Our intrepid team of explorers from Adventure Alternative were in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and our aim was to summit Four Peaks, all over 4,000 metres high, in the North West of Africa. The description of the trip in the Adventure Alternative blurb was that on day three, we would “make an attempt” at Akiod, why just an attempt? What could be so tricky about it? The delights and difficulties of Akiod would have to wait for another two days because today was an attempt at a double peak – Timesguida and then Ras Ouanoukrim (which funnily enough we shortened to Ras).
“They are 500 miles long and up to 60 miles wide”
Back home in Ireland, the Ras is the toughest amateur bike race on the Island. It’s been won by Sean Kelly amongst others, but in Morocco the Ras was our first goal. We were stationed at Netner Lodge nestling in the middle of the high Atlas, an impressive swathe of mountains which stretch nearly from the Atlantic sea board in the West to Algeria in the East. They are 500 miles long and up to 60 miles wide. These mountains in previous centuries have been a place of refuge for the population from invaders. For us they were merely to be a high altitude playground where we could pit our wits against precocious Mother Nature.
As the seven of us were sharing a dorm with about 10 to 12 others, every team had a different mountain to tackle and therefore a different start time. One morning one bloke opposite us got up at 2.30 a.m. and started fumbling about with his head torch. We heard him put all his gear on and he was obviously going to start his climb in the dark and the cold. For us on day one we had a civilised lie in to 7.00 a.m. and by 8.30 a.m. we all assembled outside the Refuge bright eyed, if not, bushy tailed.
We had our crampons and our rucksacks and we set off, more in hope than in expectation.
We quickly got into a pattern of making slow and steady progress with the accent on slow. No matter where you trek in the world, the right method is the one used in Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. The Swahili word for “Slowly Slowly” is Pole, Pole and I have heard that phrase used in Nepal, Borneo and now in Morocco as well. Matt, our leader, showed us how to synchronize our footsteps with our breathing, better long and slow than fast and choppy.
Crampons would be a boon on ice and were necessary to prevent us from falling. Putting on a set of crampons is an art in itself and it took me three days to master it. In fact I obviously didn’t because on the very last day coming down the last slope one of my crampons fell off!
“You have to trek John Wayne style”
With crampons you have to walk with your feet wider apart than normal, so you don’t catch one on the other i.e. you have to trek John Wayne style. It may not be pretty, but it works. Matt also showed us how to kick a hole out of the ice with the front of the crampon and he explained that it was fairly hard work for your calf muscles if you had to do this for hours on end. Me? – I just crossed my fingers and listened to Ibrahiam who said we would get to the top,” Inshallah” (God willing).
After a few hours of snowy ridges we had some technical scrambling on bare rocks to remind us that this wasn’t just going to be a ‘walk in the park’. Omar, one of our guides just made the whole thing look ridiculously easy. I tried to follow his footsteps in the snow. Although I was the same height as him, his gait was much longer than mine and I felt myself struggling to keep up with his ‘Finn McCool’ type steps. Eventually we summited our first peak on Ras and it made us feel good. Why do you go and trek all over the globe in these places,? I am often asked. It’s hard to encapsulate it into mere words, but up here, the warm comfort blanket of security and network systems and support of friends and family and office is stripped away. You have to fend for yourself, it’s you against nature. It’s not a case of conquering these mountains, God forbid, I conquered nothing – except my own fears. These mountains merely allowed us to stand on their top for a few minutes before we shuffled off their peaks.
Why do it? In a nutshell, standing up here, seemingly on top of the world, you can practically hear the silence. Hannibal Lector waxed menacingly about the Silence of the Lambs, but up here it’s about the Silence of the Souls. It’s so quiet it is breath taking. The second reason for being up here is the scenery and the peace. I am fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the world – at sea level – but even I have to admit that these views are world class. The weather was kind to us, every day was blue sky, no clouds and no wind. Roger Daltrey of “The Who” sang years ago, “I can see for Miles and Miles”, I now know what he means.
Up here, you are not worried about the nonsensical decisions of the Northern Ireland Court Service to close Limavady Court House or the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission abolishing Legal Aid, you just relax and go with the flow and enjoy the views. The Atlas mountains are the African equivalent of the Himalayas, albeit half their height, but they were no less challenging and there was no less sense of achievement when you got to the top.
One hour later I was on what is called a snow-bridge. Our second goal of the day was Ras. To get across to it we had to place our feet – and our well being – and entrust them to a snow-bridge. Now I have stepped across quite a few bridges in Nepal and Borneo and they are made of good solid stuff. Here however, the fate of the organiser of this year’s Roe Valley Sprint Race on the 11th May, was dependent upon negotiating very carefully a narrow enough carpet of snow. If you slipped down to the left, you fell only 300 metres, but if you slipped to the right you would tumble twice that. The whole idea was not to tumble in the first place. We all made it across in one piece and celebrated with chocolate, group hugs and energy bars. We hadn’t budgeted however for being out so long and so it was a fairly hungry and thirsty Adventure Alternative party that made it back to base camp 8 hours after setting out. On the way down, we put on our crampons for the first time to help us cope with a big steep icy decent and after an initial reluctance we all got to grips literally with our new iron clad feet.
The scary looking face
Day two saw us leave the comfort of our lodge at 7.00 a.m. Quickly we were on our way across a fairly scary looking face but it was covered in snow and ice and our crampons worked a treat. Today was Toubkal. At 4,167 metres it was the loftiest of our challenges. Many people come here just to do this one, but we had wisely had four goals in mind. On this trip, I was to more than double my number of 4,000 metre peaks that I had bagged in my life time.
