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Serious backpacking along Morocco’s Great Atlas Traverse, or GTAM (1972-1988)

Posté par Michael Peyron le 16 juillet 2010

Serious backpacking: reconnaissance trips and follow-throughs of Morocco’s Great Atlas Traverse, or GTAM (1972-1988)

by Michael Peyron

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First Eastern High Atlas backpacking guide-book (1977) in French, with M. Morgenthaler on cover (photo: M. Peyron)

Introduction 

After half a dozen years of mundane mountaineering weekends in the Moroccan Atlas, many of them limited to the Toubkal massif, this writer felt irresistibly attracted to the remoter reaches of the Atlas. The idea of spending a whole week away from work, even two weeks, setting off down the main range, linking up on the ground the various beauty spots earlier visited (Imilchil, Anergui, Zawit Ahansal, Bougemmaz, Seksawa, etc.), and following paths used since time immemorial by local travellers, presented a tantalising challenge. Thus was born the notion of a Grande Traversée de l’Atlas marocain (GTAM), or « Great Atlas Traverse », as it came to be known in English, especially after Robin Collomb’s version appeared on the market.

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First steps along GTAM: M. Morgenthaler approaching Ayt Merzoug village, Jbel   Maasker circuit, Eastern High Atlas, March 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

Admittedly, inspiration for such a venture was there for the taking. The idea in itself was hardly new; in fact had already materialised in other ranges. The Pacific Crest Trail, the West Highland Way, the Cambrian Way, La Grande Traversée des Alpes, immediately come to mind. However, as Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are ideal walking country the undertaking appeared both timely and appropriate. More to the point, and making the whole grand design a wee bit more worthwhile, many upland valleys remained out of reach of vehicle transport for months on end, hence inaccessible other than on foot or mule-back. Forty years down the road, of course, this situation has changed. But in those days the big-walk approach, encapsulating the sheer joy of unadulterated, unsupported backpacking, was the only viable option. And it is a well-known truism that the best way to discover a country, especially its hills, is on foot.

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GTAM variant: with  C. Luya near Tizi n-Tilst on « Tour du Haut Zat », Marrakech High Atlas, Aug 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

The big-walk ethos, as transplanted to the Moroccan Atlas in the 1970s, rested on the premise that the enthusiast should hump his own backpack, carry minimal edibles, basic maps, adequate gear and spare clothing to cope with changing weather patterns, only resorting to mule support as and when dictated by circumstance. Hence the notion of “serious back-packing” aired above; also lending credence to the motto: “the back-up is in the backpack”. A type of programme devised well before the GPS spoiled route-finders’ fun, and calculated to appeal more to the loner than the crowd-lover. 

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C. Luya studying avalanche debris in upper Zat valley, Aug 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)  

Travelling with a chosen companion or two, our big-walk man should have adequate gear for a bivouac. Always be ready to rough it with fellow-wayfarers. Far better, in fact, to live off the land in an intelligent, sustainable way: putting up for the night in a Berber house and paying one’s host for board and lodging. Acquiring a modicum of Tamazight to establish friendly contact with the locals may also be visualized as a prerequisite. Travelling in style is what it’s all about, though some of the more obviously modern creature comforts such as foam-rubber mattresses and portable loos will have been dispensed with. Then, of course, Atlas Berber cuisine may take a bit of getting used to: barley bread dipped in rancid butter (also used to liven up kus-kus); really spicy vegetable stew with stringy mutton; a form of Berber polenta called tagulla n-usengar, or deliciously refreshing buttermilk. At any rate, healthy and wholesome food, quite adequate for the noble purpose of long-distance walking. 

Understandably, the reassuring tent-carrying option, all the rage with today’s commercial caravans of cossetted tourists, is firmly put on the back-burner, implying as it does near-total reliance on mule transport, and keeping participants well away from villages, thus minimising intercourse with the locals. Thus depriving themselves of half the fun involved in an Atlas trip. 

