Climbing Mt Toubkal

 

This was an important climb for me – a goal which I was not sure I’d be able to achieve.

I had been hankering after another mountain after my first adventure, climbing Mt Aspiring in New Zealand in 2013. It had been a great trip but we had been locked out of the summit by bad weather and so there was “unfinished business” to be addressed. I came across the Toubkal ascent on Facebook and after reading the write up decided that it would fit the bill. It’s a grade 2 climb, not technical but requiring a reasonable level of fitness. I contacted Jamie, CEO of Exped Adventure, and we got on easily immediately. I explained that I had MS, which I have suffered for over 40 years (yes, that makes me old too), and we chatted about what that meant in terms of mountaineering. We agreed that I’d be ok to climb, discussing the potential to have an extra guide dedicated to me if the group was large, and I booked in.

The first step in the expedition was a briefing up at Exped HQ in Staveley where I met Jamie, one of his guides Sam, and a bunch of clients who were on a variety of expeditions. It turned out that the group for Toubkal was going to be small. Just Imogen, a young doctor, and me, with a guide named Tracey who was based in Switzerland. Jamie’s knowledge of kit, conditions and planning was impressive and we spent a pleasant day soaking up the information and finishing with a hike up the local hills (Was that just a test to see if we would expire on the first incline?)

Flights to Marrakesh turned out to be expensive – it was half term and not having children I was blissfully unaware until I came to book! The airport was crowded and queues for immigration long so I was glad to be through the melee and be greeted by a driver who took me to the gates of the Medina. The hostel where we were to stay was deep within the narrow alleyways of the Medina and so my baggage was transferred to a cart and a man hired to push it to the hostel. The hostel was a peaceful oasis, basic, but clean and quiet, and I was allocated to an 8 bed dorm for our overnight stay. By evening Imogen and Tracey arrived and we spent the evening wandering the souks and finding a place to eat. The following day a man with a cart arrived at the hostel and once again we dodged through the alleyways to a rendezvous outside the Medina with our driver for the journey up to Imlill from where we would start our trek.

There had been a heavy fall of snow right across the High Atlas 3 days previously and as we arrived in Imlill we could see the effects. They brought a mule down from the hill on which our hotel was perched to carry our rucksacks and we hiked up the steep incline to follow it – the first taste of slipping and sliding in the snow. The hotel was excellent and we were given a shared room for the ladies and one for me solo. The welcome was warm and the food was impressively good.

The next day saw an early start and the first leg of the ascent. The objective was to reach Les Mouflons, the refuge at a bit above 3000m from where we would acclimatise to the altitude and launch our climb to the summit. The weather was bright and sunny as we shouldered our packs – we were carrying around 20kgs – and the steep incline to exit the village was already iced up. While there was a trail cut once we got clear of the village it had not been heavily used and so we had to pick our way carefully. I am substantially heavier than both Tracey and Imogen (no, now come on, I’m not hugely overweight it’s just that the ladies were both very light and athletic) and so with both ahead of me there we lots of occasions when they would be supported by the trail and I’d crash through to thigh deep! Hard work!! There were periods too when I felt the effects of the altitude – certainly at about 2500 – 2800m I puffed a bit and slowed. Above that I seemed to recover and the last stretch to the refuge was relatively easy. We arrived at the refuge after 8 hours, quite sunburnt – even factor 50 had not been enough – and were glad to get the packs off our backs!

We met up with Jamie at the refuge. He was leading a group of blokes on a bespoke expedition and we found that they had come up the day before us. They were all seriously impressed that we had carried our packs as they had had porters! Their crew were to set off on the ascent the next morning at 04.00. As we were all in a 20 man dorm it made of an interrupted night’s sleep! While the guys made their summit attempt Tracey, Imogen and I did a day of Mountain Skills training. Tracey is an excellent guide and her teaching showed her experience and depth of knowledge. The trip up from Imlill had fully established her credentials but the day further up the hill fully cemented our confidence in her. It also showed that Imogen was a good deal fitter than I – but I excuse myself on the basis of a 40 year age gap! As we were drinking mint tea on the terrace outside the hut that afternoon Tracey said that she thought the weather indicated that we should make a summit attempt the following day rather than wait. The boys group had succeeded but had been bitterly cold. Imogen and I glanced at each other not relishing the thought of a 04.00 start in very chilly circumstances. Tracey then said that we need not make quite such an early start and that 07.00 would do just fine! Relief!

What had been apparent over the previous two days of climbing was that my balance has been impacted by the MS to quite a high degree and so the level of concentration I have to apply to get my foot placement right is huge – particularly once I have crampons on my boots. As we sat on the terrace that afternoon I looked up at the initial ascent we would have to make – it was exceptionally steep – I said to the ladies that I wasn’t sure I was capable of making it.

Ascent day dawned and a quiet calm descended on our small group. We packed up in the dorm without a word and assembled for breakfast in our head torches. It was still dark outside and very dark in the refuge. By the time we set off first light had dawned and so the torches were not necessary. Tracey led, had me behind her and Imogen brought up the rear. That first slope was steep but as we got to the top Imogen just quietly said ” and you didn’t think you’d make it?” with a smile. Onwards we went. At points where I wobbled a bit there would be Imogen’s hand at my back to ensure my balance and Tracey was keeping the pace slow to ensure I didn’t run out of puff! We got to a point quite high when the altitude was making me feel faint and I called a halt to take a breather (one of many!). Tracey decided that my pack was too heavy and and that it was impacting my balance – “we’ll leave it here and collect it on the way down” was her decision. Great call! I immediately felt better and we made the rest of the ascent with relative ease. There’s a lesson here – Imogen had brought a day pack with her. I only had my big rucksack and it’s heavy enough without kit in it! It’s important to get your kit right.

We summited in bright sunshine – an emotional moment for me. An achievement and a signal that I won’t give in to the MS. The view from the top is amazing.

Of course the top of the mountain is only halfway in any expedition and descent is harder for me than ascent. We quickly regained the spot where we had left my pack. Tracey insisted on carrying it and hers – she is one tough lady! All I can say is that I am grateful. We got down to the refuge after a couple of tumbles from me, but in one piece save for a small puncture on my knee where a crampon spike had connected as I had performed a backward somersault (yes, the snow gave way again) No harm done… We did the final leg down to Imlill in poor weather, snow and gloom, but in good spirits and in good time (BTW, I booked a porter to take my pack down!)

So what can I say about this experience? Jamie and the team are excellent, organisation good, experience and ability excellent. Tracey, our guide, has my admiration: professional, safe, kind and supportive in an unhurried way. Imogen, my climbing partner, a delight and has my thanks for her support.

So if you are thinking about doing this, should you? Well if I, a 64 year old with MS, can then you certainly can too. The sense of achievement is high, the scenery phenomenal and it will be a memory you’ll carry forever.

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