Thursday, April 8, 2010

Jebel Toubkal

Money is important, but it is not everything in life. I like money precisely because it enables me to do things that I want to do. I am not talking about things like living comfortably, eating sufficiently, or having clothes to wear. Those necessities aside, I am talking about doing things that are fun, that get my blood flowing, that excite my mind and warm my heart and make me happy, thankful to be alive and healthy enough to experience these things, whatever they may be. Taking road trips north to go snowboarding, participating in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, riding my lovely purple bicycle Maeve (Papa’s money there), living and learning in Morocco for 4 months, receiving family and loved ones during said 4 months, and so on. Sometimes funded through my own efforts, most other times through my parents, whatever the source; the point is that money is required to do these things. It is for this reason that I like money, but it is for other reasons that you will never hear me say, I love money.

Is the possession of money a reliable indicator of a person’s character? No.
Is it regarded as such in the world today? By some, yes.
Does money bring power in this world? Yes.
Does power corrupt? Yes, absolutely.
Does money corrupt? Depending on the quantity, it may.
It is possible to put a price tag on a human life? For some, yes.
Is this a good thing? No, no, no. Life is not property.
Is money valued over human life and our ability to live indefinitely on this earth? By some, yes.
Why is this?

“If the destruction of the natural world and the immiseration of the majority of humans isn’t making us happy, why are we doing it?” This is the central question of the life and work of the writer Derrick Jensen, author of the introduction to Cunt. I often wonder the same thing, but a little differently and less eloquently. If way we go about our lives is so disconnected from the reality of, and harmful to, the natural world that sustains us, and there are so many different ways of living, more wholesome and beneficial to all parties concerned, why do we live the way we do? Why do we prioritize profit over people and the environment that sustains us?

The point of this discussion is to relate my experiences from his past weekend, a 50 hour mini-odyssey (because it was nowhere near a 20 year odyssey) whose climax was reached on the top of Jebel Toubkal approximately 10 minutes past the hour of 10 am on Sunday, April 4, 2010. The feelings that accompany such an endeavor, a successful one at that, are many and varied. The sense of accomplishment it brings is great, unsurpassed by perhaps anything I have ever done. The landscapes of the High Atlas Mountains are hard to describe, and their splendor, and the experience they provided me, have sparked a strong desire to do more hiking, climbing, and adventuring in the near future upon my return to the States. There is also the arrogant, and very human, feeling that I have somehow conquered this mountain and perhaps even own it in some way, which is of course ridiculous. Toubkal remains untouched in her (or his?) serene snowy valley (whereas I am back to the grind of class and family in Rabat), and she could have very easily conquered me (my sore legs can attest to that).

My pictures will be around to help me remember the natural scenery, my legs will be right as rain soon enough, and in my mind I send thanks to lovely Mother Toubkal, for I know in the end, nature reigns supreme. What remains is that sense of accomplishment. It is really a renewal of lifeforce and vigor, a refreshing break from the mundane routine that establishes itself in the frame of any life, even if it is one lived in Morocco. Of course a trip to the High Atlas is not required to break the routine, though it sure does help.

Why do we do anything in life (aside from our normal routine of work, school, sleep, whatever)? In my opinion, it is in pursuit of the absence of time. We are searching for those moments that crack the brittle yet far-reaching crystalline structures of the ticking clock that invade our lives and our minds, those moments that offer a clarity, presence, and focus which allows us to fully embrace the here and now, soaking it and loving it and ultimately, wanting more of it. I am talking about how I felt upon reaching the summit of Jebel Toubkal, or the pleasure that connects and enshrines a lovers’ embrace. How about the warm euphoria of dancing and singing around a fire, or riding your bike full speed down a hill and letting go of the handlebars, or spending an afternoon devouring a book without a thought of food or time?

Everyone has their own method of escape, and some are more successful than others at achieving such an absence of time more frequently. Hobbies, running every morning, taking drugs, art, sex, music, gardening, these are just some of many of the more regular pursuits that people engage in (and I am not passing judgment). This desire for escape seems to me to be universal, but I could be wrong. If so, then why? Maybe these are ways in which we are attempting to reconnect to our repressed innate animal instincts? We are, after all, just bipedal monkeys with big brains, sophisticated communication skills, and fancy tools. Perhaps the answer is merely that such pursuits are precisely that, pursuits and activities that are different from what we normally do.

