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How Many Deaths on Toubkal…

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.




Categories: Blog, High Atlas, Morocco, Simon, Winter
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Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering



Winter mountaineering in Scotland is a wonderful pursuit that demands the integration of many factors: mountain skills, the weather, snow conditions, equipment confidence and, of course, fitness and mental strength.
This article will help you prepare physically and mentally for the demanding nature of Scotland winter mountaineering. It will give you a variety of options and considerations, as there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’, and above all is realistic.
Read on if you: have young children and little spare time or energy; are nursing niggles or tweaks; work long hours in a busy job with a commute; have passion for the outdoors, but are precariously balancing the rest of life.
You might find I mention battling, fighting and overcoming a lot. This is because everyone underestimates winter when they start out, but don’t let that put you off – just go in with your eyes open.


I do not pretend to be a medical expert, but have read around the subject, consulted professionals and learned from bitter experience. If you are at all concerned about your health or abilities, please refer to your local doctor.
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering



‘Mountaineering is a battle; it is draining psychically and psychologically, so train accordingly’ (Andy Kirkpatrick, ‘Binman Fitness’)

Winter mountaineering is a full-on blend of hard physical graft and mentally sapping activity. It involves earlier starts (= less sleep); shorter daylight hours (= more darkness); it’s colder, windier and wetter (= more tiring); and involves carrying more weight (= even more tiring).
The total combination of these factors is not just physical – you have to be able to cope mentally as well.
Ask yourself, how bright and breezy are you when you are cold, damp, buffeted by the wind and tired of post-holing? The better your stamina, the less you will be thinking about how tired you are, and so more able to enjoy your environment!
I remember a climbing day in Glencoe when I first started winter climbing. Our objective was Church Door Buttress on Stob Coire Nam Beith (1150m), one of the highest venues in Glencoe.
We set off around 6am, carrying full winter climbing equipment on top of personal gear, walked over 5km to the start of the climb, ascending at least 800m, all of which took the best part of three hours. The summit was a further 350m of climbing and then we had to walk back to the accommodation.
I was exhausted by the time we got to the base of the climb (which was out of winter condition), and relieved to continue on the Grade I ground without the further exertions of technical climbing.
This might all sound a bit depressing! And it is of course best to be under no illusions that winter mountaineering is a battle: you need to be ready and resilient, physically and mentally and your training needs to match these demands.
But, it’s not all bad news: part of the attraction is overcoming these obstacles so that you can be well prepared to enjoy the unique Scottish environment: views, light and vistas to die for.



Thankfully, there is no one optimum way to prepare, although you can definitely be smart about your training, factoring in time, energy, commitments and life.
Here are four key themes to consider when preparing:
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

1. Binman fitness

The term ‘Binman fitness’ was first coined by climber Andy Kirkpatrick in 2011. It refers to the non-conventional, unpredictable and uncompromising nature of mountaineering and how best to overcome that challenge.
The analogy is of a bin-man, -woman or -person who has to: ‘move fast, lifting, pushing, grabbing, grappling, climbing, bending and avoiding bin yuck every day (apart from weekends and Xmas).’
Bear in mind, this is not an hour’s aerobics class; this is repeated and sustained over a regular shift (so at least eight hours). This approach involves:

  • Training beyond what you expect to encounter, as conditions are inevitably worse than you anticipate
  • Focusing on the legs and stamina, as you are on your feet all day, with a load on your back and engaging upper body muscle groups
  • Avoiding the familiar: by keeping workouts varied, you gradually condition your mind to overcome the stress of the unknown as well as seeing more gain physically

Further reading: Andy Kirkpatrick’s classic article, ‘Binman fitness’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

2. Functional fitness

Don’t fool yourself that because you are putting on muscle or losing weight that you are fighting fit for winter mountaineering.
Consider the following maxim that I have found helpful: ‘Appearance is a consequence of fitness’.
Muscle gain and weight loss are undoubtedly good outcomes, but without underlying fitness they are merely superficial and mask fundamental deficiencies. In other words, be specific and objective about your training – will hours on a rowing machine or exercise bike really prepare you?
Consider why mountaineers and alpinists are generally speaking (ok, maybe not Andy Kirkpatrick) slim, athletic and sinewy. It goes back to the battling – regularly encountering 60mph wind (classified as storm force); the long summit approach slopes; the rubbing of your rucksack straps.
It’s the ability and conditioning to push yourself when it starts to hurt, to negotiate snow covered boulders, and overcome knee- or perhaps thigh-deep snow.
Wherever you can and however you can, seek to replicate the reality of what you expect to find.
Further reading: the Mark Twight-Gym Jones ‘300’ method
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

