Jebel Toubkal Challenge – Day 1

I found myself sitting at a table overlooking the famous square of Djemaa El-Fna in Marrakech chatting to four people that I had just met a few seconds earlier while at the same time trying to wolf down a tasty chicken tagine that had promptly arrived in front of me!

Night had fallen but the city was alive and vibrant. Tomorrow would be very different, tomorrow I would be trekking up the Mizan Valley into the High Atlas Mountains to a base camp at 3207m known as the Neltner Refuge before eventually (and Insha’Allah) climbing to the highest point in North Africa and summiting the fabled Mount Toubkal at 4167m!

The challenge I had just set myself was a big one. I only had four days in Morocco, and only two of them to get in, get up, and get back out of the highest mountain range in North Africa having hopefully summited my first high altitude mountain at a little over 4000m in the process. Tonight though I was relaxing in the 1000-year old pink walled city of Marrakech, enjoying the sensory barrage that hits the traveller from the moment they step off the plane, savouring all the exotic sounds and smells that unmistakably tell you that you are in Africa.

My first night in the city would eventually be spent in a fairly down market hotel/hostel just off the city’s main thoroughfare Av. Mohammed V directly opposite the iconic Koutoubia Mosque which at least guaranteed an early morning wake up call if nothing else, as the faithful would be called to prayer at 4.30am sharp. My room was small and dark, the view non-existent and I could hear a constant flow of people passing by my door suffling along the dank hotel corridor outside throughout the night. I turned on my iPod boosted the volume and slipped into my own private place to try and grab some much needed sleep.

As the morning dawned and having awoken as expected nice and early thanks to the call to prayer I joined my fellow adventurers that I’d briefly met the night before for a quick breakfast of orange juice before congregating in the dusty street below ready to catch our ride out of the hustle and bustle of the city towards the snow capped mountains far away on the distant horizon. Omar (our guide), Emily, Jason and Chris were to become my new best friends for the next three days and we all started tentatively to get acquainted with each other during the hot and dusty two hour drive across the Moroccan plains and into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

I usually find on these kind of adventures that there nearly always seems to be a common vein of interest running through the group, a want to travel and experience new places and peoples, and the need to test oneself against nature in a raw form in a far flung corner of the world. As a footnote to this idea all my fellow travellers had made multiple high altitude summits before and had travelled to far flung destinations such as Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Peru and the Alps.

These discussed facts were not lost on me as I became acutely aware through the various conversations that my own travel CV – which is fairly robust by most peoples standards – was in fact coming up way short in the department of high altitude climbs and I was definitely the rookie on this particular trip. The grisled veterans around me continued to rattle off their experiences of altitude sickness and close calls from trips long past and as we bumped along the rough mountain road I began to ponder for the first time upon one main train of thought, a thought that I just could not get rid of, the thought of ‘what the HELL had I just let myself in for!’

flickr Pics: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157644711701358/

Full mapping of the routes and GPX downloads available from:
http://www.shareyouradventure.com: http://www.shareyouradventure.com/map/51094/jamehand/The-Jebel-Toubkal-Challenge

 

Advertisements

Jebel Toubkal Challenge – Day 2

The Route: Jebel Toubkal | Distance: 10.6km | Time: 7 Hours Height gain: 1866m | Max Altitude: 3207m | Start: Imlil Village | Finish: Neltner Refuge Map: Orientazion – Toubkal Hiking Map ISBN: 9788493560003 | Date: 07/06/2014

I arrived with my new best friends in the village of Imlil. Imlil is the gateway to the Atlas Mountains and the start point for our trek. From here on in there was only one way and it all led uphill! We all stocked up on water supplies from a small tea shop on the edge of the main street through the village while our newly acquired muleteer loaded up our mule for the journey. Our main holdalls would be carried by mule up to the Neltner Refuge, beyond that point the mule don’t go, so we would be carrying our daysacks from that point on.

My companions for the trek and climb to Mount Toubkal in Imlil

I felt a definite pang of sadness engulf me as the poor old mule was loaded higher and higher with our bags and various other equipment but he (or she) seemed to take it all in their stride, such is the life of a mule I guess in Morocco.

