Sunday, 29 October 2006

The Nashman Diaries: Maroc Day 3 - Djebel Toubkal Step by Step

The South cirque up Djebel Toubkal begins behind the refuge. Looks deceptively easy. Wait till you see it up close....

After breakfast, I joined the 7am wave of hikers going up Djebel Toubkal. There were 9 of us. The Polish tandem made a mistake of cutting up the first scree too early causing rocks to tumble just in front of me. I gave the warning shout and everyone stood still for a moment. Thankfully, I found the correct path and led the pack of eager hikers for the first hour. It was amazing how quickly we found ourselves 200m above the refuge.

I think the first 300 meters is the most confusing part of the ascent. After that, it's a non-technical hike involving basic scrambling, scree running, and strenous walking over jagged rocks (especially the last 200m). I decided to be left behind at the col to walk in solitude while enjoying the crystal clear silence that one only finds in such isolated places. Your worst worry, apart from spraining your ankles from all those loose rock, is minor altitude sickness.

By 9am, I met the 4am wave of hikers, the ones who wanted to catch the sun rise, on their way down. I reached the peak at 11:30am and stayed till 1am. It was such a clear day and the 360 degree vista on Djebel Toubkal is simply stunning - the Sahara on one side and the Atlantic coast on the other side. In between, other impressive, although shorter, mountains. (And there is nothing more childishly amusing than exposing your pecker and peeing over the edge of a ridge 300m high. Tabi-tabi po)

I wanted to bag another peak but on my way down a Berber guide for a middle-aged couple convinced me to go scree running with them. This was fun except for the fact that I was the only one without trekking poles. I was going down at breakneck speed, falling on my back four times, while conquering my irrational fear of heights. The slope was a moderate 75 degrees at most and it was exhilarating.

When I reached the end of the slope I realised I veered too far off course from the starting ascent for one of the minor peaks. Oh, maybe next time.

I'm tempted to gloat a bit about the fact that for the entire day I only ate 2 Mars bars (at least this junk has some use after all) and gulped less than a litre of water but, I kid you not, there was a Berber teenager who caught up with me on the final col and he was not carrying any provisions, no water, no food, (not because of Ramadan, but because he simply can), and was wearing jeans and soft rubber shoes. To add to this despicable display of mountaineering, for the final ascent, he casually chose the left scree slope which was very steep, slippery, and fucking dangerous.

I shouldn't really say much about how it feels to be up a mountain. You just have to go up one yourself and find out.

Back at the refuge, there were high fives all around as the natives didn't think I would make the return journey. I met the Berber teenager and exchanged good natured jibes. What took you so long? It took me two hours to go up then down! I told him I did touristy stuff (I did take 900+ pictures) and I threatened I will come back in winter, minus my pregnant belly, to race him up the summit in the middle of a blizzard. He suggested a bet of 5000 dirhams and as a handicap, he will take the difficult north cirque while I retrace the patsy south cirque. I told him no such thing will be necessary and to sweeten the pot, I will also do the north cirque but barefoot. Everyone knew, including the mules, that I didn't stand a chance.

I was then christened a fearsome monicker by the Berbers. I was expecting something like "The Baby Faced Beast of Baguio", or "Nash the Flash", or "Pretty Boy Bato", but noooooo, I was simply referred to as "Le Philippin". Not "El Guapo Filipino" or "The Sexiest Filipino who ever Graced the High Atlas", but just "Le Philippin". It resonated un-inspiringly like a dope runner or hustler. (General aliases such as 'The Italian', 'The Russian', etc - they're only used to refer to the bad guy who gets snuffed by the lead guy in the middle of a film.)

Later that night, the refuge was overrun by pretty French hikers. To save on the day's remaining ration of hot water, I was forced to share a hot bath with two girls from Nice. Wait, that really didn't happen - it was an altitude induced hallucination. OR WAS IT? Those gardiens spiked my mint tea again.....

Presenting: The Dummies Guide up Djebel Toubkal Step by Step

The first 200m ascent.......

....up close..

The boulder slope...

Cut deep to the left of the slope left........

Steep but quite easy.......

at 3450m you basically lose sight of the refuge...

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit. Fearless is their middle name...

