Meditations on Toubkal Mountain, the highest point in North Africa

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Much remains the same when you grow up, many of the childlike dreams, hopes and aspirations still hold true. Perhaps we may coat them with a veneer of respectability or adulthood, but at their core, they still remain much the same. The main thing that changes though is how we seek to satisfy those drives.

Had you talked to my thirteen year old self and told him that one day, a decade later, I would decide to climb during the winter the highest mountain of North Africa on a whim, I would’ve likely called you mad. I still remember when, on a nature walk that we did on a school trip, my teacher essentially had to push my back then morbidly obese self the whole way. As otherwise, I would’ve never managed to do so.

Now, perhaps my burly self might not be as enduring as the marathon running Mohammed, or as experienced as the mountaineering Thomas ( both of which, we decided, would do the trek together with me) but I can certainly hold my own nowadays in the fitness department. We had met a couple of days before, in the seedy city of Marrakesh, where if you’re not on your guard you might not lose your life, but you will certainly lose your purse. Scams and prices as high as Toubkal itself abounded, so we decided to cut the middleman out entirely and go directly to the source, at the base of the mountain, in the town of Imlil. We had little semblance of a plan: Find a way to get there, find a cheap guide with equipment included, and climb the mountain, all within the next day or so.

Surprisingly, the whole affair seemed to initially work. Although it must be said that it likely primarily worked because of Mohammed, our French-Moroccan companion. In him, Arab blood very clearly courses through his veins, for he seemed to have been born a merchant. He has this way with people, where they truly becomes their friend. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the managed to sell ice to an Eskimo.

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Ruins of a Fortress in Marrakesh

Even whilst only understanding half of what he says, when he speaks in French and none when he speaks in Arabic, you can tell what the man is doing. When he haggles it’s like a humorous dance. He’ll chat friendly with someone, and genuinely seem to treat them like someone he’s known for years. I do not for a moment believe this is an act, he genuinely seems to have a kind and playful soul. As a starting salvo, he’ll shake their hand, and make a joke or two. Once a certain level of friendliness has been established, he forces the seller to quote his price, never revealing his own.

After which, the seller will usually try to close the deal, as they might’ve thought that Mohammed was a pushover, as he was being very friendly to them, instead of the guarded people they usually have to deal with. He will deflect whatever offer they give though, laugh at it, and give a reason for why this is a ludicrous price. Perhaps by then he will give a low-ball offer, knowing full well that this is going to be ignored. The seller, now on the defensive, will try to raise the price, but Mohammed usually remains resolute.

This dance of offer, and counteroffer is not unheard of to go on for over twenty minutes. But at no point does it ever turn sour. His humour keeps the tone light, whilst introducing the idea of decent prices. If the negotiations have hit a deadlock, he will probably walk away. At which point, he has usually created so much rapport and investment that the seller will chase after him with a price more similar or identical to that which he had initially offered. If this price drop is still not enough, he might leave once more, and more often than not the sellers agree to his demands. Otherwise, the dance begins anew with a more compliant partner.

In this manner it is that we found a taxi to take us to Imlil, as well as found a guide, after much haggling. By this point in the day it was noon more or less. So we had to get on our way if we wanted to reach the refuge we were staying in overnight.

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Berber Village near Imlil

Hence we quickly went to the guides’ house to pick up the equipment. His home was isolated, even when it comes to backwater towns – we had to go through a creek, and climb on several boulders just to get in the general cluster of homes he inhabited. With that said and done, we remained there a while, had some tea, exchanged some pleasantries and got our equipment in working order.

Short while later and we were off. The scenery was that of epic fantasy movies: rolling hills of crude dirt and stone, with mud brick villages sparsely dotting the area, and overlooking all this were the imposing Atlas Mountains, that by this point in the year were decked in snow. At first, the walk was quite bearable and pleasant, the mild weather and the calm of the valley was a much welcomed respite from the bustling Marrakesh.

