September 8, 2010

…..On top of North Africa – Jebel Toubkal

With the girls off to Pakistan for a week in three days time and me in no mood to head east… the choices were Snowdon (don’t need a week for it), Kili (need more than a week for it) or Mont Blanc (could cram it but do i really want to rush MB!), and I was not sure if my training routine for the past six odd months had me ready for either MB or Kili! Time to test the routine.

With a five day window and Google at my finger tips I found Toubkal, a short flight there and back, three days to get to base camp, summit and back, the schedule was perfect, a few minutes later I was set, flight, hotel, guide, muleteers, cook and all.

I opted to not join a group but to do this on my own with a local crew of four, there is no better way to know a land, its people and its culture than to spend time with the locals and there seemed to be no better immersion than to be outnumbered and be at the mercy of the locals on a trek.

At 4169 meters and 641 meters shorter than Mont Blanc Toubkal seemed to be and proved to be the perfect training ground for a future ascent of MB.

Toubkal proved to be more than just a dry run, I discovered my altitude sickness threshold and found a few gears for physical exertion and mental strength I did not know I possessed, Toubkal has been the most physically demanding thing I have under taken so far and plan to take on Toubkal again some point in the future though this time it would have to be in winter for a change of scenery.

There is a plethora of information about Toubkal, the trail from Imlil through to Armed to Neltner refuge that you can find online so I will stay clear of repetition and detailing the trail here.

My journey started at Marrakech Airport; 15th July 2010, Ali Ait Ichou, my Berber guide and person extraordinaire (as I later concluded) came to pick me up, after checking in at Hotel Imilchil (a 10 minute walk from the Medina, a clean and basic dig) and having filled out the  usual health and safety forms Ali took me out for a trial walk around town, supposedly to ascertain my physical fitness via a long walk around the old medina and Gilez (new town). Ali was to later confess that given my speed on flat ground and near zero meters above sea level he was convinced of an easy ascent, little did we know what altitude was to do to me past 3000 odd meters. My second visit to Marrakech is another post, essentially I had a day in Marrakech before the trek, it had to be an early night for the next day we were to head out to Imlil early in the morning.

We were on the road at 07:49 the next morning and made good time and distance, we passed Tahanout (a Berber town in route) at about 08:30, the Vigin Kasbah at 08:40 and were in Imlil at about 09:05.  In places the road to Imlil is so spectacularly close to taking the GT road from Peshawar to Tokham that at times it is hard to tell if you are in Maroc or Northern Pakistan!

This reminds me of the road passing Nowshera to Peshawar in Pakistan

This reminds me of the road passing Nowshera to Peshawar in Pakistan

The drive essentially follows Oud Imlil (river Imlil) all the way up to Imlil (obviously)…. other than the beauty of the surroundings, the bounty of the fertile valleys and flood plains the scent of wild mint will drive you nuts (in the nicest possible way)!

Imlil it self is as you would expect any launch pad town/village to any mountain to be;  over priced shops selling everything from canned tuna to climbing gear, rest houses, dars, kasbahs to accommodate every budget on the spectrum and a sole internet cafe.

Could be any section of the GT road approaching Michni Post

We met our muleteers Omer and Lehsan (the name I am told comes from Le Hassan) at Imlil, who packed our provisions for the next three days on the two Mules and we were off.

Ali and me started off from Imlil around 09:20, the first half an odd hour was a nice steady incline along a stream (in places wide enough to be called a river..

soaked in sweat with the flood plain behind us past Armed

soaked in sweat with the flood plain behind us past Armed

but essentially Oud Imlil makes its way down from here.. in places a trickle, in places a torent with the promise of a raging river the higher up you go nearing its catchment). The scenery changed  as we got past the village of Armed (no matter how blogs and posts tell you… it is spelt and pronounced Armed).

Past Armed is a few kilometers or so of open and baking flood plain, you can see it here on the right and our state having walked across it at the bottom, mind you we made our way past the plain around 10:15ish… imagine the mid day sun on top.

