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Snow ridges and mountain-scapes in Morocco’s outlying ranges (mid-1960s/mid-1970s)

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 juin 2010

Snow ridges and mountain-scapes in Morocco’s outlying ranges  (mid-1960s/mid-1970s) 

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Isk n-Zat ridge, April 1966 (photo: M. Peyron)

Delving deep into my old scrapbooks has brought to light a miscellaneous assortment of poor- to medium-quality black and white prints. As published herewith they constitute a unique record of low-key mountaineering trips made long ago to remote parts of a range no serious contemporary alpinist would consider worth visiting. For a certain élite of French grimpeurs, at any rate, who won’t look at anything graded less than VI, these hills deserve little more than tas de cailloux, or montagnes à vaches status. Such dismissive attitudes reflect current shifts in focus away from the straightforward snow-plodding ascent with the incentive of topping out on a coveted distant summit. Instead, highly demanding technical ice and rock climbing – often limited to a specific gulley or face – are now the order of the day. Summiting doesn’t even come into it. By thus upping the ante the high-tech gymnasts have definitely taken the romance out of mountaineering. As if to drive the point home, since the trekking craze kicked in with a vengeance during the 1980s, and apart from some rare big-wall venues near Zawit Ahansal, and Todgha, Morocco’s Atlas mountains have been relegated by and large to the role of second-class destination; at best a convenient proving-ground for walkers, usually operating within the cramped confines of a commercial caravan, before they move on to tackle the world’s big-name, high altitude treks. 

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A rare Moroccan big-wall venue near Zawit Ahansal: Aoudad (L) & Tagoujimt n-Siwan (photo: M. Peyron) 

The “peak-bagging” rationale behind the three/four-day outings on which these pictures was taken is admittedly outdated. In the mid-1960s, as an aspiring, shoestring-budget mountaineer (also a no-hope teacher of English at the Berlitz school in Casablanca), it was my good fortune to bump into Maurice Forseilles, a dour, thrifty Belgian some thirty years my senior. His alpine skills owed much to Xavier de Grunne, a distinguished fellow-countryman of his who had pioneered rock-climbing near Liège. From there he had gone on to snow and ice climbs in the Chamonix and Dauphiny areas. Forseilles and I soon discovered that we had in common a yearning for out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the Atlas; there was nothing we liked more than donning mountain-boots, humping a rucksack and heading for the heights ice-axe in hand. Over the 1965-1972 period, that unlikely partnership of ours was to total some thirty or so weekend outings, all well off the beaten track. Out of fairness, however, we must admit that, at times, other companions joined us: Klaus Mertz, René Proton and Michel Morgenthaler to name but a few. 

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Azgour village and N slopes of Erdouz, Western High Atlas, Jan 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)

In each case, our ambition was to do a quick in-and-out from Casablanca. Ventures of this kind usually involved driving to a road-head on Friday evening, snatching a few hours sleep in the back of our friend’s motor-car, or on a mat in a Berber village; trudging off up the nearest valley and going home by Sunday afternoon after having trampled a summit or two. Such undertakings were based on an amateurish, non-technical, light-weight approach, largely inspired by Eric Shipton’s 1930s endeavours in the greater ranges; and by “light-weight”, we meant just that. Clothing was limited to a shirt, a spare pair of socks, plus underpants, jumper and anorak, corduroy trousers (shorts for my elderly companion), vibram-soled leather boots (Gaston Rebuffat, in my case, I think); gear consisted of a medium-sized rucksack containing minimal provisions, a water-bottle, and ice-axe. Thus equipped did we sally forth on countless occasions to probe the secrets of Morocco’s distant valleys and neglected peaks. 

After quietly adding the summits of Erdouz and Meldsen to our collection at the close of 1965, we started off the subsequent year in style by probing deep into the central High Atlas beyond Demnat, as far as Tizi n-Oubaddou.

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Maurice Forseilles (in shorts) resting on summit of Jbel Rat, March 1966 (photo: M. Peyron) 

This set us up for a dawn to dusk, largely snow-free 14-hour + marathon from Tirsal to Jbel Rat-3789 and back. No difficulty had been encountered. In fact our success may be attributed to youthful stamina, resistance to thirst, going for hours on a diet of sultanas, dry figs and biscuits, together with a propensity for step-kicking in spring snow and toe-stubbing against stones! 

