The rescue

Apropos of nothing and by way of distraction I’m liberating some of my writings from one of my travel journals. Who would have thought that I’d be at home for a month now and confined for at least another 3 weeks – inspiration is short. More runs around the garden, swims in the pool, appreciation of birdsong and the novelty of a drink in the garden every evening watching the sunset… anything to keep my mind off the reality of the months ahead.

“Thank you James for saving my life, I didn’t realise it then but now I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you”

Motoaka Takenaka

Rereading these words at this time of grief and chaos in our lives strikes a much greater chord now than it ever did at the time. In fact I’d misplaced the scratchy little note and sketch that Moto did for me a few days after the event but seeing it again when I was researching images for this post had an unsuspected impact on me. So many health workers are saving lives every day in the most difficult circumstances. So much sacrifice and most of us are powerless to help. Life hangs on a thin thread, you wake up in the morning happy and by nightfall you are attached to a pump sucking goo out of your lungs. So it was with Moto, he woke to a perfect Atlas mountain dawn and by sunset his life was hanging on one of those very thin threads.

Rescuing Moto

From my journal – 16 March 1990

Djebl Toubkal, High Atlas, Morocco

I was in Morocco on my second reconnaissance tour of the Toubkal region, preparing for a commercial tour I was leading in April. Travelling on my own I was fit and fast and had in the previous few days summited all the 4,000m. peaks – Ouanoukirm, Tiberhine, Tadaft and Akioud and I had skied all their important couloirs. Early on the morning of the 16th. I headed for the summit of Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain. Starting off with crampons I climbed the steep face above the Neltner Refuge on hard, frozen early dawn snow. Using skis and skins I climbed another 3 hours to the summit.

April 1990, porters below the Neltner Refuge

The contrast was staggering. To the south the Anti-Atlas and Sirwa (50km. distant) poked its snow capped finger 3,350m. up out of the dusty palm of the Anti-Atlas. Beyond was the Sahara, a distant haze of greys and yellows, the mind playing tricks as wandering Tuaregs and camels rose out of the desert and climbed the long rust brown stairs of the Atlas towards me…’

Before the midday sun transformed the snow to a dangerous avalanche prone slush I skied off down the South Cwm towards the hut. From below I’d spotted a tiny couloir to the north of the Cwm and halfway down I stopped and cramponed up a rocky icy wall to the head of the gulley. From above I couldn’t see the exit as the gulley had a slight bend and even worse I couldn’t see the pitch halfway down.

‘Ghastly and more than a 45º pitch with a cocked elbow bend filled with snow rubble and ice (no sun in here!). That’ll teach me a lesson for aiming for a gap in the rocks. Well I made it but only just. Side slip, jump turn, side slip, jump turn, brakes on. Oh shit I can’t hold it, it’s getting icier, steeper, the jagged walls are closing in on me. Turn – quick – bend in the gully coming up, ice rubble, turn, better take a fast run and clear the ice blocks than smash in to the side walls. I fly out of the gulley like a cork out of a champagne bottle and skid to a stop breathing heavily just above a 100m. drop over ragged rocks.’

Somewhere on Toubkal, April 1990. Photo by Tim Booth

Back at the hut I took a picnic lunch of flat moroccan bread, sardines and triangle cheese finishing with a swirl of sweet mint tea made by Mohammed the guardien. After a 2 hr. siesta I took my skis and crampons and went for a climb up a small NE facing couloir. After a doze in the sun at the top I skied the short but steep gulley back down to the refuge.

We were seven nationalities in the Refuge that afternoon. Me, Mohamed the local guardien, Tom a German, Charlie an Italian, an Aussie, a Frenchman and a Japanese whose name I would later discover to be M0to. The only climbers were Charlie and I, the others were trekkers. Everybody had come off the mountain in good time before the sun set. The soft snow warmed by the sun although heavy going is perfectly transitable in mountain boots whereas as soon as dusk settles the snow turns to an extremely hard and slippery surface only walkable with crampons.

‘ “Le japonais il est perdú peut être” said Mohamed. We looked up the darkening mountain, the sun was long gone, the ice was set in and the ‘Japonais’ had gone up much too late with nothing but lightweight walking boots, a straw hat, one ski pole and a sweatshirt. Charlie and I discussed the options, the chances were that if he tried to come down he would slip and fall over the rock wall directly above the Refuge. If he stopped and waited till dawn he would undoubtedly die of exposure on the mountain. Mohamed was casual, I got the feeling he wasn’t worried about a potential fatality on the mountain. ‘Inshallah’ I heard him mutter a couple of times. Charlie and I decided to mount a rescue party, we togged up, ice axes in hand and crampons on and set off back up the mountain across the hardening snow. The going was heavy, the snow still soft in places and hard in others. Occasionally we crashed through up to our thighs in heavy sludge.

An hour later we were up above the most dangerous section of the Barres Rocheues. We called out vainly “Hello! Hola!”. He had last been seen by the guardien through binoculars on the second col but apparently traversing the wide slope rather than going straight down… we knew he must be found before he got above the rocks, for that would be certain death if he fell there. To our surprise we heard a shout “Here, over here!”. “Sionara!”, I shouted back, my only Japanese. By now we had our head torches on, the half light was disappearing fast. Through the gloom we spotted him a hundred metres above us sheltering under a rock. Face to face he was bewildered but very pleased to see us. He had water, he wasn’t hungry but he’d stopped because he couldn’t walk any more, the ground was too slippery. “What were you doing up there?” I asked. “Oh, you know I stopped to watch the sunset from the summit, it was very beautiful”. Beautiful but deadly.

There was no other set of crampons in the hut and as this wasn’t glacier territory neither Charlie or I had brought a rope. A big oversight. I gave Moto another ski pole and kicked steps for him in the almost solid snow and we gingerly traversed above the Barres Rocheuses. Suddenly there was a cry. Aaaarghh! The awful sound of a sliding body on rough ice and he was snatched out of our grasp by gravity. Moto was gone. “Use the sticks!” I shouted, “Roll over to your front!”. He was sliding incredibly fast and was now just short of flying over the hundred foot drop of jagged rocks yawning below us. As if by magic he stopped, he had got some grip on the ice with the poles. It had been just a few seconds but in my mind those were some very long seconds. I got to him swiftly, whacked the shaft of my long ice axe into the snow and secured his belt with a long sling and a karibiner, a bit basic but enough security to give him time to compose himself.

We now had to traverse about 20 yards over to Charlie directly above the rock bar. I set across the slope cutting steps with my ice axe for Moto to follow. My breath held, Moto was treading gingerly behind me close enough to grab my rucksack if he slipped but perhaps taking us both to disaster over the edge. With heavy breath we eventually made it on to the gentler pitch we had traversed up earlier, a fall here would just be long tumble and slide to the hut a few hundred metres below.’

I remember sleeping very well that night and left early for the valley before Moto was even awake. We had got back to the hut where the evening’s adventure and adrenaline rush had completely zonked the three of us out. I expected never to see Moto again but we met 10 days later on the Tangiers to Tarifa ferry. He was delighted to see me and to have the opportunity to thank me. He drew the picture of me I have here and inscribed one of my notebooks with some words in Japanese which at the time I couldn’t read but had translated by a Japanese lady at the Califa many many years later.

“Thank you James for saving my life, I didn’t realise it then but now I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you”