Silence. I thumped on the door again. No answer. I gave it an almighty shove. It creaked open and I stepped into the warmth of the refuge. We passed a lounge full of trekkers, reclining in their ski jackets. Pausing for a second, I gawked at them through the glass. Fragrant aromas wafted from enormous tagine pots that were spaced evenly along a cafeteria bench.
Continuing to the main lobby, Robert and I approached the reception desk and booked bunks for the night.
“Is there any food left?” I said.
The desk clerk continued counting the wad of bank notes I had handed him. He turned and placed them in the till, then pointed to the room opposite. “This is last service.”
The warmth I had felt coming in from the outdoors had now faded, and I began to shiver as I sat down at the empty dining table. Two grimy men were hunched in front of a fireplace at the back of the room.
A kitchen porter wheeled in our food and placed it on the table. He pulled off the tagine covers and pointed at each. “Chicken tagine. Vegetable tagine.”
The two men approached the table as I ladled cous cous into my bowl.
“Are you planning to summit tomorrow?” The taller man inquired, in a European accent.
I glanced up and took a moment to process the question. “Yes. You?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “We tried today. Nearly made it.”
“What happened?” Robert said.
He began to scoop some food onto his plate. “There was a thin ledge, about three-quarters of the way up. We tried to make it past, but the snow and ice was too deep. We had to turn back.”
“Shit.” I said. “You can’t be too careful up here though. Some German guy died only a week ago, I heard.”
“Oh some German guy!” He scoffed. “I’m glad it was nobody important.”
I grinned as it dawned on me that he was a Deutscher.
“Yes, Yes. Ze Germans.” He muttered.
“Will you be trying again tomorrow?” Robert said.
“No, this our last day. We’re leaving tomorrow, for the desert.”
Robert continued conversing with the pair as I became lost in thought.
I tried to digest the information I had been presented with. Having struggled to make it to the refuge, we were now facing the unknown quantity of Toubkal in the winter, a task which these clearly more experienced climbers had reluctantly abandoned.
After finishing his food, he stood to bid us farewell. “Take care guys.”
He smirked. “I wouldn’t want to hear that some English guy died up there.”
After a prolonged period reclining on the bench, we walked through to the main lounge that was still packed with trekkers. Sam and Frankie waved from the cramped cafeteria bench. We hunkered down on the only remaining seats across the lounge.
Folding my arms, I surveyed the room. The scene took on a surreal dimension, perhaps a result of extreme fatigue. Next to us an Asian-American woman stood gesticulating comically as her audience whooped and hollered at her story. In the corner two Spanish men sat side by side, periodically sipping their tea. They smiled politely as Robert got up to converse with them. In the opposite corner a long-haired man leaned on the wall over two German girls, as they deflected his advances.
Retiring to the bunk, thoughts swirled in my head. I visualized the thin ledge skirting sheer walls of ice. Flattening myself against the wall I edged along the narrowing rim. Nervous exhalation. So close to safety, the floor gave way and I tumbled into the shadows. I woke with a jerk as the bedroom door swung open.
The rest of the trekkers had now come to bed, their babble was jarring to my ears. We were introduced to the two women sleeping beside us on the long bottom bunk, Tanya and Tay. The latter was the woman I had seen gesticulating earlier in the main lounge. It turned out they were also attempting the climb the next morning. At lights out I slept immediately.
The next morning, before sunrise, I woke to Robert shaking my arm. A hushed zeal permeated the main lounge as everyone prepared for the climb. Stepping out into the darkness, I glanced over at the procession of headtorches advancing up the hill.
“Keep up.” I called, plowing forward.
We had set off with the two women from our bunk and had been joined by a Belgian doctor, Bruno.
The path climbed into a valley, flanked by collosal rocky slopes. The snow was at least three feet deep, a trail of slushy footprints leading the way.
“Thank god there’s some sort of path.” I said. “We’d be crawling up otherwise.”
“That will be Ian and David.” Tanya said. “They said they were setting off around five a.m. to dig out a trail.”
“They are ultramarathon runners from Spain.” Tay said.
The rising sun melted the snow’s icy top layer mellowing our footsteps. Clambering forward, my feet sank in and out of the deep hollows, the beat becoming hypnotic.
After a couple of hours climbing in the constant sun, in my all-black hiking attire I was now sweating uncontrollably. Ahead of the pack I took a rest on a rock, near the crest of the hill.
A tall bearded man in bright mustard jacket approached from above.
“Would you like a Russian sweet?” He said. “You look like you could do with an energy boost.”