The altitude starts picking up almost as soon as you are past the flood plains of Armed and if like me you are a near zero meters above sea level inhabitant you start feeling the altitude struggle creeping upon. The ascent is hard but not a struggle up until past Sidi Chamharouch (pronounced Sham-Ha-Roush) which is the last village on route to Neltner refuge at around 2300 meters.

Looking back at the flood plain just crossed, Armed is to the right in the distance

Ali and me got to Sidi Chamharouch at around 12:15, we rested here for 10 odd minutes before continuing with our journey, we had a lot of ground to cover.

From Sidi Chamharouch the altitude begins to really picks up and that trail gets steeper and more challenging, an hour or two past Sidi Chamharouch the trail levels out but by now you know what you are in for in context to altitude sickness, the refuge at Neltner is at 3200 odd meters and if they are burning  trash at  Neltner (to the right of the Refuge) you will be

Looking down at the village of Sidi Chahmaroush

Looking down at the village of Sidi Chahmaroush

able to see the plume of smoke from a distance approaching Neltner refuge which in my case was a great motivator. I was by now short of breath, a hint of a head ache was setting in and the reality of the task ahead was setting in. Hooyah.

The lunch spot

The lunch spot

We stopped for lunch and had a well deserved break around 14:00 at a cliff side shack. Since I was my own group; Ali, Mohammad (the leader of the group ahead of us) and a couple of locals decided to lunch together. This made for some interesting conversations and observations, the group ahead of us, made up of my fellow countrymen and women were barely interacting with the locals around us, they sat plonked being served and waited on from time to time by Mohammad, that was the extent of his interaction with them, their interaction was limited to snapping things up in 12 odd digital SLRs.  I was glad not to have been part of any group, getting to know Maroc, Berbers and the Valleys was my agenda and the experience was beginning to unfold. Around 15:00 we headed off, no more stops, Neltner here we come.

The approach to the Neltner refuge is magical, we had been on the trail for a little over 7 odd hours, I was battling the onset of mild altitude sickness, was Aspirining out my headache in vain and was certain we would not make it to Neltner before sunset (it was close to 17:00), I was beginning to bitch and moan to Ali (who was laughing it off… probably thinking wait till tomorrow!) that the plume of smoke was not getting any closer

to the right of the Neltner refuge

and this refuge was not there and we ought to just camp where we stand! but our mules had taken a different route and had gone past us, our only hope of a camp and food was to get to Neltner Ali informed me and I responded with something like where the freaking hell is Neltner!

We walked past a ridge and there in the distance on the left of what is the reminisce of a glacier were two stone structures, we are there, well almost.

Another half an odd hour and we were there but on the wrong side of the river to our base camp (the crew had set up camp a little less than a kilometer from the Neltner Refugees) and our camp was all set up with a faint plume of smoke inviting us to a warm drink.

The two refuges at Neltner

The two refuges at Neltner

After 8 odd hours of being on the trail I was fresh again and we took the path of most resistance across the river to get to our camp climbing and jumping off boulders to get across the river, advancing and retreating… we did not want to get our clothes wet!… the only words I could muster whilst collapsing on the camp floor were shukar allhamdulillah (thank god) it was exactly 17:23.

our camp site; to the left is the communal tent (where the crew sleeps and our dining 'hall') to the right is my tent and in the background is the Berber 'toilet'

our camp site; to the left is the communal tent (where the crew sleeps and our dining 'hall') to the right is my tent and in the background is the Berber 'toilet'

We had a fantastic evening, much to my brother’s trepidation I found being outnumbered by the locals in the wilderness with my little knowledge of arabic and even less french to be good enough for us to communicate and share briefly our lives and what brought us together here at 3200 meters. Of my crew only Ali spoke fluent English, Lehsan, Omer and Mohammad (our cook) spoke none whatsoever but we did not let that get in the way.

Ali told me that it was the first time in his 7 odd years of being a mountain guide that he had come across a lone trekker (lone trekker usually do not get mules and a guide, they are

Mohammad, our cook with his magic wand in the background.. a not so safe looking pressure cooker.

Mohammad, our cook with his magic wand in the background.. a not so safe looking pressure cooker.

either locals or french folks who know the region well), the crew was curious as to why had i not opted to go with a group and my reasoning earned me respect and a warmer welcome.

