African Snow revisited

A late winter ascent of Djebl M’Goun (4,071m.), Atlas Mountains., Morocco 

“I want to do it again!” shouts François with a big grin on his face. Above us our ski tracks traced long curves in the spring snow while higher up the 4,000 metre peak of Djebl M’Goun we had just descended was shrouding over in wispy clouds under a deep blue sky.  Sadly, despite our best intentions, we never made it back to climb M’Goun again and right now 2011 seems not just a decade ago but a whole life time ago. Even if we wanted to travel south in this year of unprecedented snowfall from northern Europe through the Alps, across the Spanish highlands and right down to the High Atlas mountains we couldn’t get there unless we swam the Strait that divides Europe from Africa. The pandemic has not just closed down borders but also so many hopes and dreams.

AÏt Bwgmez girl on a mule

Ironically our two year preparation for swimming the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco this summer will hopefully be realised – borders or no borders the international rights of passage on the oceans are still free. However I won’t be risking braving the Moroccan border patrols – we’ll be touching land under the shadow of Djebl Musa before being whisked back in a launch to the Spanish mainland. Returning to Morocco under my own steam – swimming – will just add to the personal collection of travels in Morocco. I’ve hiked, climbed, ice climbed, 4×4’d, mountain biked, strolled, skied and shortly will be able to add swimming to my varied North African experiences.

Duncan with Arouss ruin

I was reminded of the 2011 trip a couple of years ago when I travelled with a group of friends and my daughters down to Marrakesh.  We crossed the Tizi n’Tichka, camped overnight at the great Glaoui fortress at Telouet, scoffed dates in the Skoura oasis and headed in to the south facing foothills of Djebl M’Goun, Morocco’s second highest mountain. The valleys were green with autumn wheat and there was still melt water rushing through the gulleys from the peaks above. From the south in the early autumn warmth the mountain looked bare and scorched. We rode mules through remote gorges and drank mint tea on a camp fire. “Daddy, was it very cold up there?” asked Maria after I’d pointed out the silhouette of M’Goun high above. “Sure” I replied. “Very cold, but the wind was far more dangerous than the cold”…

From my journal – Tuesday 5th. April 2011

Evening. Tarkeddit Plateau, Djebl M’Goun, Central High Atlas 6º30’56.5”W  31º31’53.69”N

We came over the top of the Passage de Aghouri in some of the worst winds I have experienced on a mountain. Battered and bruised by our duel with the elements we are now huddled around the log stove of the Tarkeddit Refuge, my feet in a pair of clapped out sandals warming in the gentle heat. Abdellah, the guardien, hauls all the wood up here on his back from Oumskyk Col or from wherever the mules can get to. The heat is all the more precious when the effort in getting it here is so intense.

In Arouss this morning there was a stiff breeze as we loaded up the mules, I wanted to hold back our departure for another day but we had already waited three days while the mountain cleared it’s cloak of dense cloud above us. However François and Duncan were itching to go and François being an obsessive sort of character just went on and on and out of sheer obstincay got his way. We’d had the previous year an appalling couple of days doing a winter traverse of the Penibetico mountains in southern Spain. Complete white outs on treacherous paths, avalanche risk, equipment failure, an overnight bivouac in a storm. This time, I told François, it’s going to be a gentle climb up a friendly mountain. Of course it wasn’t.

Crossing the Arouss river the mules dip their little feet without scarcely a ripple as we jump from stone to stone trying to keep our feet dry. The spring thaw hasn’t yet started but soon it will bring boulders crashing along the gorges and making this path almost unpassable. As we climb the sky seems to drop lower, looking up I can see the crags shrouded in billowing snow while the wind kicks up little whirlwinds of dust on the trail

Ahead of us a huddle of Atlas mountain dwellings with flat roofs and mud walls stand angular amongst a tier of small plateaus where vigorous sprouts of spring wheat poke up through the well maintained fields. This is hard land to till, ploughed by mules and sown by hand a testament to the hardy lives of the mountain berbers who have lived here for millenia. The pylons have yet to make it this far up the valley so this is a fairly medieval existence.

Two small girls wave to us across the field; grubby faces, tangled auburn hair, perfect white teeth, ragged clothing, shy smiles. We unload one of the mules and take out remnants of the toys we’d distributed lower down the valley. My daughters discarded  dolls will find a new home in these austere hills. If nothing else  remembering the joy on those kids faces makes the whole trip worthwhile. This morning they would have woken up to their usual lives to have it utterly transformed by the magical appearance of our presents. Charity here usually consists of endless balnkets and cast off clothing but we decided to focus directly on bringing some instant happiness to the mountain childrens lives. It quite upsets me when I think of how spoilt my own two girls are – I’ve never seen them look so happy with a gift. 