“There were a few ‘seat of the trouser’ moments on the way up”
Again we went Pole, Pole and we were rewarded with cracking views and spectacular scenery. There were a few ‘seat of the trouser’ moments on the way up but when we were there we were amazed to see a canny canine companion with us! Apparently this dog would routinely work its way up (without crampons!) the slope knowing that any climbers would share their tinned mackerel with him. We obviously obliged – please don’t tell Roxy! After opposing for the obligatory “King of the World” shots, we started to fight our way down. This was undoubtedly our trickiest assignment to date as we descended over a seemingly glass like stretch of 400 metres of sheet ice at a precipitous angle, where if you had started to slide you would end up on a spot marked oblivion. I learned that you had to have confidence in your equipment – crampons and ice axe and also yourself. I learned a lot about myself and we all made it down to our temporary home after a ten hour day, full of fun, and a bit of fear as well.
It was day three I was worried about…. I had spoken to a bombastic mountain guide the night before who greeted it as “PD”, this was a French climbing term meaning “Peu Difficile” It was quite obvious to me that the French had never actually been up Akioud because to me it was a BD i.e. “Beaucoup Difficile”! I was very apprehensive about it and tossed turned most of the night and I already decided that if I couldn’t hack the technical upper reaches that I would turn back, preferring to be a living coward than a dead hero, but adrenaline does funny things to a bloke. We set off at 6.00 a.m. head torches and with the sky illuminated by the sparkling stars and a crescent moon. Three hours later after a massive hike up a steep ice wall (off which Ibrahiam told us helpfully a skier had launched himself, couldn’t stop, hit another skier and killed him). We were at decision time. It was Fight or Flight. The only thing I wanted to do was get cracking. The rest of the team were fairly relaxed and were posing for pictures. I only wanted to pose for photographs at the top and not on this col. I set off and there was only one thing on my mind, get to the top a.s.a.p. I went at it like a bull at a gate. Soon the lines were stretched and I was told to wait. Matt had brought ropes in case one of us fell. I am not sure if I wanted a rope in case I caused all of us to fall. We were at a 60 degree angle and I have never been so grateful for the ability of crampons and an ice axe to do their job. After an interminable wait I got the go ahead to continue the push to the top. This was without doubt the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. Thirteen Ironman was one thing, but at least all you have to do is swim, bike and run, there are no life threatening situations to confront but here, half way between Hell and Heaven, I knew that one slip could be fatal. It tended to concentrate the mind wonderfully.
After what seemed like hours we all made it to a rocky crag where we celebrated the fact that we were all still alive. I knew however that going down would be even worse as I would have to look at the drop. Forty five minutes later we made it back down to the relative safety of the col. The relief of the Siege of Derry was as nothing compared to how I felt and where a call of nature was necessitated…. I had stood on top – and lived to tell the tale.
On the way down, the atmosphere in the warm sunshine was one of “Schools Out for Summer”. We practically frolicked in the deep snow and laughed when we fell over. After negotiating the tricky icy gorge, we were on the home run except that we had another four hour hike after lunch to get to Imlil where a surprise birthday party lay in store for Ben and I. Ahmed managed to bring us some beer from Marrakesh and we had no difficulty in persuading a visiting Dutch guy and an Australian girl in joining us for some cake and to listen to Moroccan drumming and singing. Ahead of us lay a night or two in the souks, medinas and kasbahs of Marrakesh but in the meantime we could reflect a on a Job Well Done. The aim was to summit four 4,000 metre peaks, we accomplished that and more importantly we made it back down.
Morocco has everything from the wild sea coast in the West to the biggest desert on earth to the East. Adventure Alternative are planning a new trip entitled “From Surf to Summit to Sahara”. You might want to check it out. I just wonder how I will get my surf board to the top of Toubkal…..
Author – Peter Jack
Peter is a very accomplished all round human being, he is someone who is infections with his smile and positive attitude. If you are lucky enough to be in his presence you will spend the entire time smiling from ear to ear. Along with this he is or has been to mention but a few….
- President of the Limavady Rotary Club 2010-2011
- President and head of selectors of Triathlon Ireland 2010-2011
- Former member and current chair of Triangle Triathlon Club
- Commentator at European, home nations and Irish duathlon championships
- Commentator for BBC at commonwealth games 2002 and the world triathlon championships
- Trekked Kilimanjaro 2010
- Trekked to Everest base camp 2011
- Trekked Kinabalu Borneo 2012
- Trekked Atlas Mountains Morocco 2013
- Trekked Mt Elbrus Russia 2014
- 14 time Ironman finisher
- 40 marathons and counting
- Olympic torch bearer June 2012
- Indoor Ironman 2012
- MC at world Police and Fire Games 2013
- Future Kona Ironman competitor…………!
As you can see, Peter has accomplished an amazing amount and he is still going strong. We are honored to have Peter contribute.
Adventure Alternative is an independent travel company which was started in 1991 by adventurer and mountaineer Gavin Bate, and developed during many years of organising and running expeditions around the world. It is now an established company with an emphasis on responsible travel and a high level of knowledge and experience. They have run trips to the summit of Mount Everest to the middle of the Sahara Desert!
Check out their Mount Toubkal page here to experience an amazingly well organised trip like what Peter has just described above.
If you want to know anything about the climb, Peter or Adventure Alternative please do give us a shout, we’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.
For anyone thinking about in the Atlas mountains do not under estimate how cold it can get, you will need a warm sleeping bag as temperatures can plumit. The following bags would be perfect for the Atlas ….click here