I love bouldering. Those early morning tv-yoga classes paid off as I easily scramble up boulders as big as houses.

The right wall...

Peak a boo. The sun pierces the south slope.

Narcissistic moment. Stopping to admire my svelte silhouette.

Rock, loose rock....

This is an alternative path up the summit. It's not a switchback route over scree, it just goes straight up. Only for those with a very good sense of balance.

The steep south slope

The suggested path is that one on the left of the picture, but you can cut straight across like I did to save you 20 minutes. Don't look back while going up though as it is a 60+ degree slope and you could lose your balance, tumble down, cry, and have to start all over again.

One of the mini-peaks of the massif. My only regret is not climbing it!

Soon you reach the ridge...

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit at 3900m. What us worry?

Tazaghart, 3843m. This is a very interesting mountain. That summit is so flat and wide that apparently an airplane can land and take off from it. Absolutely on my next-to-do list.

The peak of Djebel Toubkal...almost there....

...just follow the ridge (stay on the left though...)

....nearly there.....

The last 100m cuts across loose and very very sharp rocks....

and it's also very narrow.....I suggest leaning towards the ridge as the wind can be very strong..

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit - the first recorded ascent of the Maghreb's and North Africa's Highest Peak by furry and cute animals. Mt. Kilimanjaro, you are next on our list.

Looking south to the heart of Africa....

Looking north east to Algeria......

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit. Did I say Fearless is their Middle Name?

You can do some scary stuff on the peak....

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit with the beginning of the Sahara behind them..

Cooling down after a long and exciting day. The water is really cold but that did not stop climbers from taking a refreshing shower au naturelle.

It's like prison, but the food in the Refuge is ok. Tonight the gardiens cooked pasta...

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

The Nashman Diaries: Maroc Day 2 - Imlil to Toubkal Refuge

I woke up at 3am to the muezzin's call to prayer. His voice must have carried for miles and miles, bouncing off the rock faces of the mountains. Yet, despite the melodic reading of the Koran and that it was time too eat, I assumed the cozy question mark position under my three layers of thick blankets. I re-awoke at 8am and had one of the coldest showers in ages. There is hot water but I thought that was only for sissies.

I was served a breakfast of freshly baked bread, butter, jam, figs, and yoghurt. I also had black coffee that had the same taste and texture as what I get in the Cordilleras. Hmmm, how surprisingly refreshing.

As I packed my bag, making sure the centre of gravity was correct, and that I had enough water, a hermit passed by. He was wearing a blue robe, some belongings wrapped in cloth and fastened with rope and slung over one shoulder and one hand was carrying a gallon of water with no lid. He walked slowly and purposefully. As it turns out we would cross paths many times on our way to the Toubkal refuge.

And so off he went while I cursed my backpack. The hermit carried stuff he really NEEDED, while I had at least 3 kilos of kikay (useless) kit to carry. Do I really need a litre of suncream? exfoliating pads? first aid kit (as if naman 20 tablets of anti-diarrhea pills were essential)? two pairs of sunglasses? alpine gear (I thought it was going to be freezing. I was wrong)?

Hassan tried to convince me to get a mule or a guide but I said I really wanted to hike alone and I had given up on trying to get to the summit in one day. So Hassan gave me directions by drawing on the ground with his forefinger. This was local knowledge and this was better than a map. I had a compass, the first time in my trekking life that I brought one, perhaps as a compromise for not getting a map. I only needed to go south east although the auberge is actually up the side of a mountain on the opposite direction of where I had to go.

I practiced a couple of Berber sentences, followed by Arabic, and the usual French greetings. (I have that Banderas character talent in the 13th Warrior!) It had just ocurred to me that I was speaking pidgin' Spanish with an Anglicised French accent (go figure that out! Well, it's the accent of a caricatured Frenchy speaking English in movies but the words I used were Spanish) in Marrakech the other day, hence the confusion. Berber is actually quite hard. The greeting to males is La bes darik while for women it's La bes darim. When it comes to numbers though I revert to Arabic or French because in Berber 50 is snet id ashreent d mrawet. I can only imagine what 50.75 is.