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(Taska) Isk n-Zat seen from Meldsen summit, December 1965 (photo: M. Peyron) 

 In April 1966, taking advantage of the Aïd el Kebir weekend, we tried our luck on Isk n-Zat, a huge ridge as high as Aksoual, which overlooks the upper Zat from the south. An approach from Agouim on the Warzazat road south of the Tichka pass brought us along a bumpy track in Forseilles’ Simca to Agerd n-Issil village. After a night in a Berber house we followed a rough path up scree- and boulder-slopes, then licks of snow, to a col on the main ridge at an altitude of some 3650m. At this point my friend, floored by a tummy-upset, decided to call it a day. I accordingly stepped out westward along an interesting ridge traverse, involving mixed conditions where the ice-axe proved handy, till a first summit was reached, at around 3860m. 

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Isk n-Zat ridge (L.) and peaks of Toubkal massif, April 1966 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Views were stupendous: eastwards along the Zat valley; westwards over the Isk n-Zat ridge and beyond to Anghemar and Angour. Climbing back down to the tizi to collect my sick friend and eventually returning to the village proved something of an anti-climax, in spite of the antics of a man masquerading in goatskins, who welcomed us back as part of the traditional bilmawn spectacle. 

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Zat valley from Isk n-Zat ridge, from author’s scrap-book (photo: M. Peyron)

Later that month there was a solo snow-plod ascent of Wawgoulzat after wife and brother Eric had helped me set up a bivvy at Lake Izourar. Ended with a fine rocky ridge (which I recognized from a photograph in Colin Wyatt’s book, The Call of the Mountains), much steeper on S side, with views to Mgoun (Amsoud) over to the SW, which was the next summit on our list.

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Emerging on Wawgoulzat summit ridge, Mgoun in L background, April 24, 1966 (photo: M. Peyron) [Summit usually dubbed Tagafayt these days.]

During our venture to Ighil Mgoun, end-September 1966, we were possibly pushing our luck to the limit. Snow had already fallen on Morocco’s second highest mountain massif and nights were anything but warm. After Forseilles’ Simca had braved the bumps and rocks of the Bougemmaz track, collecting a puncture in the process, we stopped at Tabant. Hiring a reluctant muleteer we pushed off up Asif Arous as the weather closed in. 

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Mgoun (Amsoud)  from Tizi n-Ayt Imi, September 28, 1966 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Somewhere above Azib Ikkis, our muleteer went into such a funk that we paid him off, shouldered our packs and headed on up into the mist. As we breasted Ighil Aghori a chink in the clouds rewarded us with a glimpse of the Tassaout source plateau dominated by Mgoun’s snow-topped slopes. We bivvied in frugality and cold discomfort in an open-roofed ‘azib, alternating between insomnia and short snatches of sleep, while bats chirped and flitted above our heads; the dawn was a long time coming. The subsequent trip to and back from Mgoun-West took some 5 hours and granted sweeping vistas of peak upon peak from Toubkal to Ayyachi. Lunch consisted of pâté de porc, scooped out of a tin with a spoon and washed down with Tassaout spring-water. To think that nowadays commercial trekkers camp out here on the plateau in tented villages or sleep in the Tilibit Tarkeddit refuge, which actually provides beer! Retracing our steps, we were benighted at the Azib Ikkis goat-pens, now empty. Dining off our last sardine can, with sultanas for dessert, we turned in for a night barely disturbed by squeaking rats! Next morning came bright and sunny, and with it returned the goat-pen owner with warm bread and a tin-pot brimful with coffee! Breakfast over came the time for goodbye and the walk-out; and thus back to the flesh-pots. 

An other seminal outing was undoubtedly a first foray into the Seksawa area (March 1967), with a day-long walk-in along a roller-coaster path; a memorable evening at Azenta’s house in Ighilmellen, followed by an ascent of Jbel Ikkis by a couloir on its southern side, that revealed challenging views of the Tichka North Wall and Ras Moulay Ali’s tapering pyramid. On top of Ikkis, this writer no doubt made mountaineering history by applying oil to his face from an empty sardine can – in lieu of suntan lotion!

Although by no means among the highest in the Atlas, these Seksawa peaks have an exclusive, near-Alpine character of their own and definitely display one of the finest mountain-scapes that Morocco has to offer. We simply couldn’t wait to get back for an attempt on rugged Ras Moulay Ali. Ultimately, after an abortive effort in the spring of 1969, foiled by unexpected snow-fall, it was not till August of the following year that we finally capped that particular peak in completely snow-free conditions; which took some of the sting out of our achievement. 

