Tag Archives: High Atlas

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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Toubkal & Trekking Trip | High Atlas, Morocco

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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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Mgoun Winter Mountaineering

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Mgoun Ridge

I was recently with Des in a remote area of the eastern High Atlas mountains. We hoped to get three lovely gentleman from the UK on to the summit of the “other” 4000m peak Mgoun, but due to high winds we couldn’t summit. This peak is the only 4000m peak not found in the Toubkal area. I had never been to the area and was there to get my head around the logistics for future trips and to get familiar with the route in to the refuge.

 

I was blown away by the beauty and quietness of the area. For anyone wanting to get away from the busyness and noise of life and the more traveled and accessible mountains, this is the place for you! We weren’t the only ones staying at the Tarkeddit refuge (2900m) – several teams of ski mountaineers were passing through as well. Be on the look out for our new brochures for ski tours in the High Atlas for 2014.

 

Conditions:

 

The day before traveling east a much-needed storm came through which brought fresh snow to the Atlas. We will give you more details when Des returns from the Toubkal area. The Ait Bougammez and Mgoun region also received fresh snow. We found patches of wind slab on northerly aspects on our walk in to the refuge and on a acclimatisation day (an alternative to our summit day due to high winds) where we came to within 100m of Tizi (col) Igandoul (3640m).

 

Good luck to Greg, Peter and Chris who are now in the in the Toubkal area with Des! Hope the new snow has firmed up and you guys have a great time.

 

Facebook album: Mgoun Trip Feb 2013

 


Categories: Blog, Conditions, High Atlas, James, Morocco, Winter
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Is responsible tourism just a big, fat contradiction?

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Patagonia’s environmental biography so far

James and Miriam, members of my team, read Patagonia’s story recently, ‘The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years‘, and passed it on to me. I was keen to read the book, knowing a little about Patagonia’s environmental ethos already, but mostly interested by the challenging facts and angles that James had begun to recount to me. (They also make some nice kit, but that’s beside the point!)

 

The back cover immediately summed it up for me:

 

Yvon and Vincent aren’t here to bum you out about a planet turning to desert, or to shame you into anything. They affirm that the ingenuity and hard work required to clean up our offices and industries will be the most rewarding (and profitable) work we do.

 

I felt relieved that the scope of the book was real, tangible and affirming and began the story, eager to draw upon and utilise the experience of others.

 

However, having progressed into the meat of the book, I opened my RSS reader this morning and read with interest a post from Trek the Andes: ‘Responsible Peru treks – fact or fiction?‘. The article challenged me in turn, as Patagonia’s story had been doing so far. I couldn’t help but feel a check in my spirit with regard to our operations in the High Atlas of Morocco. I quote the fourth paragraph:

 

Responsible tourism is a broad spectrum and often a contradictory one. Flying several thousand miles to trek on the other side of the world that is bad; you damage the ozone. But I provide work for porters and guides is that not good? Buying bottles of water from the ladies along the Inca Trail that is bad, you should be refilling your water bottles and cutting down on plastics. But I am providing these Andean people with income, am I not good?

 

We as a company expect that our clients will fly into Marrakech, typically from the UK, in order to start the process of traveling to Imlil and then begin the trek to the Toubkal area. Aircraft produce a huge amount of CO2, which contributes to the process of global warming, causing a whole number of problems for the environment. And yet we as The Mountain People care deeply about the environment in which we live and operate. How do we reconcile the two?

 

Moreover, Trek the Andes rightly points out that responsible tourism claims are made by all and sundry these days, likening them to background noise:

 

Click on any trek operator’s website or leaf through the pages of any travel company’s brochure and responsible travel will leap out at you. Well they would like it to but it has suffered something of the same fate as car alarms. Once you hear the same noise so many times you no longer hear it. Some companies clearly do practice responsible tourism but for other trekking agencies it appears to be no more than a marketing tool. When everyone proclaims it, who do we choose who we believe?

 

When I say we care deeply about the environment, do you really believe me? What makes our claim any different from the myriad other ones? I have even pointed out where our claim fails before a potential client even steps foot in Morocco.

 

The trouble with tourism, let alone anything in the world, is that in order to engage with it, we will inevitably cause waste and damage. And yet there is something profound in the human spirit that seeks adventure, to push physical and mental boundaries, to find wilderness and ultimately attain a deeper sense of being alive, especially coming from an increasingly desk-bound, office-orientated culture with its ensuing checks and barriers.

 

The challenge then is to be true to ourselves without doing so at the expense of the environment. The natural world has a certain resilience and the capacity to regenerate, but would be much the better for our full cooperation in reducing our footprint.

 

At this point we don’t have all, let alone many, of the answers. The biggest two issues though seem clear: airplane travel from the UK to Morocco is polluting; getting heavy and bulky climbing and mountaineering equipment to Morocco. So, this then remains essentially a memorandum of understanding amongst The Mountain People. We see the contradictions, we see the damage, but we want to overcome it in a healthy way and with ingenuity. The solution is not to do nothing or go nowhere. To do so would deny something within us all, but to paraphrase Trek the Andes:

 

To stay at home and not trek the Atlas; that is not the answer. Come and visit this beautiful place, come and trek these magnificent hills and come and meet its people.

Categories: Blog, Personal, Responsibility, Simon
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