3. Exercise in the margins

One thing that is unavoidable is that modern life is busier than ever with work, family and extra curricular activities.
The fittest I have ever been was when I was at school: I played a 2nd XV rugby match every Saturday; trained four times a week; and found time for competitive water polo twice a week on top of all of that.
Unsurprisingly, those days are long gone: one hour plus sessions have shrunk to 15 minutes; injuries have forced me to include stretching; weekends are more about family. In short, exercise has been pushed to the margins: unless I revert to being a pupil or student, that free time I once had is very unlikely to materialise.
An important milestone for me was the article, ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’. It’s essentially about accepting the inevitable in life and adapting to that change. Life changes, so why is it that you are so resistant to change?
Some key points here are:

  • Lower your expectations – if you aim too high initially or for a previous ideal, you will only succeed in repetitive failure
  • Write off one week a month – remember all those other things you are doing? They need to happen too. Anticipate and plan for them so they do not become obstructions
  • Enjoy exercise – if you hate doing something it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – you’ll probably give up. Why continue doing something you detest?

Further reading: Harvard Business Review article, ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

4. D.F.Y.U.

Not everyone is wired like a street fighter and each person has different motivations for winter mountaineering. However, one thing we all have in common is that we do not want to get injured.
In the words of Andy Kirkpatrick again, DFYU: don’t f**k yourself up.
Sustainable approaches to fitness and training are now well established and proven by sports science, so with a little bit of research you have no excuse to trash yourself!
In particular, alpinist Steve House and coach Scott Johnston have helped raise the bar among mountaineers, climbers and alpinists. In the words of House:

‘The human body has an amazing capacity to adapt to physical stress. But it does this best if that stress is applied in a constructive, consistent and progressive manner.’

By repeatedly stressing the body and allowing it to recover, the result is a higher level of fitness, if well coordinated.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Perhaps not, but it is helpful to be aware of these principles that cause the effect known as super-compensation.
The four core elements of not destroying yourself are thus:
Continuity: stay motivated and keep training regularly. Interruptions will happen, but do your best to minimise them
Graduality: be realistic about increasing the intensity and duration of training over time. An erratic approach (e.g. after New Year or illness) will lead to injury or poor results
Modulation: you cannot put your body in a permanent crisis state – otherwise known as overtraining. Regular rest will enable you to increase training loads with a long-term rise in fitness
Specificity: matching the demands of the activity in training will yield the best results
Although mountaineering is fairly general there are things you can focus on or avoid. House has the following advice to give:

‘To improve your endurance give priority to weight-bearing exercise. This means running or hiking, especially uphill, which are more specific.
Cycling is a great general exercise, but bikes are very efficient modes of transportation and this makes them less effective training tools. You do not have to support your full body weight, which greatly reduces the energy cost of the exercise and the muscle mass used to propel yourself. It also limits the range of motion, the coordination, balance, and variability of the footing required while climbing.
You should not rely solely on cycling as a training mode. 
Swimming is another great exercise that has little carryover to alpine climbing. The prone position means that the heart has to work much less to pump the blood. The water also keeps the body cool, leaving more blood available for the working muscles.
If this is beginning to sound like running and hiking should be emphasized in your basic preparation time, then you are getting the picture.’

Further reading: Andy Kirkpatrick’s nugget, ‘D.F.Y.U’ and ‘The Training Effect’, Steve House and Scott Johnston

My top three fitness recommendations

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering


    1. Kettlebells


A kettlebell is a lump of iron with a handle that originated as a tool for farmers in Russia. It quickly became a means to measure strength, and is now a popular sport and training tool. Its beauty is that its centre of gravity is offset, unlike a dumb- or barbell, and it can be grasped in a variety of ways..
Core exercises include squatting (while holding the kettlebell), pressing (lifting it above the head), swinging and snatching (lifting it off the ground).
Because of the offset centre of gravity, any given movement requires attention to form and draws on core strength. The cumulative effect of all these elements is significant, particularly as you adapt to the constantly moving centre of gravity.
If wielded properly, a workout can take a matter of minutes, such is the intensity. This is ideal for fitting in during a lunch break or around other commitments.
Once you get into kettlebells, you can unlock flows and complexes which are multiple movements that flow naturally into one another. Technically you can do an unlimited number without putting the kettlebell down. This is a great way to replicate ‘binman fitness’.
Like the sound of it?

Want something more advanced?

  • Use a tabata or HIIT timer app to structure and develop your workouts (see below)
  • Get inspiration for workouts and kettlebell flows and complexes from Eric Leija or Marcus Martinez on Instagram

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

2. Tabata

Tabata, which is a variation of high intensity interval training (HIIT), follows a simple premise: maximum effort followed by rest, and repeat.
It was developed by a Japanese scientist to train Olympic athletes in the 1990s and is brutally effective: 20 seconds work per exercise, 10 seconds rest, and then repeat. Typically, you will work through multiple sets of six exercises and if you are working hard you will be knackered after two or three sets.
As with kettlebells, tabata is beautifully simple. It requires minimum equipment, using mostly body weight exercises; a full-on full body workout can be achieved in 20 minutes and you can do it anywhere.
Be aware that you will need to build up your endurance gradually, so start slowly and without weights.
Like the sound of it?