I chose not go with a group because I wanted to not only summit Toubkal but get to know Berbers, their customs and a group not only would have got in the way but does usually create an us and them atmosphere, which is true for Mohammad (the guide leading the group of 12 from England) and his crew were soon enough in our camp sharing stories, tea and the evening. I am certain the experience would not have been the same had I been with a bunch of folks from around the world bound together as visitors, huddled together by culture or the convenience of a shared language.

Omer (L) and Lehsan (R)

Omer (L) and Lehsan (R)

My Berber crew spared no limits in their hospitality throughout my stay with them. Ali I know you will be reading this, please pass on my salam to Omer, Lehsan and both the Mohammads when you see them next.

I learned about the Berbers, who they are, where they come from, their language and its unique script, the discrimination they faced in the past at the hands of the Arabs who initially came as traders and stayed on (sounds familiar!?), the crimes committed against these people and how their country had changed, how their reigning King was a progressive man who is working to better his lot, the emotion of their tales oscillated from anger, disappear, joy and hope. It is wonderful to meet a people with

Mohammad (leading a group of 12), their camp site is in the background. Note the flip flops he is running in.

Mohammad (leading a group of 12), their camp site is in the background. Note the flip flops he is running in.

hope burning, alive in them. And to top it off my crew knew much about where I originally come from and consider my second home; Pakistan, it  felt good to feel their hope for Pakistan. In many ways Berbers reminded me of my own kind in the South East of Asia, there are more similarities than differences, we built on those similarities of culture and customs that we shared in those few days.

Dinner being prepared by Mohammad

Dinner being prepared by Mohammad

Mohammad (our cook) mustered up harira, spaghetti and beef tagine, after more than 8 hours of trekking, after having gone from 1100 meters to 3200 meters this was a feast well earned. We had dinner around 19:40, followed by more chatting, mint tea, more stories shared, more mint tea until we headed off to our tents around 21:30ish.

Those familiar or with any knowledge of altitude sickness would know sleep is a rare commodity if you are suffering and the nights are restless and sleep intermittent. So at 03:00 having slept and woken up more times in the five odd hours since we all turned in than I can recall I headed out of my tent to get some fresh air and reflect on the day and to psych myself up for the days ahead. The night sky from the valley is nothing short of spectacular, living in one of the most light polluted countries on the third rock I don’t get

Awesomeness in little things!

Awesomeness in little things!

to see the sky as it meant to be seen! so this was a treat for the eyes and mind alike.  It would be a cliche to say I pondered on the insignificance of my being under that star lit night sky! I did not, I pondered on the insignificance of the third rock and all that walks, lives, breathes, fights, plunders, pollutes it.

I struggled to find the all so familiar constellations in a night sky free of light pollution, I sat in awe, I dragged my sleeping bag out then lied down in awe of the sky where you can see the milky of the milky way, a sky so phenomenal that the only way to describe it is to say you have to head out to a remote part free of light pollution to experience the wonder that is the night sky and see it the way it was/is meant to be seen. The last time I saw such a night sky was when I was in my teens on a beach some three hours out of Karachi, it is the most awesome scenery of this trip, the ascent, the beauty of the valleys, the bounty of the wild fruit forests around Toubkal aside the night sky did it for me! it made the lack of sleep or the inability to have a restful night worth it! I did eventually turn in for a short while… soon I heard Lehsan calling outside my tent.. subah al khair ya Kubair, subah al khair ya Kubair (Good morning)…. that was the cue.. it was around 05:30 time to get up and soon it would be time to start our ascent… already suffering from altitude sickness at 3200 odd meters I knew the next five to seven hours were going to be nothing short of difficult (for lack of a better word).

Mohammad our cook it turned out was the chanter of his village and in the silence of a pre-dawn valley his chanting of Quranic verses were both magical and haunting, an awesome send off. Breakfast was simple, strong coffee, cheese and bread. At 06:10 Ali and me set off.