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Tichka N wall & Ras Moulay Ali from Jbel Ikkis, March 1967 (photo: M. Peyron) 

For a change of scene, at the end of May we set our sights on the Eastern High Atlas, with a view to climbing Ayyachi. While I had already done it – admittedly rather rather tamely in early October 1965 - Forseilles had failed to solo the mountain in May of the same year. Approaching via Tounfit and Tizi n-Zou we found lodgings at Imtchimen. The next morning (May 14) we settled our accounts with Ayyachi-3708; a protracted grind up Agouni n-ou-Arfa’s endless tussock and scree was followed by a less than congenial snow-trudge, alternating with stretches of rotting limestone, as an unrelenting wind from the Atlantic buffeted us mercilessly. Our ordeal ended most satisfyingly a little short of noon when we finally crunched joyfully up and over the summit cornice. 

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Ayyachi from Tizi n-Zou, May 13, 1967 (photo: M. Peyron)

It so happend that our 1967 Seksawa adventures predated by a year an equally inspiring jaunt into the upper Nfis, involving a ridge traverse from Tizi n-Test to Timezguida n-Ourgoult, with compelling views of the precipitous Jarelna massif, and a descent to Tiwaline village. 

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Precipitous Jarelna massif from Timezgidda n-Ourgoult (photo: M. Peyron) 

By early afternoon of the next day we had secured Adrar n-Oumzra (3440m). First there had been a long grind from the village to a col on a southern spur of the mountain. Moderate slopes of melting snow ensued, steepening to 35° + and up which, firmly gripping our ice-axes, we kicked our way practically to the top, when a short eastward traverse brought us out on the summit ridge.

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Short traverse below summit, Adrar n-Oumzra, April 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)

I remember removing my socks and letting them dry in the breeze while I munched a sandwich, only to have the socks freeze! Putting them back on again proved excruciatingly painful. 

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Looking W from Adrar n-Oumzra over Tichka plateau to Amendech (R) & Awlim-Tinergwet (photo: M. Peyron) 

Adrar n-Oumzra had proved to be one of the finest vantage-points in the High Atlas. Apart from all-encompassing slopes of a steepness rarely equalled in these parts, vistas west to the Tichka plateau and Awlim/Tinergwet were almost as impressive as the sight of bull-shouldered Igdet (3616m) in the eastern foreground, with the lumpish, often-visited Toubkal massif just beyond. 

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 Upper N’Fiss area, Western High Atlas

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View Eastward to Erdouz (top), Igdet and Toubkal massif from Amzra summit (photo: M. Peyron) 

Then there was a whole series of weekend trips centred on Taddert and the Tizi n-Tichka road between 1968 and 1971, at a time when only Toubkal, Oukaimedden and Mgoun were fashionable among Morocco-based mountaineers. Highlights included a walk-in from Taddert to Titoula, followed by an ascent of Tigemmi n-Igenwan in the Tistwit massif, a prominent peak visible from the main road between Toufliaht and Zreqten. Nothing difficult about this undertaking, though the afternoon descent down Sardiyl snow-gulley required a head for heights and a firm grip on the ice-axe. 

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General view of Tistwit massif seen from above Zreqten (photo: M. Peyron) 

Otherwise, our efforts in this area were focussed on Bou Oughiwl (3575m), not the highest peak in the range, by any means, yet readily reachable. This is the handsome, conspicuous summit (known to Walter Harris as Jbel Glawa) that dominates the scene as one’s vehicle twists and turns between Tazlida and Taddert.

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Meldsen from S side of Upper Zat, Jan 1971 (photo R. Proton)

Apart from the easy ordinary route straight along the E ridge from the Tichka pass, and an equally easy way up from Agelmous on the S side, we pioneered a long drawn-out itinerary via Afrah village that takes in the entire N side of the mountain, with mostly walking, occasional mild scrambling and plodding over gentle snow-slopes. 

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Upper Zat from Bou Oughiwl summit (photo: M. Peyron) 

Bou Oughiwl affords the most satisfying summit views, especially towards Meldsen and the upper Zat; eastward vistas in the direction of Mgoun, however, are less spectacular. 

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Looking E from Bou Oughiwl summit to Central High Alas, March 1969 (photo: M.Peyron)

A final stint in June 1971, singled out for attention Bou Oughiwl’s pointed sub-peak of Isk n-Yahya (3350m). This involved an approach from Taddert, via Afrah up to Tidsi, where we put up for the night in the house of some friendly Berber villagers; then, next morning, up Asif Issenane to Azib Isouggim beneath a low cloud ceiling, till firm névé snow was reached (it was an exceptional year for late snow) and we donned crampons. By now the sun had emerged and the stage set for a highly satisfying morning’s work. Our objective was finally reached by means of a protracted snow plod up 40°+ slopes. And there were many more climbs of a similar nature, far too numerous to be recorded here. 

