High Atlas Winter Mountaineering

Hanging out at 14,671 ft. on my birthday

The High Atlas is a special place, and I knew I was in for a good week, glimpsing the mountains from the air. What a foretaste I had:

[Photos of the trip can be found here on Facebook]

As the plan flew along the coast of Morocco, the distinction between land and sea became uncertain, a winter mist clinging to the ground. At last, the flight path turned east, and the setting sun flooded through the windows, blood-red shafts of light lancing over the upper cloud layer. The mountains appeared in series, with the familiar black-white contrast of buttress and gully marking the presence of winter.

My eye was inevitably drawn to the highest peak – Toubkal, surely? However, a significant col interrupted the sequence. The plane was steadily descended into Marrakech. And then the mountains reared up again, higher and grander, with Toubkal now clear.

The ground beneath looked cold and colourless, devoid of any of the sun’s warmth, and the plane continued to drop into the enveloping winter mist. Soon Toubkal and the setting sun were no longer visible. We left the mountain kingdom of the sky, and instead entered the jostling world of Marrakech.

The village of Aremd on the walk-in to the refuge

After than entry to the gateway to the High Atlas, I was keen for my first taste of winter mountaineering in Morocco. Based out of the Mouflons hut at 3,207m, James and I got stuck into a number of objectives, which included mountain days for my IML (International Mountain Leader) logbook, an introduction to winter mixed and ice climbing and familiarisation of the area for a future group, with which I will be assisting.

It was cold.

Ice forming rapidly in a valley below the refuge

Temperatures inside the dormitory at night were a cool 3°C and on our first day, the thermometer on my watch plunged to -8°C in the upper reaches of the North Cwm of Toubkal. I longed for the sun, as my toes steadily lost feeling in the Scarpa Manta M3s. Thankfully, the weather was very settled, and in the sun the temperature would easily jump 10°C, although with such cold and calm conditions, we were routinely wading through deep powder, often with a weak crust.

Overlooking the North Cwm of Toubkal

I have commented in previous posts that the sheer scale of mountaineering in the High Atlas should encourage exploration, and mountaineers not be content to remain in the confines of Toubkal. And I know this to be true, but wanted to lay down a good basis for further expeditions in the Atlas, so with my small handful of days, I played my hand.

Approaching the top of the NE Couloir, Ras n'Ouanoukrim

We took on Ras n’ Ouanoukrim, the third highest peak in the Atlas, to gain a vantage point to the south and east of the range. Even with the benefit of the guidebook and a blue sky day, we had to rely on basic skills to stay safe and sound. Having taken a ‘short cut’ to gain the central gully, we found ourselves on some precarious steep ground, not aided by loose powder snow on slab. ML ropework was called for – a body belay and braced stance aided James with some insecure mixed climbing up a step rock.

Leading up the North West face of Tête d'Ouanoums

Surprised by the amount of ice forming at all levels in the valley, we moved up a gear and took on a multipitch mixed and ice route on the North West face of Tête d’Ouanoums, Difficile. This was an adventure into the unknown, especially for me, with only a couple of Grade Is and one Grade III under my belt. The climbing was fun in a grand setting, but the sheer length of the route, over 800m, and large amounts of powder meant we started in the dark and finished by the light of headtorch. I could barely stand by the end, exhausted by the effort expended, altitude and focussed mental effort throughout the day.

Muhammed on ice (abseiling off after his top-rope ascent!)

After a rest day, during which we had fun introducing our cook, Muhammed, to the delights of ice climbing, we finished off the week with a dawn ascent of Toubkal West via the South Cwm. Typically, we were now fully acclimatised on our last day, and made quick, steady progress up and down. The dawn was reminiscent of my arrival, beautiful shades of red light from the East, and we sat on a ledge out of the icy wind, savouring the views of the land below for a few minutes.

Enjoying being alive, up a mountain - summit of Toubkal West

Alpine-style ridges stood out, flanked by deep, snow-filled gullies, leading at length to unknown peaks, perhaps unconsciously noted when flicking through the guidebooks. The allure of future adventure and exploration was beckoning us, but also the comforts of normal life left behind and families waiting at home. As I left a day later, I looked back up to the Atlas, but thick, white cloud all but obscured them from view. Here and there peaks stood out, but the mountain kingdom was closed for the moment, its magic contained, ready for the next foray.

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One Response to High Atlas Winter Mountaineering

  1. Pingback: Rab Baseline Hoodie – Verdict « When Men and Mountains Meet

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