How to climb a mountain

Mountains come in all shapes and sizes and climbing them can be a lot of fun. While making it to the top is awesome, what we experience along the way can hold a lesson or two as well. Now back home, I find myself thumbing through the photos on my camera reel over and over. The snowy shots merge into sunny valleys and a smile forms on my lips again as a flood of good memories comes rushing back. This is how it went.

Standing on the terrace in Aroumd, looking up at the Toubkal mountain, I felt very small. It had only been a few hours since we had left Seville and flown to Marrakech, Morocco, but as the nervous excitement of the previous days wore off and the fatigue from travelling built up, I found myself standing around, not quite knowing what to do with myself.

The others ran about taking photos and laughing, poking fun at each other and settling into our accommodation. Meanwhile, my brain was still trying to catch up.

We’d left Spain that morning with its Holy Week parades, arrived to desert heat at Marrakech Airport mid Ramadan and then driven just over an hour and a half into the cool Atlas mountains. The winding valley roads were beautiful and a little dizzying, the minibus abuzz with excited chatter, awed observations and enthusiastic pointing. We were all happy to be kicking off this adventure and it showed.

We pulled up outside the village and our host welcomed us warmly. As a few spots of rain fell from the cloudy grey sky, our backpacks made their way up the backway in the car and we walked the last few hundred metres through the village to the last house, right at the top.

We passed through orchards with almond and apple trees, up through the brown coloured houses, past the hammam and all the way to a building at the highest point in town. The small dirt steps and winding narrow streets reminded me a little of the Albaicín neighbourhood in Granada and despite the differences there was a certain familiarity to it all that made me feel quite at home.

Still, there I was, not long after we’d been shown our rooms, standing in front of the big window looking up at the valley and feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. Somehow both the challenge we would face in the morning and all the events of the day made even small decisions like picking a bed feel a bit much.

While I was definitely excited to be there, it took me a little longer to begin to relax into the evening, although it didn’t take me too long to begin to feel at ease again. Harira and couscous awaited us in the dining room downstairs and after a meal and a shower I started feeling more like myself again.

We convened in the common room for a fun game before bed. I am often reluctant to join in with group games as they make me nervous, but I had played a version of this before, so it wasn’t all new, and we laughed quite a bit as we played round after round. It was interesting to see the group’s dynamics at play and I surprised myself in how competitive I suddenly felt.

Unfortunately we also seemed to become the noisy Spanish group, but that was kind of inevitable and for once I didn’t mind belonging to it. Even though we’d gained two hours with the clock change we eventually all headed up to bed, eager to get some sleep before setting off on our trek up the Toubkal mountain.

The following morning we rose to a varied breakfast spread. Then, with full stomachs, we emptied our backpacks of any extra weight (we’d collect it on the way back in two days time), stocked up on water and met our guide.

Once we were sure we had everyone and everything, we set out towards the mountain. First, we had to go back down through the village. Then we crossed the orchards as our guide told us the valley mostly cultivates apples, almonds and walnuts. Soon we were headed uphill and it wasn’t long before we had to stop to take off a layer of clothing. We were wearing too many jackets.

We walked a little further along the edge of the valley, seeing others below walking in the same direction, until we came to the sign welcoming us to the Toubkal National Park.

The landscape was rockier now. We left the river to our right and began to climb further up into the mountains. In the distance we could see the snowy peaks and below the valley with a herd of goats and a few birds. Despite knowing there were others walking this trail, it was very tranquil.

It wasn’t long before we came to the checkpoint where the mules carrying lunch caught up with us and then went on ahead. We stopped just long enough to show our passports, get acquainted with another group of Spaniards and put a layer on again, before continuing our journey uphill.

This first part was easy enough. A few streams trickled across the path here and there, but the only difficulty was reacquainting ourselves with carrying backpacks for the first time in a while. Other than that it was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

We took it in turns chatting with our guide in a mix of Spanish and English, both of which he spoke far better than he claimed. He shared a bit about his life and his village, as well as the challenge of climbing Toubkal during Ramadan.

I couldn’t help feeling guilty about this, thinking we’d been rather presumptuous and inconsiderate when picking our travel dates, but I’m not sure it had really crossed any of our minds, which I guess is part of the problem. It didn’t even factor in.

