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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.

 


 

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Categories: Blog, High Atlas, Morocco, Simon, Winter
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Scotland Winter Trip Day 5 & Wrap-up

rachel and sam on stob ban

Rachel and Sam enjoying the North Ridge of Stob Bàn

 

Our annual Scotland Winter Community Event is now over for 2014, but we had a satisfying day out on the west coast in the Mamores. This was the fifth and last day of the trip, the aims of which have been to build relationships and have adventurous experiences, and we feel we have certainly met those objectives.

 

As the week progressed, and tiredness set in, we wanted a shorter day with some variety away from the Northern Corries. We felt that the North Ridge of Stob Bàn would fit the bill and offset the longer drive with a shorter day. This was the plan, at least, but the weather forecast did not live up to expectations and an accident on the A86 meant that it was the longest day of the week!

 

We steadily ascended the North Ridge, which was deeply covered in unconsolidated snow, although our progress was good. The difficulties increased towards the top of the ridge, at which point there were some mild expletives from one of the group – apparently Nick had not quite been transparent in his description of the day, which had swayed the particular member for one last blast! Nevertheless, the group enjoyed the exposure, which was short-lived.

 

Overall, it has been an excellent week. All have enjoyed the comforts and surroundings of a lovely, modern Scottish lodge, which have facilitated a great atmosphere. There have been many opportunities to catch up with old friends and get to know new acquaintances. And, of course, the hills have never disappointed, although the forecast has kept us on our toes and emphasised the need to be flexible.

 

We have pencilled in next year’s dates for Sunday 15 to Saturday 21 February, so if you have enjoyed reading about our exploits and the photos, do get in touch to be part of the community.

 

enjoying-the-views-on-stob-ban

Enjoying the views on Stob Bàn

 

at-the-end-of-the-difficulties-on-stob-ban

Marc, Sam and Rachel enjoying the scrambling on Stob Bàn

 

approaching-the-difficulties-on-stob-ban

James keeps a beady eye on the group

 

the-team-at-our-lodge

The team in our lovely lodge for the week

Categories: Blog, Community, Mountaineering, Scotland, Simon, Winter
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Scotland Winter Mountaineering Trip #1

Scotland Winter Mountaineering

Scotland winter mountaineering in the Cairngorm mountains, Scottish Highlands

This is the first in a series of posts, leading up to our inaugural Scotland Winter Trip which starts on 23 February. It is no ordinary Scotland winter mountaineering trip, but the first of an handful of annual community events, in which we aim to give you the chance to get to know like-minded people, have a laugh and enjoy an adventurous week in amazing surroundings.

 

It is poignant to think that exactly one year ago, I made the long journey north, deep into the Cairngorms, shouldered a heavy rucksack and stepped out onto the hills of Lochnagar above Braemar. Inspired by the film Skyfall (Scotland, Skyfall & Ulysses), with its evocative Scottish backdrop, and the words of Tennyson in the forefront of my mind, I  tentatively set about fulfilling my plan for the next six weeks which would result in me successfully gaining my Winter Mountain Leader Award.

 

Adventures are best shared 

 

There is something satisfying, then, in announcing our Scotland winter mountaineering Community Event, in which one of the key aspects is, of course, community. Whereas I spent most of my last winter season alone, left to my thoughts and devices, this February is all about returning to share adventurous experiences together. There is great satisfaction in not only passing on skills, knowledge and experience to others, but also sharing those very same adventures with another; to return home and evoke that shared process, the sensations and reflections. This truly makes the experience whole.

 

On my first mini expedition (Highland Hobo #1), one of the main battles was with myself: I was totally alone and with recourse to no one. I vividly remember the feeling of vulnerability and the need to own my decisions, as well as any potential mistakes. It was a liberating experience, but one that I yearned to share in a broader context than that of one.

 

Good laughs, good company

 

In this way, you are invited to join us this February for the sheer pleasure of enjoying the amazing mountains of the Scottish Highlands in good company and for some good laughs. If you have never been out in winter before, we will ensure you are taught the necessary skills, and then the aim is to get on the high tops and see what the weather throws at us! For those itching to get stuck in straight away, we will brush off the cobwebs and then tackle some classic ridges and itineraries.

 

The emphasis is on good relationships, rather than running a commercial event, hence the shared minibus ride north, self-catering and cooking together. However, an all inclusive Scotland winter mountaineering trip for £350.00 is good value, so spaces are limited and fill up fast. Get in there quick!

 

For more details, see our Community page.