I eyed him and his confectionary suspisciously for a second. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Lubomir.” He said, extending his hand.
Waiting for the others to arrive, we conversed for a while about our travels.
“Where is the most interesting place you have been?” I said.
He considered for a second and smiled. “Kamchatka. Ever heard of it?”
I shook my head. “What’s so great about it?
“It’s a wilderness area in the far east of Russia, close to Japan.” He said. “It’s very mountainous, there are many volcanos. A beautiful place.”
I felt I had been handed some secret information. The modern world appears to be ever-shrinking due to cheap air travel and social media, so to hear of this magical volcanic land for the first time sparked a sense of mystery in my mind.
I nodded. “So many places I’ve never heard of.”
The others were panting up the hill by now and greeted us with relief.
We had been blessed with a perfect day to climb, blue skies and minimal cloud. The howling winds and face-numbing blizzards I had been concerned about were nowhere to be seen. After recuperating from the first phase of the climb, we set off towards the summit, still out of view from our vantage point.
I had chosen to scramble up a steep rocky incline and left the others to trace around the longer main route. After crawling up to the main path, I came to a thin snowy ridge wide enough for only one person to traverse at a time. ‘This must be the dreaded ledge,’ I thought.
Carefully trudging up, I was forced several times to perch on the steeply rising incline on one side of the path, while descending climbers passed.
After a tense half hour carefully navigating the slippery ridge, the summit of Toubkal emerged. A pyramidal monument marked the zenith. As I approached the metallic structure I noticed it had been vandalized by grafitti tags. I wondered why people felt the need to besmerch such a view with their ugly territorial sprayings.
The panorama from the summit was gorgeous. The snow-capped turrets of the Atlas mountains gradually gave way at the horizon to the distant murk of the desert. After surveying the landscape for a while I decided to take a walk back down the hill to check on the rest of the group’s progress.
Squinting downwards I spotted the rest of the group plodding towards the summit. It had been a tiring ascent, but mercifully the sun held out and made the climb relatively painless.
After an hour atop Toubkal, chatting and relaxing on the jagged cliffside, the conversation turned to the descent.
“Apparently there was a plane which crashed on the other side of the mountain years ago and the wreckage is still there.” Robert said. “There is a way down that passes it. I think I’m going to go that way and look for it.”
“Do you even know which way you’re going?” I said.
He walked a few steps, looking for evidence of another trail down the mountain. “Not exactly.”
I chuckled and shook my head.
A chubby English girl I had attempted to converse with while climbing the ridge sidled over to Robert. “I’ll go with you.”
“There you go.” I said. “You’ve got a team now.
Tanya had pulled out a crumpled map. “Which side of the mountain do we need to be on?”
“Okay, I’m heading back.” I said.
Robert waved perfunctorily.
Most of the group huddled round and decided to take the air crash wreckage trail. I left them to discuss their route and set off back towards the refuge. Descending from mountains can lull you into a false sense of security. After the draining climb, the way back can appear to be but a simple downhill stroll.
Shockwaves began to shoot up my legs as I thumped from the safety of one footprint to the other. The distance back to the refuge seemed to stretch out as I lurched down through the slush. To make things even more difficult, my crampon spikes had begun to snag my trousers with increasing regularity, as the material tore and flared out.
Taking the next step, time froze as the spikes again caught my trouser leg and took hold. I fell forward. Struggling to try and find my footing while attempting to break free from the crampon, I landed awkwardly, twisting my ankle.
I lay in the snow, breathing in and out. After a while I dragged myself up and tentatively put some weight on my ankle. Uncomfortable, but still useful.
Bruno was now approaching from above. “All Okay?” He said.
I rotated my ankle a couple of times. “I’ll live.”
There was little anyone could do to help up there. I nodded.
“Okay. I’m going to carry on then.” He said. “See you at the refuge.”
With nowhere to go but down, I set off again, catching my trousers every so often on my crampon spikes and stumbling forward into the snow. The bottom of my trousers were now ripped to shreds, which of course increased the incidence of the spikes snagging the fabric and the whole cycle infuriatingly continued.
Making just one mistake in the mountains can lead to a harsh lesson from reality. Struggling down a remote valley, in torn-up trousers, with a twisted ankle can really test your sense of positive thinking.
Finally the valley opened up and the tiny stone buildings below began to grow in my field of vision. Circling into the courtyard of the refuge, life felt good again. The sun was shining and I had just taken in the views from the highest point for thousands of miles. Time to kick back, put my feet up and celebrate for the rest of the day.