Not that it was the first time nor last time our guide would hike while fasting. Nor were we the only foreign tourists by any means, the route was a popular one. However, privilege is something I believe we need to be aware of while travelling and on this trip I felt the weight of it a little too keenly. Where is the balance between tourism providing work and locals being exploited? I see similarities with Seville in this area, too, and it got me thinking.

Would I have done things differently? How would I have done things differently? It is far from my intention to criticise those who planned and organised this trip, especially since I joined it last minute. Still, I can’t help these questions popping up and it was one of many things that crossed my mind as we climbed and enjoyed the scenery.

By mid morning we came to a small settlement, the last inhabited spot on our ascent, and we stopped for a spot of tea and a short rest. The buildings were just about discernable from the surrounding rocks and the river rushed down through the middle, making for a nice break with a view back along where we’d come.

We’d been on our way again for no more than a minute when the weather suddenly changed. It started with a few drops of rain but then the wind picked up and got a lot colder and the droplets of water started turning into snowdrops.

We stopped at the last building at the top of the path and pulled out our waterproof gear, backpack covers and gloves. We were definitely in the mountains now. Kitted out to be warm and dry, we started up again. The worst of it only lasted for a few minutes and then eased off again as the path got quite a bit steeper from here.

With a steady incline and a consistent pace, we zig-zagged up the path towards our next stop: lunch. It was a good few hours or so and we passed a few souvenir stalls on the way, selling refreshments and a variety of objects from hats and t-shirts to rocks and jewellery.

The temperature dropped as we climbed higher. The snow became more present around us, although it was mostly to the side of the path. At one point it had accumulated at the edge, prompting snowballs to be gathered and hurled from one part of our line to the other, flying into those caught unawares, to much squealing and laughter.

The last stretch before lunch was tough. It had started snowing again and I for one was beginning to be low on energy. When we arrived at our lunch stop, we stepped into the small building, glad to be out of the wind and snow, to put our bags down for a bit and to refuel.

We started with mint tea and then had a large amount of pasta salad and tagine with bread. I drank a large part of my water bottle, too. Refreshed and revived, we just had the last part of the journey left to reach the mountain shelter where we’d spend the night.

The final stretch was the toughest part of the day, as the weather got worse, we were more tired and there was more snow on the ground. I found the wind the hardest to deal with, and though it was quite an adventure, by the last 30 minutes I couldn’t wait to get there.

One foot in front of the other, one step at a time, left leg then right, over and over again. I knew our destination was just ahead but I couldn’t see it. Every time I raised my head a bit, snow blew into my eyes. ‘Almost there’, I kept telling myself. ‘You’ll remember this fondly in a few days’ time’.

And I do. Where would the adventure be if things weren’t a bit of a challenge? If it was all a stroll in the park it wouldn’t be memorable in the same way.

I kept my head down, kept moving forwards, knowing we would soon be there. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t physically fit enough, although I was tired by then, it was more the feeling of being battered by the elements that was making it so hard.

It was such a relief to suddenly find myself out of the wind for a second and realise that’s what had been bothering me. All the mules were lined up there, too, and I could see why. Not far ahead the buildings were sticking out from the snow and it was just a little further to the door that would lead somewhere warm and dry. Up the snow covered stone steps we went and we made it.

We’d arrived.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to hug someone as I was when I made it to that doorstep. While my face went a little blank and expressionless, the overwhelming sense of relief is still hard to describe. I struggle with certain sensitivities on occasion, but I’m frequently not aware of how much they’re affecting me until they stop. I am able to push through in the moment but it all takes its toll in the long run and for the next few minutes, hours or days, everything is extra hard. It feels like just existing takes effort.

As we were ushered in and hustled for passports, rushed to take boots off in the wet room and sent upstairs to find our dorm, I was pretty much on autopilot. I sank down onto one of the beds without thinking and pulled out the bottle of water again and a cereal bar. Food and drink help, though I don’t always remember this when I need to. The other thing that helps is time alone, which on a group trip in a crowded shelter is hard to come by.

I knew all this in advance and went anyway, because I wanted to be there. I knew it would be worth it despite the challenge. And it was, it really was. But I decided then and there I would go no further. The others would make the ascent to the peak the following day but I would stay at the shelter and wait for the group, then join them on the way back down.

A part of me was miffed to be missing out. Even though it had been my choice and I knew it was the right one, I was disappointed to not make the peak. Listening to the plans over dinner, waving them off in the small hours of the morning, sat in the quiet lodge calculating how far up the mountain they’d be, waiting for them to make it safely back… I wanted to be there, too. Next time, I probably will be.

