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Thomas Reilly

British Ambassador to Morocco and Mauritania

Part of UK in Morocco

12th April 2018 Morocco, Rabat

A memorable climb to Mount Toubkal

Leaving the beautiful Kasbah Toubkal, like the Last Homely House at Rivendell we walked off into the hills, over low-slung bridges, the brown flood-water gurgling round their feet along increasingly muddy paths, past villages clinging impossibly to terraces hanging off vertiginous cliffs, the mules carrying our trekking sacks and climbing gear making easy going of the slippery paths. The mud and scrubby slopes gave way to open plains, studded with stunted trees.  We had reached the pass.  The weather close around us, rain falling in sheets.  Down we headed.  Into the valley, past mud-built houses to the luxurious refuge, perched on the edge of a cliff.

In the morning, the clouds lifted.  The view eye-catching and unexpected.  The green valleys around our feet giving way to scree slopes, fading upwards into the white-crowned splendour of the High Atlas. The path’s journey plodded along by our restless feet.  The sharp scent of plentiful juniper bushes; filling our nostrils.  Through Tibet-like villages, children playing amongst chickens; tumble-down buildings.  The sun shining bright, yesterday’s rain a long-forgotten memory. Patches of snow grew beside the path.  Shelters for shepherds. Into the Toubkal National Park, the once-distant mountains now rising inspirational above us.

To lunch, by the stream and journey’s end for the mules.  Snow balls dangerously on their feet. Packs on, heavier now.  Up over scree, scrambling.  Mist sliding gently into the valley.  The sound of waterfalls in our ears. Snow now deep to our ankles.  Steep slopes, deeper snow, roped up we crept forward.  Ever onwards and upwards. Past 3,000 metres, our breath coming heavier, each step a labour. On over the last traverse, the sad, lonely hut appeared like sanctuary, though we knew no luxury awaited us there.

A cold, damp night, stars shining brightly – no light pollution to hide their beauty.  The dawn broke.  Sun shining high in its firmament.  Sky blue.  The majestic, snow-brushed crags seemingly within hand’s-reach, calling for our participation.

Snow frozen hard: a day for crampons, ice axes and courage. Steep, solid, slippery ice. Cutting steps in the corridors: hard work at the best of times.  Ice axes whirling from precarious footing.  Each step a dice with a 200 metre fall. Unprotected and exposed we crawled slowly upwards.  Each crest promising an end to the labour; each promise falsely broken.  Until finally, unexpectedly at last – the top: the labour of each step, each ice-axe stroke suddenly repaid with multiple interest – a view to hold, to treasure, to remember.  Sheer walls of ice to the right, dramatic traverse in front; magnificent bowl, crying out for a snowboard to the left.  And above the uninterrupted blue of an Atlas sky.  We pushed on, out over the traverse.  Stepping carefully in the footprints of the person in front.  Tired now.  Head down, counting paces, 20 at a time. Then look up to be surprised at our progress.  At the end of the traverse a steep patch of cut snow, at the wrong angle threatened to avalanche.  Across in haste and up the last, almost vertical slope.  Suddenly, in front we could see Mount Toubkal the target for the final day: the views now we looked something special, unspoiled, untarnished: true. Standing between us and the refuge of sanctuary: a 700 metre, near vertical descent down a gully we nicknamed the Couloir de Mort.  Slipping, sliding, striding.  Ice axes held ready, heels down, crampons biting.  Calves aching we inched our way down.

We slept like condemned men; fitfully, poorly. Waking before dawn, we slipped from the refuge. The stars bright, with moon shadows around.  Up we climbed, crampons crunching.  Cold pre-dawn air biting our cheeks. Headtorches casting ghostly shadows at our feet. Behind us the Marrakesh lights burned in the valley. Slowly the sun rose, lighting the peaks in a gentle yellow glow.  The sky turned pink, orange and blue. In silent single file we shuffled. The rocks on the saddle above us lit like gold teeth. False summit after false summit.  Then we stood on the edge of the Atlas, looking southwards to the desert.  The cold sun full on our faces.  One last climb, one last cold, rock-strewn slope.  The ice and snow lying thick around. Then in front, the metal triangle, simple, bare, stark: a few Nepalese prayer flags fluttered in the breeze.  We were up.  We were alone.  We had the summit to ourselves.  A rare moment of pure, unalloyed beauty.  The views stretched endless away to far horizons half-imagined towards mysteries and adventures anew.  A moment to lift the soul above the daily trudge.  A moment to savour, to believe, to rejoice. Beautiful and inspiring. The High Atlas had freed our souls to wonder; to dream.

I had an amazing and utterly memorable time climbing Toubkal and the surrounding mountains, but tragically, a British man lost his life in an accident on the way down from the summit a few days after my climb.  Mountain climbing is a liberating and wonderful experience, but it is also dangerous. Whilst I would encourage you to go and see the beauty of the High Atlas for yourselves, I would also absolutely underline the importance of following our travel advice – making sure you know what you are doing, have a proper guide and ensure that you are always aware of your own limitations. Be safe.

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