Climbing the Atlas Mountains

GUEST ENTRY: PETE BELL

Atlas Mountains. Morocco 2012-08-14

As an ex soldier with a few operational tours under my belt, you would expect id be fine travelling alone. Well back then i was given a rifle to travel with, this time i was determined to have an unarmed adventure.

My main hobby being trekking and, having spent an age browsing magazines and websites for somewhere to go, i decided on the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I’d always said I’d climb Mount Toubkal, (highest in North Africa) but the plan had been to do it with friends. Until now that is. I took advice from a number of people on how, when, and what to do. Ultimately, the best piece of advice I was given came from Hayley. “ just book a flight and go Pete, work the rest out when you land” having looked at the vast places H has visited, (alone on a number of occasions) i decided she was right.

After 2 days of searching for the best price, I found booking through “Trail Finders” in Birmingham was offering the most competitive price, a mere £290, so with the flight booked I had to now figure out what injections I’d need. I’m not going to bore you with details of the amount of running around it took because all my inoculations were out of date ( Note to self – get fully vaccinated for everything for the next trip) and I’d left it to the last minute, but i will advise you to sort them way in advance. Next came the shopping, having read a few different sites about the conditions on Toubkal, I went for worst case scenario and bought high altitude gear. This will obviously keep for my Everest expedition at Easter, so not wasted, however wouldn’t be needed for this trip.

I flew from Manchester after a bad start having to pack, unpack and repack my bag and day sack at the airport because i was 1.7 lb over the limit, and was not prepared to pay their excess fee of £60 !

When I landed in Marrakech, the heat hit me straight away, and it was late afternoon / early evening. I exited the airport with no idea of what i was going to do or where i was going to stay. I was approached immediately by a taxi driver, i guess he could tell what I was here to do just by the equipment i was carrying, because he assured me I’d be given the best price to go straight to a hotel in Imlil village (The gate way to the mountains) his offer was 1000 Dirham….not likely mate, “ I’ll give you 700”, to which he almost ripped my hand off !

By now the sun was setting over the vast open scrubland, It was stunning to watch the sun fall from the sky as quickly as we moved along in the banged up old Mercedes. I think Marrakech must have gotten a deal on a job lot of mercs as they were everywhere! Unfortunately the drivers were a law unto themselves and at one stage after warning the driver to be careful; I had a fleeting memory of the roads in Bosnia and thought to myself….I was safer with mortars being fired at me over there!

I arrived at a hotel (chosen by my driver) which was located in Imlil village, which is the main starting point for walkers who intend to climb Mount Toubkal (Highest in North Africa – standing at 4,167meters). I had an early night after planning my route with the hotel manager for a 6 night expedition.

I woke fairly early the following morning, due to the heat more than anything else. I was introduced to my guide “Mohamed”. After packing the mule, we set off at 0900 hours, following the main road/track out of Imlil into the Atlas Mountains. After a long 6 hour walk up a concrete road we reached a small lean to on the side of the mountain, “this is where we stay for the night” I was told, after pitching my tent i lay reading for a while. With it being Ramadan, Mo was asleep within 20mins, so i decided togo for a short run across the valley into a neighbouring village. 2 hours later I got back to my tent having summated the mountain on the other side of the valley and jogging back through the village. What a mistake that turned out to be, it was the start of heat sores on my feet. At that I decided I’d relax every afternoon when we finished walking. After an afternoon siesta I woke to find the sun was starting to set, so out came the camera and tripod. I have to admit ive never seen the sun drop from the sky as fast as it did, but i managed to get some quality pics.

After a difficult nights sleep, I woke to meet a Canadian guy travelling alone had pitched his tent next to mine. We chatted for a while, and I found he was an experienced walker. He fascinated me with his stories of Everest and other famous mountains I intend to climb. This was to be the start of a good but short lived friendship, and I was worried about not finding anyone to talk to beside Mo.

Todays accent almost killed me, it was my first experience of altitude sickness. Becoming very light headed and finding it difficult to breath, I was forced to stop every 50 meters or so to acclimatise, making what should have been a 3 hour climb take 4.5 hours. Unbelievably, a young teenager sat at the top selling bottles of coke, which I had to participate in ! Apparently he walks up there every day to sell coke to walkers. Hats off to the lad, that’s all I’ll say. Another 2 hours descent through beautiful country side we reached a small encampment where we would be staying. A beautiful setting by the river, at the foot of a rocky incline. I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon chatting to locals about the construction work they were carrying out, all in the name of tourism. And found myself wondering how the old men could just curl up in a make shift shelter and sleep their lives away, guess it was lack of nutrition from the fasting.

The following morning started at 0400 hours before sun rise, it was that dark we were walking with head torches on, a little concerning with the assent we were about to undertake. After a long hard walk we reached the summit, much to my relief, but then Mo informed me we had an hours walk down to the lake, but it was worth all the effort, to wash swim and soak for an hour, Bliss. The remainder of the expedition was much the same except for 2 massive descents, a 6 hour walk out in the open, not a single piece of shade, my thermometer reading plus 50, i had to clad myself in full length clothing to stop burning. The 2nd being after a super fast ascent of Mount Toubkal itself, i felt like i was running up the bloody thing, and then back down.

On the long descent out of the mountains Mo invited me to visit his home and his family; obviously I jumped at the chance. We reached his village and home after about 6 hours walking, my feet now bleeding from where the hot spots had evolved into blisters, and the blisters giving way to open sores. All I wanted to do was remove my boots. I was amazed at Mo’s home, a true eye opener of how well off we are here at home, taking so many simple things for granted, like electricity….and walls !Mo explained that he had been building his home over approx 8 years, buying a few bricks when he had the money to purchase the bricks. His wife prepared some snacks and tea for me, feeling guilty I declined the snacks, as none of them could join me. After a short stay and a few pics we set off on the last leg of the expedition, a short downhill walk taking only an hour.

Arriving back in Imlil I had only 25mins to shower, sort my kit out and eat before the taxi arrived to take me to spend my last night in Marrakech. This was going to be an experience I will never want again. I booked into the hotel, and went for a walk round the town square, with an hour I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with the market traders and guides (a term I use loosely) the constant insults when you refuse to purchase their goods, the swearing and name calling because I didn’t want a guide to lead me across the road was too much for me, I just wanted to be back in the mountains where I was comfortable. I decided to take the advice of my trusty Canadian friend and find the hotel tache, the only place I’d get a cold beer. And in there I stayed until about midnight. The following day was just as bad in Marrakech, people following and trying to convince me to buy small box’s with wooden snakes in for the equivalent of about £30 !!!

Marrakech, would i ever return ?

Yes, to get a taxi back to Imlil, the door way to the Atlas Mountains, a truly beautiful but difficult mountain range, where you can lose yourself in your thoughts for hours, whilst grafting your socks off. Great altitude training if you have an event coming up.

Would i want to spend time in Marrakech itself ?

Never again !