Yet, even in these isolated parts, the enterprising Arab spirit seemed to be in full swing. Every so often along the trail upwards, we’d come across a hovel, and in these houses they would often have a shop where they’d sell water, sweets, souvenirs and Berber clothes. Some would even take it a step further and colonized the area with a quasi restaurant and cafés with plastic lawn chairs.

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Our guide, who by his own admission did the trek about twice or thrice per week, was well acquainted with the owners. Sometimes we’d stop and have a complimentary tea, before we continued on a merry way. On one such stop, I do not quite know why, but my energy seemed to give out. Until that point I had always been at the forefront, but now I grew tired after several hours of climbing. Every step became a chore, and by this point we were high enough that ice covered some of the rocks.

Far from the merry road we had been taking in the afternoon, the trek started to become dangerous. If you slipped on the ice, I hope you packed a parachute, because you’d likely plummet down several hundred meters to your likely death. There was far less conversation going on now. We had to keep our wits about us as we climbed higher.

The day went on in this matter, and the temperature kept dropping noticeably. At one point, the ice became snow and we had to put our crampons on. Whilst somewhat silly to say this, as a Mexican who lived in Europe for three years of his life, this was my first real experience with snow. Even though in Morocco I was essentially at the doorstep of the Sahara, I could not help but to marvel at the snow. It was such a novelty to me, that I even went as far as playing a bit with it whilst the rest of the group had their crampons tied to their shoes by our guide.

I continued on my own on the trail, admiring  the natural beauty of these peaks but quite nervous about falling. I might not have a fear of heights, but I definitely have a fear of falling. Little did it help that the trail became narrow and went around the edge of the mountain range. Soon enough the rest of the group caught up to me and thereafter I was the one having to catch up.

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Having little snow experience definitely didn’t help in the matter as I kept stumbling about, not quite knowing how or where to tread. My group reached the lodgings for the night at around 17:30, I could see it off in the distance but my pace worsened when I lost track of the trail and had to make my way through waist-high virgin snow. Quite frankly, it’s a terrifying experience when you don’t have a lamp, and darkness surrounds you whilst wading through snow. A source of constant worry was accidentally stepping on a snow covered chasm and plummeting down. The only similar experience I’ve had was getting lost in the Sahara at night, a few days later, with only a faint clue as to where my camp was – everything looked the same in the dark, so one could easily get turned around. But we’ll perhaps get to that story another time.

For now, let us say that after many difficulties I arrived hungry, cold and tired inside our refuge for the night. It’s incredible how one’s priorities change when facing the wilderness. When I arrived, I barely even looked at the price of the refuge, threw money at the person charging me for the night and wolfed down the dinner they offered us. In my writings and in my life I’ve always mentioned one particular theme, as I’m fairly convinced that it is true: underneath the facade of civilization, education and politeness, we’re wild creatures. Push any of us to the brink and we shall care for survival, not the expectations of society.

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I say this at the risk of seeming melodramatic. I have never felt hungrier than I did that day, as we only really had a light breakfast before jumping into the adventure. I’m well versed with fasting. On a voluntary basis I’ve gone almost thirty hours without having a bite to eat. But I had never exercised so fully on essentially an empty stomach. Be that as it may, I was surprised to see how I reacted under the harsh conditions. I would’ve likely emptied my whole wallet for a bottle of water and the food that we got, despite often in my life going hungry because I’m somewhat of a cheapskate. That whole experience made me appreciate a well stocked supermarket as a thing of beauty, and I can honestly say that despite its simplicity it’s well among one of the best dinners I’ve had in my life. Epicurus might’ve been right in saying that we often overcomplicate life and happiness, a simple dinner with friends was all but invaluable to me on that night.

Either way, once rested and fed we got to talking. Thomas was under the spell of wanting to see the sunrise. This would involve steep hiking in the snow, in the dark, for several hours, let alone in the freezing cold of the mountain. I was reticent, to say the least. But I got outvoted by the rest of the group. I had barely handled the ordeal when it was semi visible, I shuddered to think how I’d fare whilst there was complete darkness. This thought preoccupied me for most of the night, and I was unable to sleep due to the nerves. That said, my restlessness proved to be shared, although for different reasons. Mohammed kept getting up and going to the toilet. We later figured out that he was suffering from altitude sickness; fever, nausea, every symptom you can probably think of he had it.