Our muleteer and guide loading our gear onto the poor mule

With my first world sensibilities eventually pushed to the back of my mind after figuring out that I was actually rather glad that the mule was carrying my gear as opposed to myself in the increasingly stifling heat of the day the merry band of adventurers that I was now part of finally set off on the two day trek to Toubkal National Park. Following a river that climbed gradually out of the valley that would eventually lead to the seasonal village and shrine of Sidi Chamharouch (2310m) we set off at a healthy pace.

Our mule heavily laden following the narrow path up out of Imlil

As we went up other porters and mules were coming down

I soon found myself passing by very typical looking Moroccan homes and shops with their wares displayed out front on the dusty roads. We passed children playing in the lanes and fields, donkeys passed us laiden with baskets containing nuts and fruit and soft drinks either going into town or heading like us up to the refuge. We turned several corners and ascended several gentle slopes before we caught our first glimpse of Around. Around is the last of the series of villages that make up the trail head in the Mizan Valley. This amazing village is perched precariously on the slopes of the surrounding hills making picture perfect opportunities for the traveller with a camera.

The hilltop trailhead village of Around

Departing Around we crossed a dried up river bed at the confluence of two rivers before the path steepened and narrowed as we zig-zagged our way up higher into the hills.

Emma ducks out of the way of our muleteer as he and his mule pass by on the narrow trail path

Crossing the dried up river plain outside the village of Around the gateway to the High Atlas

We hoped to reach Sidi Chamharouch by lunchtime so that we could recuperate in some shade and enjoy some much needed food and drink. The path relentlessly weaved it’s way along the eastern slopes of the valley and we marched like lemmings towards our destination.

The shrine at Sidi Chamharouch and the white painted boulder

Sidi Chamharouch is a strange and mystical place. It is surrounded by rocky peaks and sits astride a fast flowing river descending the valley. A huge white-painted boulder marks the spot where, legend has it, a holy man lies entombed. As an infidel access to the actual shrine is forbidden but we gained a good view of the inner sanctum from the confines of the small eatery that we stopped for lunch. As I sat swallowing some freshly squeezed orange juice on an old wooden chair it was surreal to look down and see fresh red blood being washed from the rocks behind the shrine. I was beginning to see why westerners were not given access to the shrine! Animal sacrifice it still carried out at the shrine on a daily basis with goats and sheep etc being ritually butchered on a flat rocky plateaux behind the shrine. I saw what looked like a goat being dealt with in this manner from my vantage point above the shrine buildings. Not a sight to want to see too often but I was after all in Morocco and I had come to see the world and embrace its diversity warts and all so that was what I was getting.

Refreshments along the trail, fresh oranges and cooled drinks

Entering the High Atlas Mountains dwarfed by the massive peaks

We left Sidi after an hour or so and our weary legs found it hard to get back into the rhythm of the trek as the heat intensified and the inclines increased. From this point on I really could feel the altitude begin to kick in. The air was thinning and the rays from the sun intensifying as a result our ever increasing height. The surrounding mountain landscape was becoming more lunar like the higher we progressed up the valley as we plodded on and on. After several intense hours of trekking over rocky paths and fording many mountain streams in the process I began to scan the horizon for the Club Alpin Francais hut which I hoped would not be too far away but it would be a good few hours more before we finally reached the Neltner Refuge.

Emma and Omar stopping to enjoy the amazing views of the surrounding mountains

The high conical peaks loom in the background as we continue along the trail

Then like a mirage the refuge suddenly appeared, almost camouflaged against the rocky backdrop of mountains beyond. A sense of relief and joy gushed over me as I now knew that phase 1 of the adventure had been completed! I had made it to (3207m). I had no ill effects from the altitude and this building that resembled a Berber fortified dwelling would now be my home for the next night. Although I knew the hut is very basic I could not have been happier even if I had racked up outside a five Star hotel.