The ascent from the base camp starts with a steep scree that once you are on seems never ending, in fact suffering from altitude sickness from the get go every step on Toubkal seemed to be on a never ending ascent of a never ending summit. mental note: acclimatize, acclimatize, acclimatize…… by spending at least a week as a minimum at the refuge or by vacationing some place exotic like Shimshal in Pakistan or La Rinconada in Peru or just Google high altitude towns and take your pick.

Mohammad and his troupe of 11 (one of his group opted out of the ascent on account of altitude sickness)  started ten odd minutes after us and on the initial scree they took us over as my ascent from its start was a start and stop affair, to catch my breath and rest my head ache… it was the start of an aspirin popping ascent… altitude sickness experienced first hand.

For lack of a better description past the initial scree is an awesome stretch of boulder valley, boulders from the size of a football to the size of a truck litter the landscape and it is undeniably more fun descending than it is ascending this part of Toubkal. Past the boulders is the never ending trail zig zagging to the top with false summits and teasing ridges all selling their wares of the illusion of how close you are to the true summit which you are not, not until you see the steel pyramid across a daunting ridge and the thought after 4.5 hours on Toubkal would be sh*t thats far… but worth the slug.

Things took a more painful turn at around 3600 meters when the shortness of breath, the headache was compounded by intermittent vomiting… it was not the breakfast but clear liquid. At around 3900 meters I had a bout of dizziness that turned into vertigo for a while, resting was necessary but  it seemed to make things worse, this had me totally paranoid, I could not figure out how I was going to descend, giving up was not an option and here I have Ali Ait Ichou to thank for not once did he suggest we ought to head back, Ali was patient and having seen it before knew how to deal with it, whilst kneeling and throwing up liquids and keeping my nose bleed from getting all over….I said to Ali “the mountain is moving!”  he insisted we sit it out for a while. A part of me wanted Ali to suggest we ought to head back down and am glad he did not, we rested for around half an hour, the ascent was the only objective how long it was going to take us was no longer an issue (initially I had wanted to ascend within four or four and a half hours.. but that was not going to be the case any more). Having rested for somewhere around half an hour we continued our ascend the dizziness did not go away but was not as bad as its first bout, the nose bleed and the headache had subsided but the intervals between vomiting became shorter and shorter. I took heart from others who had encouraging words to say as they ascended by and from seeing others (though not that many) in a similar condition to myself. The terrain did not help either, to our right was a traverse along a ridge quite exposed, bad footing or a wrong turn here could have been the end…  sharp vertical drops mixed up with my dizziness and paranoia am sure had me believing these drops went deeper into the abyss than they did and the path we were on seemed narrower than it was.

The next bout of dizziness and the paranoia came at 4000 meters, more so than physical exertion it was a mental challenge, we had reached the last false peak, I saw the true summit in the distance with the iron pyramid like structure in the distance over a zig zagging ridge, to see how far I still had to go in the condition I found my self in at 4000, to see the true summit across a ridge that at 1000 meters would seem daunting at 4000 meters it was a pretty heavy sight. It was at this point having puked my guts out I said to Ali… this is hopeless Toubkal is going to kill me! and Ali’s words if I recall correctly were… ‘so why stop here? we are less that 150 meters, lets rest’ so we did, we rested the dizziness faded, the paranoia disappeared, now the thought was we’ll figure out how to get down with a dizzy me after we have reached the summit, I pulled my mind and body together stood up the thought was.. lets do this.

The last 150 odd meters were the most painful, yet pleasing at the same time, with each few meters covered the headache which had returned was getting worse, the vomiting continued but my head and legs (pins and needles were shooting up and down my legs and I had developed a bad cramp in my right hamstring) were hurting more than my guts and throat, my hands had begun swelling I had to loosen my wrist watch twice now. I would have thought the last few meters might have been the hardest but strangely the last 20 odd meters were in hindsight extremely easy, I picked up pace and the euphoria of seeing the iron pyramid at the summit within arms reach sent all my troubles out of the proverbial window or over the cliff! I walked up to the structure touched it and collapsed next to it, we

Ali Ait Ichou at the summit of Jebel Toubkal

Ali Ait Ichou at the summit of Jebel Toubkal

were there, at 4167 meters above sea level, at 13671 feet I was at the highest point in North Africa! The highest I have been unaided by technology! mashallah! Hooyah! the time was 11:35 it had taken us 5 hours and 40ish minutes from camp to summit… not bad I think. I do plan to better it inshallah on my next visit to Toubkal.