So, when push came to shove with Thomas and myself, I decided against going off in the dead of night. Thomas, having lost his supermajority, conceded reluctantly. So we left at the crisp hour of 5:30 in the morning. Still very much dark, but the sunrise wasn’t all that far away. Mohammed stayed behind, for obvious reasons. Thus, the three of us began the final stretch of the journey. Both the guide and Thomas seemed to climb like mountain goats. I was ill prepared to face the steep snow covered ascent, to say the least. Every ten steps we took, I fell down, as I’d placed my foot wrong. This went on for half an hour perhaps but I soon figured that this affair was somewhat hopeless. At this rate, the last three hour climb would turn to be incredibly drawn out. Alone, I’d have stubbornly persisted, under peer pressure I crumbled though.

Hence, at some point I had to concede defeat. Toubkal had beaten me. I felt that even unfairly at that. True, I hadn’t waltzed around but I had made 80% of the climb nonetheless, and I had done so in a timely manner. On the physical side of things I felt more than capable to do this. Where it comes to experience though, I was somewhat lacking. In the Summer, without the picturesque ice, during the daytime, it would’ve been in the bag. Throughout the whole ascent of the day before, I had felt it was a foregone conclusion that I would reach the very top. It wasn’t a matter of “if”, it was matter of “when”.

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Reality, as it often is, was unconcerned with my ideals and slapped me for daring to be so presumptuous. On the way down to the refuge I felt as a failure. I felt as a weakling and I was reminded of all those years where I’d barely been able to go up a flight of stairs without heaving and wheezing. So, dejected and defeated, I went back to bed and woke a few hours later. At which point I finished reading Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”.

Whilst I think that this book is severely overrated in how often its lauded as a “must read” I can certainly see why it has endured for almost two millennia when people seek life advice. Much different than most self help, its philosophy is of a practical nature. It rarely concerns itself with the lofty ideals of human existence, it centers on the here and now, and how to overcome and survive current difficulties.

The stoic Roman Emperor never had any grandiose ideals of becoming a famous philosopher. He wrote the advice for himself, late in his tent whilst spending a lifetime on the frontiers fighting innumerable hoards of barbarians. His co-emperor was a hedonistic dunce, so Marcus Aurelius knew well that if he did not step up, the whole Empire might collapse within his lifetime. Such pressure is enough to drive most men to insanity, but he faced each failure and success with tempered wisdom.

If there’s one thing that we ought to take from his writings and his life, it’s that we never have a resounding victory. There will always be another obstacle to conquer, but we gain wisdom in the process of the fighting. Often we may not succeed, but we still achieved more than had we sat on our asses without skin in the game. If anything, in life, we fail upwards. Sometimes we succeed, but not in the ways that we expected. Furthermore, if we make the right sort of decisions, even our failures will be of a different nature altogether than had we not tried at all. I failed to get to the very top, this is a fact. But I did not fail to climb most of it. I was not pushed there, as my former self would’ve needed to, I was lead there out of my own desire to do so. I fail my way upwards, each mistake bringing me closer to whom I truly want to be.

That is perhaps the key to all this. We should be careful with branding things in such a binary way as a “success” or a “failure”. Sometimes a win can take too much out of you, and you might not be able to participate in the game further. A tactical retreat in the face of overwhelming odds is not weakness, but being smart. Knowing your limits, but always attempting to push one’s boundaries is the way in which I achieved what little, or as much, as I have achieved in life. I will not win every battle, but I am planning on winning the war.

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One thought on “Meditations on Toubkal Mountain, the highest point in North Africa

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Two Moroccos – or the night I was afraid of getting roofied in the desert – Tantalus Reborn

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