First steps along the way

So much for the philosophy behind the project. When it came down to the nitty-gritty, the Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain (GTAM) gradually got off the ground in 1972, in the shape of disconnected three-day loop trails (the Maasker circuit and “Tour du Haut Zat”). Mere trial gallops. On each occasion, the twosome involved in the exercise carried everything on their backs. There was strictly no nonsense with mule-hire. It wasn’t as much as contemplated. 

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Lakes Plateau-Anergui traverse, March 1975 (pre-Google Earth period!)

Come 1975, however, the GTAM achieved form and substance in the shape of a 7-day stint between the Lakes Plateau and Anergui, with a return to jumping-off point at Tassent by a slightly different route. The initial plan was to push on towards the south-west, hopefully reaching Zawiya Tamga, so as to achieve something to write home about. Trouble was, the vehicles had been left at Tassent, north of Imilchil. A case of no-go.

Nonetheless, it proved a positive outing. Although the backpacking option had taken a bashing, with one muleteer accompanying us throughout, the man turned out to be an absolute gem in the person of a certain Saïd ou Haddou. What he couldn’t tell you about the ins and outs of the Asif Melloul region wasn’t worth knowing. He was to acompany us on many a subsequent trip.

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Descending on Lake Izly, Ou-Sokhman muleteer with M. Waeckel, March 1975 (photo: M. Peyron) 

The region itself was arguably one of the most remote and captivating in the entire Atlas range. Unperishable memories remain of the Lakes Plateau, a cold, high country, its Imazighen inhabitants – a proud, noble, hospitable people – leading a more or less self-sufficient existence as they had been doing for centuries. And whose sometimes stern faces light up as soon as they hear you speak Tamazight!  

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Crossing a névé on descent from Tizi n-Cheffart to Anergui, March 1975 (photo: M. Peyron)

In terms of scenic beauty, too, the land of the Ayt Abdi and Ayt Hadiddou knows few equals. There is, above all, a certain, distinctive quality to the light, affording vast vistas, especially on calm, crisp mornings with fresh snow on the tops following a day of unsettled weather. 

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Thunderheads building up above Anergui, Central High Atlas, March 1975 (photo: M. Peyron)

Our failure to effect a traverse as far as Cathedral Mountian, however, rankled with this writer. He was unhappy about that. During the second half of May, he made a solo traverse, Tounfit-Zawit Sidi Hamza, via the Ta’ara’art valley and Tizi n-Mawtfoud, just to acquire a bit more experience at tackling Atlas cols and by-ways.

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 Tounfit-Za Si Hamza traverse, May 1975 (sketch map: M. Peyron)

Meanwhile, Fez-based colleague and close friend Denis Dourron had also been doing his stuff. At the end of May, accompanied by his wife Michou, in three days of mule-supported hiking, part of it in the company of Ayt Hadiddou came-driving semi-nomads from the southern slopes, he took the first steps along what was to become the « Tour de l’Ayyachi ». Thus paying fitting tribute to the eastern giant of the main range, that for long had passed as Morocco’s highest mountain.

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« Tour de l’Ayyachi » reconaissance, Eastern High Atlas, May 1975 (photo: D. Dourron)

1976: a bumper year for the GTAM

But 1976 was to prove a bumper year in terms of putting the GTAM well and truly on the map and  promoting the small foot-hill town of Tounfit to Number One jumping-off place for the Great Atlas Traverse. Actually, it was a pioneering 14-day Tounfit-Demnat expedition (May 19-April 3) that really set the ball rolling.

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First page of present author’s article on GTAM in La Montagne, 1977

After two harrowing stages, foot-slogging through slushy snow in near white-out conditions, the return of fine weather put the party firmly on course for Asif Melloul and points beyond. On this trip the serious back-packing option tended to alternate with periods of mule-hire, according to whim or fatigue.

