With a trip to the Alps planned in the Summer of 2009, I’d spent time in Snowdonia in February 2009 building on winter technique and wanted to go practice this as part of a trip. So in March 2009 I travelled to Morocco to attempt an ascent of the non-technical Mount Toubkal (4165m, 13,665ft) in winter conditions. I was also planning a year of charity events for 2009 to raise money for The Stroke Association, so climbing Mount Toubkal worked perfectly as one of the larger draws to get attention for the drive for sponsorship.
Running has formed a large part of my build up to trips. To give an indication of the fitness I had going to Morocco, I’d ran the the Brighton Half Marathon a fortnight before, in 2hrs 5mins with feet bleeding for the last 3 miles from badly fitted shoes (obviously not intentional! but worth mentioning as I’d aimed for just under 2hrs).
I took the following, using a Berghaus Mule 80l to hold the majority of kit on the way up to the Neltner Mountain Refuge and then a Berghaus Freeflow 20l as my day pack.
B2 Boots – Scarpa Mantas – Perhaps you could get away with waterproof B1 boots but glad I had a fairly rigid and stiff boot for the trip and would advise something similar, especially as you’ll almost certainly wear crampons during the ascent. They kept my feet nicely warm along with…
Socks – 3 x Combo of Brasher heavyweight socks and Bridgedale thermal liner socks
Underwear – Couple pairs of Helly Hansen polypropylene boxers. Much better than cotton!
Trousers – Standard pair of berghaus walking trousers
Overtrousers – Berghaus Deluge. Simple lightweight waterproof overtrousers.
Gaiters – Mountain Hardwear Xenon Stretch gaiters. First outing for them, worked a charm.
Long sleeve baselayers – 2 Helly Hansen base layers, one with zip up neck, other round neck. Neither were the merino thermal version.
T-Shirts – Mixture of lightwight dri-fit/wicking short sleeve t-shirts.
Fleece – Berghaus 100 weight. Rarely use a fleece when I’m walking, keep it in my pack incase I get cold or for when I stop. Didn’t use it on the trip but still essential to take extra lightweight/warm layers in case.
Waterproof/windproof jacket – Mountain Equipment Kongur – Always carry (and some people would argue I always wear) this jacket, fantastically windproof and never lets water in. Consider it my most important item of clothing.
Neck Gaiter – Berghaus thermal style. Great for when it get’s windy cold as it’s super flexible/adjustable. And works well with…
Hat – Mountain Equipment thermal lined hat
Sunglasses – Oakley Nanowire Cat 2 lenses. Get a decent pair of sunglasses for the trip, it’ll be bright in the snow!
Down Jacket – Mountain Equipment Vega – Only used it in the hut, but it’s nice carrying a lightweight down jacket in case of an early/cold start to a day.
Ice Ax – DMM Cirque
Crampons – Grivel G12 New Matic
Head Torch – Petzl Tikka. Absolutely essential on any trip like this, you don’t want to be staggering down wet/dark steps in a mountain hut without a light in the night. Or if you fancy reading in the dorm at night.
Ear plugs… Snoring at altitude is horrific and you’re in a hut so there’s plenty of people getting up at silly times.
First Aid Kit. Important bits include blister plasters, Iodine, Diamox, painkillers, various bandaging, nail scissors, and lots more. I’ll write an article about what I carry in the future… and talk about Diamox more too.
Sleeping Bag – MacPac Sanctuary 700. Found it too hot personally but better than too cold.
Sleeping Bag Liner – Rab silk liner. Great for extra bit of warmth and keeping sleeping bag relatively clean.
I didn’t take thermal underwear or walking poles, some people did and valued having them. I felt warm and steady enough without but if in doubt would definitely take them.
It was on our second day when we made for the top after calling it off due to bad weather the day before. From the Neltner Mountain Refuge (Club Alpin Francais Hut) we carried on up the valley briefly before turning to the East to face a steep wall of snow where we’d begin the climb proper. Due to heavy snow fall in the days/weeks before, the snow was very deep and soon the guides became slightly anxious (along with other members of the group) about the potential risk of avalanches. Also, it had been a few days before that anyone had completed even this first section of the ascent, so we were breaking a new trail all the way over at times unstable ground.
However, we were soon over the steep section of snow where it appeared most threatening and we carried on up. The depth of snow made going up more tiring that normal, bit the group managed to stay fairly close together all the way up to the top of the slope and start of the cwm (what’s a cwm? It’s an “amphitheatre like valley” from Wikipedia article). At the top of the slope, we stopped for a quick breather, drink and to check everyone was okay.
At a much more relaxed gradient the next problem was soon visibility, with clouds coming down and filling the cwm it was soon hard to see more than 15m ahead. Several times the guides stopped and contemplated returning, in fact on one occasion telling us that we’d need to turn back with visibility making the summit ridge dangerous. However, a small group of Spanish walkers who’d be following us pushed ahead whilst we considered carrying on. With them ahead of us breaking a trail, the guides were once again keen to carry on and hope for the weather to clear.
Having made it to walls of the cwm we began the ascent of the slope up to the ridge, in thankfully slightly better visibility. The slope is the last steep section of the walk. After finding the start of the ridge there is either some scrambling along the crest or dropping down to the left an easier route which brings you out onto the ridge proper. As if by fate it was at this point, that the visibility suddenly improved drastically to expose the entire ridge that snakes up North and finally North East to the summit. The ridge is particularly sheer on the Eastern side and was fairly corniced when we walked along it, so it’s well worth staying a few feet to the left of the crest.
Having completed the ridge in clearing visibility, I reached the pyramid that marks the summit of Mount Toubkal at just after 1pm on March 11th 2009, in bright sunshine after an ascent in grey murky cloud. The view from the top, even with clouds all around us was spectacular and well worth the climb up. We sat around, took photos (I produced a fluorescent running vest for mine) and had some lunch together, pleased that the whole group of 8 had made it to the top.
Coming down with the weather brightening up and being on top of the mountain later than expected, we all got down as quickly as possible. Back down off the mountain by half 3 (7.5hrs after setting off), I was first into the refuge and able to enjoy a fantastic hot shower and copious amounts of sugary mint tea.
Mount Toubkal was an enjoyable climb, more so than I expected. Experience varied wildy in the group, I was glad of having had experience of similar winter conditions and felt strong all the way up, but others who had never put on crampons before (and hadn’t really ever walked in the UK) were fine too. Having said that and whilst it’s not a technical climb at all, I’m not sure that learning to put on crampons and use an Ice Ax at 3000m in Morocco is your best bet. For those with experience walking in the UK (in winter too) looking to pick up an easy 4000m peak then its perfect.
As is normal a lot of the time, fitness was by far the biggest factor (apart from wanting it naturally) in getting to the top and enjoying it. One member of the group suffered pretty badly from altitude sickness, but feeling unwell before perhaps would’ve been better not attempting the ascent, still they got up and down (with help from painkillers) and wasn’t completely put off further future ascents.
In terms of my build up to the Alps, I was really pleased how comfortable I was on the ascent in terms of coping with altitude and stamina in the deep snow. It’s nice to come back out of the mountains having completed a decent walk, still feeling fresh and knowing previous work had been built upon. I’m assuming the Alps will be a lot harder, so the training has been ramped up considerably. But it definitely felt like a step in the right direction (up) and was a lot of fun.