Nearing Tizi Toubkal in the South Cwm

Nearing Tizi Toubkal in the South Cwm

One of the search terms on Google that leads people to The Mountain People website is, ‘how many deaths on Toubkal due to avalanches’.

 

This might seem like an odd search initially, but it actually reflects the lack of information that we take for granted in the UK, such as the superlative Scottish Avalanche Information Service and Mountain Weather Information Service.

 

We are all used to the daily routine of consulting and poring over the current meteorological, avalanche conditions or the whereabouts of particular blackspots. However, focusing on a bodycount does seems a little odd: all mountains are dangerous, whatever the season. Whether a bodycount is high or zero, the risks remain.

 

This confirmed some reflections that been prompted after reading the trip report of an independent traveller, Holiday Nomad (link below), who climbed Toubkal at the end of March 2013.

 

There is nothing untoward or unusually risky about climbing Toubkal. It is widely recognised as a straight-forward trekking peak with no major technical difficulties on the voies normales. However, in winter conditions it necessitates a serious approach, with the right equipment (i.e., ice axe and crampons), and perhaps more importantly, the right mindset. The trouble seems to be that individuals make the wrong call in these areas, whether through innocent ignorance or downright folly.

 

Preparing for the traverse from Tizi Toubkal onto the summit plateau

Preparing for the traverse from Tizi Toubkal onto the summit plateau

If you forget your ice axe or crampons, you can normally get by, whether kicking steps with your crampons or cutting them with your ice axe, depending on which you have left. You may even be able to get yourself out of trouble by cutting steps with the edge of your boots. However, there are a number of areas on Toubkal where you would simply not want to be in such a predicament, especially on bullet hard névé. One of the most exposed areas is just above Tizi Toubkal on the South Cwm route, where an exposed traverse across to the summit plateau is required. To the west are precipitous cliffs and to the east is a moderate slope which ends abruptly with a 500m high rock face.

 

In fact, this particular spot is reminiscent of the area on Snowdon in Wales where the mountain railway crosses above the crags of Clogwyn Coch. The railway is dug into the mountain on its traverse, making for a tempting platform on which to walk. However, when banked out with snow and ice, a slip here would result in an increasingly rapid slide and eventual fall over the cliff tops (link beow). In recently harsh winters, there has been a handful of fatalities where the scenario above unfolded (link below).

 

The other thing to bear in mind is that the summit plateau of Toubkal can be very windy. This can come as a shock, as prevailing winter conditions are cold and dry. However, the combination of cold and wind translates into extreme windchill, so it is advisable to have a flexible clothing system that can deal with the wind. Moreover, wind can have further implications for safety, if one is without ice axe or crampons – a sudden gust of wind could quite easily cause one to lose balance and precipitate into an uncontrollable slide. If you want an idea of what it is like to slide down a mountainside out of control, watch the video below, which is again from Snowdon earlier this winter (link at bottom of page).

 

Summit cliffs of Toubkal

Summit cliffs of Toubkal

To come back briefly to the theme of avalanches, they do occur in the High Atlas, in the same way as in all mountain areas where humans or human property come into contact with the mountain. Fortunately, the level of incidence seems low, which could be explained by lack of media coverage, relatively low levels of people in the mountains or otherwise. However, the point is to remain aware and informed, and I recommend a great book on avalanche awareness that gave me a lot of confidence in assessing conditions recently in Scotland: Snow Sense by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler (link below).

 

Lastly, in an age where the apprenticeship process of ‘learning the ropes’ seems to be waning, either get out with an experienced, knowledgeable friend or get yourself an instructor. You may get lucky and be able to rely on good-hearted members of the public to help you in a tight spot. However, there is no shame in going back to basics in the old school and learning the ‘noble art’ of step cutting from someone, whether you have bought their services with money or beer! Alan Halewood, a local Fort William guide had to employ these techniques, drawing on the assistance of his two clients at the end of this season on Ben Nevis (link below).

 

Ice axe, crampon, avalanche awareness skills are life long skills once acquired, and may well just save your life and the lives of others right when you need them.

 


 

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Categories: Blog, High Atlas, Morocco, Simon, Winter
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4 Comments

4 Responses to How Many Deaths on Toubkal…

  1. Freya says:
    22 April 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Windy and cold it was for sure. I agree that especially in winter time you should do this with an instructor. I will definitely try again one day.

    • simon says:
      23 April 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Hi Freya, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I do hope that you get to summit Toubkal at some point in the future, but please don’t take my post as suggesting that you must hire an instructor. In a way, I’m obliged to tell you that of course you need a professional hand, as I run a business, but most of all I’m just looking out for the safety of people who get out in the High Atlas. It was quite concerning to read that you were without essential equipment just when you needed it! In my mountain life, experience counts for a lot, especially the mistakes, which is to say they are not bad ultimately, as long as one learns from them. Anyway, I do hope that you will feel more confident next time in approaching Toubkal (or any other summit you take on) as a result of what you learned.

  2. Aziz says:
    8 January 2017 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Hi guys, I’m also passionate about the mountains. I think it’s almost all the job is in your head. If you think you can then you can.
    It was funny, I went to toubkal mountain at the hardest time ( New Year’s Eve)! with few matirials even with jeans!
    This is my video: https://youtu.be/Ak3bfSnsA08

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