Hikers’ Report: The High Atlas
When undertaking longer hikes at difficulty levels like the High Atlas, preparation is key. Information can be found everywhere but as it turns out, is often incorrect or incomplete. The same applies to this log, which should be considered the journal of a novice mountaineer and little more.
We wanted to go to Iceland, really, the 5 of us. At least, I did. But, since we found no solution within our budget, it became the Moroccan High Atlas. The idea was to start off in Imlil, a smallish village south of Marrakech. We would go east from there, almost to Tacheddirt, and climb the mountain ridge south of us. We would follow that ridge back west, maybe descend once or twice for a small detour, until Jbel Toubkal was within reach, and go back to Imlil after conquering it.
It didn’t turn out quite so easy.
Our first night in Morocco, after getting ripped off for the taxi ride, we spent in a cheapish youth hostel, Riad Mama Marrakech. I have no experience with other hostels in Marrakech but compared to most other places I’ve been, including Ireland, England and Norway, this hostel was a dream. We were treated very kindly, and offered breakfast, dinner and mint tea free of charge. It was a great relief, nervous as we were, to find a place to rest and prepare, in the middle of the bustling historical center. The only downsides were a perpetual buzz in the room and the blankets, the smell of which woke me up several times that night.
The taxi ride to Imlil took us a good hour, spent in the charming company of an Australian girl with an admirable lust for travelling. Her help taking down the price was welcome, as the traditional haggling was a confusing thing for us newcomers.
Beware of Imlil. What we expected to be a cute Berber town where we could stock up, turned out to be a tourist trap full of clever salesmen. DO NOT TRUST the French Alpine Organization located there: you will be paying them extra for half-assed help with things you should be perfectly capable of handling, yourself. We rented our crampons there, and bought cooking fuel, and immediately wished we hadn’t.
The guide booklet that we had, stated that cooking gas simply was not available in all of Morocco, and we should be looking for liquid fuel, instead. In Imlil at least, it turned out the exact opposite: We had the choice to either ditch our liquid-fuel cooking set, or go with gasoline to cook on. We chose the latter, which may not have been such a good idea. As the cook of the team, I had to deal with disgusting black ash contaminating everything I touched, a pungent smell of gasoline in my backpack and food that tasted horrible. In short, a nightmare.
After nearly getting into a fight with the French Alpine Organization over the broken crampons they tried to sell us, we set off to cover as much distance as we could in the hours of daylight we had left. Since Morocco is so close to the equator, the sun sets rapidly, and there is not much time before complete darkness. So we hurried it a little, perhaps even too much, as the steep uphill to Tacheddirt proved quite a challenge.
We set up camp at the base of the ridge and to our surprise, were not charged by the locals for the space. Perhaps the local friendliness came somewhat less pricy as the distance from Imlil increased?
In good spirits, we enjoyed some tea in one of the many shabby cafés near the road, and got a good night’s sleep.
The next day, we were to climb the ridge and begin following it. We found a trail leading away from the asphalt road and began the climb. It proved much more difficult than expected: the trail soon vanished altogether and we found ourselves battling loose rock as we crawled straight up the mountainside. The air was getting thinner and the sun beat down on us, which only made it harder and forced us to take a rest every dozen steps. We found the trail again but it soon disappeared under deep, occasionally loose snow.
Altitude sickness is a strange thing. It is confusing how quickly your body gives up on you, how every small effort makes you feel like you just sprinted the Olympic 100 meters. Even standing in one place becomes straining, let alone pulling over 20 kilos of gear up rocks that slide down faster than you can walk.
Later, it will cause dizziness attacks and headaches that progressively get worse. Your heart and head are pounding and you can’t think straight, become agitated and nauseous. Your stomach turns and your mind becomes foggy, until exhaustion, pain and nausea is all you know. Your lungs begin to fill with fluid, causing shortness of breath and heavy coughing. Next, your brains do the same thing, and you lose your eyesight, motor control, and gradually, consciousness. In extreme cases, you die.