I left the auberge at 9:30am with not a whiff of cloud in sight. It was going to be hot hot hot. From the village of Imlil, the Toubkal refuge is only 12km uphill away. I planned to walk slowly, taking in as much of the sights as I could, interacting with the locals, and just generally enjoying the silence and solitude. I reckoned that if I covered 2km per hour then I should be in the refuge with enough time to scout the final ascent trail by sunset.

From the Auberge Lepiney, you basically follow the piste uphill until you reach the village of Aremd. If that strenous uphill walk was too much a warm-up you are then faced with a menacing flood plain 500 metres across. It's bad on the knees and ankles because it's loose rock.

I saw a couple of men quarrying. This was really backbreaking work under the scorching heat. When I saw them carrying those rocks from one pile to another, I stopped complaining about my 11kg backpack. One of the men was crouched so low that I couldn't quite figure out what he was doing. He waived to me and beckoned for me to come closer. And so over the painful rocks I basically backtracked towards him. It turned out that he was fixing the water supply line. He asked if I had a knife of some sort. I said I didn't have any knife. He looked at me puzzled. You are hiking with no knife?

As I walked away, sad that I wasn't able to help I made a mental note to get a swiss knife at least for my next hiking holiday. Still, I felt quite proud with myself that for the past 3 years I've been hiking with no knife, no map, and until now, no compass, and mostly alone.

The arid flood plain is actually surrounded by orchards. On the edge of the plain I encountered some farmers leading mules laden with apples. I was offered a couple and gratefully accepted. They're very sweet and crisp, and fresh!

It's hard to get lost on the way to Sidi Chamarouch. You basically follow the mule trail on the left of the river gorge. There are boulders and some hardy trees to provide shade. Ocassionally there was a cool breeze. I was mostly alone except when I met hikers on their way down from the massif. They were mostly in groups or tandems. I only met one solitary hiker on his way down.

The locals and hikers I met along the way were very keen on asking me Where you from? I must have heard this billions of times on my way up (okey maybe 15 times, but that's a lot for one day). So I goaded them into the Guess Where I am From? game. Chine? Japon? Malaysia? Singapore? American? No one ever guessed correctly that I was Philippin.

Which brings me back to the Hermit. The two of us were practically the only ones going up at that time. I overtook him on the edge of the floodplain where he decided to take a nap under a tree and when he caught up with me while I was resting to play the Where are you from? guessing game his reply to my revelation was Ah! Corazon Aquino! He was speaking French quickly that I didn't quite figure out what he thought of her. As I stood up to resume my walk he took over my shade and had is own break.

After nearly two hours I reached the hamlet of Sidi Chamarouch and stopped to cool down by the river. There is nothing in Sidi but makeshift stalls selling souvenirs and refreshments. Everyone wanted to sell me something. The least I could do was stay a couple of minutes to chat and buy bottled water. It's a very poor and isolated hamlet. There is a marabout (grave of a holy man) shrine here and non-Moslems are not allowed to cross the bridge to the shrine. (There's a big warning sign. I was curious but I respected the prohibition.) Again, I played the Where are you from? game here with all the locals!

The path after Sidi is the MOST FRIGGING DEPRESSING section of the ascent. It's very steep and the path involves lots of sharp rocks. It's not dangerous but it's torture on the knees. This is the section where I asked myself Why the Fuck was I doing this when I could just be chilling out in Marrakech?

What I hated most was that I was hit with the bad song chorus syndrome. I did not bring any mp3 player hoping to enjoy the natural sounds of the High Atlas. I was singing a bloody Aegis song in my head. The annoying thing was I only knew two lines. (Ang halik mo, namimiss ko...bakit iniwan mo ako. Followed by the campy SLU School Song -Let's all sing a song Gay and cheerful/bursting forth from our young and joyous hearts/for our life is so Bright.....I dare anyone to find a more campier with paedophilic undertones school song than this and I will give you a brand new 60GB Zune music player. Ok, maybe the La Salle school song is as campy but at least it's in French.)

In a matter of minutes and with my knees turned to jelly, I was amazingly 100m above Sidi. The path became less steep but it was now just a couple of feet wide with the gorge now on my left. From here on it was a walk in the park. A two hour uphill walk in the park with the sun relentlessly zapping me with 40C rays.

