The Amputee Adventurers

Back in January and February, I assisted with a group of amputees who had their sights set on Jebel Toubkal (High Atlas, Morocco). We did a preparatory weekend in Glencoe and then spent a week in the High Atlas.

It was with pleasure that I discovered recently that the trip report for the two sorties had been published online. What is more, my face made it a couple of times onto the Berghaus website, by whom one of the participants was sponsored!

The two-part article can be found in the following links:

The Amputee Adventurers: Winter Skills Training Weekend in Preparation for Mount Toubkal (Part 1)

The Amputee Adventurers: Winter Skills Training Weekend in Preparation for Mount Toubkal (Part 2)

Again, a big ‘well done’ to all the team for massive efforts all round. They did exceptionally well.

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More Winter Mountaineering in the High Atlas

In the shadow of Afella

[Full album of photos can be found on Facebook]

What a week it has been in the High Atlas: two massive efforts by the group to ascend the first and third highest peaks –  Toubkal and Ras n’Ouanoukrim –  and the coldest mountain day I have ever experienced.

Windblown snow on the traverse in the the South Cwm of Toubkal

And what a contrast it was to wet and mild Glencoe, just over two weeks ago. We had the obligatory sun and blue skies, but also fresh snow, which got whipped around by some bitterly cold winds.

The upper reaches of the South Cwm

Temperatures on summit day for Toubkal were in double negative figures, and that was before wind chill. It was hard to keep warm and by the end of the day I had lost feeling in some of my toes. However, this was not to stop the team, with some incredibly deep efforts in challenging conditions.

Views from the South Col

Also of interest, two British Mountain Guides, Mike ‘Twid’  Turner and Mark Charlton, spent ten days tackling ice routes in the vicinity of the refuge. Given the very cold and dry conditions, these were now of monstrous proportions, and bullet-hard ice was reported.

Ice falls in the valley above the Toubkal refuges

 

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.

Rab Baseline Hoodie – First Impressions

Nice deep chest zip for venting

My Rab Baseline Hoodie just arrived, courtesy of a bargain from Facewest.co.uk: advent calendar voucher discount, plus free Rab beanie, plus free delivery to France!

INITIAL VERDICT [for the impatient!]

A good copy of the classic Patagonia R1 Hoody, retaining all the important features and Polartec Powerdry fabric. Although lacking the same cult status, the Baseline is excellent value for money, at £75.00, and will probably be the most versatile of your layers.

[My final verdict can be found here]

Neat and elegant Rab embroidery

Like the rest of the climbing population, my eye had been on the Patagonia R1 Hoody for a long time. Partly, this was pure visceral desire (although this seasons colours are truly awful – lime green and bright orange) and partly because I recognised my need for a mid layer – the intense, sunny, yet cold, conditions in the High Atlas in August were beguiling, and necessitated the need for a thin, versatile layer over a t-shirt or baselayer. As soon as the wind picked up, it was distinctly chilly.

Until recently, the Patagonia R1 Hoody has been the best on the market – designed by mountaineers, tested by mountaineers, and universally liked for its versatility, breathability and minimal, yet useful, technical features. Interestingly, it was almost ditched by Patagonia, had it not been for cries of outrage from its sponsored athletes (see Andy Kirkpatrick’s article here).

However, it costs an arm and a leg, at £140.00.

In the last year, competition has appeared in the form of the Berghaus Smoulder Hoodie, Montane Fury Jacket (I think) and Rab Shadow Hoodie, which are essentially copies of a classic design. Since the price of the R1 Hoody was ultimately prohibitive for me, I took my chances with Facewest.co.uk and went for the Rab version, and here are some first thoughts before it goes to North Africa with me.

Thumb loop

FIT

Rab fit can be a bit weird, since it aims at the small niche market of (generally) slim and athletic mountaineers. So, if Paramo is your fit, you may well not do so well with Rab. I plumped for the medium, wanting a snug fit without excess baggy material, and for my tall, slim frame the Baseline hugs the stomach and is not too tight over the chest and armpits.

Like most Rab products, the arm length is generous for reachy moves when climbing, but also gives added wrist protection when combined with the thumb loops. The hood was good on first try – close fitting without restricting vision or leaving any gaping holes around the neck. It also differs from the R1 Hoodie in that the zip is straight down the middle of the chest, rather than veering to one side at the top. The beardguard though on the Baseline seems to sidestep that particular feature.

Beard guard

AESTHETICS

Looks aren’t everything, but the dark lead of the Baseline is definitely an improvement on the R1 Hoody lemon lime and mango (and black, to be fair). I try to avoid black these days, as I find all my kit is black, which is just a bit monotonous and boring, and I feel reflects the lack of daring of British manufacturers, who play it safe. In any case, the dark grey or graphite of the Baseline is demure and understated without completely losing all its character. The zip detailing, Polartec tabs and Rab-Polartec embroidery also provide a little bit extra to look at, if you are really bored.

TECHNICAL

The beauty of the design is that it strips back all the unnecessary features without losing the best or most important ones.

Predominantly, this is to do with the choice of fabric, Polartec Powerdry, and its particular utilisation. The back of the fabric is woven with a grid pattern (on the Baseline, only on the reverse, but can be seen on the interior and exterior of the R1 Hoody). This essentially wicks away moisture more effectively and the insulating properties of the fleece material give warmth at the same time. So, you can see that the grid Powerdry provides quite a versatile mix of properties.

