Western Atlas and High Atlas Trip: Ellie and Derek, April 2010
Following route suggested by Hamish Brown: Up Amezmiz valley to Jbel Gourza, continuous ridge to Erdouz and Igdat, over pass to follow Nfis valley to Ijoukak, follow Agoundis valley to col to climb Ouanoukrim then Toubkal, and down valley to Imlil and Asni.
Tuesday 13th April
The plane arrived in Marrakech at 9.50am, and we caught bus 19 to Place Foucauld for Hotel Ali. Hamish’s directions to an ironmongers were spot-on, so we bought 3 small campingaz canisters. We bought goodies from a patisserie, had lunch at Hotel Ali and left the airport bag there. We found the no 45 bus stop, and squashed on a very crowded bus to Amezmiz, with friendly locals chatting to us. It was souk day in Amizmiz, and we bought bottled water. We decided to follow the road to the west of the Amezmiz river, expecting it to become a dirt track after the maison forestiere. Alas, it is now tarmac all the way to Inghed just before the Imi n’ Tala spring. We were repeatedly passed by locals on donkeys or sitting on the roof racks of vans travelling back from the souk. All those donkey feet help maintain a softer earth path beside the tarmac.
Looking across the river valley to the contouring path on the other slope, it looked a more pleasant option at first: however, numerous landslips and winter streams had eroded the path and not been repaired, and it could have been challenging. We never saw a soul coming back from the souk on that side, so it seems likely people have abandoned it for the road.
With every bit of flattish land cultivated, there were plenty of water sources, but we struggled to find a camping spot for the tent. Just before dark, we settled for some wasteland between hairpins in the road, opposite Igourdane, at 1250m.
Wednesday 14th April
After a stop at the Imi n’ Tala spring, the weather worsened, with rain/hail showers and strong winds for the rest of the day. We decided the tizi route to Gourza offered more shelter than the ridge. The dirt track now continues along the west side of the river all the way to Tizga, making an easy path. Following the map, we dropped down alongside the women washing their clothes in the stream to cross the river at Kettou, but with no visible path that side, a young boy soon put us right, and took us back across the river again to the track. At Tizga, we watched men felling hardwood trees and converting them to beams with a chainsaw, much the same as Derek does at work. These would prove to be the last people we saw for six days.
When the road ended below Tizga, we found a stone bridge across the river (great campsite), but were tempted by a good footpath following upstream when we should have started climbing. Hence we scrambled up further on and found the path to the tizi on the ridge. The path up to Tizi-n-Imiri was then clear, but the wind had reached blow-you-sideways strength on Ellie’s beaufort scale, so the tizi would be rather blowy, and we decided to stop early. The first two streams were dry, but the third provided water and a somewhat flattish campsite, so we stopped there at 2060m and had a very windy night in the tent.
Thursday 15th April
The next day was still windy, sometimes clear, sometimes in cloud, with hail and snow showers, and a wonderful rainbow. The path soon disappeared, so we decided to stick to the top of the ridge the rest of the way to the tizi, which proved a good move. Stone shepherd’s shelters gave a break from the wind.
We angled east to join the ridge from Tizi-n-Imiri to the top of Jbel Gourza (3280m), leaving Derek’s pack at a shelter. An easy climb, just rocky, but the wind and stinging hail made us hurry. No views from the summit due to cloud. My hands aren’t really that weird: it’s the gloves.
We hurried back to the tizi, but with full-on cloud, thick snow and driving hailstones, we decided to stop early again, and descended south from the tizi until we found water in the stream and a campsite, at 2,600m. There was no-where quite big enough for the tent on the hillside, so we spent some time building a platform with rocks and earth to create a site big enough to camp on. It snowed most the night and was very cold. The foot-high dry stone wall we constructed is visible in the photo.