At the peak I was met by applause from a party of three locals… who had seen me at my worst and had stopped to encourage me to keep going.. that was pretty cool… you don’t get

Me on top of North Africa

Me on top of North Africa

much of that sort of camaraderie from strangers at sea level! Whilst I sat on the summit reflecting on the last five and a half odd hours and Ali was busy taking pictures (I suppose he knew taking pictures was the last thing on my mind at that time) I was approached by another party ( a party of two) who too had seen me at my worse, these two seemed an old hand at this altitude malaki and enquired after my symptoms.. upon hearing of them and seeing the blood stains on my kifaya around my neck the older of the two demanded of my self and Ali that we start our descend immediately to avoid aggravating my condition further (this brought my paranoia right back!).

strike a pose!

strike a pose!

Ali and I sat around the summit for around ten to fifteen minutes before congratulating one another and starting our descent. we set off on our descent at 11:48. Best treatment of altitude sickness is to descend and boy does it work! whilst on the ascend I had to rest every few minutes (specially past 3600 odd meters) there was no stopping me on the descend, in places Ali and me were almost racing down Toubkal, to anyone looking at us from a distance it would seem we were running away from some terrible thing chasing us down Toubkal, we zipped past parties that had summited and were on the way back long before we had neared the summit, the descend tricky with a lot of scree in places was negotiated like an expert I am told by the old hands who saw Ali and me bombing it down the mountain.

Some of it was my paranoia of not knowing what happens if my condition worsens (this is Toubkal and Maroc, not the Alps and France I had thought… first aid.. emergency services… how good or responsive could they be…? Knowledge I’d rather not gain first hand).. after about an hour and a half or so of bombing down Toubkal we stopped to rest our feet, ankles, knees, hips and back for a bit, we had gone past and lost sight of most parties that had started their descend way before we had even reached the summit behind us… surely this was some sort of a new record Ali and me had joked! the joke was I might have been a snail on the ascent but I could descend like a rolling stone! we set off again and before long we had hit the boulders that had seemed to be some long and distant past, skipping and hopping over each boulder we had negotiated most of this hurdle too and our breakneck descent seemed was sure to go down as the fastest descent in Ali’s book at least until i missed my landing and ended up between boulders! injured yes, hurt no… we rested for a few minutes, checked nothing was broken.. only bruises and excruciating pain.. no problem…popped some ibuprofen and we continued with a tad bit more caution and little less speed.  We got back to base camp 2 hours and 11 minutes later.

The highest I have previously been was 2317 meters on Plan de l’Aiguille in the Mont Blan Massif whilst paragliding off Plan de l’Aiguille and I do not recall it being as punishing as Toubkal turned out to be.  All that punishment was worth the reward of sitting on top of North Africa!

In the summer months Toubkal is not a technical ascent, it is a challenge nevertheless, Toubkal I could not enjoy you as much as I had hoped for and for that reason alone I shall see you again soon inshallah and this time I shall come acclimatized and we shall enjoy ourselves together.

It had been two days since I had been away from creature comforts and the structures of both the refuges at Neltner were promising all that I had not had in the last two days, upon enquiry I was told a hot shower would cost 15 dirhams and using the ‘seated toilet’ would be another 10. Abdul Rahman the care taker dropped the charges to zero dirhams once Ali stepped into the conversation. I have no words to describe the joy of a hot shower at 3200 meters in the middle of nowhere.

My altitude sickness had not left me in any condition to be taking pictures on the ascent and my eagerness to descend meant I was not concerned about pictures for my blog but only with getting back to base camp to rest my pounding headache, my throat and stomach from throwing up liquids along the ascent and to stop that nose bleed. but I did manage a few pics  on the summit, a few on our descent but most of the pics and the real fun part of this trek was the return leg from our base camp at Neltner to Imlil.

