Following on from a successful trip this summer, PVP kindly offered to lead another trip to Mt Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, this time under winter conditions. Two D of E groups, the two leaders, our assessor, and MRJ (who joined us under his own steam) met up early on the first Monday of the Christmas break to catch the flight to Marrakech. Smooth logistics whisked us efficiently to our hotel, giving us time to buy local supplies for the trek and have a brief foray into the labyrinthine souk, prior to supper and an early bed.
The following morning a minibus transported us out to the road-head at Imlil, where those without axes and crampons picked up hire kit before heading off on the first leg of the trek up to the Refuge de Toubkal at 3207m. The views and the altitude combined to take our breath away in an all too literal fashion, making bed in the shared buns room at only eight thirty seem a perfectly reasonable option.
A cold start the next morning saw a bit of faffing as fingers fumbled with unfamiliar crampon bindings, but the two groups eventually set off, aiming to reach a high pass and 4000m. On the way safe and efficient use of axe and crampons were taught and the opportunity for a little icy scrambling (as well as snow angels!) taken. We were all grateful for our hot mint tea on arrival back at the refuge, followed by an excellent chicken tagine and, again, an early bed.
Summit day dawned, if anything even colder than the previous morning, with water freezing in bottles and the use of “camel backs” impossible. The route to the top of Toubkal started steep and never seemed to ease off until the summit cairn eventually came into view. In summer the path is mostly loose scree, but under winter conditions it was covered with hard packed ice and deep, soft, snow, which in in some ways is easier to negotiate. Everyone in the party made it to the top (4167m) and collapsed, drinking in the views back to Marrakech and out towards Algeria and the rusty haze of the Sahara. The clear blue of the cloudless sky and the crystalline clarity of the atmosphere reinforced the idea that we were on the highest point in North Africa. A slow decent allowed us to linger in the sun, before returning to the glacial blue shadow of the valley floor.
Our steps were retraced to Imlil, with the downhill gradient allowing stops to be made at the local Berber craft stalls for souvenirs and freshly squeezed orange juice. Our assessor, Caz, took the opportunity to have one to one chats on the way down, and announced that she was very happy to pass everyone on this section of their award. Emboldened by previous experience, the final evening in Marrakech was taken up with a night time foray (with adult chaperone) back into the souk. Despite, several tempting offers (I was bid 8,000 camels for one individual) everyone was gathered back in by the appointed hour and our flight home caught without incident.
This made a very different kind of expedition to the usual D of E trip. The experience was just as valid, and despite more help than customary when under assessment (due to the remote and difficult environment), the groups were all definitely challenged and pushed well beyond their comfort zones. Many congratulations to all concerned for successfully completing a tough trek, with great spirit and such a wonderfully positive attitude.
Many thanks to PVP for organising and leading this trip and to Caz (Miss Caroline Hatchell) for assessing the candidates. I can also genuinely say how hugely I enjoyed my group’s company on the hill – something which is not always possible!