Friday 16th April
It was still snowing with thick cloud in the morning, and we considered descending. However, Hamish in his book said (no doubt I quote incorrectly) that storms last for 3 days, and this was day 3, so we decided to stay put and wait for it to clear. We could have started the ridge walk to Erdouz, but ridge walks are about enjoying the far-reaching views on either side, and are worth waiting for better weather. It didn’t start to clear until late afternoon, so we spent a lazy day in the tent reading and doing chores, and eating light rations to make our food last an extra day.
Saturday 17th April
The weather is good enough today to start the ridge: light wind, thin cloud on tops, but clear sunny breaks giving occasional long views. It is still below freezing: I hung up washing to dry on my pack, but it just froze. We climbed back up to Tizi-n-Imri, then along the ridge to Tizi-n-Oudiff, and up Imlit (3245), a worthy mountain. The geology along the ridge is really interesting and varied, with many mineral colours to the shale and slate, great ‘erratic’ lumps of granite with quartz seams, thrown out by some volcano perhaps. Then after the next 3037 top, you are looking at a very shapely, white, lunar landscape. Still in cloud, we by-passed some sharp hedgehog rocky ridges to the south, involving some enjoyable scrambling, unnecessary as it was easier to the north, to reach Tizi Melloult, then up to Adrar-n-Takawcht. Since it looked like considerable descending would be necessary to find water to camp, we decided to camp on the top of Adrar-n-Takawcht (3012m) since it had some flatish ground, and some snowfields to melt snow for water. Another windy and sub-zero night, with more snowfall. We put on every scrap of clothing we carried, and made a hot water bottle.
Sunday 18th April
We woke to the first really nice clear day, blue sky and sunshine, a cloud inversion below and an excellent view of snowy Jbel Igdat, two days away along the twisting ridge.
Some excellent ridge walking today, with wonderful views and lots of interest along the ridge. Erdouz and Igdat were often in view, and backwards was the ridge we’d already walked, and distant Jbel Toubkal and the snowy Tazaghart plateau which we’d reach next week. We never saw any certain water even if we descended, so Derek melted more snow with body heat in a wide necked Nalgene ‘cantene’. Jebel Erdouz was the dramatic highlight of the day, a complex craggy mountain with sheer cliffs to one side, requiring a scramble. Ellie made a mess of the navigation, believing that a GPS reading could not be wrong (against all other evidence), and so we did not realise we had reached Erdouz. We had intended to try the ridge scramble up Erdouz, but thinking we were not there yet, we spent a couple of hours skirting the ridge, but still with a lot of enjoyable scrambling over good rock and less good scree.
We descended to the Tizi-n-Tighfist (2895m) for the night and found a campsite below the col, out of the wind. It was getting dark whilst Derek fetched snow to melt, and Ellie ‘gardened’ the site to level it and get rid of all the ‘hexagon-bush’ prickles. Another sub-zero night with ice on the tent.
Monday 19th April
Another sunny day for the most part, giving great views on the way to Igdat. Descending the day before, we’d seen a very faint path contouring up the side of Jbel Tighfist, and we now took this. This proved wearing, continually slipping down loose scree on a steep slope, with the path too seldom used to be much help. Down to a tizi, over a good 3316m peak and a nice rocky descent to Tizi-n-Oumsima, where we left Derek’s pack. Excellent ridge to the top of Igdat, with a fine mix of easy rocky scrambling, snowfields requiring iceaxes and kicking steps, slippery mud due to snowmelt, and boulders at the top. We still saw no-one, and there were no footprints in the snow or mud. Some cloud and snow came in just as we topped out. The Erdouz ridge shows in the background of the photo.
The descent was especially enjoyable, with glissading down the snow, and mud/scree running. Back at the Tizi-n-Oumsima, we decided to stay on the tizi to camp. We could find no shelter, and settled for the top of the ridge (3137m), exposed to the full blast of the wind which of course decided to become much stronger at that point. The tent was taking a battering, but heroic Derek put in extra guylines, hit pegs into very hard stony ground, and built a low stone wall as well, all in growing darkness and gale-blown snow. The stone wall had to be built at both ends of the tent, as the wind and snow hit from both sides. Another freezing night, but the winds abated.