And after climbing steep rock and snow, we were all suffering from it in various ways. I felt like my head was pulsing with my heart in overdrive, and compared to the others, I was having it easy. Survivor Man, of all people, all but collapsed and said he was close to throwing up. Others complained about dizziness and seeing black spots. On the last stretch, I heard Tall Man behind me: "Perhaps we should reconsider our options."
As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t really any "options" when undertaking such Hikes. The goal is the ridge and I intend to reach it; so Tall Man’s words were not taken very well. Because of my stubbornness or the others’ feverish want to continue, we moved on and eventually reached the top. Once there, I heard the others, "Now we need to descend as much as possible."
The climb had taken more than 7 hours. Because we were caught off guard, we hadn’t bothered to get up very early and it would now be getting dark soon. We had to find a place to camp ASAP, and sleeping at this altitude of 3,500 m, we would be risking our lives.
The ridge had been my hope for this trip. The pictures I had seen were amazing and I wanted to follow it as planned. But even someone stubborn like me couldn’t deny the unnecessary risks, and though it wasn’t easy, I had to let the thought go and follow the others down the slope on the other side of the ridge, towards a town by the name of Azib Likemt.
Once down to acceptable level, we were all a mess. Professor Man sunk down and had to recover for a good half hour, as the others fought splitting headaches and nausea to set up camp, cook and force some dinner inside of us. Exhausted as we were, we didn’t bother with painkillers and just went to bed. What followed then, must have been the wildest night of my life, and I did New Year’s Eve in Dublin.
Falling asleep was no trouble: it took us no more than a few seconds. Staying asleep however, proved impossible. Every time I turned and checked on the others, I saw wide open eyes. My guess is, that the lack of oxygen in the air triggered a panic reaction of our bodies, that caused us to wake up time and time again as we entered deep sleep. When I laid back down, my heart was pounding so fast I thought it might give up entirely. To my horror, I realized that none of the other guys knew CPR, which only contributed to my lack of sleep that night.
Day 3: Recovery on the new road
Headaches lasted well through the morning, as we crawled out of our sleeping bags at first light. Luckily we hadn’t had any rain that night, because the wind had pulled out the storm lines of our tent and exposed our equipment to the elements. We discussed our path and agreed that we would follow an alternate route through the valley parallel to the ridge. Once again, I was confronted with the fact that I could kiss my ridge, and breathtaking view, goodbye. We would not be going that high again.
Luckily, that didn’t mean we would go back to asphalt roads. The valley was, in fact, completely deserted. Even the Berber villages (of little more than a dozen stone buildings) were empty, and we could only guess what the differently designed buildings were for. The pounding under my skull subsided as we descended, and the morale was lifted again.
We made like Lykki Li and followed the river through the valley, even as the path became more and more difficult to scale. Mountain rivers tend to create rocky beaches on the inside of every turn, and steep stone walls on the outside, so we had to cross the river with every turn it made- which was a lot. I enjoy boulder hopping and technical climbing so I didn’t mind the fact that our progress was hindered very much. In the early afternoon, we found the next Berber village by the name of Azib Tifni and decided to call it a day. We spent the rest of our time sleeping, sunbathing, and sightseeing. We reorganized our messy equipment and most importantly, gave ourselves the time to recover mentally.
As it turned out, the entire town and surrounding was covered in a thick, dry crust of manure. Apparently this was a town of sheep and goat herders, as most buildings seemed built for that purpose. We set up camp in one of the stables, right on top of the layer of meadow muffin, and had the best night of rest a hiker could ask for, crammed together with 3 in a tent, high on pain killers. The next day, we would cross the ridge again, slightly lower than before, and set sail for Toubkal refuge, a hut where we could rest before either trekking up Jbel Toubkal (not very likely), or move back down to Imlil.
Or so we thought.