We trek on up the valley, the girls follow us for a while until the path narrows and the flinty ground hurts their bare feet. I’ve also given them some shoes and boots but they haven’t put them on. The muleteer Ahmed looks enviously at the little brown sheepskin boots and I feel a bit guilty about not offering him a gift too. The distant highest buildings are the last in the Arouss valley and after another half hour of meandering paths we come to a stone enclosure with a baaing flock of long tailed tawny sheep. This is the hamlet of Azib Ikkis a huddle of impoverished dwellings, the last habitation before the trail leads on sharply on to even harder sparse ground and steep paths before the Oumzyk pass. 

A gap toothed shepherd wearing a grey woollen djellaba greets us with a cautious ‘salaam’. His qob is up covering his head against the chill. He seems reluctant to talk, very few trekking parties come through here and none have been through since the autumn a few months ago. I ask if there are any ‘enfants’, the very last of our gifts we plan to leave right here. The last two days of repose have given us plenty of time to research the basic map of the valley we have and carrying a Barbie to 4,000m. was never part of the plan. After some gentle cajoling from Ahmed a gaggle of 3 to 10 year olds appear. Bedraggled but smiling they crowd together pushing each other boistrously as we offload more goodies. A plastic handbag for the girl, Duncan gives them each a pencil, more shoes, some fleeces, a fluffy little elephant for the smallest boy, a wooden puppet for the oldest girl. All are taken with intense happiness and laughter and as I looked up for approval from the father he was quietly wiping away a tear.

Two hours later we are in the eye of the storm. Ahmed has reluctantly carried on another 200 vertical metres above what we’d agreed (the first snow line) but now the narrow path has completely dissappeared under a wash of gusting snow. We unload the mules, pull on another layer of fleeces and zip up our jackets tight against our chins. Ahmed turns the mules around and although it is now only midday, a clear 4 hrs. since leaving Arouss, the sky seems to be darkening overhead threatening fresh snow and more wind. The mules slip silently away down the mountain, their hooves muffled in the snow.

There’s enough snow to ski uphill now so we change out of our walking boots into our stiffer touring boots, peel our skins apart and prepare for the long climb to the Oumzky Superior col at 3.400m. Our packs weigh 25kg., we have no idea whether we’ll find the Refuge open so just as in 1993 (when I did the same climb in May and perfect weather with my brother Justin) we are carrying everything minus the kitchen sink. Back then the Refuge Tarkedirt was a ruin so we camped on the plateau, the mules carrying our tents and supplies right up to the snow line at the foot of Djebl M’Goun where it drops on to the Tarkeddirt plateau. No such pleasure this time. The wind is whipping us at over 50km/h. and our overheavy sacks with a weeks worth of food, gas, tent and climbing equipment seem to drag us back down the valley.

How much can you fit in a rucksack? Try this for size!

I stop very soon to put on harscheisen (crampons that fit between the boot and the ski) to stop me from slipping backwards as the fresh snow is stopping the skins from gaining traction. The wind picks up and blinding spindrift whips off the rocks against my face. Duncan is booting up the face, crampons on, after a problem with his bindings. François has overtaken me, skinning cautiously ahead on the steep terrain. It’s impossible to see the Col so the only way is up while trying to keep each other in sight but realistically we are all desperate to climb higher and reach the Col (and then find shelter on the other side) before the weather worsens. 

I’m gingerly crossing over an icy lip on a young cornice when a strong gust knocks me over. My arms flail for balance, my lower ski which has almost no purchase slips and my downhill ski pole bites the air due to the height difference of the wind lip. Below me is a sheer 300m. slide on steep hard snow in the gulley on to rocks. A flash of François reminding us only 10 minutes before how over exposed we were came to mind. The wind has risen and gusting gale force as I fall on to my uphill side while my harscheisen are almost losing their tenuous hold on the ice. My hand has lost its grip of my pole and my mitt is scrabbling for purchase. The buffeting wind and my heavy pack dragging me backwards.