Tuesday 20th April
As soon as we dropped down from the col, it became summer warm, and multiple layers had to come off. There was a wonderful scree-running descent from the tizi down to a spring below: the first running water in 3 and a half days. We guzzled. The first Berber village of Arg was very pretty, with cascading water through a gorge, and the green oasis of cultivation all down the valley bottom. As so often, the villages were the hardest terrain to find the way through, and we had to ask for directions down to cross the river to the opposite village of Awdid. The local Berbers were the first people we had seen for six days.
No path is marked on the map to join the ridge path up to Tizi-n-Tiddi, but just before the next cultivated patch after Awdid, we spotted some very European red paint splashes showing the start of a path, followed by white paint arrows where you cross the river, and continuing red paint until you leave the cultivation level, after which you are on your own. We headed up the gully to the col Tizi-n-Fiddi, watched from on high by two groups of young berber women out foraging, laughing and ululating and no doubt remarking how slow these Europeans are and what strange ‘baggage’ they are wearing. From the col, there is an excellent path all the way to and over Tizi-n-Tiddi (2754m) and Tizi Aghbar (2648m), well used by locals. Three of the foraging young women accompanied us most of the way, chatting and laughing and stopping whenever we stopped, though we had no language in common after pleasantries, and anyway I was fighting for breath up the hill. Another party of four Berbers passed us while we rested, going over the pass themselves. We followed for a while, but they soon receded into the distance. The Berber women are always well covered, but in brightly coloured patterned fabrics, a short skirt over a longer skirt and leggings beneath, a tight warm top covered by a looser one, and headscarf: the colours are a delight. They never adjust their clothing for temperature differences or when climbing, whilst I am always taking layers on and off. The hills were very much alive, full of shepherds and children minding their goats, and mules waiting whilst their owners gathered fodder. The bowl between the two tizis was shapely and pretty fertile, with a stream feeding it which the path crosses.
Heading down from the tizis, villages and cultivation again appeared along the bottom of the narrow ravine. The first village was Zawyat-Askar: here, we definitely needed the guidance of a field-worker who downed tool and led us through the windy streets down to the river crossing. From the river, the path had been overlaid by a new piste (road), which was inevitably bringing in the good and the bad of electricity, at that point just piles of angle iron by the roadside. We followed the piste to above Souk Sebt, where the original path returned as a turn-off from the descending zigzags. This proved an excellent hillside path to Lamkayt, where we stopped for the night. There was water in the irrigation channels, but nowhere suitable to camp. We were making the most of a poor site by the path, when two local men stopped and showed us a better camp spot on their terraces. The local Berbers are always friendly and curious, and want to chat, but it gave me a shock when I left the tent for a pee to realise too late that the helpful villager was standing there in the pitch dark smoking a cigarette, keen to invite us to his house.
Wednesday 21st April
The good path continued above the Oued Nfis, on a hot and sunny day. It remained difficult finding the way through villages, and we often made false starts, returning to try a different path. We stopped by the first stream gushing down the hillside, as we could no longer ignore Derek’s heel blister, which had become infected and was making his ankle stiffen up. We treated it and cut a hole in his shoe to remove the pressure. After that, we kept losing the path and had to make our own way across difficult ground on steep hillsides – ironically just where Hamish had marked ‘good path’ on his map. After taking well-used paths downhill that just ended in cultivated terraces, we tended to err towards higher paths which resulted in our ending up too high on the hill, and scrambling down steep scree to Oukoan perched on a peninsula. After a false start, we found the good path again, to Agadir where a bridge saw us across the river. The path then became a piste, impossible to get lost on, but still a most enjoyable walk through the gorge-like Nfis valley.
