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Climbing Mt Toubkal in a Weekend

By: Anthony Harris, posted 22nd August '14

For many months there was a sense of impending doom in the Harris household. Why had we so willingly chosen to climb the 4,000m Mt Toubkal? Why were we doing it in August when temperatures in Morocco could easily climb above 40C? Would we be able to fundraise £2,000 for Help for Heroes and BLESMA? These questions still hung in the air the morning my wife Elizabeth and I woke up on a Friday knowing that we would be flying off with Royal Air Maroc to Marrakech that evening to begin the mountain climb neither of us thought possible just five years ago.

In 2009 I was a serving Infantry officer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers on operations in Afghanistan. On 21st May 2009 my vehicle hit a bomb in the desert near Sangin in Helmand Province. The effects of the blast saw me evacuated to the UK and undergo more than 20 operations to save my left leg before it was eventually amputated. I never thought it would be possible to climb a mountain the size of Mt Toubkal but with some encouragement from the team at KE Adventure Travel we decided it would be our great adventure and that together we could overcome the challenges.

The Koutoubia Mosque MoroccoAfter our short and pleasurable flight with Royal Air Maroc from Gatwick we landed in Marrakech just before midnight before being whisked away by our guide Mustapha to our hotel opposite the stunning, medieval Koutoubia mosque. There was no time to enjoy the views though as our eight o’clock pickup the next morning would signal the start of our journey to the High Atlas mountains. The chaos, confusion and smells of Marrakech were soon left behind and as we climbed the broken roads towards our embarkation point in the village of Imlil the rural markets came to life filled with scents of exotic spices and fragrant herbs.

Village of ImlilIn the hustle and bustle of Imlil the streets buzzed with trade, mules and the many walkers both Moroccan and international either preparing to make their ascent or faces flushed with the challenge of the descent they had just finished. Mustapha introduced us to our muleteer, Driss, who stowed our sleeping bags and warm kit on his hardy mule, interestingly they don’t name them, and without further ado we began the gentle start to the long ten mile hike that would see us climb 1,500m to our overnight refuge at the base of Mt Toubkal.

Despite the 30C heat the going was good over dirt tracks and rocky paths trodden down by centuries of human activity. Tony and Liz at the base of ToubkalThe local shepherds were occasionally seen high on the mountains that flanked the beaten path and we were surrounded by the chatter of birds and city folk on the summer holidays making the short trip to the shrine at the village of Aroumd some way below the Toubkal range. Every now and then a small café would appear out of nowhere with fantastic common sense drinks coolers in the guise of redirected streams or bottles shooting water droplets on to carbonated drinks all shaded from the sun’s fierce rays.

Applying talcum powerEarly on we realised that my prosthetic would require constant surveillance so every two hours we would stop to allow me to carry out essential maintenance on my stump. This basically entailed drying the sweat off, applying talcum powder and ensuring that my stump hadn’t got larger or smaller due to the temperature. With each mile chalked off we got ever closer to our lunch being prepared by our muleteer who had already shot off at a rate we couldn’t hope to match.

We were amazed when we were eventually greeted with a full Moroccan salad and one of the best tagines I have ever tasted all prepared from the back of a mule in under an hour. The respite from the heat and dust was most welcome and allowed Mustapha to conduct his prayers before we once again set off and this time up the steeper and rockier track to the refuge.

Mules on trekDodging the mules on their way back down the mountain became the name of the game as the track narrowed and our legs tired but by 5pm we had reached our destination after seven hours of arduous walking. The refuge is an incredible building which, from a distance, conjured up images of Tibetan temples (possibly where Batman trained) but on closer inspection were more akin to Alpine hostelries complete with showers, electricity from their own hydro plant and if you stood in one incredibly specific place, phone reception. The dorms were simple but comfortable and consisted of huge bunk beds that stretched from wall to wall housing six to eight people per layer.