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Putting the GTAM on the map: 2-week traverse Tounfit-Demnat, March 1976

Much of the ground covered in 1975 was thus re-visited, most of it with Saïd ou Haddou and his son, Moha, until Anergui was reached. After that, new ground was broken  during a circumvention of the Kousser massif, including the clear trout-stream of Aqqa n-Oukhashan and a magnificent view of Azourki from Tizi Hammadin.

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    Anergui with shrine of Sidi ‘Ali Lhoussein in foreground, Kousser in background, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

 The abiding impression, though, was one of wild, unspoiled scenery. Whole slopes of mountainside covered with thick oak and pine forest rolling upwards to green pastures around Talmest, with a foaming torrent cutting its way down through canyons, plunging over escarpments to join Asif n-Ouhansal. A welcome night at the Chambon saw-mill (Zawiya Tamga), complete with drinks, hot showers, clean sheets and beds, set the party up for the next stage to Zawit Ahansal. And all this before the first TO had had a go at the area!

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L. Lambert, J-Y Raffin & Peyre on Anergui-Tamga leg of 2-week Tounfit-Demnat traverse, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

After sampling a roller-coaster mule-trail to Tifwina, then following the dirt road, on the evening of the 9th day the party reached Zawit Ahansal, made famous by Gellner’s book, Saints of the Atlas. The next morning our walkers had a brief lie-in and rest. Lunch over, they laboured along the very base of Jbel Ayoui’s murderous cliffs. Apparently, shortly before,  a couple of Polish women alpinists had come to grief here while roping down from the crags. By tea-time,  just as ominous grey clouds blotted out the surounding hillsides, the would-be end-to-enders had cleared Tizi n-Ilissi and traversed to some sheep-enclosures near Assemsouk at the foot of Azourki, where Saïd ou Ichou, a hospitable Ou-’Atta, took them in for the night.

Luckily, apart from a few snow-flakes, the weather held as the party skirted Azourki next morning and traversed to Tizi n-Tirghist with views into Ayt Bougemmaz. Actually, about half the able-bodied men of the tribe, under the shaikh of the local rural commune, were up there vigorously plying spades in an effort to clear away the snow-drifts that obstructed the col. At 17:30 at the end of a 10-hour hike, backpacking most of the way, the party stopped at Ikhf n-Ighir and were shown into a neatly whitewashed guest-chamber by the village dentist and his charmingly smiling young wife.

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Ikhf n-Ighir village dentist and wife, Ayt Bouguemmaz, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

The following day was at once bucolic and restful. With backpacks stowed on Moha ‘Addi’s mule, our GTAM walkers headed off down the Ayt Bougemmaz valley on which winter had not yet relinquished her grip. Peach and almond trees, however, were in blossom and made a pleasant picture against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. At Igelwan, after paying off the muleteer, all concerned cheerfully reverted to the backpacking mode. Twenty-one kilometres had been covered when, at 17:30, the party stopped outside a rambling great mediaeval fortress of a place – the shaikh’s house in Abachkou n-Ayt Bou Wlli.

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« Castle of the snows », Ighrem n-Oumlil & Jbel Rat, March 1976  (photo: M. Peyron)

A lavish Berber breakfast is an unforgettable experience, but boy, can it screw up your day in terms of an early start! However, on the morning of the 13th day nobody was complaining. Substantially restored, our backpackers embarked on an easy stage past Ighboula and then Ighrem n-Oumil, a kind of derelict « castle of the snows » at the foot of Jbel Rat, while a lammergeier soared overhead; then up past the rock-carvings at Tizi n-Tighist, down to Tirsal, through the gorges to Imi n-Ouaqqa and on to road-head at Irouhan. For a final backpacking session, forsaking the winding piste, the party took a short-cut straight to Imi n-Ifri, whence an uninspiring  road-bash brought them to Demnat and the rather basic arrangements of the one hotel in town.

