Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beating Toubkal: Summiting in the Atlas

I either spent too little or too much time preparing to summit North Africa's highest mountain. To be fair, Toubkal is a mountain and therefore possesses all the dangers inherent to that land mass; paranoid backpacker that I am, I'd prefer to carry a large pack than not have a working water filter or a full med kit if I need them. Toubkal is an oft-climbed mountain who does not inspire the awe she once did, as the mighty adventurers who previously braved her ascent now more commonly wear fanny packs and carry expensive looking photography equipment in the fumbling hands of an amateur. Even among my peers in the Peace Corps, summiting Toubkal appears to be more a rite of passage than a pursuit requiring careful planning and caution. This may be an unfair over-generalization, but considering the stories of unexpected storms, injuries, and even death, I fear that our carefree attitudes do not accord Toubkal the respect she deserves.

I tried to keep that in mind during the long first day of hiking, but as we trudged up switchback after switchback, my thoughts grew slowly less charitable. Being a mountain, Toubkal's trails are steep and rocky, difficult enough without an extra 35 pounds on your back. Had I planned ahead, I wondered, would we have decided to hire a mule to carry our supplies, thereby easing our load? My inefficient lungs had me stopping to use my inhaler more often than I would have liked, and I suspect that my companions too were questioning what lapse in judgement had made us believe we were in good enough shape to accomplish this and why we were carrying the packs we were.

Exhausted at the Refuge.

Other stories tell of evenings spent at Nelter Refuge, and mine varies little. Donning jackets soon after arrival; cooking pasta for our evening meal; sleeping under the stars and waking with a layer of dust on our sleeping bags. The sound of other hikers hitting the trail woke us, and we followed soon after, thankfully leaving our large packs at the refuge and carrying only the basics.

The first hour of that morning was liberating and exhilarating. We set off by the light of headlamps and watched the sun come up as we scrambled over boulders and up the hill. Replacing three large packs with two smaller ones made us feel as spry as the mountain goats we later saw jumping from boulder to boulder, and though the breeze was cool, our exertion was great, and we delayed little before removing our outer layers.

As the second hour wore past, however, the pleasant breezes turned to stronger winds, and then to powerful gusts. We reached for our jackets once more and hunched our shoulders as we fought our way over trails made up primarily of scree. The trail was not readily visible, but we knew the approximate direction in which we needed to head, and so we pressed on. And as the trail worsened and the wind grew stronger, we found ourselves bracing as each wind gust attacked, not only because we were unable to keep walking but also because it was too easy to imagine these forces of nature knocking us off our feet and back down the rocky slope. 

We pressed on, but soon after, an even stronger gust hit. We braced ourselves just as we heard the sound of tumbling debris. The rocks along the ridge line, disturbed by the powerful winds, were rolling down the hillside toward the valley in which we were climbing. We could not easily measure the rocks, as they thankfully did not reach our location, but I would estimate them to be the size of a human head or larger; certainly sufficient to cause damage and more than sufficient to cause fear.

Neither up nor down offered easy refuge, and our current position was likewise unsustainable. One of our number elected to return, wisely surveying her own condition from the previous day's trek, the drop in temperature, and the strain of the wind and the trail. We were afeared to leave her and had committed to all returning together, but circumstance brought us a companion with another party, someone we had known before, who was also planning to descend. We remaining two watched them leave, knowing that it was an intelligent choice but also losing heart at the loss of one of our number.

We continued up the trail, keeping a wary eye on the few rocks continuing to fall and breathing a sigh of relief when they ceased. The wind slackened none, ripping through the valley as though intent on taking us along, and more than once, we stumbled a step or two backward along the slippery trail. Our muscles, already wearied from the previous day, strained further and made clear their complaints. As we ascended, the air grew thinner and the wind just as strong, and I began keeping my inhaler in hand because it seemed not worth the effort to retire it to my pack between uses. 

We emerged from the shadowy valley and reached the approaching rays of the sun at last, and it seemed an end was in sight. Others, who had left far earlier than we, were making their way past us, back down the trail, and we both rejoiced to see them and felt disheartened by our own slow progress. I felt the guilt most strongly, as I was the primary cause of our halting pace, and yet again, I questioned whether I had been justified in attempting this trek, knowing that my lungs' inability can too easily make me a liability. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

After a time (we were not so eager to check our watches by now, as it was too cold to use our fingers more than necessary and only served to hurt our morale), we reached the ridge. This is the subject of many pictures, as hikers silhouetted along the horizon line brave the last stretch of trail. 

We were now protected from the wind and the weather was cold but not unbearable, and whole minutes passed without words as we watched vista after incredible vista come into view and thanked the God who had sent us on this journey.

We reached the final, steep ascent, following the winding trail up to the peak, as the wind met us once again. It blew us around, creeping through our layers of clothing and finding buttonholes and loose collars to burrow into. Our hands and ears and other extremities were quite chilled at this point, and I am ashamed to admit that when we at last reached the summit, my thoughts at first focused little on the beauty or on the feat we had just accomplished but more on the return awaiting us.

However, despite the cold and my wheezing lungs, summiting Toubkal was a moment like no other. Climbing those final feet, reaching a summit empty of people but silhouetted by brilliant blue skies, looking at the distant village we had passed the previous day and saying, "I was there. Now I am here. Despite your best attempts to thwart me, Toubkal, look at what I have accomplished."

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