Rocky well trodden pathOver dinner Mustapha explained the effects of altitude sickness and the rules that we would follow for our ascent and descent the next day. The dinner was surprisingly excellent and ensured that we would be able to replenish our levels before the early start to our summit bid the next morning. I was amazed at how well my leg had done that first day although was very glad for my wife’s less than willing massaging efforts on my damaged ankle. Sleep came quickly despite the general noise in the dorm and our dreams turned to completing our ascent the next day.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye our alarms waked us at four o’clock and after a brief but filling breakfast we made to begin our ascent. Unbelievably I had forgotten my head torch during our repacking at the start of the trip and Liz’s torch flatly refused to function at anything like a practical level, fortunately Mustapha came to our rescue as he pulled a spare torch out, handed Liz his own torch and then proceeded to climb with Liz’s torch barely lighting the route for him.

Walking in the darkThe early morning darkness and altitude ensured that the temperature was cool enough to wear a soft shell jacket and we made steady progress through the first 200m of the climb. As we cleared the boulder field and made to enter the valley that would lead us onto the ridge below Toubkal we were all knocked flat by a gusting wind. Not only did we have to hold on to the rocks around us but the wind chill crashed through our clothing chilling us to the bone. More warm kit was applied, gloves fitted and we drove on in to the face of the windblasts. The constant barrage made going slower but step-by-step we were able to push on bolstered by the fact that we wouldn’t have to stop to clean my stump of sweat.

Sun rise in the Atlas MountainsAs the sun began to crest the mountains the valley became alive again and we found renewed vigour. Until just four hours after we had started we were within a few hundred meters of the summit and traversing the path that would gently wind around to our end goal. Liz by this point was feeling the effects of the cold she had brought with her from England coupled with the freezing wind but bravely put her head down and ploughed on until we both broke on to the small plateau that is the summit of Mt Toubkal.

I cannot tell you how elated we felt after five years believing that it would be near impossible for my foot to put up with a 4,000m climb and in just 24 hours we had managed it with the help, encouragement and support of our KE Adventure guide, Mustapha. The view was incredible with sheer drops, weather beaten valleys and majestic peaks surrounding us. In some directions you felt like you could see hundreds of miles, in others you could see more mountains challenging you to climb them. It was breath taking.

With the obligatory photo holding the trophy leg and with my quick change into a Help for Heroes t-shirt it was time to begin the most challenging part of our journey… the descent. Both Liz and I knew this was going to be a gruelling test of mind over matter as my prosthetic leg wouldn’t be stable enough on the loose mountain side so my damaged right leg would have to bear the majority of the load. Mustapha came to the rescue again by roping me on to him and taking a portion of the weight every time we came to a suitably large drop or when my feet slid from under me.

Heading back down the mountainAs we slowly made our way back down the temperatures rose, my leg got sweatier but it was if every other climber knew how to keep us going and we were greeted with rounds of applause and praise whenever we encountered them. To all those strangers I can only say thank you, you helped more than you will ever know.

We paused shortly when we returned to the refuge for a light lunch with succulent fruit and much needed cold water before ploughing on downwards ignoring the streams of protest by my, now bloody, stump and the inexorable fatigue of walking over 30 miles in 36 hours. Every time I seemed to be slowing Mustapha was there with a cry of, “Agado” a term typically used to encourage the mules to go faster but one that seemed entirely appropriate given the situation.

Step by step we inched closer to Imlil and the temptation of asking for a mule was always there in the back of my mind but we persevered until eventually we were back in the cool surrounds of the river bed we started in just the day before. We were tired both physically and mentally but we were unbeaten. 

Being able to reflect on our endeavour to climb a 4,000m peak from the cool surroundings of Riad Slitine in Marrakech I would say that it was the most challenging physical activity I have done since losing my leg but hugely rewarding and has given me an insight into my determination and ambition to continue to succeed despite the obstacles in my path. It has given me the mental preparation that I will need for the Invictus Games this September and, I hope, the attitude towards succeeding that will see us win as a team.

My sincerest thanks to KE Adventure Travel, our guide Mustapha, our muleteer Driss and Royal Air Maroc for making this ambition a reality and if you would like to support our fundraising efforts then please go to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/AnthonyHarris4

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