Further developments, summer 1976

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  5-day Tichka tour, Western High Atlas, July 1976

That summer witnessed other noteworthy endeavours. First came an early-July, 5-day stint in the Western High Atlas, up the Nfis valley to its source, down into the Seksawa, round the Tichka plateau and back down the Nfis, adding a useful western leg to the GTAM. On this occasion, though, the author fell foul of companions committed to the baggage-mule option.

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Approaching Tizi n-Imedlawn on « Tour du Tichka« ; Temttaden (3366m) in background, Western High Atlas, July 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

This gave rise to interesting situations: daily verbal punch-ups over morning departure times and choice of bivvi sites, not to mention hours wasted on picnics and re-loading the mules. Nevertheless, the outing was an unqualified success. Many years later certain Brit TOs more or less cribbed this route, working it into what they styled « Trek of the titans », or some suchlike hype denomination.

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Tizi n-Imedlawn bivvy site, « Tour du Tichka« , Western High Atlas July 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

Actually, in terms of nights spent beneath a starry canopy, fresh ground covered and group dynamics studied at first hand, much was achieved. Such was the amount of tinned food carried, not to mention other goodies, that no fewer than four baggage mules were necessary. Unsurprisingly, the disgruntled chief muleteer almost sparked a mutiny when he felt he was being asked to operate too far “out of area” for too low a wage. Anyhow, it confirmed the present writer in his opinion that mismanaged muleteers could easily jeopardize the successful outcome of an Atlas expedition. Better not to rely on them too much !   

A month later, with two companions (P. & F. Verny) the present narrator made an  unsupported 3-day tour of Jbel Ayyachi from Tattiwin to the Mitqan forestry hut via Aïn Taghighat, Taaraart and Ayt Chrad. Each participant was kitted out with a 7-8 kilo backpack, containing sleeping-bag, warm clothing and a few edibles. Luckily, the weather was fine but relatively cool at altitude. A good thing, as the first leg, Tattiwin-Taaraart (35 km), lasted 14 hours and proved something of a killer; especially the toe-stubbing descent from Tizi n-ou Adil to Taaraart. The second day was kinder on the party’s feet, however, and there was even a bathing interlude in the Ayt Bou Arbi gorges.That night was the highlight of the trip in the shaikh’s house at Ayt Chrad when a scrumptious chicken and olive tajine graced the dinner-table.

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Ayyachi circuit: starting descent from Tizi n-Tifelghest to Ayt Ouchen, Aug 12, 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

The final  day saw our backpackers swinging around ‘Ayyachi through oak and juniper, via Aqqa n-Bou Ghaba’s swift-flowing stream, across the Imtchimen hamlets and on to the Mitqan cedar forest where they were picked up by by Verny’s people from Midelt.

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Skech-map of Ayyachi circuit, Aug 10-12, 1976

This writer recuperated for a week or so. Enough anyway, to hype himself up for a solo effort (Aug. 21-27), from Bougemmaz to Oukaimedden, to bring the GTAM trail to the foot of Toubkal. His rucksack contained:- a) four sticks of nougat, four Mars bars, a handful of dates, some dehydrated soup, a few tea-bags and a billycan; b) an anorak, light sleeping-bag, three T-shirts, two pairs of under-pants; a spare shirt and gym-shoes (for river-wading; came in useful along the Tassawt). Not to mention an old SLR camera with 80 and 200 m/m telephoto lens.

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7-day Bougemmaz-Ouka route of  GTAM, Aug 1976

Being alone among the Ichelhayn for a week proved a two-sided experience. While offering an unprecedented opportunity for practising Tamazight and meeting some highly likeable people, walking solo places you at the mercy, so to speak, of the inhabitants. In 1976, so the author discovered, certain stretches of country on this particular route had already been irrevocably contaminated by tourists: Bougemmaz, especially, not to mention Ichebaken village in the upper Tassawt valley and the Yagour plateau.

