We awoke early, not quite at sparrow’s fart but early enough for each of us to be tiptoeing around the large communal dining table, whispering in hushed tones over a breakfast of pancakes with Moroccan honey, Berber fig jam, maple syrup and the most exquisite freshly squeezed orange juice I have ever tasted. The whispering was contagious and as our fellow residents filed down they all followed suit, creating a whispering chorus to accompany the birdsong echoing down from the rooftops. No longer able to resist, I raised my voice audibly to ask why everyone was whispering, to which ironically I was met with a stunned silence. We beat it sheepishly out of the door to meet the raucousness of Marrakech once more. After a hilarious debacle involving us repeating the name of our destination to two successive cab drivers: “The Post Office. Central Post Office? Post office Centrale? ….here’s a map!!” we eventually navigated ourselves there and pointed directly at a building you could hardly miss even if you were driven past in the back of a hearse. “Ahhh, Post Office Centrale why you didn’t say?” Yes, thank you driver.
We drove a winding path through dusty villages in the anti-Atlas mountains, a sub strata of the High Atlas mountains we were aimed for, and which were created millions of years ago as Africa and Europe rubbed up against one another. They were apparently once significantly higher even than the Himalayan range, which may have been as a result of all that rubbing. On we drove, in to the foothills of the High Atlas, past Dickie Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, a luxurious yet bizarrely situated retreat available for hire throughout the year. The road continued on to our drop off point where we we met our guide Omar, chef Mohammed and mule whose name escapes me. The air was crisp and sweet at lowish altitude. Chunks of the range peeked through as we wound our way through the foothills. Ever closer elongated cotton ball strands of stratus fractus cloud strayed about us as we kept up the march onwards and upwards, stopping only for mint tea along the way. As the path wound on and on it began to dawn on me that this was going to be tougher than Skye might have let on.
Climbing this mountain was never going to be an easy thing to do, for four relatively untrained individuals albeit in reasonable good shape and not a smoker among us. We had a yearning to reach that summit and it sat within each of us, etched on our faces in the wry smiles we occasionally exchanged. Trek Life classify it as grade C: a good strenuous challenge for reasonably fit people, although I suspect that is based on trekking in the summer months, not in February when the peak is clad in thick snow and the wind bites hard.
The trek wound on and on, along rubble and scree pathways that have clearly witnessed many an avalanche. Savannahs turn in to valleys turn in to gorges, which eventually become crevasses. Classic mountain terrain and nothing out of the ordinary, other than the spectacle of us attempting to scale the great jagged crested pile.
Base camp sits at around 3,200 metres with the summit looming above at 4,167 metres. We arrived wearily after the long day’s hike, in time for sunset and supper with the gaggle of fellow climbers.
It was now bitterly, bitingly freezing cold. The thermometer was at -3, but the thermometer didn’t have the wind searing its face off as it attempted to climb a damn steep peak. Fortunately a log fire crackled in the hearth and we sat around it regaling one another with caustic wit as I had the proverbial ripped out of me for being a nancy boy who can’t stand camping gear and “misses room service.” In the absence of a pub to sulk in near by, I slid in to the sleeping bag and stared at beads of condensation forming on the ceiling above us as the cruel wind howled around solid blocks of granite. Gradually the cacophony of snoring eased me in to a numb state of semi-slumber from which I dutifully aroused four hours later, to lie staring through a postage stamp window, misted with thousands of breaths, at the slowly rising orb’s frail glow.
The moment had finally arrived. That sense of awe was still there and dominated our every move. A simple passing of a coffee cup over the oddly truncated breakfast chatter held more gravitas than it usually might. Bond looked distracted and kept shooting scurrilous glances at his gprs watch thing that only people with his moniker are allowed to wear. For my part I chewed grumpily on the pastry and considered my last will and testament, figuring that in all likelihood, my Mother would wind up with my debts and the stores of priceless photography stored on my Mac would be stashed in some family archive gathering micro-dust and virtual mould. We sat watching thick cloud swell about the craggy rock faces as we gulped down dry pastry with hot instant coffee and I pretended to be pre-occupied with something tardy, whereas in fact I was considering an epitaph. Sarah and Sophie’s indubitable joie de vivre was giving me nausea and hope at the same time, a strange emotional speed-ball like sensation.
Stood outside, geared up to the max, clad in layers of thermo-insulating guff and zipped down to the nth degree in all that gore-texy nonsense I convincingly pretend to despise so much, we looked up at “conditions.” Such a harmless word for something that could ultimately spell your demise. It wasn’t looking good. There was fog, and ice, and snow, and rocks, and, it was very, very steep. No great surprise then.
Will they make it to the summit? Will they return alive? Will Bond have to resort to using some of those trick-in-a-box gizmos he had violently demonstrated to him in a bunker in an earlier scene? The only way to find out, is to tune in at the same time next week, for another instalment, of the purest mountain dross.