At KOMPAS, we make it our business to explore. From discovering the latest speakeasy in San Francisco to a man in Hackney who can teach you how to carve a spoon out of wood, we never shy away from an adventure. We even go exploring in our spare time. Taking a break from writing about all the awesome, quirky places that we highlight on the app, our head of content took the company’s ethos of “seek and ye shall find” to a new extreme, and decided to spend the weekend climbing North Africa’s highest mountain. Now that’s what we call dedication to the job!
Katie Melua may have once sung, “There are nine million bicycles in Beijing…” If I too were a chanteuse and became inspired to write my own hit version of the song, I would probably change it to: “There are nine million motorbikes in Marrakech…”
In amongst the bustle of cobbled streets with vendors pouring out of every red-walled façade, and down even the narrowest parts of the crowded Souks where you’ve got to not only contend with hundreds of tourists, locals, and cats – all vying for the smallest bit of walking space – you also have to do battle with the constant hordes of motorbikes. Weaving between every obstacle/person/cat with a level of expertise usually reserved for Formula 1 drivers it feels like an accomplishment just to make it to the end of the road without getting run over. Add in the cacophony of the snake charmers’ trilling pipes, traders’ beckoning calls, and the smell of the hundreds of tagines in the surrounding restaurants, it makes for a wonderful sensory overload. All this, and the challenge of trekking up North Africa’s highest mountain had not even begun.
It takes a certain type of person to decide that their weekend would be best-spent waist deep in snow while battling high winds, freezing temperatures – and wet socks – all in the name of adventure (and good content for your work’s blog…) This seemingly nutty mindset, together with finding yourself in an environment as far removed from the norm as one can imagine for a Friday morning, leads to an inexplicable bond; from the lawyer in her 50s to the Royal Marine in his 20s, and the Aussie who turned up in a pair of shorts (as well as me, whose only training had been to walk up the escalator at Bethnal Green tube station), the diversity within this group of intrepid explorers lent itself to an unnatural gaggle of instant comradery.
Before regaling you with tales of heroism and bravery, first, some facts about my weekend adversary: Mount Toubkal. Standing majestically at 4,167m high (for reference, Everest Base Camp is 5,380m), rising above every other peak in the High Atlas mountain range – indeed, rising above any peak over a distance of 2,000 km – Mount Toubkal is situated just under two hours from Marrakech, in southwest Morocco. During the winter as soon as you ascend more than 2,500m it’s not just the altitude you have to combat but the snow, leading to the use of crampons and ice picks as a necessity. Just call me Bear Grylls.
With bags carefully packed onto the gentle mountain mules at the road-end village of Imlil, waterproofs donned and bootlaces double tied, the daunting prospect of what the next couple of days had in store for my poor knees dawned as soon as we began the ascent out of the village. Heading towards the base of the mountain, and finding myself out of breath unnervingly soon, the sense of trepidation within the group was palpable. Those excited and polite smiles at the offset were soon replaced by a subtle gurn of apprehension as soon as the elevation of the road started to increase, and the snow-capped mountain peaks became visible through the clouds.
Fast-forward two hours and the rain was replaced with an almost welcome snow fall, especially as this coincided with lunch in a small hut on the mountain side. The more we walked the more impressive the scenery became; waterfalls beset with icicles, verdant slopes enveloped with freshly fallen snow, and menacing-looking circumforaneous peaks acting as a constant reminder that no matter how immense they looked, ours was even bigger. Even though I’m only 5ft tall, I have never felt so small.
Now trudging through deep snow with the occasional clamber over rocks and frozen streams – often stopping to allow the train of mules to pass us with jealousy-inducing ease – it was in just a little over 6 hours later that we arrived at base camp. Nothing short of a stony igloo (an igloo may have actually been warmer), this refuge was to become home for the next two nights. First day, complete. Alice 1, Toubkal 0.
Checking the weather it was decided that instead of facing 50mph winds with a wind chill factor of -30C was not preferable for an ascent on the Sunday morning, and so with no rest for the wicked it was at 6am the day after arriving in the refuge that we found ourselves tying on our crampons and relying on our head torches to show us the way. The immediate near vertical incline we faced upon leaving the security of our now seemingly charming-yet-heatless refuge filled us with equal amounts of dread and motivation. This was it, we were proper mountaineers now. The ice picks were put to immediate use.
As the sun began to rise behind the surrounding peaks an other worldly glow bathed the mountains in a rosey-gold splendour unlike anything I have ever experienced before. You could not help but feel overwhelmed by the magnificence of Mother Nature, all the while feeling excruciatingly lucky to be in such a situation. These feelings of awe and wonder soon subsided, to be replaced by heavy breathing, aching legs, and a real fear that one misstep or trip of a crampon could lead to a sudden snowy demise. Alice 1, Toubkal 1.
The incline became steeper, the depth of snow more profound, and a number of climbers en route down the mountain told us to turn back as the peak was inaccessible due to high winds. We were not deterred. Maybe this was out of stubbornness, fatigue-induced stupidity, or just the fact that we had all made a pact that no matter how tough things became, we would be making it to the top of the mountain. I didn’t bring a hipflask of celebratory whiskey with me for nothing!
Five gruelling hours later, and the metal pyramid marking the peak came into view. And that’s when the winds hit. You could hear each gust coming, a warning boom travelling up through the other peaks allowing you time to turn your back to the vertical drop and face the mountain’s edge to cling on to whatever you could. I finally asked myself the question, what the hell am I doing here?!
Those last 50m were the most difficult out of the whole climb. With every step into the virgin snow seeing you sink to your knees while the winds were whipping your face so hard it felt like you were being slapped by the Hulk, it seemed that the summit was growing ever more distant. Yet, against all the odds, one by one we grasped onto the metal structure for a quick customary photo and a swig of whiskey before rapidly realising that if we stayed too long the likelihood of someone being blown off the top was increasing (unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence. Sorry Mum.) The view from the summit was – for want of a better word – breathtaking. On one side the other mountainous peaks blanketed the horizon, juxtaposed by the flat plains of the Sahara opposite. Incredible.
70% of accidents – as our guide Ibrahim told us – happen upon the descent. It was not difficult to understand why. Not only were you now using all the other muscles in your legs that were otherwise dormant for the climb up, but the winds provided yet another element of danger, as well as the fact that our tracks had been blown away requiring us yet again to wade through a sea of snow.
Exhausted, we arrived back at camp after four hours of falling, sliding, sinking, slipping, and in spite of these impressive feats it was not yet time to put away the walking boots. The only problem with climbing a mountain is that you’ve got to climb back down. As if our feet hadn’t been faced with enough adversity, the five hour hike back to a warm cup of mint tea in Imlil the following morning was tormented by the icy paths that saw near-constant tumbles and utterings of a number of profanities.
It was only later that night, with a cold beer finally firmly in hand, swaying along to a Barry White impersonator of all things, that we started to appreciate just what we had achieved. And with one final customary tagine it was time to waddle back a la John Wayne to our Riad for a well-deserved kip. Thank god for the wheely chairs in the office.