First glimpse of the Neltner Reguge at (3207m) a very welcome sight

Campers at the base camp at (3207m)

After my initial happiness at reaching the Neltner Refuge my mood would soon change as I embarked upon one of the most horrendous nights of my life!

Looking down on the Neltner Refuge and the valley we had hiked up beyond

The refuge sleeps around 80 people with around 20-30 in a dorm, my dorm was rammed! I had been allocated a small bunk on the bottom level smack bang in the middle of a row of ten. I dropped my pack and sleeping bag off on the stiff mattress bunk before going downstairs for the evening my meal realising that sleep may well be a rare commodity that night. As 10pm neared and the prospect of a 5am start in the morning was realised we all decided to turn in for the night. WRONG! no one sleeps in the Neltner and I mean no-one! With hikers arriving up until 1am sleep is almost impossible. Headlights flashed in the night, people struggled in and out of bunks and the smell, well the smell is one thing you cannot describe in words! On top of the impossibility to sleep I had now developed what can only be described as the heebie jeebies! Suddenly I was crippled with anxiety and apprehension of the task I had set myself for the morning. I spent several hours perched on a third world toilet in the basement of this god-forsaken building high up in the freezing and deathly quiet mountains playing mind games with myself. What if I could not make it to the summit? What if I suffered from altitude sickness above 3200m? What if the others wanted to press on and I couldn’t? Had they not all summited at altitude before, was I not out of my league? After months of training and saving up money to get to Morocco I was in danger of sabotaging my own trip! I lay for hours on a bench downstairs in the foyer of the building unable to get back to my sleeping bag in the dorm almost frozen by fear as the wee hours of the night turned my imaginings into imagined reality!

Jebel Toubkal Route Route Map

Jebel Toubkal Route Map

The Highs and the Lows of the hike

Altitude Graph for Jebel Toubkal Challenge

flickr Pics: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157644711701358/

Full mapping of the routes and GPX downloads available from:
http://www.shareyouradventure.com: http://www.shareyouradventure.com/map/51094/jamehand/The-Jebel-Toubkal-Challenge

Jebel Toubkal Challenge – Day 3

The Route: Jebel Toubkal | Distance: 16.5km | Time: 12 Hours
Height gain: 967m | Max Altitude: 4167m | Start: Neltner Refuge | Finish: Imlil Village
Map: Orientazion – Toubkal Hiking Map ISBN: 9788493560003 | Date: 08/06/2014

There was no mistaking it there was definitely movement on a mass scale as people stumbled around in the dark gathering gear and buckling up! It was 4.00 a.m already and the last time I’d looked at my watch it read only 3.00 a.m. That hour or so earlier and in total darkness I’d crept up the stone stairwell in the refuge finally crawling into my sleeping bag having spent the previous precious hours cold and shivering downstairs on a hard bench.

But now it was time to move, time to get going, time to go and climb that bloody mountain! My God it was actually happening!

With no time left to confront my worries and fears I started to kit up like everyone else. A quick breakfast was wolfed down, headlamps attached and we all quickly congregated outside the refuge in the dark freezing air that is only found at such rare altitudes. It was so dark outside that if I raised my hand in front of my face I literally couldn’t see it! I wrestled relentlessly with my rucksack like a man demented, treble checking that I had water, treble checking that I had glucose bars, treble checking that I’d packed my down jacket etc, etc, etc. No time to waste!

Leaving in the dark for the summit

Suddenly the berber porters started to chant, quietly at first, and then louder and louder, crescendoing in a deafening roar, fellow summit hopefuls who were on some kind of pilgrimage then started shouting out “Allahu AkbarGod is Great and suddenly I felt in a world very far away from home and a million miles or more from my green, leafy and very English suburban home.

All my fears, apprehensions and anxieties paled into the shadows as being in the moment began to take me over. No time to think about problems with altitude now, no time to worry about my insanely rumbling stomach cramps, no time to think of anything but being in the moment! And what a moment to be alive in! We were off!