We walked through to Assoul and up to the Tizi-n-Test road where we hitched a lift to Ijoukak. The third vehicle to pass stopped for us, a man and his wife listening to the Koran on the radio, and who refused the offer of payment. We had decided to give Derek’s infected heel a day off, so we arranged to stay two nights at Chez Said in Ijoukak, and were given a room for 8 people all to ourselves, a bucket of hot water as the waterheater would not work, and use of the very whiffy bathroom facilities. Said junior (2nd of 4 generations who welcomed us) was extremely helpful and obliging. Half the village seemed to turn up to eat the excellent tagine in the evening.
Thursday 22nd April
A rest day at Chez Said, doing washing, mending, shopping, eating lots of oranges and more tagine. Said’s son would alternative the TV between listening to the Koran and putting on the BBC news and the primeministerial debate for us to listen to, whilst we alternated between mint tea, and his excellent coffee. Said lent me a Nokia charger to charge up my four phone batteries. Unfortunately, we missed the famous Ali, who called in on his way from Marrakesh to Taroudant, whilst we were resting in our room.
We planned to walk straight up the Tajgal ridge from Ijoukak to the Tazaghart plateau the next day, a clear ridgeline that had enticed us from the top of Igdat, and we sought local advice on whether this was reasonable. Said asked local Berbers about it for us, but they don’t take that route, their shoes being unsuitable for snow. Everyone suggested the two valley routes. We were most impressed with the friendliness and helpfulness at Chez Said.
Friday 23rd April
We still hoped to do the Tajgal ridge to Tazaghart, but the morning started with thick cloud on the hills, so there was no point going for it, and we decided on the Agoundis valley instead, which proved a delightful route. Of course, the clouds soon cleared and it became hot and sunny. The first half of the valley has a good piste, through villages that were not hard to navigate, with lush cultivation all along the valley bottom, and interesting high hills to either side.
Where the road ended, we found our way down, directed by school children whose chatter changed to alarm noises when we started the wrong way, to cross a side stream and then the main Agoundis river to start the gorge walk. The river had to be crossed about 80 times and was up to knee-high, so we took off socks and walked in wet shoes. At the start of the river crossings, we were joined by a Berber woman, baby in shawl on her back, large tagine in one hand, and shawl full of bread in the other, taking lunch to her husband and other men who were building in stone further up the gorge. Typically, she did not adjust clothing, just waded straight in. She gave us both bread, and accompanied us cheerfully, waiting for us when we were slow.
The river takes a windy passage through the gorge, and we continued over rocks and river for several hours, with some dramatic scenery. We stopped to camp the night in the gorge when we found a sandbank that was suitable (2220m).
Another beautiful day, but quite a tough one. We negotiated the rest of the gorge. My feet got so cold with all the river crossings, I had to stop to warm them in the sun. We finally turned the corner to start northwards towards the Tizi n’Ouagane at 3750m, the valley opening up a little. Derek decided we should scramble up the steep scree hillside to join the path on the ridgeline. The scree was loose, and this took some time. A Berber shepherd told us we should have just followed the river, but now we were here, there was a good path. The path was also a disused irrigation ditch so it was very carefully constructed and graded into the hillside, and was worth the climb up to it. When the river came up to meet us, we mistakenly crossed over, and again gave ourselves a hard (but enjoyable) time scrambling high over the rocks instead of following the path on the other side. The path continued up towards the tizi and we were soon above the snow line. We camped on snow a little below the col at 3,500m. At least snow provided a flat site, but it draws all the heat out of you, and we had to melt snow again for water.
Sunday 25th April
Another sunny day, and we started up the snowfields to the col. There were huge numbers of ladybirds motionless on the snow: Derek put one on his hand to warm it up, and it flew away. There were butterflies also, frozen on the snow.
Being early morning, the snow was hard ice, so we put on crampons. However, the heel plate on the crampons pressed right through the hole Derek had cut in his shoe and pressed painfully on his blister. Hence, we sat on the snowslope for some time solving the problem. We settled on using the lid of a tomato puree tin from our rubbish bag as a metal plate and stitching it over the hole in Derek’s shoe. This worked pretty well.
