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A Sledger in North Africa

A Sledger in North Africa

Trekking up Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in north Africa at 4,167m (13,665') had long been on my 'to do' list of challenges. Having done several similar treks in the past, and keen to do more in the future, I thought it wise to finally invite my wife along (!) Lying 40 miles south of Marrakech in the High Atlas range, Toubkal is a tough but non-technical summit meaning most people of decent fitness have a good chance of getting to the top, ideal then.

As soon as I booked, I approached friends and family for some sponsorship in order to raise money for a few worthwhile causes, one of which being SPRI. I was also keen to raise awareness of SPRI and the role that the Friends' provide in supporting a world-leading centre.

Village, Atlas Mountains

Having a tiring but rewarding weekend in early spring completing the Yorkshire three peaks challenge, we felt a little more confident and a few weeks later were on the plane to Morocco. Arriving in Marrakech late, we met our fellow trekkers. Overnighting in the city, we all assembled bright-eyed in the morning, ready to be bussed off to our starting point, the hill village of Imlil. From there we walked an hour to the village of Arroumd where we settled in for the day, doing final kit checks and getting to know each other. Our preparations were interrupted however early afternoon when an English team who were back on their way down checked in. Despite our best attempts at nonchalance, it wasn't long before the newcomers were being bombarded with questions about the route and conditions; steepness and altitude and finally, if they had summited or not. The responses were the predictable mix of part horror story and part reassurance, with every contributor summarising that we'd be fine ... probably. This convention of feigned disinterest masking massive curiosity met with an exaggerated brio is a typical convention played out by trekkers everywhere but served to focus on minds on the challenge ahead.

After a light breakfast the following day, our group set off. Trekking through tiny mountain villages along winding mule paths, we saw a glimpse of the Berber way of life. Past the odd home with adjacent stall selling fresh orange juice, we wended our way higher all the while keeping an eye out for the elusive Toubkal in the distance.

After several hours we arrived at our destination, the Neltner Refuge which lies at the foot of Toubkal and acts as the basecamp. At 3,207m (10,500') spending the night there is useful acclimatisation, though the conditions were crowded. Built by the Club Alpin Français originally as a ski lodge, the redoubtable stone building crammed-in about 50 people, sharing just 5 bedrooms, 2 lavatories and 2 showers. Double berth bunk beds enabled us to squeeze our entire team of 15 people into an otherwise average-sized bedroom. Unsurprisingly, sleep was hard to come by particularly as most used the late hours to use the limited shower facilities, with a procession trooping in and out of the room all night.

Bleary-eyed, the hardier amongst us forced down stale flat bread and jam before kitting out for the ascent and assembling outside the refuge where we watched the other teams set-off up the steep snow field above us.

Mount Toubkal - steel snow field

First up were a party of fit Italians. They looked very competent, had all the best equipment and set-off very confidently. I watched them as I was keen to see which route they took and was amazed to see them head straight up through the snow. Not having previously trekked in snow, this took me by surprise. Next up were a team of French students, who took a more conventional zigzag traverse across the lower rock field and continued when they hit the snow.

We went next and with altimeters set, fell-in behind our Berber guide, Hassen. After 10 minutes he decided that we could manage the direct approach and so we too headed straight up the snow. Going steep is hard work but saves a lot of distance and in this case, saved a lot of time that would otherwise have been spent traversing the snow covered scree. The snowfield ahead of us covered about a 500m vertical stretch and for the most part was solid which meant that we could compact it into steps. This worked well provided everyone kept to the same steps and rhythm as those before them. The occasional patches of wetter, slippier snow were the other hazard and several times my leg would disappear half a metre deeper than expected making me wish I'd brought along an ice axe. Though tiring, this direct technique saved us a lot of time and energy, avoiding the draining slog of a traverse back and forth across scree. Obviously the effects the altitude were being felt and frequent stops every minute or two enabled us to catch our breaths before continuing our plod.

Grattan on Mount Toubkal

Eventually we cleared the snow and started up the long ridge that leads to just short of the summit. With rock underfoot and the occasional scramble up a ledge, we had our final rest and water break, just around the corner and 10 minutes shy of the top. This marked the spot were one of our party had finished his previous ascent, too tired to continue.

Happily he was better prepared this time and shortly afterwards, we all summited in a gentle early-afternoon snow fall. The Italians were starting to come down but the French group were there, singing and passing around a bottle of champagne to celebrate a colleague's birthday. We drank in the views and took the obligatory photographs of ourselves and colleagues by the bizarre metal pyramidal marker which denotes the peak. Though views of the Sahara are said to be possible from the summit, it was too cloudy for us although the vistas were breath-taking and more than made up for it. Singly or in groups each of us completed our photograph taking, had a snack and enjoyed a few private moments of reflection that everyone seems to have at the top of a mountain. With a by now familiar cry of 'Yalla' (let's go), Hassen called time and started our descent. I scooped up a handful of stones for my daughters and let the others lead for a change, so that I could take a few more snaps and enjoy the views.

Trekkers on Mount Toubkal

As the snow was warming up in the afternoon, the slippier surface made the downhill track at times trickier than the uphill. The solution to this was a novel approach but one which amused Hassen, who told us to place our rucksacks on our stomachs, raise our heads and then slide down the mountain! Not only was this great fun (we did it on 3 occasions), it also saved a lot of time and energy, cutting about 1.5 hours off our 5 hour descent to the refuge. The more competitive amongst us soon increased the speed and distance, with scores shouted out by our peers for stylish endings – in my case waiting until the very last moment before attempting to jump to my feet before the inevitable rocks. I managed this successfully do this almost every time ... Beneath the snow line, we tramped back down the rocks and scree before lunching at the Refuge from where we left for another 5 hour walk down to Aroumd.

MacGiffin s at the summit of Mount Toubkal

Here we overnighted and enjoyed warm showers and good food after what had been a very long but satisfying day. With no ascending trekkers to terrify, we completed the rest of our descent the following morning from whence we were driven back to Marrakech. We variously spent the day sightseeing and shopping in the labyrinthine souk. That evening we concluded the trip in style and enjoyed a rooftop banquet with all of our party, overlooking the Djemaa el Fna square and its many wonders. The next morning we flew back home, a little tired but with a noticeable spring in our strides. All in all it was a very enjoyable trip and one that I'd recommend to pretty much anyone.

With a notable birthday ahead of me next year, perhaps there are a few ex-sledgers or other Friends who would consider joining me on another great adventure! At the very least we can look to raise to some money for SPRI and undertake an unforgettable challenge at the same time. © G MacGiffin 2010