Whatever the reason may be, it is in pursuit of such a break from the routine, and of adventure, and, unconsciously, of a timeless moment, that drove me to catch a train at 3:15 am early in the morning of April 3rd from Rabat to Marrakesh, 120 dh each way. After 5 hours of not-very-restful sleep, I alighted in the tourist capital of Marrakesh with my compatriots in this adventure, Ciara and Anthony. We found our way to the grand taxi stand, which is a good bit south of the Medina, and there joined forces with an older American gentleman, by the name of Rasmusen Sorren, and a young Moroccan couple to hire a taxi to the mountain village of Imlil (elevation 1740m). After some negotiating, Rasmusen (an ex-pat photographer living in Paris) and I got the driver down to 45 dh each, about $5.60. Imlil is the starting point for lots of the adventuring that occurs in the High Atlas, probably because it is just under two hours from Marrakesh. Located in the stunning Ourika valley, it was in this little town that our adventure really began.

I should note that we had a rough idea about prices to expect, information we gathered from guide books and the BU students from last semester who did the same trip. But it was indeed very rough, because at the Imlil guide bureau the price we were quoted (900dh each, 2700 total), for a guide, one nights lodging, and food, was a lot higher than what we expected (1000 total). In the end, after much wrangling and searching around town, we came back to the bureau and settled on just a guide for two days, which set us back 800 dh. We decided to handle our own food and pay for one night at the refuge separately, which turned out to be a much better deal for us in the end. After stocking up on some supplies (bread, ‘Vache qui rit’ cheese, dates, and oranges), and renting crampons (!) for 150 dh each, we met up with our guide and started the 5 hour hike up the valley to the Toubkal refuge. This is the base camp for Toubkal climbers, three stone buildings clustered together at the base of the mountain, 3207 meters above sea level.

Hassan is a normal looking man, medium height and slim. He is friendly, interested in talking to us and often checking on our condition, but he was also content to walk in silence while we gabbed in English. We impressed him with our Arabic skills, and I learned a few words in Tamazight from him, which I have since mostly forgotten: atfel means snow (which sounds like atfall children in Fusha). He led us to the refuge, through a couple of villages around Imlil, across a rocky valley floor, and then along a well-defined mule path, passing the Sidi Chamharouch zawiya/marabout (interchangeable words for religious brotherhood and shrine) and winding its way between beautiful mountain walls, along babbling streams, always up the valley. It was an intense hike in its own right, but the objective ahead made it less of an obstacle, or a spectacle, for me, though of course I enjoyed the scenery. We first reached atfel about 4 hours in, and we got to the Refuge an hour later around 7pm, 17 hours in, exhausted, and already feeling the effects of the altitude.

The refuge was crowded with fellow adventurers, most of them middle-aged Europeans with flashy gear, wicking tights and layers, chowing down on tasty and expensive meals. Then there was us three, eating the food we brought, drinking some free tea provided by Hassan. Let’s just say I felt a little of place, and I wondered what exactly I was getting myself into. But my bed (one of many thin futon mattresses lining the walls of big dormitory rooms, bunk bed style) was calling to me, and after “preparing my gear” (purifying water and laying out my clothes) I was asleep by 9 pm.

We woke up at 4:30am, intending to leave at 5 after a light breakfast. We ended up fumbling around in the dark and taking longer than expected to dress and eat. Hassan was also absent, and when he showed up after 5 he insisted on bringing us some tea. After spending a while getting our crampons on (we felt animalistic, like we had suddenly evolved claws), we were finally ready to go, the official departure time 6am. Let it be known that crampons, especially well-used and slightly antique “Kampercentum De Jong” brand crampons, should never, ever, be attached to new balance running shoes. The beauty of hiking boots is their ankle support, stability, warmth, waterproofness, and ability to stand up to the straps of crampons, most of which my shoes severely lacked. However, it should also be known that fierce determination, stout legs, and a strong will can overcome certain deficiencies that one might have in the mountaineering department. The ascent of Toubkal is relatively straightforward, requiring endurance and focus rather than any technical skills, and thus I was not too worried about my insufficient footwear. When we were halfway down the mountain though, I was very acutely aware of this insufficiency.

