Drama in the High Atlas
It had all started out so well. Nouri (of Epic Morocco) and I had got up at just after 3 am and were breakfasted and out on Mount Toubkal by 4.30am. A beautiful night with the stars shining brightly and the Milky Way unfurling above us.
Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa at 4,167m and I have wanted to climb it since I saw it in 2008 when I was doing the trans-Atlas traverse on the mountainbike with Charlie Shepherd and a dozen others.
Crampons and an ice axe were absolute necessities and the beginning of the climb from the refuge (3,207 metres) was fiercely steep and really challenging. My legs felt like little short stumps as I bashed my crampons in at every step to get purchase. An hour into the climb, I was starting to feel more confident and thought I had pretty well sorted my crampon gait but not according to Nouri – “legs wider, legs wider” He was obviously imagining the dreaded trouser catch and subsequent tumble down several hundred metres……
He’s a merciful man though and I was allowed a sit down on a big rock and eat a Bounty half way up to the first pass. The dawn was breaking and it was stunning, fingers of pink stretching out through the peaks. The sun took another hour to come out and hit us just as we were about to reach the pass.
From there, it was crampons off as we got to the scree. The gradient had loosened off a bit and the climb was lighter. Just one really nasty section which was a traverse from right to left across snow and boulders with a vertiginous drop to the side. “I don’t like this, Nouri, I don’t like this.”
Until then, we had been the only folk on the mountain, but just at that point two young Moroccan men cheerfully passed us.
The final metres trudge to the top. I felt great, I’d done it at last and no altitude sickness at all. Bright sunshine, La Vache Qui Rit and bread on our own private picnic ledge and a heart stopping 360 view of the High Atlas.
But all good picnics come to an end and we started back down the scree. Within half an hour the two lads bounded past us – Nouri called out to follow the paths and watch their legs, but they were on a high and weren’t listening.
150 metres later, disaster struck. One of them tripped and flipped right over landing on his face. I watched it happen and felt sick with fear. Nouri covered the distance to him in about 45 seconds – it took me another 20 minutes. The boy was lying like a rag doll, unconscious, sprawled and bleeding on the slope and his friend was distraught.
Nouri saved him. He got him into the recovery position, bandaged up his head and got a foil blanket and then my down jacket on him. By the time I got there, the boy (Ibrahim) was conscious but thrashing around and Nouri and I tried to support his head and stop him bashing himself. Nouri got some water and sugar into him but he vomited it straight up. By incredibly good luck, he didn’t appear to have any fractures – when I saw him fall, I thought he’d broken his neck.
At last, a second mountain guide appeared on the horizon and ran down when he saw what had happened. So, there we were on the mountain with a barely conscious boy who was alternately throwing himself around and lying as limp as a rag doll, with no phone reception, air ambulance or any way off except on foot. There was only one option and Nouri and his fellow guide got Ibrahim on his feet between them and started carrying him down.
It was amazing to watch – they were so quick and sure footed even when they were sinking thigh deep in the snow which had now softened under the strength of the sun. They were quickly way ahead of me as I made my tentative way down. I am not that confident in the snow and having just seen such a horrible fall did NOT improve my courage. Two and a half hours later, I saw the refuge and Nouri walking back up to me – the man is a machine!
When I got to the refuge, Ibrahim was lying down, looking much much better and waiting for a mule, which he was put onto and taken down to Imlil where an ambulance was waiting to take him to the hospital in Marrakech.
Lucky, lucky boy that Nouri was so close to him when he fell, and a reminder that mountains have to be treated with respect and caution!
For me, there was still a long long way to go as we were going on to Imlil and Douar Samra that day. The full walk is 38km, and by the end of it my legs were screaming. We were late due to all the drama but set off in good spirits and the walk down was truly beautiful, following the valleys and gorges with the sun bouncing off the mountains and then deepening into the evening light.
The next few hours passed in a blur – a mixture of pleasure at the beauty of the place, teaching Nouri nationalistic Scottish songs, and pain as I thumped down and down and down over the rocky ground.
At quarter to nine, we finally got to the last and final set of rocky steps up to the guest house. Nirvana! Fluffy blankets, a fire in my bedroom and big fat cushions for my achy legs. Mohammed and Rashida had saved me supper and even brought it to my room because I was too knackered to tackle the steps back up to the dining room.
So, the love affair with Morocco continues. Fun, energy, beauty and a hint of danger are pretty irresistible.
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I travelled with www.epicmorocco.co.uk – brilliant!