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  Sketch-map of Bou Oughiwl summit

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Bou Oughiwl N side and sub-peak of Isk n-Yahya (photo: M. Peyron) 

In January 1972 we went about as far towards Algeria as you can go in Morocco in search of snow, also for a peep at the far corner of the  Middle Atlas, especially a little-frequented tract of country between Bou Iblan and Bou Nasser, the two easterly giants we knew so little about.

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E end of Bou Iblan range, from near Tizi Ibiger, Jan. 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

A highlight of this multi-day outing was a 4-hour hike in perfect weather to Tizi Ibiger, that separates Oulad ‘Ali from the ksar of Ayt Bou Illoul, where the locals were staging an impromptu ssuq to help out with their snow-beleaguered brethren who had been without supplies for several days following recent heavy snow-fall.

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Bou Nasser, from near Tizi Ibiger, Jan. 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

To obtain a better view of Bou Nasser we pushed on up a snowy ridge to vantage-point from which it was easily visible in its aloof finery; northwards Bou Iblan beckoned. Impressive mountains, for sure, but somewhat thickset and linear, lacking the grace of those Western High Atlas ridges mentioned above.

1972 proved a pivotal year. I was by then gradually becoming less  concerned with peak-bagging than obsessed with 3- or 4-day loop walks, the idea being to prospect longer-distance paths to be ultimately worked into a longitudinal traverse of the range. One such outing saw Morgenthaler and me traipsing around Jbel Maasker in early April; there was still a lot of snow about, as can be seen from this shot (see below)we took of Ighil ou Ahbari (3042m), Maasker’s rocky, limestone SW extremity. As an exercise in unsupported back-packing it was an unqualified success (we took a tent with us); it also heralded a long series of outings within the framework of the future Great Atlas Traverse (or GTAM).

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Ighil ou Ahbari from N, April 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

Over the May 24-25th weekend Forseilles and I teamed up again for a final attempt on Kousser, a peak that had eluded us several times before.  From Zawiya Tamga, at the foot of Cathedral Mountain, we hiked up Asif Tamga in comfort with a local muleteer taking care of our rucksacks and tent. Just above the entrance to Aqqa n-Oulmou, with choughs circling overhead, we pitched camp and enjoyed a social evening with the local shepherds.

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Camp site, Aqqa n-Oulmou, Kousser, May 23, 1975 (photo: author’s scrap-book)

We slept well, though shortly after midnight I had to repel a raid by dogs from nearby encampments. The following morning it took us 3 hours 30 minutes to reach the top of Aghembo n-Chinzar, the culminating-point of Jbel Kousser via Tizi n-Wanargi. It was quite easy. A long foot-slog, then up and across a steep bit of névé, along a gentle ridge where we put up a hare, and we were there. To the south-west we caught an interesting glimpse of Azourki and main peaks of the central High Atlas. The kind of view that had yours faithfully fantasizing in terms of a GTAM-style follow-through of the range. But that is another story!

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Kousser « plateau » from Aghembo n-Chinzar (3096m), May 24, 1975 (photo: author’s scrap-book)

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  Route followed to Aghembo n-Chinzer on May 24, 1975 (from author’s scrap_book)

Thus do these various shots of the Atlas mountains in winter/spring conditions, together with the short accounts they illustrate, represent a cherished memorabilia from some of the less-frequented stretches of the Atlas range. They recall a time when one could still tramp the High Atlas at will, enjoy pure Berber companionship and hospitality at their best. Before turn-a-fast-buck Tour Operators set about spoiling it all. 

By targeting Morocco’s mountains as a mass tourism product, the TOs  brought to a premature end the Golden Age of exploratory hikes as practised by amateur backpackers. And it’s not simply a case of yet another old sod griping about the negative aspects of progress in our leisure society - it has  something to do with the catharsis that derives from wanderlust and adventure in the raw. Something your run-of-the-mill  »package » trekker will never, ever experience.Talk about the lost freedom of the hills!

 Lone Backpacker

 Grenoble, June 2010 

michael.peyron@voila.fr

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Cover of  2nd edition GTAM guide-book ( 1988), showing Michel Morgenthaler glissading down Isk n-Yahya (June 1971)

N.B. Unless otherwise stated, all texts and illustrations copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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