Adventure Peaks Moroccan High Atlas Expedition 13 27 April, 2003
The Team: Rob Jarvis, Leader
Ian BryantI have always thought of Morocco as the most exciting travel destination in close proximity to Europe. My recent third visit confirmed this although there had been some major changes since my last trip in 1995. Morocco is essentially in the same time zone as the UK and is only 2-3 hours flying time from Heathrow. Being in the bustling and electric atmosphere of Marrakech’s ‘Jemma El Fna’ just hours from leaving home is a culture shock to savour. You will be in the company of literally thousands of ‘pilgrims’ to this cultural Mecca. Snake charmers, musicians, story tellers, acrobats, boxers, fortune tellers all share the open square with a myriad of food stalls enticing you to sample their smoky but oh so tasty fare. The Marrakech I visited in 93 and 95 was no less enticing but it was somewhat more intimidating. A guideless visit to the souk (shopping area) was inevitably going to involve you in high pressure sales tactics par excellence; countless hustlers and offers of another myriad of illicit substances! The Moroccan government have realised this is not good for tourism and have massively clamped down on it – you are free to wander along the intriguing rows of local craft shops and probe about with only good humoured banter from the still fairly eager traders.
The Atlas Mountains are not far away either and tantalising views can be had to the south east of the town – often framed by palm trees as if to highlight the contrasts of Morocco……Where else could you go ice climbing with views of The Sahara?
Travel to the Atlas is now quick and easy since the road is tar-maced all the way up to the lively Berber village of Imlill. After a night here we enjoyed a fairly leisurely five hour walk up into the snow and to the Club Alpine Francais ‘Neltner’ hut. The French influence is particularly evident in the cuisine and we were constantly treated to wonderful fresh salads, olives, cous cous and tajines, even omelettes and chips one night! During our two weeks in the mountains the weather was invariably perfect and the fresh snow steadily disappeared. This left a good covering on the high peaks surrounding the hut and a deal of climbable ice where melt water provided drainage over crags that would get a hard freeze during the chilly clear nights.
We had a number of ‘escalade de glace’ days mainly on fine single pitch cascade climbs (from Scottish grade II to V,5) with either walk off or abseil descents. There is a large potential for doing longer mountain ice climbs here too but it would be better earlier in the season when it was not quite so hot and sunny! There is a wealth of other mountaineering to be done – on our second day we climbed an easy but long (alpine pd) snow couloir direct to the summit of the second highest peak in the Atlas – Ouanoukrim (4088m). The ski touring was fantastic as we discovered on meeting 20 Austrians on the summit! (Nowhere near as busy as this usually.) I was greeted with “Berg heil” and a kiss from a beautiful Austrian women which alas, is a fairly rare summit experience for me! A pleasant rocky ridge scramble provided our descent to the valley.
On another day the three of us climbed Ouanoums Ridge. This is the South West ridge of Jbel Toubkal, at 4167m the highest point in North Africa. This provides a more technical alternative to the South Cwm and should not be underestimated. At Alpine D- it provided quite a baptism of fire for Ian’s rock climbing career. It is quite long, exposed and has some loose rock but it also has some very fine pitches of rock climbing on Golden Granite in the sun. We had spent too much time enjoying ourselves on the ridge? and were a bit tired to continue over another subsidiary summit to Toubkal so we descended an easy couloir to live to fight another day! The next day infact when we returned up the normal South Cwm route. This was enjoyed by Ian who had a jet pack on and was feeling relaxed after his character building experience of the previous day!
After over a week at the Neltner hut and starting to feeling like residents we felt the urge to move across to the next valley west and the quite contrasting Lepiney or Tazagrhat hut. This we did via a long snow couloir to gain the Tizi (Berber word for col) Tadat (Berber word for little finger!). We climbed the Tadat rock finger in one stiff pitch. I had climbed this in January 95 and it had felt much easier then so either there had been some rock fall or I am getting softer as I get older. The continuation ridge to Biguinoussene, 3990m provided some pleasant steep snow and mixed ground to a fantastic panorama and fresh olives and pickled limes on the summit!
Descending into the Azzaden valley the contrasts to the Mizane are immediate. This is a very quiet place with only a handful of visitors throughout the winter. The view is dominated by the highly impressive 600m high and 2Km wide NE Face of Tazagrhat, 3974m. It reminded me of my local mountain Ben Nevis’s NE Face and indeed some of the main features share the same names. There are some long, easy and hard routes to be done here and again the potential for ice climbing earlier in the season is good. Our trip was coming to an end and unlike expeditions to bigger mountains where rest days feature fairly highly we had only had one. Our lie in and late start were rewarded by climbing a cascade or two that were quite literally running with water and we scuttled back to the quiet and charming hut for another huge tajine and ten hours sleep.
It is always a pleasure to trek out of the mountains by a different way to the way you trekked in. This was no exception and the light packs, thick warm air and easy pace nicely complimented the interest of passing through the phenomenal terracing and irrigation systems of the Berber villages. We took the leisurely approach and had a day exploring Marrakech further but it would be possible to leave the mountains and be back home the same day, where else outside Europe could you say that about?
Rob Jarvis, 2 May 2003.