Day 4: The Wall and Aching Testicles
Spirits were high as we gathered ourselves to set off the next morning. We were getting used to the altitude and there was an atmosphere of optimism that remained all through a difficult climb.
“Are we done crying?” I asked, and with a chuckle, we were off.
Climbing the flank, we encountered a few rock formations, and even though we were ill equipped for rock climbing, managed to cross them with relative ease due to a calm pace and thought-out decision taking. I like to believe that, as long as the morale is high, we actually make a very good team. Behind us, we could see the High Atlas seem to descend as we ascended, providing us a slightly shifted view each time we looked back, each one more breath taking than the last.
We ate on the ridge, despite the risk of altitude sickness. We could see Jbel Toubkal in the distance but decided not to scale it. We had seen enough splitting headaches and sickly coughing fits for one trip. I didn’t mind much: on departure, I had my mind set on the ridge and I already had to let that dream fly. All I wanted now was to reach Imlil by foot again, and wasn’t intending on letting myself be stopped.
“Nothing says more about
a man’s personality
than the way in which
he deals with disappointment.”
Something I learned that day.
We could see Imlil at our feet. The rest of the trip would be a steep descent, but after a long search, it simply turned out not to exist. The descent, that is: the one thing that looked like a path had a dangerously steep slope of ice over it and after I went to explore, we refused to even consider it. When alone, I might have let my stubbornness and crampons guide me over, but 5 people meant 5 times the risk of a wasted limb or life. No deal.
Several rock formations jutted out of the wide slope, and we tried them all to check on the paths between them. None of them were deemed doable and only served to scare the group a little more every time. Tall Man later described the experience as something “That made my nuts hurt like never before.” Still, it came as a surprise to me when I heard over my shoulder,
“I think we should reconsider our options.”
The idea seemed laughable to me. So what would we do? Sit here and call for a chopper, without cell phone reception? Turn back on a 3 day route that nearly floored us? As it turned out, the latter was exactly that they intended to do.
At first, I wouldn’t hear it. I had spotted one more option and wanted to check on that first. When I offered, the response was,
”Nothing personal, but as things are now, I don’t even feel like checking any more ideas.”
For a moment, I felt a wave of fury rise up. Giving up on a goal of this magnitude without carefully considering every single possibility, just doesn’t compute in my head. Before I could react, I heard someone else say,
”Let’s put it to a vote.”
I was outnumbered and I knew it. This “vote” would mean turning back.
“Screw that,” I said bluntly, “I’m checking that trail and then we’ll talk.”
It was uncalled for and I knew it. At that moment, I would have taken that route alone if I had to, if the others were too afraid to take this, as they called it, “on average, too steep a descent,” whatever the hell that meant. My backpack bit the dirt and I almost ran off with nothing but my camera, in case they needed evidence that I wasn’t crazy- arguably.
That path too, was impossible to take. I looked at it from all sides but it just wasn’t reasonable to try. Only then, I was willing to think about turning back the way we came. On the way back to the others, I had the time to chew over what had conspired. As it turned out, they were right, but that wasn’t the point. My pride had taken a beating and it might have been childish, but I was worried that their reaction would be along the lines of “We told you so, you stubborn idiot” and even more worried about what my reaction would be.
When arriving back with the others, there was a painful silence as they stared at me. I shrugged.
”We turn back.”
They understood, thank God. They explained that it was a difficult decision for them too, but they had no other reasonable choice.
They asked me how I was holding up. “Bad,” I said, and turned away.
Knowing now that this was the only option, it didn’t take us more than 3 minutes to accept it. There were no alternative routes; in fact, there was one, and we had been taking it since we came down the ridge the first time. Since there were no others, retracing our steps –literally- was the only way.
“Are we done crying?” I asked, and with a chuckle, we were off.
