On September 27th, 2013 I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I quit my job in finance to create opportunities for children with physical impairments to have adventures. My method for accomplishing this was to create a newfound level of empathy for family members by simulating physical hardship through the challenges of high altitude mountaineering and learn the unique stories of these families before, during and after the voyage. These stories were be shared documentary style and titled SummitsTV. Enlisting the help of a promanent director in northern Ontario we secured a thirteen episode TV deal with an online network and I set out to shoot our entirely self-funded pilot in Morocco. While always well intended, the mountain climbing has not always proved smooth in application. Here is my tutorial on how not to climb Mount Toubkal.
The first summit scheduled for this expedition was Mount Toubkal in Morocco. Standing at an impressive 4167m, Mount Toubkal is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountain range and the tallest in Northern Africa. As an introductory mountain, this peak offered a number of benefits. It is non-technical, requiring no ropes or glacial travel, the path is well-trodden eliminating (or reducing) the need for navigation and route finding and being situated in Africa it would not be as cold as comparable peaks further north.
I was joined by my father who accepted the challenge to join me on the first climb and share the story of our own family and our experiences. Skip, who celebrated his 60th birthday on the voyage, is no stranger to physical mobility constraints. Twenty years ago an accident shattered his heel and has been a source of chronic pain since. While he remains active and could certainly exhibit physical dominance over nearly everyone his age we remained cognizant of this condition and agreed to closely monitor and make a judgement call should pain prevent him from making the ascent.
Originally slated for weeks end after a period of acclimatization, an overbooked bus altered our travel plans. With an open agenda and new contacts within the country we called in a favour, procured a vehicle and embarked on the two hour trek to the small mountain town of Imlil.
Mount Toubkal is a frequently climbed “touristy” mountain that is achievable by nearly any healthy person under the right circumstances and upon arrival we were immediately swarmed by guides attempting to solicit our business. Just as my previous research had alluded to, they offered the traditional package. We were to spend the night in a hotel in the town and leave at 9am the following morning for a ten hour hike to the Nelter Refuge, covering 12km and 1500m of elevation gain. My pack would be carried on a mule and Skip and I would trudge slowly behind a non-English speaking Berber. After spending the night in the hut to slowly acclimatize we would awake at 5am to begin the four hour summit push and finishing the last vertical kilometer, to arrive at the summit as the sun rose. We would stay briefly and then walk down and back to Imlil, taking about ten hours.
The route began with a 4km hike up to the small mountain town of Aroumd, gaining a few hundred feet of elevation and taking roughly an hour. At this point, my father made the painful decision that the strain of a this trek would be too great for his aforementioned injury and opted out. While this saddened me greatly, it now meant the hike could be approached differently. As it was 5pm and we were rather rushed in preparation a new game plan was formulated. The locals and our driver were quite insistent upon the traditional schedule. Because it was late in the afternoon they suggested that I shave off an hour of the trek that night and stay in the nearby village of Aroumd. I had done extensive research on these options and the normal costs associated with them and knew that a guide with a mule and two nights stay on the mountain should cost approximately $100 Canadian. The price they quoted? About $1000.
To me, this was quite ridiculous and unnecessary and I had never felt my abilities necessitated a guide or porter. Furthermore, although only briefly in Morocco, I’ve grown quite tired of the overly aggressive sales tactics of the locals and knew this to be nothing more than an up-sell. Although I was ignorant to my personal capacity for altitude I was confident in my fitness levels and properly equipped for this excursion so elected to embark without a guide. I removed bulk in the form of down warmth jackets and extra mitts and substituted my emergency bivy sack for a synthetic sleeping bag. By 5:45pm I was off.
The locals who were quite insistent I would get lost without a guide were clearly employing deceptive sales tactics because it was a turnless mule path with a thousand foot cliff on one side and a deep ravine with a river at the bottom. If anyone has ever gotten lost on this section of the trail we should allow natural selection to unapologetically weed their genes from existence.
Early evening fog and eerily imposing mountain shadows cast darkness by 8pm. This was uncharted territory for me as each step higher was a new lifetime high for altitude for me. Adorned with head torch and several additional layers I passed two Berber refuges but no fellow climbers. At shortly before 10:30pm I arrived at the final refuge. As I had not previously reserved a spot, my arrival was met with surprise. True to the Berber hospitality I was immediately ushered in and offered their traditional mint tea and accommodation for the evening. And they were much dismayed at my cordial refusal. Our conversation was simple, as their English was worse than my French but they understood enough to laugh in my face when I presented my intention to continue climbing that night.
“No one climbs Toubkal at night! You’ll never find the piste!” They proclaimed.