There had been no footprints on our side of the col, but as soon as we reached the top of the Tizi n’Ouagane (3750m), there were a clear line of footprints in the snow to follow up to the two tops of Ouanoukrim (4089m). We left Derek’s pack amongst the rocks. The tizi provided an interesting mix of rock scrambles and narrow snow ridges. Then there were long snow slopes up to Ras, the first and best summit, a rocky outcrop. There were great views of the Tazaghart plateau, Afella and Akioud, and back to Igdat in the distance.
For the first time we were not alone: there were four men on the second summit. We walked down and up to Timesguida, the rounded but higher summit. From there, we could see storm clouds rolling in, so we did not linger, but started back towards the col in a hurry, the snow and cloud soon reaching us. We were glad of the footprints to follow. We started down the rocky ridge to the tizi. Stood atop one of the rocks, Derek suddenly made an awful screaming noise, and felt like he had an angry insect buzzing in his hair, inside his hats. As I joined him on the same spot, the same happened to me, a strong tingling on the top of my head, most weird and disturbing. Realising it was the static build-up that can precede a lightning strike, we left the rock quickly and again started down at a pace. We reached Derek’s pack, and the thunder and lightning started. I don’t think I have previously been faster than Derek at descending down difficult rocky ridges and snowslopes, but that day, there was no stopping me. The long snowslopes down from the col were a delight to plunge through. We kept descending towards the Toubkal refuge, and as we intended to climb Toubkal the next day, looked for a campsite just below the snowline. On the last plateau above the refuge, we found an earth patch someone had previously cleared of rocks, with some protection from wind and lightning provided by some large rocks, and a nearby stream emerging briefly from the snow. The thunderstorm continued, with huge hailstones falling. Unfortunately, our cleared area, being lower, became a big puddle as the hailstones melted, and our leaky groundsheet, pre-pierced by sharp Pyrenean grasses, let in water to make puddles inside. Derek dug a ditch, but everything was already wet by then. Derek woke in the night to be sick. Luckily he grabbed a plastic bag.
Monday 26th April
This was our last day in the mountains before walking out and we had planned to climb Jebel Toubkal. Derek had no appetite so we decided against it, and there was no time to try again tomorrow. As we started down the path to Imlil, meeting the literally hundreds of people walking up, their packs on mules, many to do Toubkal we assumed, we didn’t really mind missing out on an over-subscribed mountain.
We stopped for mint tea at the Hotel Soleil in Imlil, and it was such a wonderful site right next to the river, that we decided to stop there for the night. We enjoyed the luxuries of a double bed, hot water, en suite.
Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th April
With Derek still unwell, we stopped walking, and arranged a shared taxi from Imlil to Marrakech. This gave us two nights at the Hotel Ali, recuperating and visiting the sites of Marrakech.
We started with 8 days food which we had to stretch to 9. I left Amezmiz with 6 litres of water and about 55pounds in my ULA Circuit with amended frame. Ellie had about 25 pounds in her OMM 25classic. Both rucksacks had been fitted with 12 litre Aarn front pockets. Our tent was a Terra Nova Laser with a polycro groundsheet protector. Morocco is full of rocks and spiky things. We used our Rab 400 converted double top bag and short neoair mats. We cooked with our cut down jetboil and 3 pierceable butane canisters lasted the trip even with melting snow and we had to burn off about 1/4 of a canister to retrieve our canister adaptor. We used our Steve Evans TiCf ice axes. We used them as potty trowels, as rock removers to help build dry stone walls and to cut and fill soil in to make a tent site, they flatten snow for a flat tent site, they dig drainage to avoid puddles,they are good as a big tent peg in soft snow and good for digging snow out to melt for water they are even useful as an ice axe!! and once,nearly all day, we used our Kahtoolah crampons. .We both carried a good bit of warm clothing, 2 down items which seemed ridiculous sweating in a T shirt and thin trousers at 1500m but it was bloody cold at 3000m when the sun went in. The neoairs were not quite up to camping on snow but our exped mats would have been heavier.