained for my first Everest Base Camp trek in 2007, including Ben Nevis, and they got me to the top of Kala Patthar and to Base Camp itself in supreme comfort and warmth. In the end, the soles wore smooth and they became my gardening boots. I only got rid of them last year.

I replaced them with a second pair of the same make, which were just as comfortable. These took more of a hammering as by now I had the mountain bug. I managed to do all of the Brecon Beacons in them, and plenty of other hills and mountains, including Crib Goch and Snowdon, several times. These boots got me back to Everest Base Camp in 2011 before finally giving up the ghost the following year when something snapped inside and they began to click loudly!

I bought a third pair of Brashers straight away. But I also invested in a cheaper pair of boots for training, to give the Brashers a chance to rest now and again as a lot of my preparation was on the streets, which tended to wear out the tread more quickly than mountain paths. These boots got me to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014 and are still my main walking boots today. They have the scars of walking on sharp, volcanic rock. The leather uppers are scuffed and scratched but they remain great boots.

But this weekend, I decided that I would buy another pair of boots. Not to replace my Brashers, but to add the ability to use crampons. The Brashers are designed for all conditions bar deep, slippery snow and ice in winter. As my long term plans include the possibility of walking in deep, slippery snow and ice in winter, I needed different boots.

The website of the specialist outdoor clothing shop I went to said they had the boots in stock, in my size. The sales assistant didn’t seem to grasp what I was saying and told me they hadn’t had any crampon compatible boots in for more than a year. So in the end I went to my local discount outlet, ‘Go Outdoors’, where I bought most of my trekking kit over the years. I hadn’t tried it first simply because they usually cater for the more popular end of outdoor activity. Careful to get the right size (as they will be used in colder conditions, I need to have a boot that fits when I’m wearing two pairs of socks). Not only did they have the exact boot I was looking for but it was nearly £50 cheaper.

As I type, they are sat in the front room. They are comfy but in a different way. They are stiffer and heavier than normal walking boots, as they are designed to cope with harsher conditions and to hold crampons stable and securely. Now all I have to do is find some deep slippery snow and ice in winter.