  • Read more about the Tabata protocol
  • Look up the classic moves: burpees, press-ups, lunges (any variation), sit-ups, squats, mountain climbers, renegade rows
  • Get ideas for beginner’s workouts from Jordan Yeoh on Facebook
  • Download an interval timer such as Interval Timer for your smartphone

Want something more advanced?

  • Focus on a single muscle group, e.g: a variety of squats, lunges, jumps and burpees (seriously painful)
  • Use compound bodyweight exercises, e.,g: burpee into pull up (burp-ups)

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

3. Circuit training

When I lived in Oxford I used to run around South Park – an amazing expanse of grass and trees overlooking the dreaming spires. The great thing about South Park was that it had exercise equipment at regular intervals around its perimeter, which allowed me to build up a decent workout.
A run at an average pace of the circuit of the park took about 10 minutes and I added in things like:

  • Press-ups
  • Sit ups
  • Star jumps
  • Step ups
  • Monkey bar traverse
  • Tricep dips
  • Pull ups

When this became a little familiar, I made up a pyramid loosely based on something I did in the Army:

  • 10 x pull ups (run to next station)
  • 10 x dips (run to next station)
  • 10 x chin ups (run to first station)
  • 9 x [and so on and so forth…]

The principle is: by all means go for a run, but see how you a mix it up and integrate exercises that make it more of a full body workout.
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

The final word

Some sage advice from legendary ice climber and coach, Will Gadd:

  1. Keep moving; it doesn’t matter what movement!
  2. A little and often = progress
  3. Do what you enjoy to stay engaged
  4. Understand why you are moving and how that helps you train
  5. Fitness is health: don’t sacrifice what is important

Adapted slightly from ‘Gadd’s Truth: Five Fitness Commandments to Live By’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering


Will Gadd’s blog on training and climbing:
Andy Kirkpatrick’s eccentric blog with plenty of down to earth advice and wisdom:
‘Training for the New Alpinism’, Steve House and Scott Jonhston: a critical review from Ice Climbing Japan and a more everyday one from Gear and Mountains

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Toubkal Winter Conditions #3 Dec 2016

Chilling out in the sun after a few pitch up some rock near the refuge! 22-12-16

Latest Toubkal Winter Conditions Report

Right before the Christmas break I was out with Patrick for five days of winter mountaineering and climbing. The conditions looked set to be pretty good since there had been some stable weather for a few weeks and the snowpack looked consolidated – but the weekend before the trip started some serious snow came in… 30cm plus! We managed to get some winter climbing in around the hut, but as the week progressed we found more and more weaknesses in the snowpack along with a couple of days of warm weather.  Patrick, on his last day, made quick work of Toubkal up the South Col route… well done!



Snowpack and Snow Cover

There is great snow cover in the High Atlas Mountains. There were lots of signs of slab avalanches on N to NE slopes. We saw crowns around the Akioud and Afella area. On more northerly slopes in shallow pack we found cup and faceted crystals around 30cm deep due to the cold conditions.


Akioud and a crown on the right where a slab released sometime over the weekend (20-12-16)


Another crown on a more easterly slope on Afella (20-12-16)


There were a few days of warming on Wednesday and Thursday, but the colder conditions seem to be persisting, so the snowpack will take longer to consolidate. Do take care on more northerly (NE, N and NW) aspect slopes as they will have remained cold and therefore dry snow metamorphism will need plenty of time to firm up and recreate a stable snowpack. The big gully lines up to the Tadat and Clocheton cols looked pretty loaded. There are serious weak layers in the snowpack, so make sure to be diligent by checking the snowpack, following the weather and avoiding loaded slopes!


Clocheton gully loaded (23-12-16)

Tizi Ouagane looking heavy laden! (22-12-16)


Start of the South Col route up Toubkal (22-12-16)

Climbing Conditions  

We couldn’t get to Chockstone Gully as we found the top section of the approach slope too dodgy to climb, but when conditions get better the lower section of the route is in condition. Routes on Afella, Ras and Toubkal West all need more time as they are heavy laden after the recent snow and need time to firm up on the snow sections. The ice all looked to be in condition… just needs more time and for the rest of the routes to firm up. The Afekhoi cascades look good, but do take care on the approach slopes!