I got my head down and focused solely on the heels of the man in front of me as per instructed. A procession of flickering headlamps started to slowly zig and zag it’s way up the rocky slopes like a long line of minuscule ants. I told myself to hang on in there whatever happened and not to lose the line, to keep to my set pace as instructed and to keep going until I reached the summit! No time now for self doubts, I was in it deep alright and so steeled myself to achieve my only objective, the only thing that mattered, the Summit!

Slowly the darkness turned to light and as the sun rose ever higher in the sky the mountainous valley that we were hiking up became bathed in golden rays of sunlight. The peaks started to reveal themselves to us and suddenly you had a real sense of where you were. I estimated there were around seventy people hiking to the summit that cold morning and the procession snaked it’s way up the gully in front of me for dozens of meters.

The mountains at sunrise

Eventually after several painstaking hours we reached the 4000m mark where our guide Omar turned around once more – as he had been doing the whole way up so far – to check on our well-being, a simple thumbs-up from us was all that was required as a sign signalling that we were indeed okay to carry on upward and onward.

At that 4000m mark we swung around left from the col to make the final summit push northwards. From here on in the warm confines of the sunlit gully disappeared and the cold winds that rushed over the col acquainted us with a deep chill.

At this point I inadvisedly made an attempt to eat my by now frozen Mars bar from deep inside my rucksack. I craved a much needed chocolate and glucose rush, but the bar was as solid as a brick, and as I fumbled to open it’s wrapper I found that my hands had already started to freeze solid and become immobile by the ever increasing chill and wind. Foolishly I had not bothered to get my gloves out as I’d been doggedly trudging up the path. My laziness would now haunt me as my fingers stung and were rendered useless. I asked my colleague Chris if he could help me with the wrapper and to help me closing my rucksack as I frantically rubbed my hands together now firmly encased in my gloves trying to goad them back into some sort of life.

The next member of the team to be in trouble was surprisingly Jason a veteran of several altitude climbs who somewhere after 4000 metres started to feel the slight effects of altitude and complained of mild dizziness and nausea. We stopped for a few minutes to let him recover only too aware that anyone of use could be afflicted by AMS.

With Jason now feeling suitably recovered we made (what we hoped) would be the final push for the summit. From here on in the ground got more interesting and trickier, our plod turned into more of a light scramble but at altitude even a bit of light scrambling can feel like hell. I began to wheeze and puff with every stride and foothold.

By now I was praying more than ever that I would  see that famous summit structure very soon. That familiar pyramidal steel monstrosity recognised the world over that had become an emblem of the mountain became my only thought.

jebel_toubkal_summit_pyramid

Then, just as I was tiring almost to the point of stopping dead on my feet I looked up one final time, and then there miraculously I saw it, that famous pyramid that I had seen in photos was sitting there right in front of me sitting astride the summit right within my grasp.

With a renewed spring in my step I made galloping strides towards the structure now feeling safe in the knowledge that nothing could stop me, not even the altitude because once on the summit plateaux the ground suddenly flattens out and the final slog to the peak is a relative breeze, well comparatively speaking.

The team on the Summit of Jebel Toubkal

At a few minutes past 8.00 am on June the 8th 2014 I stood ever so briefly as the highest human in North Africa as I stood alone atop the summit at 4,167 meters above sea-level. Ten seconds later and I was surrounded by people once again. A constant flow of souls jostled for their summit moment just as I had done briefly before them.

A packed Summit!

It was not peaceful, it was not even that joyous, all I really remember is a feeling of relief and of being very very cold. I did not really take in much of the sublime views and the only thought I had on my mind seemed to be of getting off and down again. The altitude worries of the night before still danced around in the recesses of my mind and although I had achieved my goal I still felt anxiety the longer we all stayed at the summit.

Views across The Atlas Mountains

View from the roof of North Africa

Omar sensing all in his team were either cold or shattered opted to leave after about 10-12 minutes and so it was that after four months of planning and preparation, several hundred pounds of money and a couple of thousand miles of travelling my great adventure had climaxed in fifteen minutes of glory. But I was ecstatically happy! I had achieved essentially what I had set out to achieve. I had summited my first high altitude mountain, I had done it the hard way with no acclimatisation period, no warm-up climbs and yet here I was on the roof of North Africa.