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Fording the Tassawt river near Tagoulast (photo: M. Peyron)

Thus there were numerous cases of cigarette-cadging, begging in various guises, hassle from kids and dishonest muleteers on two occasions when their services were resorted to. A bad mark for non-standard behaviour goes to the village of Ayt Ouiksan, between the Rdat and Zat valleys, where despite having politely requested hospitality with the ritual anebgi rebbi, this writer had several doors closed in his face. Night was falling when finally a muleteer, homeward-bound from the ssuq, spontaneoulsy welcomed him with a merhba, ay anebgi rebbi! Luckily though, and that was what saved the trip, on many other occasions, the most heartfelt, disinterested kindness was shown to this traveller.

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Tisselli from near Ibourrouden, Tassawt valley (photo: author’s scrap-book)

After some punishing stages, especially as soloing tends to make one walk longer than necessary, it all ended most fittingly. Late on the afternoon of August 27th, after a thirsty climb from the Ourika valley, he breasted Tizi n-Ou Attar in thick mist, with a bare half an hour between himself and the CAF-Hut, Oukaimmeden, where his wife and two daughters were waiting to greet him. Yet another chapter had been written in the development of the GTAM. The main route, together with several variants, had been successfully reconnoitred.

A first guide-book appears (1977) 

The project subsequently evolved in a somewhat haphazard manner, rhyme and reason being in scant supply at this early stage. The time factor also curtailed exploratory efforts, this writer rarely being able to get away for more than three or four days at one go. Unaccountably, too, reconnaissance trips tended to trend north-east/south-west. In fact, GTAM planning unwittingly built on that rationale for several years, to the point of listing the opening legs of a future Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain in a first guide-book, De l’Ayachi au Koucer, co-authored with Denis Dourron in 1977 (see below). 

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However, the trend was reversed when the project re-emerged in 1983-84. The main route was re-oriented along a south-westerly/north-easterly axis due to inclusion of the skiing option, given that most snow-retaining cwms face NE. Even though, to this day, the present writer tends to favour a NE/SW itinerary when working specific sections of the GTAM on foot. It’s probably got something to do with the fact that the range is usually approached from the north, when coming by car from, say, Rabat or Ifrane. For Agadir- or Marrakech-based parties, though, the south-west/north-east trend would make better sense. 

Filling in a few more gaps

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Iger n-Wul, Ayt Mdiwal valley, Jbel Rat in background, Oct 15, 1978 (photo: R. Proton) 

Meanwhile, there had been some noteworthy reconnaissances: a 4-day loop with René Proton around castle-like Jbel Rat – which became « Tour du Rat » in the GTAM guide-book -  from the Tifni Forestry Hut, up the Ayt Mdiwal valley and over Tizi n-Ibolozn into the forgotten valley of Ait Mallalhl. Undertaken from October 15-18, 1978, this was a great backpacking enterprise, though with some mule support half-way through.

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Looking from Tizi n-Ibolozn down Ayt Mallahl valley, Oct 16, 1978 (photo: R. Proton) 

Also a 6-day circuit with M. Suzor, mostly in the backpacking mode, from Cathedral Mountain to the Kousser plateau and Upper Dades with a return via Zerchan and Anergui, featuring a couple of punishing 13-hour stages (5-10 July, 1980). On the last day, during a fishing episode, Suzor caught several trout in Aqqa n-Oukhachan, but at least one trophy was recaptured by a huge black and yellow snake that dived back into the river immediately!

Another 6-day loop developed when the original 3-day « Tour de l’Ayyachi » underwent a thorough revisit (March 21-26, 1981). This time the author teamed up with former Chasseur alpin Y. Biville, both of them humping king-size backpacks.

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Sunrise departure from Ta’ara’art with Aomar and Y. Biville, « Tour de l’Ayyachi », March 1981 (photo: M. Peyron)

Apart from a couple of mornings when a Berber  accompanied them to the nearest col with his mule, the Biville-Peyron team wore their ruck-sacks in pure GTAM style. There were a couple of 9-hour stages to start off with, then came a 10-hour stint.

