Snow, Sun and... Belly dancers
We nearly didn’t fly from Gatwick on the first day, fog on the drive to our early morning flight was horrendous and it was only after we’d landed in Marrakesh that we found out flights had been delayed or postponed! The drive to Imlil through the mountains is always exciting, often mixed with nervous anticipation, especially this year. There had been considerable snow fall over the past few months and in recent weeks, so whilst the forecast for our week was pretty near perfect, who knew what the actual conditions underfoot would be like.
I’d been joined by seven folk and my good friend Pete for a winter walking trip into the High Altas, the plan was to base ourselves at the fantastic Mouflons hut at 3200m for a number of days and see how we felt and perhaps try to summit Toubkal and some of the other surrounding peaks.
An afternoon of relaxing in Imlil and sorting kit out for the start of the ascent was helped by copious amounts of mint tea and gazing out at the fresh falling snow. A sociable start to the next day saw us take a slow seven hour gradual walk up to the hut. The snow was deep from the start, the sun blazing, blue skies gave us incredible views across the mountains, a cracking welcome to the Atlas. Sometime after lunch, the sky went dark, the visibility dropped and we spent a good hour or so in a friendly North African snow shower. It seemed the Mouflons staff team all came out to welcome us as we arrived and literally brush us down from all the snow - I’ve never had a floor brush used like that before! It was lovely to see some familiar faces and we soon settled into Moroccan hut life of mint tea, cheesy triangles, bread, warm fires, cold bedrooms, hot showers (hugely improved from previous years!), gin rummy and lights out at 10pm!
It was still overcast the next morning, so we headed up into the valley behind the hut to gain a little more height, allow our bodies to adjust to the altitude and refresh some winter skills on route, well that was the plan…..Trail breaking was the main skill of the day practised, I’d had enough after about 200m and deployed some real tactical faff for the rest of the day….which seemed to work. We checked a few slopes around us and there was quite an alarming amount of unstable snow conditions on different aspects, as well as the obvious recent large avalanche debris in the valley. This was going to be interesting…
One of the team had woken up to more than the expected light headache and sleepless night and had stayed behind in the hut, further rest, eased things slightly, unfortunately not enough and plans were put in place to descend in the morning. With the current conditions underfoot, the rest of the team decided whilst we had relatively fresh legs to attempt Toubkal the next day.
An early start loomed, getting out of a warm sleeping bag and walking up a 1000m frozen mountain in -10/15’c temps really wasn’t very appealing, even less so with the thought of eating cheesy triangles for breakfast, it seemed like such a good idea a year ago when I first mentioned it to some folk! So while we set off, Pete descended with the team member who had been unwell the previous day, later that day they arrived in Marrakech feeling significantly much better and enjoyed the delights of the city for the rest of the trip.
Conditions were ideal for the ascent, a gorgeous sunrise gave us a little warmth and eventually we popped out into the sun, warming us up rapidly. The sky was crystal blue, the sun intense and luckily all the way up the snow conditions were almost perfect, there had been some teams who had left earlier who had put in a good trail for us. We had the summit to ourselves, this was a hugely rewarding and emotional experience for all. Perhaps one of the clearest days I’ve ever seen up there. With the journey only half complete we headed down and made good time on the descent, with the conditions we’d witnessed the day before, careful consideration was needed on some slopes. We celebrated back at the hut with mint tea and doughnuts!
It had been a long a tiring day, so we planned a more sociable start to the next day and aimed for one of the high passes, the sun was the hottest of the week and the snow conditions just looked nasty all around us, so using a favourite technical term of mine “we legged it” and spent the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere in the valley and bullying snowmen! Some of the lads decided to see if they could tunnel down to Middle Earth……
Our decision to assess the snow conditions carefully and turn around was highlighted by the news on our return to the hut of a climbing team being avalanched not 500m from where we had been, luckily with only some superficial injuries, a sobering reminder of the tricky conditions.
Muhammed and Hussein had looked after us all week, dealt with all our regular shower requests -“ if it’s not hot…”, fed us like Kings and generally were superb hosts and so with much hugging and thank you’s we headed back down to Imlil on the hottest day of the week, the temperature can only be described as melting.
On arrival at our Riad we quickly drained the water tank of every drop of hot water and got into our party clothes. No trip to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the night market in Jemma El Fnna for food, so off we wandered and feasted on the delights followed by shopping for Christmas presents in the Medinas. A beer or two, a hubby bubbly pipe and belly dancers followed…..
I have three simple rules on these trips, stay safe, enjoy it and maybe summit a peak - in that order too. It’s always fantastic and often a privilege to stand on the highest point around you, but the shared journey towards that objective is more important to me. A trip is made up of individuals, we all come from different corners of life, all uniquely rich in our own worlds, drop us into a rich culture and the laughter, sights, pain, smells, frustrations, tiredness, success, friendships that we’ve all shared will stay with us forever. These experiences are more valuable than any mountain….as once famously said “they will always be there”.
Simply a wonderful trip in the company of wonderful people…..