The following is a report of the trip I made to climb Jebel Toubkal in January 2011.
Friday 21 Jan. 2011
I had an uneventful drive down to Manchester airport and flight to Heathrow. There, while waiting in the departure lounge for the Royal Air Maroc flight I spotted a couple who were, like myself, wearing hiking boots. They were probably on my trip. We'd been advised to wear our boots in case our luggage was lost en route. There were not many on the plane as we flew off to Casablanca, a little later than expected. I wondered how they made a profit. After landing the plane taxied to a peripheral area of the airport, a handful got off and then we waited, and waited. Taxis and minibuses turned up and people boarded. Security? What security? It was just like a bus service.
The plane was crammed full by the time we left, about an hour late, for Marrakech. We were supposed to land at 10:00pm but it was about 11:30 before we got through immigration and the five of us finally met each other and our tour leader. We exchanged some money for Moroccan Dirhams (MAD for short) and were bussed off to our hotel. My room faced a noisy main road and there was a loud noise in the hotel every few minutes (from the lift?). Someone had crammed a large pillow into a small pillowcase so it was like a solid ball for me to rest my head upon. It was also cold, which surprised me at the time. I don't think I got any sleep that night. I'd paid extra for a single room in the hotel and was glad there was no one else there for me to disturb.
Saturday 22 Jan. 2011
Five others had arrived on different flights and the ten of us assembled to have our luggage loaded onto a minibus. We had a brief tour of Marrakech, seeing firstly the Koutoubia Mosque. Then we visited the Bahia Palace where we saw a banana flower in bloom, many small courtyards of which this is an example. The palace had some beautiful ceilings, and wall decorations. Finally we went through a large courtyard. Next we visited the Jamaa el Fna, the market place of the old city where there were many fruit stalls, snake charmers and monkey handlers. Off the main square were the souks which once contained local trade shops but now largely sell tourist tat, though there were a few fulfilling their original purpose such as a street of blacksmiths. The sky was overcast so decent photo opportunities were limited, and it was a bit chilly, like an October day in Kendal. I was glad to get away. We were whisked off on the minibus to a nearby supermarket where I was delighted to find cartons of sour cherry juice, the fuel that had helped propel me up Ararat 18 months earlier. We now headed towards to Atlas mountains stopping for a tasty picnic of salad and chicken on the way. I often have trouble eating on these trips so this was a promising start. The bus dropped us in the village of Imlil and we walked for about 45 minutes up to the village of Aremd at an elevation of 1900 metres. This was the view back Imlil from Aremd. Our luggage was brought up by car. We were staying overnight in a gîte which supplied us with a number of rooms sleeping up to three each. I was given one all to myself. There were showers, sit-down toilets, a communal room for us to meet and eat, and kitchen facilities where our chef prepared us an enjoyable meal. I caught up on some lost sleep that night, snug in my sleeping bag on a divan bed.
Sunday 23 Jan. 2011
It was still dark when we arose, got ready, packed and started breakfast. When it got light this was the view from the gîte. It was to be our first full day of trekking. Our kit bags were to be carried by mule up the valley towards Neltner, if not all the way. If they (the mules) encountered snow they may not be able to reach our destination and the muleteers would have to carry our bags themselves. We all set off in good spirits but it soon became apparent I'd found myself amongst a group including six very keen triathletes, marathon and fell runners and they set off at a cracking pace. We quickly split up into two groups with me pacing the slower foursome. We reached the Muslim pilgrimage of Sidi Chamarouch nearly two hours after setting off where we stopped for cups of refreshing green tea. The mosque is a very strange construction Mosque at Sidi Chamarouche. We continued up the valley climbing higher and higher and getting closer to the snow line View above Sidi Chamarouche. We stopped for part one of our lunch at a makeshift wooden shelter, then went onwards and upwards, reaching the snowline Snow as we approach Neltner. I started to feel unwell with a stomach cramp, perhaps from ice-cold water and the exertion or something I'd eaten. By the time we got to Neltner I was feeling worse. The refuge was built and is operated by the French Alpine Club. It is a big cold stone building with several dormitories, kitchen and dining facilities and a common room heated somewhat inadequately by a log fire. I had some mint tea in the hope of its settling my stomach. It didn't. I brought it up later outside, the first time I'd been sick in years. Once I was back in the common room the tour guide started asking if I had other symptoms, headache, nausea, diarrhoea but I didn't. He and a young female doctor, a non-competitive member of the trip, helped settle me down and when I was feeling better I drank some of the sour cherry juice I'd bought in Marrakech. Later I had some soup but couldn't face more to eat. I wasn't the only patient. One was suffering headache and nausea, typical of altitude sickness, and another had vomiting and diarrhoea. Our guide said the forecast was for worsening weather so we would attempt Jebel Toubkal, at 4167 metres the highest mountain in North Africa, the next day. We would breakfast at 5:30 and set off at 6:00. I went to bed early. So did everyone else - it was cold and there was nothing much to do. Most of our group, six women and three men, had taken over most of one dormitory. The fourth man had been dispatched elsewhere as he snored loudly. I lay awake all night.
