Monday, April 5, 2010

Jeff and I Endeavor to Climb a Mountain, Fail, Still Feel Good About It

I’m going to start titling some of my blog posts like the chapters in a Lars Van Trier movie so people think something awful is about to happen. Then, when it doesn’t, they will be happy. Good plan.

Jbel [Arabic for Mountain] Toubkal is the highest peak in Northern Africa. I heard about it shortly after my arrival in Morocco and resolved to take a stab at climbing it. Plans were finalized when my friend Jeff announced his own enthusiasm for tackling the excursion while planning his visit. Jeff is a guy I know from back home. He hunts ducks with binary explosives and an assault rifle. Good guy to have on a mountain, I figured.

The bus from Marrakesch to Imlil – the trailhead for the hike up Jbel Toubkal – collects its passengers from a dusty street corner adjacent a cemetery. On some days. But not on the one when we were going. We stood for about two hours, kicking rocks into the road and telling dirty stories about third-world hostels until finally surrendering ourselves to one of the taxi drivers who had been beeping at us at 4-minute intervals since we began our wait.

“Two people 300 dirham,” The taxi driver said.
“For both of us?”
“For each of you.”
“50 dirham for both of us,” I countered.
“60 dirham each.”

The High Atlas range rises from the expansive plains of central Morocco like a mist-shrouded cliff face at the edge of an ocean [Pretty flowery description, no? Please take my usual avoidance of such effeminate language as proof of sincerity here]. ‘Intimidated’ is a gross understatement when applied to a pair of relatively inexperienced climbers approaching the range from over a hundred kilometres in the carcass of what was once a respectable Mercedes sedan. We saw the foothills first, and what looked like a low layer of cloud cover above them. The clouds, of course, were not. They were mountains.

Alternating gasps of dumbstruck awe and defeatedly muttered obscenity would be the soundtrack of the expedition. There is no portion of the trek that is not so epic in its beauty that one can help but to remark on it. And there is not one stretch of trail so relentlessly steep as to not implore you to turn back. (We would later find that, despite climbing the wrong mountain, we ascended, and subsequently descended, over 6,000 vertical feet of stone and ice over the course of 16 hours).

The hike is completed in 4 stages:
  • Ascent from Imlil to the refuge (situated in an alpine valley below the summit) [6 hours]
  • Ascent from the refuge to the summit [4 hours]
  • Descent to refuge [2 hours]
  • Descent to Imlil [4 hours]
Our first day on the trail was dedicated entirely to the venture from the Berber enclave of Imlil to the mountain’s isolated stone refuge. The route, whose beauty I mentioned earlier but really can’t overstate (see: pictures), proceeds upward from the village through a series of valleys and canyons, braced on either side between jagged Atlas cliffs. An expansive pebble riverbed just outside the first village is the last reminder of what even ground is meant to feel like. Thenceforth, each stride brings a knee to an acute angle somewhere near the waist and the air begins to thin.

There are three more clusters of Berber homes along the way – the last of which is perched over a series of glacier-blue waterfalls and haloed with whitened peaks. Pretty. After you stop seeing other humans, snow starts to splash across the trail and the pace begins to slow. This is about 4½ hours in.

The refuge, visible at the end of the last long ravine for a full hour before you reach it, is one of the loveliest sights of the trek – for only the promise of a bed and hot water. All ice and snow for the last hour. More cursing, heavier breath, elevated heart rates; cardiovascular systems struggling to keep check on the diminishing supply of oxygen.

To our surprise, the windows of the refuge were sweating with condensation when we arrived. 30 to 40 people were already present – their noise and bodyheat almost oppressive as we entered. The numbers were somewhat surprising, as we had only seen two other hikers heading in the direction of the refuge that day. It became apparent, however, that most of them had been staying at the refuge for several days – hiking up the mountain with skis each morning (and possibly again in the afternoon), and sliding back down. They were almost exclusively from Nordic countries – blonde superhumans who would wander up the mountain sideways, skis strapped to their feet and then fling themselves off cliffs to ski back down. We didn’t really talk to anyone. Mountain folk are strange.

Confusion and misadventure began at 5:00 the next morning following my soundest night of sleep in recent memory. After breakfast, I stood in front of the large hanging map near the front door of the refuge. “Where the hell are we?” I shouted to Jeff.
“By the mountain.”

I cocked my head sideways. It didn’t help.

We set out around 6:00, trudging determinedly up the kind of icefield Dolph Lundgren would drive a snowmobile across before launching it into a helicopter.

Crack, I heard from behind me. I spun just in time to see Jeff disappear from view and the split of a deep crevasse racing toward me. I leapt to the side, burying my dual-wielded ice axes into an ice-covered cliff face. A blackened descent into frozen nothingness had opened where I stood. Jeff was nowhere to be seen. “Help me,” I heard faintly as I pulled myself up the cliff. “Be right there, buddy!” I said as I tied a length or parachute cord around my torso and drew the .45 from my pack. Yetis had been sighted in the area.

Nothing from the previous paragraph happened. Just making sure everyone is paying attention.

So we continued up the valley from the refuge. And I’ll just cut to the chase here: We climbed the wrong mountain. Jbel Toubkal is situated in a range of other very big rocks. We chose the wrong rock.

Upon returning, I was asked by my girlfriend, bless her heart, “why didn’t you guys just go up the biggest one?” A reasonable-sounding, but misinformed question. If you were to ask a person standing in Brooklyn to look across the water and point out the tallest building in Manhattan, they would be able to do so easily. If that same person, however, were placed in an alleyway between two apartment buildings in the Lower East Side; that same task would be considerably more difficult.

Another friend of mine asked another equally reasonable sounding question. “Why didn’t you guys get a guide? They’re like $10 for the day.” Reasonable sounding but, again, misinformed. To have hired a guide would have required a degree of humility and respect for nature’s indifference to our survival that, quite frankly, neither Jeff or I possess. So a guide was out.

“But if you had hired a guide, you would have climbed the right mountain.”
“If Christopher Columbus had hired a guide, he would never have discovered America.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You don’t make sense.” And that was the end of that.

So, by the middle of the second day, at the highest elevation we would reach, we came to the end of the road. At 13,000 feet, the ends of roads are dramatically demarcated with sheer, hundred-foot drop-offs. “Shit,” we both said, looking over the side. We sat and ate at the top of our little mountain for a while and watched the Mountain Vikings hopping along the cliffs on their skis like goats, jabbering to each other in their bobbly languages.

Regardless of the failure, I think the trip was a success. It was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve done in my life, and the payoffs (there were so many of them along the way) made the whole thing immensely rewarding. I plan to return as soon as I get another two day weekend. So expect another post like this in the future with more gloating and fewer tangents meant to distract you from what an idiot I am.


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