By lucky chance and no time to draw my ice axe all my weight fell on to my left side and the jagged blade grabbed the ice. An our earlier when loading the rucksack by the mules I had forgotten to attach my ice axe to the back of my sack so rather than offloading again I simply pushed it in to my left side tucked between the webbing belt and my jacket. This is what saved me. My heart was pounding, my breath gulping, the sting of icy shards rasped my face. I somehow found some hold with my lower ski and pushed myself over the lip, tiny as it was it had almost sent me to my doom. I carefully hauled myself over to a nearby rock to sort out my equipment but it was too small to really afford any protection. François later calculated the wind at 10bf, about 70km/h. Whatever the wind it was 8bf. more than I would have liked! I cursed myself for giving in to the other two and their zeal for getting to the top a day early.

For now though I am till on very steep ground, unable to move forward on skis due to the danger of the wind pushing me over due to my narrow skis and top heavy stance. Traversing here is not an option. I need to take the fastest route straight up but need to get my skis off and my crampons out to do so. My perch seems perilous, overexposed in the high wind and steep terrain below me with jagged rocks ready to receive me in their jaws. I’ve had worse of course, steep has never scared me as much as it probably should but never in such conditions. 

I offload my rucksack and belay it by hammering the shaft of my ice axe as deep as possible in to the snow. We we’re not using harnesses or even carrying rope as there are no glaciers and therefore no crevasse risk on M’goun. I take my skis off being very careful to attach them straight to the rucksack, so they won’t get blown off the mountain. The snow is piling up around me, in just a few minutes my back pack is almost completely drowned so sitting on it I manage to fit my crampons then attach my poles to the side straps next to the skis. My fingers are freezing with the effort (my crampons aren’t modern clip-ins but old fashioned straps with buckles, the sort of thing Edmund Hillary might have used in the 1950’s). It takes at least 10 minutes of cold numbing effort to fit them with the wind piling up the snow around me filling every seam. On two occasions the wind almost flattens me again as I start cramponing up the hill, ice axe in hand in case of another fall.

I can just hear Duncan and François shouting as I near the Col, I have no idea where they are, I’ve just taken the shortest possible route up. Eventually we find each other and rest behind the shelter of a large rock, our ears still ringing with the shriek of the wind we’ve endured for the last 2 hours. We adjust our kit, eat some chocolate and using an old fashioned compass (yup, no GPS in the storm and we’re not carrying a Garmin anyway) we head south west over snowblown ground hoping we’ll find the trail at some point. The wind drops on this side of the ridge but as we walk a slow blizzard settles in covering the ground in centimetres of snow diminishing any hope of finding the meagre path. 

A new threat falls on us as huge rolls of thunder peal out across M’goun, the last thing we want is to be caught out in an electrical storm on the plateau so we shove our crampons  further down our bags but our skis and poles are still at the mercy of the lightning gods. We hasten on quickening our steps as the storm glowers over us. I vaguely remember the terrain from being here 10 years ago and within an hour of the Col we see the low dark hulk of the Refuge Takkedirt looming out of the snow storm.

Aaaah the bliss of finding the Refuge door open! To our complete surpise the ‘guardien’ is here, the taciturn Abdellah Laarassi who fires up the wood burning stove and prepares for us of course the ubiquitous mint tea heavily laden with sugar. We smile, he sort of smiles and we relax in to a happy warm drowse as the blizzard  slowly clears outside.

Tomorrow, just as I’d predicted, will be clear and windless.

Back in Vejer 

My journal slows down at this point, I succumbed to a stomach bug the day after the storm that rendered me completely hopeless. We rested a couple of days while I lolled in my sleeping bag sweating away in the damp freezing cold of the refuge. Finally although I was feeling weak and bedraggled we decided to push on, food would run low soon and another bad weather front might be on the horizon. François and Duncan cajoled me in to an early start and loaded with Ibuprofen I hauled myself up the long climb to the 4,017m. peak. 

Summit of M’Goun with François holding the white horse we found in our rucksack which made it all the way from a toy cupboard in Vejer to the top of the Atlas mountains. We gave it to Abdellah for one of his children.

It wasn’t so tough, not as tough as our 4 hour sojourn with the storm and after 6 hours of skiing and climbing with me following Duncan and François’s trail we succesfully summitted M’goun with it’s majestic views over lush green valleys watered with snow melt fading in to the sandstone red of the sub-Sahara. To the west we could just see the peak of Djebl Toubkal poking out of the High Atlas. 

Finally our reward, always short lived but always the greatest prize after the trials of a few days climbing in the mountains – our descent. Perfect spring snow on a mountain unskiied this year and maybe next year too. The pleasure of well executed turns, the rush of air and the freedom of speed, so much better for the company of friends.