On top of the world
We set off at 3 am, Omar my guide and I, meeting in the unromantic car park at the bottom of Imlil and heading off into the romantic blackness of the night lit by a thousand stars and a luminous full moon. In the silence and darkness, the river roared and crashed hard onto the rocks beneath us.
Before I started my training for the Everest Trail Race, I had told myself that IF I could do Imlil-Toubkal-Imlil in a day, then I would be ready. Mount Toubkal in a day means covering a distance of 37km with 2,390 metres of ascent and the same again of descent and coping with a maximum altitude of 4,167 metres. Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa and this would be my sixth time up it. I vividly remembered the first time and how badly my legs hurt by the end of it.
But this was a new night, and the air was fresh as the moonlight lit my path. I felt like the richest woman in the world.
As we started to climb and the peaks closed around us, I switched my head torch on and the world shrank to a pool of light. My feet crunched down on the earth and I skipped to avoid the beetles and spiders that scuttled away from the torch glare. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mouse’s tail disappear under a rock.
The walk up to the refuge is relatively easy, even though you cover 13km and climb 1390m and we reached it just as dawn broke, lighting up every stone and blade of grass on the mountain.
We stopped for a quick glass of tea and some bread and cheese and then were off to tackle the hard part. The ascent from the refuge to the top is around 5km in distance and goes up just shy of 1000m. You start off crossing a rock field brought down in landslides and then climb up through the boulders. Past that is the scree and here it was time to stop and get the crampons out. Snow had been falling for a month and the path was sheer ice pockmarked with crampon holes.
I did a mental stock check: Legs? Present and feeling good. Breathing? Easy no altitude problems. Morale? A long pause… Morale? Agh! Will it never end? I’ve been climbing for what feels like decades and the ridge is miles away. I will never do Everest at this rate and I’m too slow, this is a nightmare.
And that is where the problem always lies, the voices in my head telling me I can’t do it and that it is too hard. Sometimes, I find myself shouting, “Shut up!” out loud, which can be bemusing to those around me. But help was at hand in this instance, the universe had sent me some comfort.
A warm, wet, furry muzzle stuck itself into my hand, followed by the rest of a little, local dog, squirming with pleasure and making every effort to befriend me by jumping up and licking my face. She must have belonged to the refuge as she was well fed and used to humans. She only stayed with us for a while before it got too high and she headed home but it was enough to change the mental dialogue.
The ridge was reached and the Atlas swirled up ahead, spread out under the rushing clouds. They were dark and heavy with snow and Omar and I pressed on for the last push up to the triangle that marks the peak. Everyone else was descending by this point, having started out from the refuge early that morning. Omar obviously felt his reputation was at risk for being too slow, because he pointedly informed every guide we met that we had set out from Imlil that morning. He also asked for the weather further up and I heard one guide say, ‘Khatar’, ‘Danger’, but we still had time so we carried on.
Somehow, I was surprised when I saw the triangle. It appeared and we had arrived. I hugged Omar and we took our pictures, but there was no time to waste. The snow had started and we had to get down.
The descent from Toubkal is always difficult. In the summer it is dry and the stones act like marbles underfoot; in deep snow you have the energy sap of the crampons; but I can safely say that when it is snowing and turning to sleet, it is truly treacherous. Omar wanted to avoid the ice on the way down so we headed straight onto a slope scattered with head-sized stones. Descending in these conditions forces one hundred per cent concentration and I didn’t even see the guy below us until he called up.
Rob was from the UK and had started a bit late from the refuge. He was alone and even though he was relatively near the top, he took the excellent decision to turn back and descend with us. The snow was falling persistently and visibility was down. Every year people die on Toubkal. It is a difficult mountain and the descent is just waiting to trip you up.
Rob’s company alleviated the stress of concentrating on every footfall and it was a treat for me to meet someone from my own country and culture.
‘Omar, Omar, ma tb3ad minee,’ was my never-ending refrain – Omar, don’t go too far from me. On the really hard bits, I was happy to grab his hand or shoulder. Even then, I went down three times, and added to my bottom’s bruise collection.
At last, the refuge, another glass of tea and the last of the bread and cheese shared with our new friend, Rob, as well as an adventure food sticky toffee pudding. It was two years past its sell by date but was still fine and all three of us chewed it down. I dread to think what preservatives they use. Tasted good though.
We said goodbye to Rob, who looked very happy about the fact he didn’t have another 13km to go, and walked out into the snow. I ran a good part of the way down, only stopping to be cautious over the bigger rocks and steps. My legs felt not bad and I wanted to be back. Omar tempted me with a ride on his friend’s mule who was with us by this stage but I resisted.
The last 3km were awful. Not for any reason, they were relatively easy and downhill, but purely because I had had enough and grumbled to myself the whole way. Omar kept saying, it is only a little way now as he heard me heaving noisy sighs. Poor man.
17 hours after setting off and with at least seven of those in snow, I climbed up the steps to my house to be greeted by Squeaky the Cat demanding food. It was a bitter sweet victory. On the one hand, I was very chuffed to have done it in a day and to still feel ok, but on the other was the realisation that I will have to be a lot quicker to make the cut offs for the Everest Trail Race.
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