Panoramic view from the summit on descent

Of course we all still had to descend back down to the refuge and then after loading our heavy holdalls back onto our ever reliant mule we still had to hike the ten or so kilometres back to Imlil, but in essence the challenge had been met. We hiked back down quickly and as the meters decreased rapidly we indulged in some scree running as our energy levels renewed with every meter we dropped.

Descending the treacherous scree slopes on Toubkal

The return was relatively benign in every sense as we set off for Imlil leaving the confines of the Neltner Refuge behind us watching as the building complex disappeared slowly and gradually as if being swallowed up by the mountainous background around it.

Descending quickly

Jason enjoying the views on the descent

Basking in the glory of our achievement we chatted happily as we walked and the time passed quickly. Emma did manage to twist her ankle slightly and we employed a passing mule as a taxi to ferry her down the last few miles, but in the wink of an eye we were back in Imlil.

A taxi down please (by mule!)

Soon enough we found ourselves back in Marrakech on a dusty restaurant terrace looking out over the now familiar Djemaa el Fna Square absorbing all the sounds and smells that the rose red city has to offer the globe trotting traveller and adventurer.

That evening as we all walked back to our hotel rooms across the square amid the mass of tourists fresh off their EasyJet flights, or those having been shipped in on coaches to see a bit of the ‘real Morocco‘, we all looked at each other and I know deep down we all felt the same, that indescribable feeling that you have when you have just done something so mad and so far off the grid that only those who were there can ever fully appreciate it.

Djemaa el Fna Square at night

Jebel Toubkal changed me inside, it took me to places in my mind that scared me and brought me out the other side a different person, that in the end was the real journey and the real adventure, not the mountain itself or the foreign travel etc, etc, the real journey is always the journey of the mind, and by that reckoning this had been one hell of a trip!

The Highs and Lows of the hike

Altitude Graph for Jebel Toubkal Challenge

Altitude Graph for Jebel Toubkal Challenge

Special thanks must go to our guide Omar who made it all happen in Morocco and to KE Adventures for organising the trip.

Additional photography by Emma Sinclair – https://www.facebook.com/elsinclair/media_set?set=a.10152500861067792.1073741846.579417791&type=1

flickr Pics: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157644711701358/

Full mapping of the routes and GPX downloads available from:
http://www.shareyouradventure.com: http://www.shareyouradventure.com/map/51094/jamehand/The-Jebel-Toubkal-Challenge

The Jebel Toubkal Adventure

Due south of the 1000-year-old pink walled city of Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains rise to a commanding 4000 metres and include the famous Mount Toubkal (4167m), the highest peak in North Africa and my target for this little expedition.

The planned trek & summit route

The planned trek & summit route

Reached after a two hour drive across the Moroccan plains on the back of an overnight in Marrakech my adventure really begins with a strenuous five hour hike up to the Neltner Refuge (Base Camp) which at just over 3200m is strategically placed for a good summit bid the following day.

However, to fit this trek and climb into the two days I’ve allocated myself (Marrakech to Marrakech) I must make my ascent to the summit from the Neltner Refuge in the early hours of Sunday morning, return to the roadhead at the village of Imlil upon descent and then transfer back to Marrakech within a single, long, hot and strenuous day. Take into account the altitude, a mountain summit and a hard trek through the rough foothills of the Atlas and I’m sure you’ll agree that I have a really challenging adventure on my hands!

The long weekend, although short and tough, will also hopefully offer me something else, a chance to experience some of the delights of Morocco and the High Atlas Mountains – a world far removed from my own pampered western existence. From the colourful souks of Marrakech, with their vendors of spices, carpets and leather goods, to the pretty stone-built villages of the Berber people, I hope this will be Morocco at its most authentic and I can’t wait to get the travelling and adventure underway!

Be sure to follow live on the map that I’ve set up on the TrackMyTour page where I will be updating my position with live Tweets from the field augmented with Photo’s and GPS positions etc.

I leave on the 6th June. Trip reports and photos upon my safe return.

James