It’s remarkable how quickly we recovered. A few sarcastic jokes later, we were at the same high spirits as before. Which was good, because coming down those same rock formations was tricky and the last thing we needed then were more tensions in the group. Hiking back into the valley was easy, partly because we could literally retrace our own footsteps without needing to check the map.
We slept in that same stall again that night, and decided that the next day, we were going to cover as much distance as we possibly could because food, fuel and toilet paper were all running dangerously low. Tall Man even dreamed out loud about making it all the way back to Marrakech in one breath, but we discarded the idea as highly unlikely. Despite my protests, we set the alarm clock to 5.30 (just before sunrise) and organized for a serious effort.
Day 5: Going for Distance
The river trail (where existent) proved more difficult on the way back, with a few risky bits. Personally, I like a bit of a challenge and it was a welcome change to struggling to keep up with Tall Man and Survivor Man, which is often the case on easier ground.
Halfway down, Professor Man plunged his brand new shoes knee deep into the freezing river, and we had to take a break while he dried his socks. It was annoying for him, but not half as annoying as for Survivor Man, who slipped at the very last crossing and managed to fall face first into the water. Pretty much everything he owned got soaked, including his digital camera, and had to be spread out on rocks to dry in the sun. Luckily, the dry Moroccan wind and intense heat dried everything quickly. I think even his camera survived.
A fun detail was that the Berber villages that we found deserted at first, like Azib Likemt, now had Berbers coming to prepare for summer. From the little communication we could establish (they don’t speak French or English and we don’t speak Berber) we gathered that their stock would arrive later, and they were just preparing the centuries old, complicated irrigation system to function throughout the season. They have a method of using slabs of stone as switches, to irrigate the mountain flank and store large amounts of melting water to use when it gets dry. All in all, I found their ways quite fascinating, and we managed to return the favor with Aspirin, which they tended to ask for.
From that point on, we only had clear, more or less horizontal track to cover before we arrived at the mountain ridge, and we did so at a breakneck pace. I’m not sure what gave us such a surge of energy, but we practically flew along the valley, without stopping to rest or even eat. We were nearly at the ridge before we took a moment to sit down and eat for the sake of taking in calories, because the intense heat, altitude and effort did little for our appetite. Soon, we reached the ridge and after one more short break filled with manly statements, we went up that same ridge that nearly floored us on the first go.
Thing is, though, the first time we were on the northern flank, which was covered in snow and cold weather. This time we had to get up the southern side, which meant a much better trail and no snow to sink into. Regardless, the effects of altitude sickness were felt again as we neared the top: Every step felt like twenty, with heartbeat pounding in our temples and lungs screaming for air. Still, with an efficient system of a few minutes of walking and a minute of resting, we made it to the top once more, where we found our own footsteps again.
We couldn’t stick around too long, so we put on our crampons (very necessary for the treacherous, icy crust on top of the snow) and began a descent that I can only describe as one of the most surreal things I have ever experienced.
Sinking into snow makes climbing it extremely difficult. Your foot slips down with every step and pulling your leg out is exhausting enough in itself.
During descent however, the snow acts as a cushion as you are free to take giant leaps and practically run down the mountain faster than you ever could on a hard surface. We had to be careful though, because the snow was made out of several layers and here and there, that icy crust was hidden and shaved your shin as you stepped through, trapping your lower leg and threatening to break your knee if you put your weight forward. In other words: No mindless running.
It didn’t end there: the clouds were below us so we soon walked into them, expecting temperatures to drop dramatically. The opposite was true, in fact: The thin layer of clouds and snow seemed to trap the solar heat, creating a furnace with us inside. The heat was amazing, especially since there was no sun visible. In fact, all I could see was us 5, and different shades of white. Once in a while the clouds broke and gave us mysterious glimpses of a majestic view over the Atlas Mountains and the rock formations to our left, as if the mountain wanted to apologize for giving us a hard time by making its already breathtaking view, just a slight bit more beautiful. It felt magical, and was without a doubt one of the most intense experiences in 4 years of hiking together.