Toubkal West / Tete Ouanoums (22-12-16)


Afella with ice looking good but more time needed for the gully snow to firm up (20-12-16)


Refuge Access

Porters are essential for getting supplies and extra gear up to the refuge as the track has snow on it. Mules can get as far as Sidi Cham (2,350m), but not all the way to the refuge. Do make sure to pay your porters and muleteers properly and keep to 80kg for a mule load and 20 to 25kgs for a porter!


Winter Conditions Summary

The snowpack has some serious weak layers within the first 30cm and even down to a metre in deeper sections. Do take care and avoid more northerly aspect slopes (E, NE, N, NW) and continue to monitor the weather. It looks like colder conditions are set for this week which will mean snowpack instabilities will remain. The winter climbing is looking like it will become very good when more favorable weather conditions help firm up snow slopes and gully lines, and the ice sections on Toubkal West, Afella and Ras all are coming into condition, but more time is needed for the whole routes to come into condition.


For a personalised trekking, guiding or instruction service and/or logistics for Toubkal and the High Atlas, get in touch with us here at The Mountain People!


James, Full-time guide/instructor for TMP

Disclaimer: as a mountaineering instructor I have had avalanche risk assessment training and have a good level of experience but am by no means a professional avalanche forecaster. These reports aim to give you a general idea of the winter conditions for a few days ahead and the risks involved but please be diligent in checking weather forecasts yourself and monitoring the conditions when you are out in the High Atlas.


Patrick getting his swing dialled 🙂


Categories: Blog, Climbing Information, Conditions, High Atlas, Ice Climbing, James, Morocco, Mountain Information, Mountaineering, Winter
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Toubkal Winter Conditions #2 Dec 2016

Latest Toubkal Winter Conditions Report

A few days ago our head muleteer/cook Mohammed got some photos of the Toubkal Massif for us to share back for those keen to head to the High Atlas with winter conditions! From the photos it looks like the snow cover is around the 3,000m mark on sun exposed slopes and around the 2700m level on more shaded places!


I (James) will be out guiding next week and will post a full report on the mountaineering and climbing condition on finishing the trip. From what you can see in the photos some of the ice is in, there is generally good snow cover and the snowpack looks fairly settled!


More to come… but for now check out the photos!


Last section of the approach to the refuges


Afella the peak to the right


The start of the South Col route up Toubkal… you can see the standard track on the right side of the photo


Toubkal West / Ouanoums


Afekhoi cascades


Looking toward (Col) Tizi n Ouagane



Looking down the valley and the approach route to the refuges


Afella, Clochetons and Biguinoussene peaks

Categories: Blog, Climbing Information, Conditions, High Atlas, Ice Climbing, James, Mountain Information, Mountaineering, Winter
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Toubkal Winter Conditions #1 Nov 2016

Latest Toubkal Winter Conditions Report

It’s already that time again… Winter seems to be starting early in the High Atlas! We will start posting winter conditions updates whenever possible to give you and idea of the current conditions.


I was out last week and Toubkal had a good 6 inches of snow laid down over a couple of days, starting around the 3,800m mark, and with the current freeze/thaw cycles hovering around the 4000m the snow higher up will hang in there.



Looking down from the South Col of Toubkal 7-10-16


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Snowpack and Snow Cover

Snow cover is generally around the 3,800m mark at the moment and with the freeze/thaw conditions and groups summiting it is worth considering bring a set of crampons or ice axe for the last couple of hundred meters of ascent up Toubkal as the route will have compacted snow and icy sections on it. This is for those that want a bit of extra security. More experienced mountaineers will find their stiff boots adequate. Also bring good layers as the wind chill is -3 and lower in the forecast, so winter layering is appropriate.


Last push on to the Summit! 7-10-16


Exiting out from the bowl before the South Col of Toubkal 7-10-16


Climbing Conditions

It is still too early for ice in the High Atlas, but watch this blog as we will be posting pretty regularly on the mixed and ice lines once they come into condition!


Refuge Access

Mules are able to carry loads as far as the refuge. Please make sure that muleteers and mules are paid well and treated with respect. For more information on good practice please see:




The traverse not far from the Summit plateau 7-10-16



Winter Conditions Summary

Winter has come early to the High Atlas this year and with the current weather forecast it looks like this is more than a freak drop of snow/temperature. Conditions on Toubkal are set to have snow and icy steps so less experience people should consider crampons or ice axe for the last couple of hundred meters climb up Toubkal. The winter climbing needs a lot more snow!





James is a MIC and full-time instructor for TMP

Disclaimer: as a mountaineering instructor I have had avalanche risk assessment training and have a good level of experience but am by no means a professional avalanche forecaster. These reports aim to give you a general idea of the winter conditions for a few days ahead and the risks involved but please be diligent in checking weather forecasts yourself and monitoring the conditions when you are out in the High Atlas.




Categories: Blog, Climbing Information, Conditions, High Atlas, Ice Climbing, James, Morocco, Mountain Information, Mountaineering, Winter
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