So, after a late arrival to my new quarters at the Base of the highest mountain in Morocco, the boys waved at me from the terrace of our refuge in Imlil. Their worried looks had been replaced by grins. Parking on the narrow dirt slope off the worn road, Julian and Viktor wandered out the front door to greet me, bright red sunburn shining like hard won medals on their faces. “We were so worried about you man!” Vik said, chiding me on my usual lateness. We were back together after a brief reunion in Chefchaouen, and very energised and eager to climb Mount Toubkal, the fearless boss of the Atlas mountains. Over a dinner of vege couscous (again?) and Harira soup, we animatedly discussed our climb plans, as well as the previous climb the guys had done before through the lower mountains in the area. Heading to bed early, we hit the hay and dreamt of snow capped mountains and the heroic climb ahead of us.
Meaning to leave early the next morning to beat the heat on the long hike to base camp, we got stuck at the refuge trying to pay for accommodation and meals. After lots of meddling about we were off down the sloped hill to pick up the last of our gear and provisions. Loading up on lots of healthy snacks like potato crisps and chocolate, packing in our cramp-ons we finally got underway at 10 am, much to our relative disgust. Winding paths up the mountains found their way up the rocky river bed, which was yet to be flooded by melting snow. Ambling across the rocky brown base of the river, we kept an eye out for the barely discernible pink marks sprayed on chameloen rocks to stay on route. Once crossing the riverbed the seemingly never ending incline began.
As we hiked up the trail, streams came into view amongst the snow capped mountains, splashing cascades and the tweet of an occasional bird played the only tune in our hearing range. It was just us and the mountains for now and the silence was absolutely pure bliss. Our second rest break came by just after Sidi Chamarouch, the last remaining township before the climb really began. A sweet little mountain town built on rock and next to a ice cold waterfall, we relaxed as the call to prayer echoed off the walls of the surrounding mountains. The waterfall cascaded down loudly into the frosty aqua coloured pool below, overlooked by the mud-straw houses and rustic cafes. A few other hikers on their descent down were resting their weary feet by the cold pools, sipping on mint tea and orange juice. Locals had cleverly diverted parts of the icy waters right into the front of the shops, to keep the drinks and oranges in coloured bins and concrete wells cool.
Leaving the top of Sidi Chamarouch, the trail was wet, sloppy and covered in straw coloured mule shit. Spread across the trail like it was a new years celebration, we had a fun time trying to dodge the mule discards without falling into the mess. The falls of the mountain to our left were amazing, the landscape was changing again, (which so happens to be a strong trait landscape trait of Morocco). The snow began it’s reign of superiority, carpeting everything within seeing distance in a thick white carpet, looking pretty, but making the going a little harder again. Slipping and sinking in the crisp white snow every few steps made our packs grow heavier, and our language grow more colourful than a hyper coloured rainbow.
Finally, the refuge at Base Camp came into sight – at long last the elusive building was in view! With great gusto we roared out the tune of ‘HEY BABY’ over the rolling white hills of snow, picking up our grumpy moods after close to 4 and a half hours of uphill hiking from Imlil. The refuge disappeared with each snowy slope that we descended, and only fleetingly appeared at the crest of each white hill, before disappearing again. It felt like we were marching towards a mirage. Our swearing got most profuse and colourful again, this time directed at the neverending snow, the rolling hills, the mirage refuge, the mountains and generally everything we laid eyes on. The refuge finally reappeared and stayed in sight for good.
Dragging our feet up the last steep, final incline to the refuge, we collapsed inside, sweaty, stinky, tired, hungry and killed our hunger with more healthy snacks – pringles and chocolate bars. Our 3 man crew really knows how to set the standard on nutritiontional value for hikers. With nothing to do but watch the glowing sunset, we poked fun at each other over a few games of dourak (also known as idiot). Sleep beckoned right after dinner, so we crawled up into our 3 little wooden bunks, in a room of 30 people. We slept poorly, although Julian seemed able to sleep through the snores and farts of our fellow roommates quite easily. It was a truck honking, engine roaring festival of noise inside the room at best. The alarm for 4.30am rang and I was up like a rocket, waking up half the room as well as Vik and Julian, but hey, we all had a mountain to climb. Better early then never right?
