I was getting itchy feet (no not athlete’s foot), not having been off trekking for the last few years. Some problems with my back and knees had improved with a lot of hard work and I knew I needed to be off again before old age and decrepitude set in even further. My wife Christine had even given me a pass out ! But where to ?
My long standing ambition, above all others, has been to do the full Karakorum Traverse, but for years no reputable agency has run this. I did the first half in 2006, from Hushe over the Gondogoro La to Concordia and K2 then down the Baltoro Glacier, and this was by far my best ever trip. This left the second half, up the Biafo Glacier to Snow Lake and the Hispar La towards the Ogre, as top of my wish list. In theory a couple of agencies were offering the trek this summer and I had put my name down, despite dire Foreign Office warnings, but they failed to get enough clients, indeed any clients, mad enough to go to Pakistan in the current climate, so that was that.
An alternative did however present itself. Jagged Globe had an interesting trip to the north side of K2, flying to Kyrgyzstan, then jeep across the far western tip of China before trekking into K2 in what looked like extremely remote and rugged terrain, plus camels to carry the gear and port you over some big rivers. Great, let’s go for it I thought, until Jagged Globe also pulled the trip for lack of support.
So, what to do ? Four previous trips to Nepal had been very enjoyable, but I felt like a change and needed a trip that would actually run, when I remembered a trek that had been at the back of my mind for a while – a three week crossing of the High Atlas in Morocco. A number of club members had been to the Atlas and enjoyed it and Mark Anderson had bent my ear several times recommending this particular trip which he did some years ago. So off to Morocco it was at the very end of May. It was only after I had booked that Ted Wilkins reminded me of what Mark had said about a large chunk of his group having bailed out part way, finding it too tough. However, I thought, if Mark can do it ……………….!
The booking was with KE Adventure, but in reality it was run by French agency Alibert and I was the sole Brit, with eight French, one German, one French-Canadian and two Yanks, ranging in age from a young French woman in her twenties to one guy even older than me, but fit. The French guys were good fun, with one seeming to have an endless supply of pastis in his kit bag for us to enjoy pre-dinner aperitifs. At one point I managed to get the French looking for big noisy frogs down by a stream – they never even suspected ! I A Berber guide, cook and several muleteers and their mules to carry the kit made up the crew, and we mainly camped apart from three nights in basic gites.
Three weeks of excellent weather ensued, with clear skies and mostly warm weather, with several hot days, hard but not too excessive. The timing turned out to be just right, not too hot, but with the winter snows having almost gone and some spectacular carpets of flowers. The trek comprised a tortuous route across the High Atlas, reaching four of the main summits, Toubkal, the highest at 4167m, M’Goun at 4071m, Anghamar 3608m and Ouanoukrim 4088m, with substantial daily ascent and descent over passes, high plateaus, valleys and through gorges. As there were no rest days, it was sustained, but mainly technically easy walking with no more than a bit of scrambling, though some quite exposed and loose eroded tracks in parts. There was a close call on one narrow rotten cliff path, which had slid way, requiring a delicate detour over extremely loose rock – this caused one of the mules, which were normally very sure-footed, to panic and it nearly fell down the cliff with two of the muleteers hanging onto it. How they all did not go over I will never know – strong and brave men. A couple of boring days were unavoidable to link up stages of the route, but overall it was spectacular. There was a good dose of culture, visiting several Berber villages, Kasbahs and our guide’s family home for tea and the crew entertaining us with Berber songs.
The normal daily routine was an early start, with a long morning trek followed by a two hour lunch break in the heat of the day, with a shorter afternoon walk, apart from summit days, which could entail a pre-dawn start and a packed lunch.
The food on trek was mainly very good, with superb fresh salads at lunchtime and evening tajines - that is apart from the cous cous – I hate bloody cous cous. Unfortunately for the Muslim crew, Ramadam started a week into the trip and was strictly observed by them during daylight hours, which was extremely hard in the heat. Despite this they never had a problem with maintaining the service for we non-believers. This was the first time our guide had led such a sustained trek during Ramadam and he swore never again.
The highlight of the trek was undoubtedly the ascent of M’goun, with a delightful ridge walk and superb views, and a cold breeze making the ascent a little easier. In contrast Anghamar has nothing to recommend it - a big pile of loose rubble, infuriating on both ascent and descent, comprising rock for which David Hughes kindly provided the technical name – shitite. Ouanoukrim was reported to be good, a big day with 2000m of ascent, of which I only made the first half, being stricken with a dose of the ‘Montezumas’ and forced to make too many ‘excursions’ from the track. At one point I was surprised by a group of Japanese, complete with cameras, who will no doubt now be showing their friends photos of a ‘full moon’ in Morocco. However, I recovered for the climb up Toubkal, which also had a lot of loose rock, and we were rewarded by a wonderful panorama extending to the Middle and Anti-Atlas and almost to the Sahara, unfortunately obscured by haze.