Discover the High Atlas with an expert Cicerone author
The High Atlas
Treks and climbs on Morocco's biggest and best mountains by Hamish Brown
Inspirational book packed with anecdotes and insights about the best treks and climbs in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, in North Africa, and drawn from the author's 50-year experience. Illustrated with dazzling photographs of the mountains and also the mountain people, the Berbers. 48 routes including Jbel Toubkal, Tazekka and Igdat. More...
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Morocco’s Atlas Mountains form an extensive series of ranges across the north-west corner of Africa – very much a barrier against the interior desert, yet influenced by Atlantic and Mediterranean weather. At Heathrow airport I once had quite a job convincing the girl at the check-in desk that I did want my skis flown to Marrakech. The glory of that red city, with its ramparts and palms, is the seasonal view south to glittering snow-covered mountains that stretch and dip beyond the horizons east and west. When Sir Francis Drake gathered his ships off the Moroccan coast before his round-the-world voyage he saw snowy mountains inland; he wasn’t believed either.
The snows are vital to the Atlas and neighbouring plains. Marrakech is built at a specific distance from the mountains – at the point to which water will run along irrigation channels by gravity. The mountains may be a geological wreckage, but the valleys are highly populated by Berber tribes, the indigenous people who have been there for thousands of years. (The Arabs arrived only in the seventh century.) The closest country in Africa to Europe, Morocco was the last to be taken over by a European imperial power, in 1912. (The carve-up arrangement was that France got Morocco and Britain got Egypt.) Like many fiercely independent people the Berbers are tough but marvellously hospitable, and wanderings in the Atlas gains immeasurably from this background.
I originally went to Morocco to climb, but even in the early years discovered the greatest pleasure was wandering off, pack on back, and exploring on and on, seeing an alluring distant summit, heading for it, and from its summit seeing others, on and on … The ultimate experience of this came in 1995 when a quartet of us trekked from one end of the Atlas to the other over 96 days. (The route, nicknamed GTAM95 (Great Traverse of the Atlas Mountains 1995) is described in my book The Mountains Look on Marrakech (see Appendix B), referred to as ‘HB’ in this book). And that simply showed us dozens of new possible trips, making the subsequent years the best of all. We also, early on in our exploration of the Atlas, discovered that mules were available to hire and carry rucksacks, food and camping gear. This lifts trekking in the Atlas to a unique level of pleasure. It’s a pity that the system doesn’t operate to the CIC hut on Ben Nevis.
Perhaps surprisingly, the early travellers in the Atlas were British, and following their exploits became one of my interests (I hope to write a book about them), while, as a mountaineer, the lure of a summit was always present. A system evolved – meeting mules at some chosen spot reached by minibus, camionette (pick-up) or Land Rover and heading off for some distant objective. With nothing in the way of route descriptions, success did not always come at a first attempt, but the exploratory element was part of the fun, as was travelling with the Berbers and being so hospitably welcomed in the remotest villages, and enjoying the wildlife, the good food and the blessed sun.
So what you have in this book is a mix of reminiscence and description, much of the latter being provided by reading between the lines of the former. Where I’ve been up a summit more than once, the first visit may be described if more instructive – experience is the sum of our misadventures after all. I’ve given the date of any visit described, the month being the important reference for the weather and conditions encountered. But seasons can vary by a month, as botanists frequently note. It is somewhat frustrating to journey for a week to see some rare flower only to find the season so late it is not even in bud. If I seem to be using the regal ‘we’, this is to save giving endless names of any particular party. If there’s only me involved it will be obvious.
Geography and climate of the High Atlas
In simplistic geographic terms the Atlas ranges are the wrinkles from Africa’s tectonic plate bumping into Europe’s. The High Atlas, as a result, has endless tops over 3000m and a handful over 4000m (13,200ft). Quite a few of the really big hills stand in islanded isolation, to such an extent that they have their own distinctive floras, but the variety of form is endless. The centre and east has much that is sedimentary, with high plateaux, river gorges, long escarpments and contorted strata (Ighil Mgoun, 4068m, has fossil shells on its summit cone), while other areas such as the Toubkal massif, with a clutch of 4000ers, are volcanic in origin. Jbel Toubkal, at 4167m, is the highest summit in all North Africa-hence, I suppose, its Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro allure. And of course, just as there is more to Scotland than Ben Nevis, there is more to Morocco than Toubkal.