 


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Top 5 Mountaineering Companies in the Moroccan High Atlas [Part 2]

This is part two of a short blog on the top five mountaineering companies in the Moroccan High Atlas. In Part 1 we took a look at the outfits themselves; here we investigate what we as The Mountain People have learned and put into practice as a result.

 

It might seem strange to produce a blog series in which you talk about competitors so openly – even including links to their very websites – but we know how bewildering it can be, choosing a trip or course to Morocco. Ultimately, it is you that has to negotiate a very full and jostling market, and we want to help in that process. We are not afraid to consider the competition alongside ourselves, as that is exactly what you are trying to do in making a choice.

 

With so many outfits out there clamouring at you – ‘pick me!’, they shout – it has been very helpful for us actually to look at what people say and do, and then compare how we measure up. We have discovered a lot about ourselves in this process, and want to share it with you. Our intention is that you not only find out more about The Mountain People, but also gain more of an insight into the reality of adventure tourism in Morocco.

 

Here are five things in our journey that we feel are important and would like to share with you:

 

toubkal-21. There is no ‘optimal’ Toubkal trek


Allow us to share some honest information with you: there is no such thing as the ‘optimal’ Toubkal trek. The number of variations on a theme of treks and itineraries in Morocco will make your head spin. Durations (3, 5 or 8 days), starting points (Imlil, Aremd, Ourigane), acclimatisation periods (1, 2, 3 days), going ’round the back’ of Toubkal (via the Lac d’Ifni), best route up Toubkal (South Cwm vs. North Cwm) and many more.

 

Essentially, it all depends on you, and that’s where we like to start. It depends on how much time you have for your trip, what experience you want to have, what your prior experience is, who you want to share your trip with. These are just a few variables that we take into account when we work with you to design your trip. We do offer standard itineraries, but in a way these are to give you an idea of the kind of things you can do in the time available.

 

There’s a saying in Africa. TIA: This is Africa. Morocco may not be sub-Saharan Africa where the saying is perhaps more closely associated, but it shares the same blood. Things don’t run to clockwork, plans change, freak events happen (mudslides, floods), which all mean that flexibility is the name of the game. Our guides have significant experience in country, and our core Morocco team are setting up an office in Imlil. As such, we apply the flexible approach with our clients: you have your own needs and we work with them to bring them to reality on the ground.

 

cow2. Committed to being local


Everyone talks about sustainable tourism these days and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a sustainable commitment on operator’s websites. However, sustainable tourism is a bit of a contradiction if you think about it, which we investigated in a recent blog about Patagonia’s book. We admit that we exaggerate for affect, but the point is that sustainability requires a genuine approach rather than lip service. This is why we took the decision to establish a Morocco office in Imlil.

 

Our core Morocco staff live in the High Atlas so immediately this cuts out a lot of travelling to and from the UK or elsewhere. As such, they are able to dedicate a lot more time to connecting with the actual support staff with whom we work (cooks, muleteers, fixers). Seeing as we want to invest in our local staff in a meaningful way, we believe that this is a good start – to be among them and speaking their language.

 

Talking of languages, since our core Morocco staff are able to communicate with the locals (although there is always more to be done when learning languages), we are better able to understand their needs (as opposed to what we want). We feel this is important, as we share the ground with them, so ought to respect the fact that they have been there a lot longer than us. It is also interesting to compare with recent events on Everest between western climbers and the Sherpa community. Problems occur when we don’t listen or take the time to understand the other party, so when we say we are local and speak the language, it’s a big deal.

 

 

flash-stare3. Are you being empowered to do what you love?


There is a lot of talk about whether you do or don’t need a guide in the High Atlas, and if so, what qualification is the optimal requirement. Really, this is a bit of a side issue, as you could quite easily follow the crowds and the very obvious trails up and down your objective (although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend this!). For us at The Mountain People we take a different perspective: are you being empowered to do the thing that you love?

 

When it comes down to it, guiding is not an end in itself to us; yes, we do want to make a living, feed our families and support the local economy, but one of the core reasons is to pass on mountain skills and train others. In our careers, we have been blessed by the sacrifice of other guides or experienced mountaineers who have given up their time and personal ambitions to teach us what it means and takes to be good mountaineers.

 

We work best when we are able to work with you to develop you into the best outdoor activist you can be. Our passion is using natural moments that occur within the context of a mountain journey to teach and educate you, as well as showing you tips and tricks to boost your proficiency. Moreover, we provide you with the peace of mind, safety margin and local knowledge as part of our commitment so that you come away from Morocco changed for the better!