That evening everyone gathered in the main lounge. Ian and David, the trailblazers, had joined us. Sam and Frankie also arrived at the table with a climber they had met on their travels, a jovial Welshman called Dan. We knocked back mint tea, told stories and gorged ourselves from the steaming tagines that were carried to the table. The mood was joyous that evening, the fellowship of a shared moment of success.
Return to Imlil
The next morning I set off with Robert, Ian and David for Imlil. ‘I’d better set a swift pace, these marathon runners will leave me in the dust’, I thought.
I took off at a trot in my crampons, not realizing that Robert had a problem with his equipment and the others had stopped.
Looking back, I saw no sign of anyone. I decided to continue. ‘These people are athletes,’ I thought.
After an hour or so, I arrived at Chamharouch, the terraced village we had stopped in on the ascent. Silent but for the sound of running water.
I noticed Tay and Tanya resting on a nearby wall. They had set off at sunrise but had stopped for a rest. We all waited until Robert and the others appeared over the crest some time later.
I began to lag behind as my injuries re-emerged. Ian, David and Tanya were setting an unbearable pace for a limping man in a weighty backpack. By the time I arrived in Imlil, only Robert was still visible in the far distance. The snow of the previous days had melted leaving a rich earthy smell. I squelched down the muddy paths until I reached the main street. Robert and I stopped for a meal in a local dining shack.
I bought a huge bag of salty black olives from a local shopfront. Strolling down the main road looking for a grand taxi, I spotted Tay, who was bargaining in french with a local over her ice axe.
“We’re gonna get a grand taxi.” I said. “You guys coming?”
The local was driving a hard bargain and she waved him off, shaking her head. “Let’s go.”
Back to Marrakech
Hours later, after a ride of comparable luxury to our trip out, we arrived back to the familiarity of Marrakech. It felt good to be back, meandering amongst the throng of the medina quarter.
Guzzling sugar cane juice from a street stall we sought out the Riad that Tay and Tanya had booked. It turned out to be a lavish outfit, spread out around several interior courtyards.
“Shall we just stay here.” I said. “We’re going home tomorrow and I’m tired.”
Robert pursed his lips. “I was thinking of getting a bed in a hostel in a less touristy area.”
He thought for a minute. “I want to go to a hammam while I’m in Marrakech too.”
“What the hell is that?” I said.
“A traditional public bath. You bring your own soap, get undressed, then you can pay an attendant to scrub you.”
“Interesting.” I said. “I could do with a nice scrub.”
“They are segregated.” He said. Only men can go into the male hammam.”
I stroked my chin. “Hmmm.”
“There are different kinds. There are tourist hammams and more authentic local ones.”
I considered for a moment. “The thought of getting naked then paying a Moroccan guy to scrub me in some backstreet shower room, isn’t filling me with enthusiasm.”
“Pssshh…” he said waving off my ignorance.
He smiled wryly and shook his head.
“It says they have a hammam service here.” Tay said, showing a leatherbound price list to Robert.
“There you go” I said, slapping Robert on the back. I had solved his problem and got what I wanted in one fell swoop. I sat back triumphantly. “Sold!”
When the sun had set, we left the riad in search of a restaurant that had been recommended by the hotel staff. It existed within the many forking paths of the medina quarter. After a few dead ends, we came across a cordoned off area and were welcomed in after showing our reservation.
The restaurant was stylish and spacious, full of dressed-up tourists. After dinner, a belly dancer gyrated from table to table.
The next day we had a few hours before the flight. Tay had Tanya had left early in the morning. We ran into Ian and David by chance in the souk and traipsed around a few local attractions together before parting company.
Bags packed and passports ready, Robert hailed a taxi for the airport. “How much?”
“Fifty dirham, my friend.” He said.
I nodded in approval.
From the souk to the taxi rank, traders in Marrakech have a sophisticated sense of the savvyness of individual tourists. You can quickly become accustomed to a place, but only with difficulty can you escape the outgroup of ‘the tourist’, an imposition, tolerated only as a golden goose to be massaged.
The ‘authentic experience’ is the ideal in modern travel. To live like a local and transcend the narrow confines of touristification. To be granted entry into a richer matrix of interactions and perspectives, away from the predictable pathways of the masses.
We had certainly been massaged in Morocco, although travelling to the remote environment of the High Atlas mountains had forced a strong dose of austerity down our throats. Leaving behind comfort for the boundless horizons of the mountains however, is a trade I am always willing to make. To stand on that peak with people who have struggled alongside you. To taste that perculiar mix of solitude, exhaustion and surging joy, surveying lands as far as the eye can see.