Monday 24 Jan. 2011
We were up early for breakfast, I was feeling back to normal, but it had snowed overnight and our guide said the weather was too bad to attempt Toubkal. We would wait to see how the day developed before attempting anything. Over the next two hours decisions were made and changed and changed again, but the final decision was to attempt Toubkal. We would leave at eight. Most of the party were unfamiliar with the use of crampons and ice-axe. There had been some training the previous afternoon whilst I was laid low. This included members of the party being pushed down snow slopes and having to use their ice-axes to arrest the slide. I'm very familiar with the theory; I do, after all, go out on the Lakeland fells in winter conditions; but I've never had (the opportunity) to try it out, so I was very disappointed to have missed this training. The guy with vomiting and diarrhoea was too ill to come and his wife stayed behind with him. By the time we all had our crampons fitted securely it was much later than eight. We set off up the steep mountainside traversing the snow slope until we were up into a valley where there was this view across the main valley. Further on it looked like this. I had been just behind our tour leader but once we were into the valley he and the fittest four went off ahead. I had somehow managed to leave the others behind with the second guide and the one with suspected altitude sickness had returned to the refuge. I don't know why at any stage he was not sent down the valley to Aremd to recover. The driving wind was in our faces whipping up spindrift. I was the only one who had taken snow goggles and I was glad of them. And so we continued, up the valley, then up to a col where the view was like this, and on towards the summit. It was an ascent that was very easy to navigate - I could have done it on my own with a little bit of prior knowledge and a map - and I maintained my position between the two groups. The snow had been blown off the rocky ground beyond the col and I removed my crampons, but not for very long. We had to traverse steep snow slopes approaching the summit and I had to put the crampons back on and get out my ice-axe - I'd been using trekking poles until then. The first section looked like this, and the second like this. Crampons are wonderful for securing ones footholds in ice and snow but if one gets into a slide down a snow slope they can't be used to stop oneself. If they dig in one tumbles head over heels. On these slopes an ice-axe was an essential safety device. I met the forward party coming back as I made my way to the top where there is a summit tripod. We were well above the cloud in glorious sunshine and the views from the summit were superb to south and north. There was, however, a cold driving wind and I didn't stay up there long. Ice crystals had formed in the sour cherry juice in my drinks bottle. It was like drinking a mushy sorbet. I met the rearguard on the snow slopes on the way down and managed to find a route almost exclusively on snow all the way back to the col and down to the upper valley. The vanguard had been provided with some lunch there. They were heading down to the refuge and I was asked to stay till the rearguard arrived. I remained with them as we idled our way back down the valley with them practising glissading techniques on the way - that's sliding down on one's bum controlled with an ice-axe. Climbing Toubkal was, for me, the main purpose of the trip, and climbing it in reasonable time boded well for my future plans for this year. I slept a lot better that night.
Tuesday 25 Jan. 2011
There was more snow overnight and the continuing bad weather ensured I got no more worthwhile photographs. The couple who'd missed out on Toubkal yesterday set off for it with the deputy guide. The rest of us, bar one, headed for Ouanakrim, the second highest in the region. The weather worsened and three of us turned back before the col and the rest from the ridge. The two attempting Toubkal succeeded so all but one managed the main objective of the trip.
Wednesday 26 Jan. 2011
The scheduled walk up to Tizi Ouanoums pass, another nearby col with a view of Lac d'Ifni, was aborted due to further heavy snow and we packed and assembled for the walk back to Aremd. We stopped again at Sidi Chamarouch. There was a recently killed goat hung up and being skinned down in the village. Arriving back down in Aremd we met the mules and our luggage which had caught us up. Five of the women went off to enjoy a hammam, a steam bath. From the Rough Guide to Morocco, "...the same establishment offers different hours for each sex... ...For both sexes there's more modesty than you might perhaps expect; it's customary for men (always) and women (generally) to bathe in swimming costume (or underwear), and men will undress facing the wall. Women may be surprised to find their Moroccan counterparts completely shaven and may (in good humour) be offered this service: there's no embarrassment in declining." The men stayed behind and enjoyed hot showers at the gîte.
Thursday 27 Jan. 2011
We walked back to Ilmil and boarded the minibus taking us back to Marrakech. This time I found my hotel room was away from the main road and there was none of the annoying noise that had plagued my first visit. We went out to the Medina (old town within the city wall) and most did some shopping for souvenirs and presents. It was chilly and started to rain: just like a November day in Kendal. In the evening we went out for a celebration meal in a local restaurant and very good it was, too.
Friday 28 Jan. 2011
We set off early for the airport and our flights back. There were not many on the flight but we were all crammed into about four rows of seats. There was a gangly youth sitting next to me who seemed to have no control over his elbows and knees. Not content with his own space he wanted some of mine as well. I asked if he was going to Casablanca but no, he was going to London, "to improve his English", he said. There was something sweet but unpleasant about his breath. Had I raised children I'm sure I would have recognised it. During the safety procedure he looked at the safety card upside down and played with the sick bag before putting it back. It was not long into the flight that he put his hand up to his mouth before vomiting, spraying the back of the seat in front, his trousers, the floor and the seat between his widespread thighs. One of the flight attendants came with a towel and she and his friend sitting across the aisle got him partially cleaned up. He seemed quite incapable of doing anything himself, indeed he seemed unable to anticipate the consequences of any of his actions. His mate gave him the sick bag to hold and he tried to open it from the bottom. He apologised profusely and I felt some sympathy at that time but it evaporated the more he elbowed me in the ribs.
We landed at Casablanca and while waiting to take off the fasten seatbelt signs came on. I asked the flight attendant if I could move elsewhere but she said there were still some passengers to embark and I could move later. That was not to be. The seatbelt signs went off and the plane gradually filled to bursting point. I was stuck for the rest of the trip amongst the all-pervading sickly-sweet smell of vomit. I'd not eaten at breakfast, declined lunch on the plane, but after arriving at Heathrow I had an enjoyable cheese, red pepper and rocket sandwich with decent coffee at Pret in Terminal 5. By the time I'd driven back from Manchester airport and bought some milk it was midnight. It was not my most wonderful holiday by any means but I'd succeeded in my objective of summitting the highest mountain in North Africa in winter conditions.