The mountains vary enormously, and a rolling plateau bump can entail as much of a challenge as some obviously rocky spire (like the Cairngorms and Cuillin). There is a stark, barren look to the summer Atlas and it can be ferociously hot then, with periodic severe storms and water not always easy to find. I’ve always finished any year’s ploys by the end of June and often earlier. It is perfectly possible to trek in winter if one has winter climbing skills. The weather can often be sparklingly cold and clear, with periodic three-day depressions blasting through. We trekked every February for seven years with not a drop of precipitation. In the following year we were notably washed out again and again and, believe me, when it decides to be wet you will enjoy tropical thoroughness. The hard ground can’t absorb this assault, so the result is spate and flood and a thorough testing of survival skills. (A few examples are given in the subsequent chapters.) Memorable, of course! The sunny normal is so accepted that when old Atlas hands get together the reminiscences tend to be about flash flood and other encounters of a wetting kind. One friend made five annual visits of 2–3 weeks before he had rain.
I know of people who have refused to visit the Atlas ‘because it is all so barren’. The summits indeed can be, but trekking, camping, village life and cultivation takes place in the valleys, and they are intensely green or ablaze with blossom in spring – and it is that we happily recall. At the end of our big 96-day trek, against the list of our camps I put a symbol to mark the more memorable spots. I found I’d marked nearly all the sites. Being there and travelling through was every bit as important as success on any mountain. You can, of course, trek happily through the Atlas without going up any mountain – you may prefer this after reading some of the escapades described in this book!
If you can cope with snow climbs, winter into spring is a good time to visit. I’d much rather plod up Toubkal on skis or using crampons than fight its summer waste of scree. Spring is the perfection, with blossom and life awakening, and as late as June alpine flowers will still be colouring high ground. By July the temperature is soaring and tends to stay so until the autumn equinox. Autumn has its attractions too – it is harvest time, and storms are less likely, but you’ll find a burnt-up landscape. November, December and January are the least good months, yet Christmas–Hogmanay in the Anti-Atlas or Jbel Sarho can be attractive. All the same, I’ve sat at a table in the Todra gorge with disconsolate climbers, looking out at the snow piling up on the palm trees. The weather seems to have become as erratic in Morocco as everywhere else. For years, early on, we did things on snow slopes (afoot or on skis) which we would never have done in the Alps. There were never any avalanches – until one year there was nothing else. Likewise, we never saw a flash flood – then, in the last years of the past century, they occurred again and again. Sensitivity to risk is vital, and is another reason for having locals along. Meld with the mountains and they mostly bless us.
Our routine for trekking is worth describing. We tend to rise early. This always pays off. Uphills are done in the cool, in winter the snow is firm, and there’s always time to change or retreat. As the mules travel at a faster pace than walkers, we set off first. The mule team usually passes at some stage, perhaps shares a noon grub stop, then goes on and has a big tent pitched in which they cook and sleep and which acts as mess tent as well. The rest of us bring our own tents for sleeping in. Early to bed is not difficult – well fed, logs written up, the morrow planned, eyes begin to droop.
In some circumstances a peak may be done from a bivouac, in which case we backpack and so cut down on all the weight possible. We take no tent, but possibly a breathable bivvy bag, or just sleep under the stars. Accommodation in village houses (gîtes), especially when the heavens open, is also a growing possibility as tourism increases. My fondest memories, however, are of the great hospitality offered in villages so remote that no European has ever been there. Again, it is a matter of bending to circumstances and staying safe and happy even in the event of the shocks that mountains can land on puny humans.
That this is a peopled landscape is astonishing. Centuries of terracing and a web of communicating mule tracks testify to the dedication of generations who have made a life in such a challenging environment. Not that this world is without sin; in the same way that much of the Scottish Highlands is wet desert and sterile from overgrazing and forest destruction, so the High Atlas has seen the same misuse with the same results. Make sure any party treats the landscape gently. Leave no litter, and burn and bury human waste well away from water – and see that muleteers are also clearly instructed.