The path changed as we went under the clouds. To my regret, the crampons went back to hanging from our backpacks (and back to being a hazard for the person next to us) and we easily found the trail to follow: the trail we should have followed during our ordeal, the first time on this slope. Speed picked up to a pace where I was worried for accidents to happen, but even after I spoke up and they let me lead, adrenalin pushed us forward and soon we reached asphalt roads once again.
A local keeping a stall right where the roads crossed, was able to see us coming miles away and by the time we came down, he had prepared different kind of beverages on a primitive table under a light shelter. A smart move: several of us had been dreaming out loud about a fresh coke for two days and jumped on the occasion. Prices were agreeable so we were able to drink to our heart’s desire.
The Berber’s young son, Mohammed, joined us and we had a few awkward attempts to start a conversation. The father spoke better French and English and wanted to know if we would be staying the night. We knew that he used his grounds as campsite and worried that he might charge, lied and said we were on our way to Imlil; a pretty much impossible goal. In reality, we wanted to set up camp in the same location as on our first night out, where we didn’t need to pay.
As we gathered for the final stretch, the Berber suddenly got very excited. “Imlil! Imlil?” He pointed past us, at a truck passing by. Between Berber villages, there is a lucrative business in the transportation of goods: since no one owns a car, all goods are either carried by foot, or paid for and driven in these trucks. Apparently, they also transported people, which I am pretty sure is against the law.
Regardless, we accepted their price and before we knew it, we were on the back of the vehicle, racing across the landscape at equally illegal speeds. The euphoria we felt is hard to describe: this lucky break meant that we would be in Imlil hours before nightfall, and would be able to catch a taxi to Marrakech.
The French Alpine Organization, as expected, did not want to discuss a discount for us being a day early, and after vowing to discourage any reader, a second time, to ever do business with these criminals, we bargained for a taxi and left Imlil.
We reached Marrakech just as the sun set. Still bursting with energy from our stroke of luck and dense air, we practically sprinted to our hostel, where we were welcomed warmly. “Our home in Marrakech,” the owner suggested, and we had to agree. It was an immense relief to be taken in so easily, and even offered a hot dish of tagine for dinner free of charge.
Because we had, against all expectations, covered the entire length in a single day, we now had two days of Marrakech before us. I went straight to bed, while the other guys went out in search for beer, which turned out fruitless. Early night for us all. It should also be mentioned that the smell of our blankets was far more enjoyable this time around, and since few others were staying over, we got a better room- without buzz.
Day 5 and 6: Marrakech and Home
This was my first time outside Europe, but the culture shock wasn’t complete until we fully emerged in the daily life of Marrakech. Deeply rooted in Western culture, I had no idea what to expect and it was easy to surprise me. The general hustle-bustle and social interaction stands in sharp contrast with our own, and once or twice I saw a tourist freak out after some persistent salesman wouldn’t leave them be. I didn’t mind so much, and it’s actually quite easy to adapt to their way of interacting.
What I found most entrancing about Morocco is that most people are genuinely friendly, including the ones looking to sell you something. I stood negotiating a price for half an hour and eventually walked away; and the man bid me a friendly farewell. It’s a big difference with European places that have the reputation of friendly locals, where you cease to exist the very moment your money runs out.
I know many cities where they claim that you will easily get lost in them and you should certainly do so, but trust me on this: you will easily get lost in Marrakech and you should definitely do so. The colorful souks are the greatest thing about the city and personally, I could have spent all my time wandering, taking photos, and getting scolded for “Berber” after I tuned my bartering skills within a few hours (and overpriced purchases).
I thoroughly enjoyed Marrakech and might write more about it later. But long before I had the feeling I had seen it all, we were on the plane again to our respective girlfriends and wives. The end.
Left to right: Me Man, Tall Man, Cuddly Man, Survivor Man, Professor Man.
Questions and comments can be left below.