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At Tizi n-Wamghas on « Tour de l’Ayaychi« , March 1981 (photo: Y. Biville)

As they were getting into their stride, the 4th day saw  a round-the-clock, dawn-to-dusk extravaganza from Taaraart to Tazrouft; the bone-jarring descent from Tizi n-Wamghas will long live in this writer’s memory. So will the evening peace and quiet of Tazruft, not to mention awaking to the twittering of myriad birds next morning. There followed a « rest day » – a few hours’ walk - which took them just beyond the brow of the next hill, to Enndt,  a rather warm location with sedate, bee-keeping inhabitants. The return to Midelt via Enndt and Tizi n-Merzitqi proved something of an anti-climax, once the pass had been crossed via a rather hot, toe-stubbing piste.

For ten days in early September of 1981 this writer escorted four CAF-ites (who had flown out from France) between Tounfit and Tamga, GTAM-style, fitting in the Imilchil bridal fair en route.

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Conversation with Berber ladies between Imilchil and Tasraft, Sep 1981 (photo: J. Dugas)

The trip had been arranged through correspondence with the parties concerned in an attempt, however small, to take some of the Tour Operators’ business away from them! And it was an unqualified success, the party alternating between backpacking and mule-supported mode.

A 1982-1983 winter interlude witnessed the N-S winter traverse with M. Barbaud from Tounfit to Agoudim – a welcome opportunity to don crampons on Jbel Ma’asker’s steep frosty slopes.

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Winter variant: N-S traverse of Jbel Ma’asker, Tounfit-Agoudim, with M. Barbaud, Jan 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Putting the « great » back into « traverse » 

In 1983 long-distance reconnaissance activity resumed along the GTAM in the shape of a 10-day Azilal-Midelt traverse via Upper Dadds and the Ayt Hadiddou plateau. The party of consisted of seasoned backpackers: former Chasseur alpin Yves Biville and the Dugas couple from Lyons (France), who had walked theTounfit-Tillougit « trade route » with us in September 1981.

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Graph showing Azilal-Midelt traverse, 19-28/03/1983

 Undertaken in indifferent weather, the traverse showed that participants were in fine fettle, the muleteer less so. On reaching Ayt Khouya in Ouzirimt the party had put behind them a day’s stage of 32 kilometres and scaled two passes for a total up-and-down of 3100 metres. Much to the disgust of their mule escort, Hmad of Sremt, who had been banking on a cushy ticket with easy stages. The party had hired him on the strength of his knowing the way to Oussikis; which he didn’t!

In the end, though, our backpackers’ map-reading efforts put him back on track. After a restful night on a mattress of sheep-dung in a cattle-pen came a longer stage (35 kilometres) on Day 4, across an expanse of high-altitude desert between Arj Amskan and Oussikis. Enlivened by a spot of drama. Once clear of Tizi n-Taghfist Hmad clambered onto his mule. Minutes later, as he jerked into a trot, the whole contraption suddenly came tumbling down: Hmad, load, mule and all. Lucky thing his animal didn’t bust a leg in the process, or the party would have been up the creek in a big way! At Tabwidamt the next morning, it was the parting of the ways as Hmad steeled himself for the long haul back to Bougemmaz and we shifted with relish into backpacking mode.

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Map of 10-day Azilal-Midelt traverse, March 1983 

Beneath a grey, drizzly sky, a gentle stage along Asif Imdghas took the party to the last Ayt Hadiddou village in the valley before the big jump over the very backbone of giant Atlas. Delightful hospitality: tasty kus-kus served as the rain came down in buckets outside. The following day brought bright blue skies and fresh snows on the tops. Ideal conditions for the protracted tramp (37 kilometres; 10 hours on the trail) over Tizi n-Ouerz, on across upland steppe and down to Agoudal n-Ayt Brahim. Here, villagers’ welcome rated as A1. As soon as they approached the party were invited to to come and warm their hands by a bonfire.