This time there may have been a grain of truth to their warnings. Despite their insistence and my overwhelming desire for more of that tea, I donned my warmth layers and began a solo night attempt of the summit.
The weather was fickle and conditions quickly worsened. A fierce wind howled and nipped at any exposed skin. I shivered as a narrow swath of light barely illuminated the poorly marked path. It was soon apparent that I was off route and scrambling over loose scree. With each step up I slid down almost to where I started. As rocks bounced a seemingly endless distance into the dark abyss I grew concerned and traversed to a precipice in search of solid footing. The holds were positive and the footing drastically improved yet I depended on step counting, a digital wrist compass and a looming behemoth of a mountain shadow for guidance lest I stray further from the established route through the car-sized boulders.
This was my first time in mountaineering footwear and I’d chosen the Scarpa Triolets three season moutnaineering boots, of which I wrote a full long-term review here.
As the slope gave way to a gully the well trodden path once again became visible which I followed with a new-found vigor. At 3600m I remained cautions as I had never been at this altitude prior. Fatigue and shortness of breath necessitated frequent and increasingly longer pauses and eventually I was stopping briefly every three steps. Ever mindful of a headache or drowsiness, I was always prepared emotionally should the effects of altitude sickness strike. After what felt like hours I once again found myself off route and clamoring amongst the loose rock sliding like sheets of ice beneath my every step.
Eventually my improvised path came to a halt as I arrived at a towering expanse of solid vertical rock. Cutting straight across the valley and away from what I knew to be Mount Toubkal I hoped to once again intersect the trail. It wasn’t long before this proved fruitful and my optimism returned. Yet much to my dismay the trail led right, away from the shadowy mass I had landmarked. Shrugging with hopeless indifference I trudged along the established trail and continued upward. It was soon after 1:00am and becoming abundantly clear that I had, in fact, summitted Mount Toubkal’s neighbor. I was putting on a clinic on how not to climb Mount Toubkal in Morocco.
I climbed the wrong freagin’ mountain.
At well over 4000m I was still pleased with this feat. But as the weather worsened and my fatigue grew, I abandon hope of reaching the apex of Mount Toubkal that night. I found a flat(ish) piece of ground surrounded on three sides by rocks. Quickly I set about leveling the ground as best I could and building up barriers to the fierce wind. Shivering, I unrolled my sleeping bag and tucked the feet into my now empty rucksack, removed my shell layers and cinched the mummy hood shut. I fell asleep almost instantly and had the best sleep of my life.
I woke at 6:30am to the rising sun and the sound of the first climbers of the day. In the distance I could see the telltale metal pyramid signifying the top of Toubkal. I could also see the rock climb I’d attempted and, sure enough, it lead directly to the summit. With daylight and a belay partner it would have been easily accomplished. Shivering as I sped to get dressed and quickly disassemble my campsite, I laughed to myself at how easy the path was to see in the day light. It looked like a freagin highway from above. I power slide my way back down and quickly climbed the last 400m to reach the summit of Toubkal.
As ill equipped tourists struggled to the top, having slept a four hour walk away and with a team of Berber porters lugging their ipads and tripods, I couldn’t help but feel a greater connection to this mountain. Her and I now shared a special bond. I had respected her magnitude and in return she has kept me safe through the night.
As I gazed across the seemingly infinite landscape, its red rocks glowing like fire in the morning sun, I felt a slight warmth in my right knee. Not pain, rather awareness. It was almost exactly seven months ago that I lay on the operating table having my ACL replaced with a piece of my already damaged hamstring tendon. The doctors had told me that a return to sport was unlikely and I should prepare for the prospect of rehabilitating the limb for over a year for a reasonable possibility of performing activities of daily living. Yet here I stood. At the peak of the tallest mountain in Northern Africa. Being told I may never again enjoy the activities that had shaped who I was was the most difficult conversation I’d ever had. It truly felt like an instrumental component of my existence had been stripped from me and without it, I didn’t know who I was.
I spent nearly two hours on the summit. I didn’t want to leave. Group after group of guided climbers came and left as I sat and gazed pensively over the horizon.
Eventually I begrudgingly trudged downward, my mind racing. This experience will remain forever as one of the most empowering moments of my life. And if I could share this feeling with just one other person, I would consider myself a success. To rid one other person of that cloud of hopelessness would be the greatest gift one could ever hope for.
Is it possible? Sure.
Easy? Probably not.
Worth trying for? Absolutely.
While at the time of composition (May 2017), the SummitsTV Project as been put on permanent hiatus, the dream remains. Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to revitalize the plan, share our stories and provide adventure opportunities to children with physical impairments.