Continuing our healthy nutritious diets, our small group dined on Noccola (think Nutella) on bread which we shovelled into our mouths. Fitting our cold steel cramp-ons out in crisp mountain weather, we kicked off our climb to the summit at 5.30am. Torches on, up we went. Moon up, it was eerily beautiful, the moonlight making the snow sparkle in the light. Looking at our climb up, we watched the first two climbers race up the steep, almost vertical walls of snow – it was quite a sight to behold. We wondered out loud how we were possibly going to get up the first incline without the help of climbing poles – which all of 3 of us thought we were beyond. How wrong we were.
We lost a good 40 mins right at the first incline – my hired cramp-ons were in terrible condition, the tiny teeth were so worn they wouldn’t lock onto the straps and had been incorrectlying fitted. (What did I learn? Inspect your gear before you climb) Luckily, I had my multi-tool on my belt with in inbuilt philips head screwdriver – perfect for the readjustment of the fitting screws. Now that I was able to fix the cramp-ons to a proper size and tie the straps into knots that weren’t going to fall apart (thanks rigging 101 and my previous teachers back home – Nuno, Vic and Papa). I knew there had been a reason why I’d carried this multi-tool around on my belt for so long, it wasn’t just for peeling oranges and cutting up apples.
Tacking a good speed up the white walls of snow, our group of 3 made steady progress. We were nearing the end of the incline, or so we thought. For every section we climbed, another appeared, more challenging then the last. Toubkal leered at us, mocking our progress by throwing more and more difficult rises at us. We scrambled over loose rock fields, smooth boulders, ice, hard packed snow and cold dirt, pushing uphill in the icy thinning air. Using the moon as our light source (we had all made the rookie error of not having charged torches), we clambered up, occasionally on all fours to get over the boulders sitting loud and proud in our way. It seemed Toubkal was throwing everything in our way just to stop us from reaching the top of North Africa.
Gradually, and without noticing, my steps became slower and smaller, my head became heavier and my lungs were wondering why there was no air to breathe in. Was this altitude sickness? Here I was maybe a few 100 metres from the top of the highest mountain in Morocco, and here’s fat old me, wobbling about like a stoned santa claus, dealing with altitude sickness. Wonderful. My legs were all excited to move, but they didn’t want to cooperate without my lungs pumping air. Taking a knee, I began to wonder what was going on. I hadn’t planned on having altitude sickness, so this was a spanner in the works. What was I supposed to do now, go back down after all the efforts I’don’t made in coming up? Doubt reigned upon my little mountain parade. Still, on we went, slowly but surely, Viktor leading the way.
I found myself telling Julian we should have taken a right instead of a left to make our last incline easier as we hiked up through the steep snow, up towards the final icy, rocky leg. As I said the words, Vik had stopped and was examined the mountaintop. After a minute he trailed back down to us and came out with ‘sorry guys, I took a wrong turn’. Looking up ahead, all we could see was dark rock peering down on us, little earth children that we are, almost lording over us that we had messed up and taken a wrong turn. It was for me, to be honest, completely demoralising. We didn’t stop however, keeping up the hard and slow trek, and as a trademark, I swore constantly at everything for the next 5 mins, venting my frustrations at the never ending mountain. To be honest I was raging on the inside. Mountains do funny things to you sometimes. It fired me up though, so forgetting about how sick I was feeling, I stomped up the rocky face in a sulky temper.