I was alone except for the mountain goats. When I took one of my many breaks to admire the scenery and the sure-footed mountain goats that the Hermit caught up with me again. Strange, he was now asking me the capitals of the Koreas because apparently he had forgotten. I asked him where was he sleeping for the night and he said Outside, under the stars. I considered sleeping outside too but I remembered I lost my fleece in Gatwick. D'Oh.

I reached the Toubkal (Neltner) refuge at 4:30pm. It's right smack centre of the glacial valley. The view was impressive. The hut, run by the French Alpine Club has basic stuff - bunk beds, a kitchen, showers, and toilets. It was half full although there were other small groups with tents near the area.

The hikers and guides staying in the hut were a motley bunch but they were all friendly. Again, I had to play the Where are you from? game and no one was able to guess that I was Philippin.

I gathered some tips from a very helpful old Berber man. The first scree slope is the most confusing and apparently this is where people commit mistakes. A German guy hiking with his wife suggested we have a closer look and so off we went. Sunset was not due in an hour but the clouds hung low so we had to go back. We agreed to do a 7am ascent the following day.

Over dinner of vegetarian tagine, I met a Polish tandem. One of whom was a member of the Olympic bobsled team that competed in Salt Lake. What a coincidence he said. He just got a Philippine visa but wasn't able to go because the plane fare was expensive. I told him I haven't been home because the plane fares from Europe to Manila are really overpriced. I asked why he needed a Philippine visa because no one needs a Philippine visa for stays up to 30 days. He wanted to travel across the Philippine archipelago for more than a month. He and his friend had been backpacking around the world for months already.

Then a Peruvian tapped me on the shoulder Ah, Filipinas! He has also been globetrotting for 6 months and he intended to reach south east asia.(Dang, I was travelling for 10 days only! How lucky these guys were. I was so envious.) He began a very fast 'conversation' in Spanish. I told him to zip it amigo, por favor, as my tongue was already twisted juggling Berber, Arabic, and French and I had switched off my Spanish. I gave tips on Philippine travel while he gave me advice on South America which I plan to do next year. He was unimpressed with the altitude though. Peruvian cities, such as Cuzco, are at the same elevation.

Later, as I reflected on the day's events in the squat toilet, I calculated that the shit inching its way out my butt was 350 meters higher than the highest mountain in the Philippines.

I went outside to watch the stars before going to bed. The silence was rejuvenating.

This classic car did not make it but I was determined not to break down.

The flood plain. The peak in the middle is Djebel Toubkal, a mere 12km away.

Something to brighten up the day.

In the middle of the flood plain, looking back at the village of Aremd.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit for the mandatory 'Before' picture.

Follow that ass.....I see you baby, shakin that ass...

These mules are sure-footed and know where to go even without their master.

The first 5 km....

One of the solitary hikers going down.

When the locals are not looking.........

....Me, trying to push this pebble into the river 100 meters down would have made a nice splash....

Sidi Chamarouch....ask yourself why anyone would live here.....

Cooling down at noon. After this photo was taken PA/PR Gromit decided to go skinny dipping. Silly dog. It was baking but the water was freezing.

As raw and beautiful as it is, this is the most depressing section of the ascent...steep, rocky, painful....On the plus side, you get your buttocks toned...

Soon the path begins to be less demanding.

Yet, it's still hot hot hot.

It's actually scarier to be on top of a four-legged animal while trying not to fall 150m down....

Believe me, there are hundreds of mountain goats on that steep ridge. I could hear them miles away.

Almost there.....

The glacial valley and moraine all around. (Yes, this valley was shaped by ice eons ago.)

Behind the Toubkal Refuge.

The highest I reached this day was 3240m. Not bad considering how unfit I am.

And now, The Nashman takes a high altitude dump...

The squat toilet which allows one to assume the proper position for releasing nitrogenous waste product....

My little brown baby was delivered at an altitude of 3206 m. I'd show you pictures but I signed a lucrative contract with People Magazine....When my little baby fell, there was a small splash. Kinda like those Tang, Nestea, or Kool-Aid commercials where they do a slow-motion shot of the last drop that bounces off the glass.....