 

DSC042964. Get a bit of imagination!


One of the things we consistently come back to is how the overwhelming majority of companies focus all their on attention on Toubkal in the High Atlas. This, to us, shows a lack of imagination and appreciation of the scope and wealth of mountaineering in the region. Of course, we offer Toubkal trips ourselves and understand the draw of the highest peak in North Africa, but we have deliberately balanced Toubkal trips with a selection of other trips and courses that initiate you into the unsung world of mountaineering in the High Atlas.

 

Among our favourite is the High Atlas Alpine Ridges, during which we tackle the best of the long mountaineering and scrambling routes that the area has to offer. This includes the South West ridge of Toubkal (technically on the Tête d’Ouanoums 3,970m, which eventually leads to Toubkal West 4,030m). We like to refer to this as ‘Toubkal: The Hard Way’, but in reality it is an easy rock climb with a short crux wall of Very Severe standard or so. It’s a great insight into an area of Morocco mountaineering, which is traditionally dominated by trekking and will open your eyes to all that you have been missing out on so far!

 

If winter is more your thing, then we can help again. We openly advertise High Atlas 4,000m Peaks and Mgoun Winter Ascent, but one of the advantages of having Des Clark on our staff is that the whole of the High Atlas is up for grabs. If you read through Des’ Cicerone guidebook to the area, he has pretty much run trips to every peak contained in the book, so let your imagination run riot! As mentioned, our advertised trips are merely a guide and not meant to constrain our creativity, so we do a lot of behind the scene liaising with clients to put together packages that are creative and imaginative.

 


ice-climbing5. 
Ice climbing is the way forward


If we were to predict the next trend in the High Atlas it would probably be technical ice climbing on the many cascades that form during the cold, settled winters. If you look at Part 1 of this series, you will notice that ice climbing trips are beginning to creep into the itineraries of UK companies operating in Morocco.

 

The High Atlas is a great venue for ice climbing, if you want to get away from the tried and tested destinations, or perhaps don’t want to endure the rigours or irregularities of Scotland! There is just the right amount of infrastructure to support you, very reliable and accessible icefalls that appear annually and all in a bit of a surreal setting (Berber culture, and surely Africa is associated with sand and sun!).

 

Although we don’t currently offer guided ice climbing trips, we are certainly well placed to give you all the  logistical support you might need for your adventure: current weather updates and conditions report (watch out for #toubkalwinter on Twitter this season); full organisation of food, porterage, accommodation; and local knowledge. In fact, if you’re coming to Morocco for ice climbing, you’re probably already self-sufficient as a climber, so we can work with you to fill in the gaps on the ground, leaving you without the stress of all the admin.

 

 

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Toubkal & Trekking Trip | High Atlas, Morocco

DSC_1043

 

 

It has been a remarkably cool and wet week in the High Atlas where I was leading a large group who were raising money for charity by trekking from village to village, and finishing with a Toubkal summer ascent.

 

Check out our Facebook page (public album) for some photos from the trek.

 

Our first day ended inauspiciously with a massive thunderstorm, having trekked up from the village of Tamatert in Imlil into the next valley system. The lightning caused thunder to rebound from one end of the sky to the other, and reminded me of the volley of fire from a Tennyson poem I mentioned recently. Some words came to mind as we rushed to escape the storm:

 

A racket of thunder volleying in the eaves of the sky

 

Luckily the damp weather kept the temperatures relatively low, and, of course, brought well-needed moisture to the fields and crops. As we made our way to the Toubkal refuge, one passer-by commented that there had even been snow on the summit at noon the previous day. However, thankfully our summit day was clear of any bad weather, although a little chilly before the sun cleared the surrounding high ridges.

 

All icefalls had long fallen down since James’ last visit in May, and no snow patches or gullies lingered within visible range, so scree and loose rock are the order of the day until new snowfall in the autumn. The refuges seemed busy and easy ways up Toubkal thronged with parties, but I did not notice any climbers or parties on more technical routes.

 

Overall, it was a very enjoyable trip. It is always good to meet a big group of new acquaintances, as I find fascinating the interactions with people from all walks of life and satisfying being able to pass on new skills and knowledge about Morocco.

 

 

This trip was a custom package, combining village to village trekking and a summer Toubkal ascent. If you are thinking of planning a custom trip, see our Custom Trips & Courses page. Otherwise, for accurate information on conditions, weather etc., feel free to get in contact.

 

Categories: Blog, Conditions, High Atlas, Morocco, Simon, Summer, Trekking
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