Worn out, emotionally exhausted, lacking both oxygen and swear words caused me to take a seat within 10 mins of the top. Battle raging inside me, I was ready to vomit my guts up and lay down to sleep but with the summit so close and having come so far I also wanted to push to make it. Staring at the mountains below me, I just sat and argued with myself about whether I should head down or not, what was the better option? Feeling somewhat overwhelmed, I just sat and gazed for a good 10 mins at the cool blue mountains below. Vik wandered over, and with a hand on my shoulder said “Dutchie, you have the option to go down if you’re feeling sick…” I looked at Vik, and I knew he registered the war going on internally. With those few simple words, I got all fired up again, I’d come all the way up here and wasn’t about to turn around gods be damned.
I looked up the dangerous mountain face – one wrong step and I was facing a long icy drop back down to where i’d started almost 3 hrs earlier. My feet were dragging, my stomach felt like i’d eaten a bucket of bad curry and I was shot. Finally overcoming the whiny little stretch of snow, the incline reduced itself into a mild, almost level walk to the triangle. I could see the top. Like a grandpa, I dragged myself inside the steel pyramid of Toubkal. We had made it. Looking onto the terrific views over the Atlas mountains, we slipped out a few grins, even with my beard freezing to my scarf and frozen hands refusing to work. The grazed blues and whites matched perfectly, while the maze of falls between mountains panned out like veins on a leaf. 4167 metres above sea level, the world looked beautiful, an amazing thing to behold. In the exact moment, I had achieved a huge tick in the life box. I could see what I was capable of, and achieved what I think was one of the hardest things I’ve ever set out to do voluntarily.
The views were mindblowing. I mean, I’ve never had a view at 4167 metres. 2000 metres maybe, but not at a height this great, surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Jagged rows and rows of the atlas panned out for kilometres, and here i was at the top, just staring at them, not realising what I had just done. For some greater, fitter people it would have been just a passable achievement, but for me it was a special moment. As cold, miserable and sick as I felt, I had climbed the rocky monster of Morocco. We didn’t linger long however, with both the cold and icy wind cutting through us it was time to head down. Racing down the mountain to the lower altitudes, immediately I began to feel much better, much more energetic and a hell of a lot warmer.
On the hike back down, we were optimistic as we’d assumed it’d be much quicker on the return. But no. Knees aching, our tempers beginning to flare a little, the three of us were moody and worn out, thanks more then likely to our lack of sleep, lack of air and horrible nutrition. Apparently potato crisps and chocolate bars aren’t the best food for climbing up a mountain 4 kilometres above sea level. Even though we hadn’t assumed that the climb was going to be easy, I think we did overestimate our fitness levels. The climb down Toubkal didn’t seem like it would end. We’d even forgotten parts of the return, so when they appeared, we groaned like trolls and as tradition would have it, swore loudly at the surrounding area. By the time we hit the riverbed and into the beginning of Imlil, the boys were exhausted, as was I, so a rest break was imminent. Poor old Vik was half asleep against a village wall, and Julian was struggling to walk at all thanks to his uncomfortable toe wrenching hire boots. And me? I was busy snapping photos of the whole crumbling ordeal.
Inside our little refuge in Imlil at last, dreaming of burger king and Coca-Cola, slowly the magnitude of our efforts registered. It was official – we had climbed up Toubkal. Smiling and laughing over our dinner of vegetable tagine, we rekindled all the horrible moments on that mountain of misery, from the horror of Julians feet busting boots, Viktor’s terrific sunburnt face and the picture of pain on my face in the last few hundred metres to the summit. I don’t know whether we could’ve done it without each other though, singing songs to keep morale up and breaking together when one of us were tired. It was a solid team effort, we stuck together the whole way, even when we managed to lose Julian for 15 mins on the down section of Toubkal. No man was left behind. All the punishing efforts on that mountain had turned into funny stories, and now didn’t seem so tough as it had at the time. We had achieved one of the most memorable moments of our lives.
Already our next question was floating into the conversation – which mountain was next?