Jebel Toubkal 2014

7th Oct 2014

Another Peak Mountaineering Jebel Toubkal expedition is over and, after waving goodbye to the last clients at Manchester Airport, I met the waiting open arms of my family.  In a week I would be heading with new clients for some sunny climbing in Spain but for now it was time for some family adventures and to digest the Morocco trip more thoroughly.
Morocco is Peak Mountaineering's most popular expedition and it isn't difficult to see why.  A week is a relatively easy time span for participants, the objective of trekking in the Atlas Mountains and ascending Jebel Toubkal is a manageable objective for many people, the cost makes it a great value adventure and Morocco is an easy hop from many UK airports.  But the trip data doesn't really do this trip justice in any way at all.  Here is a flavour of this Autumn's trip......
As always there are a million jobs to do before our Expeditions.  Medical equipment to buy, paper work to check, money to arrange, client details to coordinate and then there's the small matter of packing my own equipment bag.  Sometimes the pressure only really eases a little when I head for the airport.  
This year we had a great group who bonded really well - and the process began over a coffee and pre departure chat at the airport.  The flight to Marrakech takes about 3 and a half hours and once at Menara International Airport we snaked our way through security to be met by our ever reliable in country agent Jamal.  We have been working with Jamal for several years and have never been disappointed by his efficiency and service.
It takes about 90 minutes to drive through the quieter night time streets and out to Imlil, the hillside village which has been the jumping off point for decades of Atlas Mountain adventurers.  We stay in Jamal's Riad which is perched above the main village and this evening, as usual, we arrived to a welcome hot meal and cosy open fire.  A short brief about tomorrow and a demonstration of some key safety equipment and everyone was ready for a good nights sleep before the start of our mountain journey.
The first day of our trek climbs out of Imlil and traverses the valley to a mountainside camp above the village of Tachedirt. This was the group's first chance to work with our regular guide Ibrahim (an Atlas Mountains legend with 21 years of guiding under his belt) and the rest of the support team which included muleteers, a cook team and assistant guide Rashid.  Our head cook, Hassan, is another regular on our expeditions and, after we enjoyed the first of his excellent meals in the mess tent, we settled in for our first night in tents.
Unusually, the first night was wet and this rain was falling as snow at higher elevations.  Although the rain had stopped by morning we could see storm clouds developing down the valley and Ibrahim expressed his concerns about our regular route which takes in a high pass at 3500 metres.  Although we would undoubtedly make it over the snow on this rocky route would make it very tricky for the mules.  I always like to share team decisions when possible and we chatted about options.  The team understood the situation and an alternative route that would be possible for the mules in any conditions was soon agreed on.  After breakfast we continued our revise journey plan leading us via the tranquil village of Imska.  
Over the next few days we settled into the easy life of the trek.  We had a couple of tough days of ascent, shared plenty of laughs and soaked up the rich tapestry of Morocco.  High passes, sleepy villages, sweeping vistas and shared moments with our support team and locals.  There is nothing not to love about trekking in the Atlas Mountains.  We spent one night in a traditional village Gite which allowed a bit of comfort and variety (and a chance to charge camera and phone batteries!) but we always remained self sufficient which gives a unique feeling of unity.  
Our route prepared us well for the ascent of Toubkal as only the day before our climb had taken us to 3650 metres over the col alongside Tadat.  The day had actually involved more vertical ascent than Toubkal would need and so, as we settled in at our camp next to the Mouflons Refuge, everyone felt confident that, providing the weather Gods were on our side, North Africa's highest mountain was a manageable objective.
The base camp of Toubkal sits at the head of a beautiful steep sided valley surrounded by a cirque of 4000 metre peaks.  There are now 2 refuges (the modern Mouflon refuge and the older Club Alpin Francais building) offering the team the chance to shower and relax in the warm lounge while still having the peace and privacy of our tents to retreat to.  After packing our rucksacks and a pre ascent briefing we settled down for the night.  Anyone familiar with camping in mountainous locations will know how close it brings you to the natural environment and, as I stood outside my tent enjoying the stars and the tranquility of the situation before bed, I felt the usual mix of anticipation and excitement about the ascent ahead.
Our itinerary gave us a full day and 2 nights at base camp so, being in no rush for too early a departure, we left in fine weather at 8 am.  The initial track up Toubkal is a steady ascent up a rocky path followed by some pleasant scrambling over boulder fields.  We stopped occasionally but the team had become masters of the slow and steady pace needed at altitude and so we made excellent time.  Leaving later than other teams ensured we had the ascent route to ourselves which was an added bonus.
The early snows necessitated the use of crampons and ice axes up to the edge of Toubkal's summit ridge but this added to the alpine feel and, even though crampons were new to some of the team, it wasn't difficult ground and some guidance was all that was needed to allow the slopes to be safely managed. 
The summit ridge on Toubkal is always a real pleasure and today was no exception.  It is surrounded by snow capped peaks on all sides and, as the summit tripod loomed into sight, the team knew the mountain was in the bag.  By the time we arrived previous ascentionists had cleared the summit so again we enjoyed it all to ourselves.  This was a lifetime high point for many of the team and a second attempt for one member too - sat on top with the summit bathed in sunshine felt like a very special place to be.  Team jelly babies, celebratory handshakes and the inevitable team summit photos were followed by a steady descent back to a well earned Hassan lunch and siesta.
Over pre dinner drinks in the Mouflon lounge we chewed over our achievement and felt the warm glow of a job well done.  All that remained for the following day was a pleasant descent to Imlil (with obligatory stops for mint tea and a leisurely last trekking lunch by the river) and then transport back to Marrakech.  
We strongly believe our teams deserve a bit of luxury on the last evening and for years we've used the tranquil haven of the Riad Africa to sooth them into the bustle of Marrakech life.  Hot showers and fresh clothes were followed by some Casablanca beers at the Hotel Tazi (one of the few places to serve alcohol in the city) and a meal in the pop up restaurant stalls of the main square (Djeema El Fna) before the ultimate luxury of a soft wide bed and a lie in next morning.
Although Marrakech has come on a long journey of development since my first visit many years ago, it still retains its unique vibrancy and bustle.  Our last day was spent exploring the souks (markets), visiting the local barbers for a cut throat razor shave and enjoying a street side lunch before the journey home.
I knew that on Monday my passport was being couriered to London for a fast turn around Indian Visa application I'll need for a trip next month and the visa would need the last 2 remaining visa pages of my passport.  I stood at the departure gate queue chatting to Alan about some of the visa stamps in there and he commented on how lucky I was to have these adventures and to be able to share my passion.   Alan had enjoyed a highly successful career in telecommunications before taking very early retirement and I felt humbled to hear this comment from someone who had enjoyed a very rich life himself.  Humbled but, of course, I also knew he was right.
Next year we will be running 2 Morocco expeditions.  If you feel inspired to join us please check out the details for our Autumn expedition here and our Easter Winter Skills adventure described in this blog post here.
Posted by Paul