The integrated hoodie is thin enough to be layered beneath a helmet and thumb loops against ingress of snow and cold air to the wrists. As mentioned above, the long sleeves aid with stretchy climbing arm movements above the head etc.

On zips, the main zip is nice and deep to allow for venting and the Napoleon zip to its left is quaint, but is not really big enough for much apart from keys or an A6 mapcase – I would never carry my keys there, but a small mapcase would definitely be deposited in that pocket for quick access.

VERDICT

As I have yet to deploy the Baseline in anger, the full verdict will be postponed. However, on first impressions it looks very promising. More to follow.

Facewest.co.uk were kind enough to throw in a free beanie as well!

The Alpine Journal

The Alpine Club

It was with interest and amusement that I read the Alpine Club’s first post on Facebook not so long ago:

Hi. First tentative steps as a Club on Facebook, at least officially. Would love to be liked but will settle for being in the room at the moment.

And the Club has certainly settled into the room comfortably, announcing on Facebook on Sunday the online availability of its past journals from 1960 to 2011:

Peace and Love. 1960s Alpine Journals now on-line. Happy browsing: http://www.alpinejournal.org.uk/Contents_All_Years.html

Being one for history and literature, I jumped at the chance to rummage around in some mountaineering history and quickly discovered a whole wealth of material at my fingertips.

I think this a commendable move from the Alpine Club, and with my trip to the High Atlas of Morocco in less than a week, I am writing a short essay examining the history and development of mountaineering in the High Atlas.

The Alpine Journal

After just a cursory look through the archives, I am very inspired and excited about not just the essay but further expeditions. The plan is to complete the essay before I leave, but it is slow moving currently, so this is a bit of a taster.

Watch this space!

The High Atlas – a One-Tick Wonder?

A party perched on the Tadat col, overlooked by the distinctive Tadat Pinnacle

In a week’s time I will be kicking off my winter season – although slightly off the beaten track – in the High Atlas, Morocco.

I was there at the end of August for a quick burst of summer mountaineering, which was excellent (see here), but this time the purgatorial screes and the sun blanched rock will have mostly vanished beneath the snow. There have now been a number of significant dumps of the white stuff, and, if my timing is right, the snowpack will be nicely consolidated.

However, from what I have seen and read of activity in the High Atlas, the area is a bit of a one-tick wonder. Parties generally arrive in Marrakech, make a beeline for Imlil, blitz it up to the Toubkal refuges, summit and then make a quick exit for Menara airport. Amongst all of that there might have been an acclimatisation day up to a local col or peak and a quick dash into the souks of Marrakech medina.

That is truly doing the High Atlas injustice.

With the new Cicerone English language guidebook for the Atlas in circulation (see here) and the Desnivel Spanish climbing guidebook (equally easy to get hold of), mountaineers shouldn’t be short for ideas to do up there. And yet Toubkal continually features as the main, if not only, objective of the majority of visitors to the area. If you want to whet your appetite for other objectives in the area, Des Clark, the author of the Cicerone guidebook, has a selection of route pages on his blog (see here).

I’ll be quite honest and admit that I am not hugely interested in Toubkal – in August, we climbed the WSW Ridge of Toubkal, but having reached the edge of the climbing and breached the 4,000m nark, were quite happy to descend to the hut again. This time, we’re planning to warm up by climbing Toubkal by the North Cwm route (the better of the two normal routes), and then move onto more exciting things. I have my eye on another of the big Toubkal ridges, the South East Ridge, although it is a long and demanding outing, without easy access.

Clearly, there is plenty to do out of the Toubkal refuges, but if you read the guidebook, it soon becomes clear that a week (which equates to five days plus travel in and out) is hardly any time to get stuck in properly to the mountaineering potential. I haven’t even mentioned Tazaghart, the distinctive plateau to the West of Toubkal, which has many quality lines climbed and unclimbed, which can be accessed from the Lépiney hut in the neighbouring valley.

Approaching spot height 1141m in the Northern Corries - one of my best days out last year

I’m looking forward to this trip massively, as if all goes smoothly, it will lead nicely into a decent winter season of outdoor work, both in Scotland and Morocco again, finally culminating with my Winter Mountain Leader training course at the end of February. Not only that, but I have also confirmed the dates for my first trip to the Alps at the end of June!

Atlas Aftermath

The High Atlas is a relatively unknown and unfrequented area outside of Jebel Toubkal and a few other venues (such as Mgoun). This is remarkable given the depth of mountaineering potential in the region, but inevitable given the lack of reliable mapping, language barrier to English-speakers and fear of terrorism, to name a few.

There are a number of trekking and climbing guidebooks to the area, but we used the most recent, Mountaineering in the Moroccan High Atlas, by Des Clark (available from Cicerone). Although primarily aimed at winter mountaineering, the book was very helpful with orientation and route planning. Ideally, I would like to get hold of the classic guidebook, Le Massif du Toubkal, by Jean Dresch and Jacques de Lépiney, but it is currently out of print.

The most recent guidebook for the High Atlas

Otherwise, there are a small number of sources of information for mountaineering, but it is very much a case of turning up and winging it!

I have included a few more favourite photos from the trip.

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