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Safety and success on Jebal Toubkal
A WINTER ASCENT VIA THE SOUTH COL
by Dr Yashvi Wimalasena DiMM
Mountain: Jbel Toubkal
Route: Winter Ascent via South Col Route
Altitude: 4167 m (13671ft)
Location: Morocco (31˚ 03‘ 43“ N 7˚ 54’ 58” W)
The mountain is most easily accessed from the town of Around. Around is a 2 to 3 hour journey by car from Marrakech. Parties often stop at the town of Imlil (64 km from Marrakech) and walk the final 3 km to Around whilst the bags are transported by 4x4 vehicle to Around.
Jbel Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa, standing at 4167 m. Its snowy pyramidal summit is surrounded by several other three and four thousand metre peaks of the High Atlas mountain range. The first recorded ascent was by the French mountaineers Marquis de Segonzac, Vincent Berger and Hubert Dolbeauthe on the 12th June 1923. However it is likely that Berber tribesmen reached the summit in the course of hunting trips long before the first Western ‘explorers’. As the highest peak in North Africa, Toubkel is becoming increasingly popular, attracting more than 500 climbers to its slopes every year.
No climbing permits are required
Maroc – Croquis AU 1:50 000 – Jbel Toubkal (can be bought in Around)
Toubkal can be climbed all year round. In both summer and winter the most popular route is via the South Col. In summer this is a straightforward trek up steep scree slopes to the summit ridge. Pockets of snow can be found in higher hollows and gullies above 3000 m until early July. In summer Morocco can be very hot with temperatures in the valleys reaching 42 degrees Celsius. However in winter the High Atlas is transformed into an idyllic alpine environment with beautiful jagged snow capped peaks. Steep snow and ice will be encountered on all routes on Toubkal from October, therefore ice axe and crampons are essential.
A Suggested Ascent Profile (Pink) and Sleep Altitude (Blue) of Jbel Toubkel (4167m).
Imlil to Around. Distance 3 km. Altitude gain 183m
After the bumpy 2 to 3 hour drive from Marrakech to Imlil, it’s a blessing to trek through the rugged mountain terrain and cross a couple of scenic streams en route to the mountain Gite at Around. The trek is a gentle acclimatization walk, which takes about 2 hours and climbs easily from 1747m to 1930m.
Adrar el Hajj from Around
Around to Nelter refuge. Distance 10 km. Altitude gain 1277 m
Starting off after breakfast, the two hour route involves crossing a wide flood plain at the foot of Adrar el Hajj before climbing steeply on the left flank of the valley to the Muslim holy site of Sidi Chamharouch (2284 m). Food and tea can be bought at a number of small cafes here. In winter, the snow line is met at around 2300m. After about 5 hours walking, the beautiful alpine valley between Jbel Toubkal and Adrar n Quanoukrim becomes visible, with the Nelter refuge nestled in the middle of it. The last hour of the ascent is the most strenuous, at over 3200m, but the glorious scenery reminds you why you are there. The refuge is usually reached in time for lunch and the afternoon can be spent refreshing winter climbing skills on the adjoining slopes. There are two shelters at Nelter, Refuge Nelter (sleeps 29) and Refuge Du Toubkal (sleeps 86). Both consist of dorms that accomodate up to 12 people. Indoor toilets and running water are provided at both. Refuge Nelter has a hot water shower which costs 10 dihar, and sells bottled water for 12 dihar (2010 prices).
At 3207m some members of your party may develop Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Those who are at greatest risk include the young, the obese and those who’ve previously suffered from AMS. The most common symptom of AMS is headache. Typically, this is most often felt over the forehead and in front of the ears. It is aggravated by any form of exertion and typically improves with rest and treatment with painkillers such as paracetamol (1g every 6 hours) or ibuprofen (600mg every 6 hours). Those with AMS may also suffer from nausea, loss of appetite, tiredness, dizziness and difficulty sleeping. In the event of symptoms persisting or becoming worse, those with AMS should descend to an altitude where they were previously well.
The risk of AMS is increased significantly if the altitude you sleep at increases rapidly. Above 3000m, the Wilderness Medical Society recommends an ascent of 500m per day and a rest day every 3 to 4 days of ascent. Therefore the ascent from Around to the Nilter Refuge (1277m) may be a problem for some. See “Dangers – High Altitude Illness” for suggestions on how to adapt your itinerary to deal with this.
For further details on AMS and other High Altitude Illnesses see:
At 3207m sleep may be difficult. Not only will it feel cold and uncomfortable on an unfamilar mattress, but you’ll often be woken by the urge to pass urine. This is a normal response to altitude and is a sign that your body is acclimatising. In addition, you may also experience “periodic breathing”. This is an irregular breathing pattern that occurs in most of those who ascend to altitude and is the result of a fall in the amount of oxygen available in the atmosphere. Sometimes this feeling can be very disturbing and often leaves you feeling tired the next day. Periodic breathing can be prevented by using acetazolamide (125mg) before you go to bed. It should work immediately and does not need to be taken regularly. Although this dose is very small it can sometimes cause indigestion and tingling in the hands and feet. In those with a sulphur allergy, acetazolamide may cause an anaphylactic reaction. It is therefore worth trying this drug at home first to see whether these side effects are tolerable.