Yet despite the disappointment, I know I made a good decision. We still had two days in Marrakech when we got down the mountain and my energy levels were depleted enough as it was. Had I added the extra ascent, I would have had to spend those two days in the hotel instead of exploring the Souk with the others.

The mountain shelter was an experience in and of itself. It was packed, with every bed occupied and even someone sleeping in the hallway, though not from our party. We enjoyed some well earned rest, had some sweet mint tea and snacks and freshened up a bit. Later, when we managed to find a space to sit, our guide set out dinner and we enjoyed more tagine and spaghetti.

A fire was slowly roaring in the corner and the room was abuzz with chatter in every language. Guests gathered around low tables on small wooden stools and perched on the sofa that bordered the room. Some huddled over maps, others played cards and others just talked about their day and their plans for the following one. Most people were wearing jackets and other winter wear, even though we were indoors.

There wasn’t a lot of space, every seat was taken and the voices joined and mixed with each other at varying levels of loudness, based on nationality and making themselves understood by their companions.

Guides hurried about from the entrance to the kitchen and on to the dining room, sorting out everything that might be needed at any given time, answering questions, organising… It all felt rather hecktic yet still managed to run like clockwork.

As night set in most people disappeared up to bed, since most would be rising before the sun to set out on their next trek, to summit Toubkal or one of the other nearby peaks.

We followed along not long after we finished our meal, snuggled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep to a chorus of snoring.

At 3.30am the room began to wake. Torches flashed on, bags rustled and people moved about in a flurry of hushed noises. By 4:00am, when we went down to breakfast many were already off out in the snow. We ate in a half state of slumber that not even the coffee seemed to disperse. I joined them, even though I wasn’t going anywhere, because it seemed like the sensible thing to do, to eat when everyone else ate. That way I’d get to see them off, too.

They emptied their backpacks again, leaving anything non essential in the lockers. Then, they bundled into every layer they owned to avoid the early hour chill and headed out into the snow to face the summit. I waved them off then crawled back into bed.

Several hours later I rose to the reflection of sun on snow streaming in through the window. Dawn on the mountain was beautiful and I was sad to not be seeing it from the mountain side. Conditions were much improved from the previous day and for a second I wished again I’d gone with the others.

While I waited for them to return I jotted down a few thoughts in a notebook and read an ebook on my phone. Mostly I thought about the journey so far and everything the mountain reminded me of.

Slowly the empty shelter began to fill up as the first people got back from their treks. Our group would still be another hour or so, but the chatter and movement that had been absent for a few hours slowly returned.

When the others did get back they all looked exhausted. They seemed glad they’d reached the summit but were completely worn out by the experience, the height and the effort. I could only imagine what state I would have been in.

Lunch cheered them up a little, but we still had the descent to do before reaching Marrakech that evening. I was happy to hear them talk about it and experience the peak vicariously through their short stories as we made our way back down the mountain. This time it was all familiar territory and our progress was slightly quicker than on the way up, though not as much as our guide would seem to hope for.

Back in Aroumd our bags were waiting for us and a quick drive to Imlil got us to the minibus that would take us to our next destination: Marrakech.

A lot seemed to have happened in two days. I made it up to 3.200m above sea level, I made it back down again and I got to spend time with some awesome people on the way.

While it may sound cliché, the journey is far more important than the destination. It’s the memories that I will treasure for years to come. The shared experiences, the conversations, the laughter, the little moments…

Everything may not have turned out quite as planned, but there are so many details from this trip that I am not going to forget. Now back in Seville in 30ºC heat it seems almost impossible that we were fighting a snow storm not that long ago. The photos are there as proof, though, and I can’t help but smile when I see them.

Home again. Exhausted but happy.

That seems to be my overriding mood at the moment. I wish I had a little extra energy to be more present. At the moment whenever I do anything out of the ordinary my body seems to kick into survival mode and shut down. I can be as comfortable and happy as can be yet completely unable to express it in the moment.

It’s frustrating, but I’m learning to live with it. Because if I’ve learnt one thing from this trip it’s this: the only way to climb a mountain is one step at a time.

So I’m focusing on the next step and enjoying the journey. Only time will tell how high and how far the road goes.

Care to join me on this adventure?


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