The ascent and the summit were undeniably the highlight, hell that is the reason I was there but it was not fun fun, it was grueling, it was physically and mentally painful, it was exhausting, it was full of self discovery, it was a very different kind of fun than one reckons fun would be! the journey from Neltner to Imlil on the other hand was exactly what one reckons fun in the outdoors would be!

The evening was spent sitting around in the main camp sharing more stories but the conversations of our second night were not as light hearted, I was told about the growing influence Wahabism in Morocco;  I was very glad to find out that folks here were concerned about this version of fire brand Islam spreading in their beautiful land, but given how much money Saudi Arabia plugs into Morocco there is little the common man can do about it, it is has been much the same in Pakistan throughout the 1980′s and 1990′s for which Pakistan is now paying with blood of innocents on a daily basis. I hope it does not come to that in Maroc.. inshallah.

We turned in early after dinner and the second night was a little less restless than the first, but since it was cloudy there was no night sky to be in awe of.

An alternative route (local route), note the flood plain near Armed to the right. The local route has the luxury of streams and vegetation... which equates to cold water to splash...and shade!

An alternative route (local route), note the flood plain near Armed to the right. The local route has the luxury of streams and vegetation... which equates to cold water to splash...and shade!

The next morning I was woke up by not Lehsan or Omar but by Mohammad’s chanting, we had coffee, cheese and bread for breakfast and headed off to Imlil at 08:20. The return leg to Imlil was again at breakneck speed, we reached our lunch spot at 09:12 and Sidi Chamharoush at 09:50, we took a short break here, had some cold drinks and I explored the saint’s final resting place that is  Sidi Chamharoush, a privilege reserved for muslims (I do not agree to closing off any place based on any one’s faith or lack of.. but there are some opinions best kept to ones self). at 10:50 we could see Armed and this is where Ali went off the beaten track and we made the rest of our journey to Imli on trails used by the local villagers… this was an incredible leg for it cuts through dense wild orchards and meanders torrents and streams until it lands you at the river side cafe by Armed. we had another

The local's trail back to Imlil

The local's trail back to Imlil

stop, spent a few minutes shooting the breeze and headed back on the following the river to Imlil, we arrived at Imlil at bang on 12:00.

On our way to Neltner we had been beaten by our Mules and Muleteers, on the way back we had beaten them to Imlil and had to wait for them to get back, Ali went off looking for Mohammad who had beaten everyone to Imlil and I went in search of that rare commodity in these parts… Diet Coke! having been

more of the local route

more of the local route

around half a dozen stores I found the only place I am told in Imlil that serves the nectar.

Around 13:00 the remaining crew reached Imlil and Mohammad started preparing lunch, we set ourselves us in a walnut orchard with a dry river bed to our front and a stream to our back, after three days of trekking I could not ask for a better spot to relax and spend the last few hours in the Atlas mountains.

Armed, to the right in the distance

Armed, to the right in the distance

Our last lunch together was a spread of lentils, sardines, bread, mustard sauce, salad (these folks eat a lot of salad), mint tea and fresh melons for dessert. We huddled for the customary group photograph and set off back to Marrakech with Hassan our driver at 15:40.

taking short cuts meant scrambling in places and some precarious moments.

taking short cuts meant scrambling in places and some precarious moments.

Contact details for Ali Ait Ichou for family and friends who may want to experience the hospitality of the Berbers and the journey of self discovery that Toubkal remains for me.

Ali Ait Ichou: tizal5 [@] yahoo.fr.

Me,  Mohammad (cook), Ali (guide), Lehsan, Omer (muleteers),

Me, Mohammad (cook), Ali (guide), Lehsan, Omer (muleteers),

Ali Ait Ichou comes highly recommended, I have not only found a permanent guide for all my future Atlas (High and Anti) excursions but also a friend in Maroc.

My next Maroc excursion is going to be  Jebel Mgoun (pronounced Maghoon) some time in 2011 inshallah…and the plan is to ascend Mgoun and revist Toubkal in the same trip.

Hassan (the D), Ali (guide), Lehsan, Omer (muleteers) and Mohammad (cook)

Hassan (the D), Ali (guide), Lehsan, Omer (muleteers) and Mohammad (cook)

…as they say in that part of the world… bey saha’o’raha.