Sleep can also be improved by having access to a pee bottle, head torch, alarm clock, hot water bottle, ear plugs, eye shades, toilet paper and additional layers of warm clothing. A down jacket and trousers are ideal.
A warm sleeping bag is also essential – this should be capable of keeping you warm to -10 to -20 degrees C.
Climbers en-route to Nelter
Refuge Nelter and Refuge Du Toubkal
After the long trek to Nelter and a rapid ascent to 3207m it is advisable to have a rest day. Here it is possible to explore the surrounding slopes and practice walking on steep ground with crampons and an ice axe. On the flatter slopes it may be possible to practice an ice axe arrest! For the hardened climber there are ice climbs and mixed routes a few minutes’ walk from Nelter. Ask the guardian or local guides for details.
Frozen waterfall within a few minutes’ walk of Nelter Refuge
Summit of Jbel Toubkal. Distance 6 km. Altitude gained and lost 960 m.
On summit day an early start is needed. Most groups leave before 0700. A zig zag track leads up to the south col on well compacted 30 degree snow. During the summer months this area is prone to rockfall from the ridges above. On higher sections of the col the slope is icy and quickly steepens to around 40 degrees. After a fresh fall of snow these slopes will become avalanche prone. The summit ridge is less steep but very exposed to the wind. There is an exposed section with a 500m fall to the left higher up on the ridge. Inexperienced party members may benefit from being short roped, belayed or having the use of a fixed rope. The summit is reached in about 3 hours from the hut, and from there spectacular views of the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges can be had. The same route is followed for descent. If possible, aim to be back in Nelter before the afternoon since the risk of rockfall increases later in the day.
High up on Jbel Toubkal
View from summit of Jbel Toubkal
Along with the ascent of Toubkal there are a number of other mountains that can be climbed or skied from Nelter. For further information consult the web sites listed at the end of this article.
Here are two options:
1. Ascent of Adrar n Quanoukrim. Distance 6 km. Altitude gained -500m
Head south from Nelter to Quagane gully and up to the col at Tizi n Quangane (3968m). From here the two summits of Quanoukrim can be attempted. To the south is Timesguida (4.089 m) whilst to the north is Ras n'Ouanoukrim (4.083 m). Timesguida is the second highest mountain in the region and Ras the third. Both peaks can be attempted on skis. After fresh snow the higher slopes of both summits are prone to avalanches. Exercise caution after recent snowfall.
En-route to Adrar n Quanoukrim
2. Ascent to Tizi n Quanoumss. Distance 6km. Altitude gained 500m; lost 500m
Head south from Nelter and ascend a gentle snow slope before reaching a section of very steep hard snow and ice. This is followed by an exposed traverse and a further steep (50 degree) slope which brings you to the pass of Quanoumss with good views of Lake L D’Ifni many miles below.
Tizi n Quanoumss
Nelter to Around, Distance 10 km, Altitude lost 1770m
Follow the same route back to Around (3 to 4 hours walk).
Arabic, Berber and French
Moroccan Dirham (MAD) 100 Santimat = 1 Dirham
Travellers should be up to date with their routine vaccinations. No Yellow Fever vaccination or certificate is required to enter Morocco. If you are spending a prolonged period in Morocco a Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended. Rabies is a common problem in Africa. Many animals are infected. Prior vaccination often allows the victim enough time to reach medical help for definitive treatment and may reduce the severity of infection. Without it, rabies can be fatal within hours. Therefore when visiting remote areas, a rabies vaccination is strongly recommended.
There is a dispensary at Imlil, 13 km from Nelter refuge that provides basic treatment and drugs. Two ambulances are situated at Imlil and can evacuate patients to the nearest hospital situated at Asni 15 km away.
There is no mountain rescue service in Morocco.
However the local Moroccan guides are knowledgeable and attentive. Most are aware of high altitude illnesses and the importance of descent. However trekking companies tend not to carry drugs, supplemental oxygen or a hyperbaric bag. For the evacuation of those with illnesses or injuries, helicopters are available which will air lift casualties to Marrakech. This service is entirely weather dependent and costs around $5000. Adequate insurance is vital. To contact the helicopter use the telephone at Nelter or the short wave radio carried by the local guides. Alternatively, a runner can be sent to Around. If a helicopter rescue is not possible, the options are either to walk, get stretchered or be carried by mule for the 13 km to Imlil where an ambulance can then be arranged.
Never send down an injured climber, guide or porter unaccompanied. The casualty should be chaperoned by at least two people – one to guide and carry equipment and a second who can go for help in case of difficulties.
Before descending check that your casualty is warm and dry, this is especially important in winter when the temperature can drop to -10 degrees Celsius. Ensure water, food and medication is carried. Remember, if a guide or porter is sick or injured the same care must be given to them as you would expect in return for yourself.
Radios are operated by most trekking guides. At Nelter refuge there is a telephone and mobile phone reception is possible on some networks.
High Altitude Illness
Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank Mohamed Maachou who acted as our local guide in Morocco, Dr Edwin Mitchell for proof reading the article and Dr Jeremy Windsor for his advice. I would also like to thank Joanna Collins for accompanying me to this most beautiful part of the globe. Pictures are courtesy of Dr Yashvi Wimalasena and Joanna Collins.
Climbers on lower slopes of Toubkal
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