Weekly Photo Challenge: Warmth

Everything about this stay in Sinai, Egypt, was warm.

The Berber tents under which I shared mint tea and fresh apricots, the sunny weather, the local Sheikh’s family. The Berber camp I visited twice, once on my day of arrival when I followed the Sheikh’s son when he did his rounds and second on the way down after making it to the Mount Katherine summit. The family didn’t speak any English, but recognized me and my weary expression, invited me for some tea and a break before getting back to town.

I ran into issues starting my climb up the Mount Katherine, being prohibited despite having a local guide. The Sheikh took enormous personal offence and apparently raked the local police over coals.. in the environment of the American police and racial tensions, this memory serves as an amusing contrast. And, yes, I was able to climb the following day.
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Summit: Jebel Toubkal, Morocco

Some of you may remember: I made a personal resolution on a milestone birthday to climb a mountain a year. A recap of some previous climbs:
Jebel Catherine, Egypt, 8,625ft  or 2,629 m
Mount Fuji, Japan, 12,388ft or 3,776 m
– Harney Peak, USA, 7,244ft or 2,208m
– Schiehallion, Scotland, 3,553ft or 1,083m
Cadair Idris, Wales, 2,930ft or 893m

Now I get to add:
– Jebel Toubkal, Morocco, 13,671ft or 4,167m

I almost didn’t fit one in. It’s December before I even made my first trip to any mountain this year.

And, boy, did I get my bum kicked with altitude sickness. I underestimated it. I didn’t realize until I looked up the numbers of previous summits for this post that this is the highest I’ve ever gone, at least on foot. Well, good thing I know now.

The landscape changed drastically. The bottom of the valley was lined with trees, changing into autumn colors. The season was technically going into winter, but the milder climate had the trees clinging into their foliage just a little bit longer. On our return, we passed many piles of wooden crates used for the apples from the orchards. We passed a couple group of men sorting their harvest.. had I not been with a group, I would have been so tempted to stop and take a bite.

Somewhere just above the villages, the tree line stopped and the mountains were rocky faces looming over us. The face of the mountain looked bare without the colorful trees. I couldn’t shake the sense of leaving civilization behind as we forged upward.

The trails were created by mules. All these generations, mules continue to be the primary mode of moving and sending supplies through these mountains. I was pleased to see how healthy the animals generally are, that despite the hard work, they are fed and well-cared for, unlike their peers in the city of Marrakech. Over my years of travel, I have started to see a correlation between how societies that treat their children, elders, women, and livestock be a reflection of how they value life.

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We stopped at Sidi Chamarouch for lunch on our way up. From that point was there I started to feel the altitude. I wasn’t alone. Another fellow climber started to struggle. I thought I’d give him company but found even his pace too leisurely for my impatience. I found myself following in spurts of catch up with the rest of the group as I stopped briefly but frequently.

We stayed at a mountain refuge, a base camp, if you will, on Mount Toubkal.The lodge was much larger and better equipped than I expected. I had imagined something similar to the mountain huts on Mount Fuji. Instead, the refuge was an enormous mansion, with a large open central area, as is typical with Moroccan buildings. No one ever lingered, though. Only two rooms have wood burning fireplaces, a sitting room and the dining area. We were staying at one of the newer refuges, where, on the upper level were dormitories, each trekking group sharing one. While not luxurious on Western standards, it was nice to have separate rooms by group, as the various treks all had different schedule. Our “beds” were two levels of platforms with thin mattresses and pillows.

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While I said the refuge wasn’t luxurious, it was far more than I expected and could have asked for. I have no doubt in my mind it was luxurious in many local standards. A solid building, with windows, and roof over our heads. The pleasure of fireplaces even in just two rooms. Flushing toilets and running cold showers. They even collect the trash, when I was expecting to have to carry it all back down. They even afforded to lay out some blankets, which were a godsend over our sleeping bags. I am admittedly too pampered to live in this cold for long, but three days, I could muster the wherewithal and actually enjoyed it.

We got up early for our summit. I didn’t quite understand why we had to get up so early, in the dark, but was glad to make it back in time for lunch. I would not have done well starving while climbing. I ended up taking a really steep route to avoid the ice patches on the inside of the ridge, a move that I actually reveled in as it brought back memories of the rock climbing we did in Scotland. I wasn’t so pleased when we were descending, though. I slipped and fell hard quite a few times, several jarring my bones enough to remind me that I no longer have the bounce of the youth when they fall.

The ascent I would describe in four phases. First was the climb of the rising wall behind the refuge. As it was pitch black when we started, I was focused on what my head lamp illuminated, my head down, eyes intent on the individual rocks I could see on the ground. I didn’t realize it was a pretty diverse route until my return, first a swish back path amongst boulders that leveled out into ice patches before we rose over the first saddle and lost sight of the refuge.

The boulders flattened into a field of rocks. Sometimes it was a spread of larger rocks the size of my fist with relatively smooth faces to just walk over. Other parts cleared into loose gavel-like deposits that made for a loose footing. The light has come out and we could see the golden sunshine peeking over the top ridge line. The face of Toubkal made me feel like I was standing inside a crater, and that I was at the base of the hallowed cone inside a volcano. The scree got really steep as we start climbing our way to the ridge. More often than not, I was scrambling over rocks. I could handle that better than a loose dirt path on extremely steep gradient, proved later when I couldn’t walk down without falling. We made it to the inside of the ridge, and hovered around the ridge wall towards the summit point.

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The summit was on a flattened top, almost like a hilltop, a cruel joke after all that work.. by the time I saw it, I was so shattered and altitude sickness threatened to take over my sense of up and down. I barely dragged my feet to the summit. I couldn’t even muster the energy to quicken my pace. I was so relieved to reach the summit I forgot how to really celebrate.

The metal triangle marker has got to be the strangest summit marker I have ever seen.

I was startled to hear how much walking we did, both just to get to the refuge and roundtrip overall. I beat myself up for the return trip, wondering why I, as active as I am, had so much trouble with the climb. It wasn’t until today, when I looked up the elevation numbers that I found out this is the highest summit I made on foot. Next time, I’ll give myself more time to acclimate to the altitude before making my summit attempt. I’ve been living in the low elevation countries for too long!

Two days later, the soreness has fully set into my legs.. and to add insult to injury, I find myself facing the following in my guesthouse (riad) in Fes.

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Four flights of this. I’m on the top floor. I could cry…

Great many thanks to Toubkal Guides for the wonderfully managed trek in every aspect from the crucial guides all the way to the individuals ensuring the smooth transfers.
Special kudos to:
– Our trek team: Mohamed, Ibrahim, Abdul and Khalid
– The Refuge Toubkal des Mouflons staff for being so hospitable, feeding us well, and giving me that bottle of hot water to warm my sleeping bag!
– Jamal for such a well oiled management of the trek.