The snow was wet and slick, most definitely on the way out, though there was still a lot of it. For the first two-thirds of the way up, we were hiking up an established trail in the snow, following Hassan and taking many short breaks to catch our breath. The slope was steep, but there were never any scary moments near a precipice, no dangers of crevasses, or avalanches, or any of the other dangerous obstacles that mountains present that I have read about. As difficult as the hiking was, it would have been a lot harder without the crampons. They were a gift and a curse, uncomfortable yet very necessary for the ascent and descent. But there was plenty of mountain scenery to distract me from my slight physical discomfort, and falling into the rhythm of the rigor helped to distract my mind. There were also several other groups of climbers that attracted my attention, mostly because I wanted to note how well prepared they looked compared to our jeans and street footwear. On several occasions we gladly stepped aside to let a clump of these trekkers breeze by us, many of them without guides. I also noticed a few looks of disdain when they saw our equipment, or lack thereof. But no matter, because in the end, we all got to the same place.

About two-thirds of the way up the snow ceased, changing to loose rocky scree. We removed our crampons and started up this last stretch, which proved rather difficult because of the loose footing. Hassan was as nimble as a mountain goat, hardly ever slipping, his steps perfectly, unconsciously, calculated. Finally the slope began to level out, the ground ceased to rise up in front of us, and there we were, on top of a mountain. Woop dee doo! I don’t know what else to say, except that I was standing on the summit of the 2nd highest mountain on the continent of Africa. A big deal? In the grand scheme of things not really, though I am proud of my achievement nonetheless. We took in the view, which was truly amazing, and ate and drank snacks and water. After taking a bunch of pictures and constructing a rock sculpture, it was time to descend.

The ascent took just over 4 hours, and we spent about 20 minutes on the summit. Retracing our steps took about half the time, which was great because it meant less time wearing those infernal crampons. The way down was less of an aerobic exercise than a muscular one. Controlling the momentum of one’s mass as it wants to fall down a steep slope is very taxing, as you all probably know, and this is especially true coming down a mountain! But I was feeling great, and I actually ran down a couple of stretches just for the heck of it. We were back at the refuge by 12:30 pm, which means all together it was a 6 hour 30 minute round trip. Not bad, eh?

But there was no time to linger around, because we had a train to catch back to Rabat that night from Marrakesh, which was a 5 hour walk and a 2 hour taxi ride from that refuge. No rest for the weary, unfortunately. It is nice that things take less time when you are going downhill, because the walk to Imlil took 4 and a half hours and the taxi ride about an hour and a half. Because it was Sunday evening, and we were only 3 passengers, we paid more than double for this taxi (350 dh total). Or maybe it was the lack of someone with a name like Rasmusen, who knows. Despite these gains in time, we were unable to make the 7 pm train to Rabat. No matter, because that left time for a hearty meal near the train station (spaghetti bolognaise!), and we were not in a rush.

This night train ride is also a blur in my memory, though only after 11pm when my compartment fell asleep. Before that we had some good conversations, and in my fatigue my English and Arabic tongues loosened up quite nicely. There was a Marrakeshi high school life sciences teacher returning to tangier, where she teaches, with her daughter, a pair of Dutch girls vacationing from their study abroad semester in Spain, a young Moroccan studying Spanish, and a young couple living in Spain but vacationing in Morocco. It was a great mix of people. In all, it was a great weekend, no regrets whatsoever, and this weekend should be even greater!

I would also like to relate the happy news that in the wee morning hours of Wednesday, April 7, 2010, a young lad entered the world. My host Aunt Assia and her new son Yaesh (not sure about the transliteration) are both in good health. I hope that he has a long and happy life, inchallah.

1 comment:

  1. good stuff JD. i love the part about seeking the absence of time. keep up the great writing!