Day 7: more backpacking across unrelieved waste-land, rendered desolate by local women daily foraging for tussocks of tifsy, the only fuel available. After climbing down from Tizi n-Ousfel a profusion of blossoming peach trees announced Ou-Terbat, a sizeable settlement where qayd proved friendly and accommodation was available in an upstairs room looking out onto the main street.

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Tizi n-Ousfel (near Ou-Terbat) on an Azilal-Midelt traverse with seasoned backpackers  S. & J. Dugas + Y. Biville, March 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Day 8 involved yet further, inspired backpacking and a 31-kilometre grind: first up and over Tizi n-Wiskuran with a grandstand view of superbly snow-capped Ayyachi; then pounding for hours down an unending dry valley, sparsely covered with ash and boxwood. Met timber-rustlers en route, each one of their mules dragging a cedar trunk.

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Approach to Tizi n-Wiskuran above Ou-Terbat with S. Dugas, March 1983 (photo: Y. Biville)

That night our walkers put up for the night in Ayt Hattab, at the moqqadam‘s; this lowly official proved a mite suspicious regarding some hidden, sinister purpose behind our Atlas journey, but the atmosphere eventually cleared. Another fine day took the party over Tizi n-Lamsaf to a hospitable bothy where they had tea with the shepherds; then down hideously eroded slopes, past multilated cedars to Agouddim, where a warm welcome awaited them at the house of Moha ou ‘Ali.

It had clouded over during the night, so the party battled head-winds on the final stretch to Tounfit, which was reached as the first snow-flakes fell. No time was lost commandeering a clapped-out, unlicensed cattle-truck for the onward connection to Boumia, and then Midelt. A gendarme who checked the driver’s credentials en route was non-plussed that a party of four Europeans (including a full-colonel in the French army) should have spent ten days roughing it in the wilderness, only to end up in such a dilapidated contrivance on the Midelt road. And all of it for fun!

Middle Atlas GTAM: reaching up to Taza

That summer, the Dugas returned for a final push from the Zad Pass to Taza (June 27 – July 05, 1983), to conclude a series of recce trips and finally link up the GTAM with its planned terminal at the NE end of the range.

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G. and S. Dugas on the Middle Atlas leg of the GTAM, June 28, 1983 (photo: M. Peyron)

Undertaken during Ramadan it was not an unqualified success in terms of group dynamics, personal relations emerging somewhat frayed from the experience, though the actual route was followed through as planned. Luckily, the weather remained fine throughout. The remote wooded valleys between Bou Iblan and Tamttroucht proved the most interesting stretch of country in the Middle Atlas.

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  Middle Atlas leg of GTAM

Tying up loose odds and ends

This traverse had highlighted the much neglected Middle Atlas, in which connection another shortcoming had been revealed: the gap between Aghbala in the High Atlas proper, and the Zad Pass whence the Middle Atlas leg of the GTAM snakes off towardsTaza. This particular piece of business was a heaven-sent excuse for a 3-day backpacking romp  concluded in fine  style with companion Yves Biville, a former Chasseur alpin.

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Y. Biville pulls up his socks in Kerrouchen forest, May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

These endeavours had emphasized the importance of the Middle Atlas as prime walking country, whereas it is sometimes unkindly dismissed by some observers as a range of little consequence. For a further stint we teamed up with Ayyad Kerouach, himself a native of the area, for a memorable 4-day tramp around Bou Iblan during the last week of May 1984.  

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With A. Kerouach near Tizi ou-Mouch,  »Tour du Bou Iblan« , Eastern Middle Atlas, May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

This little venture afforded some first-class backpacking, especially over the first two days. The weather remained fine throughout. Day 1 took our hikers from Sidi ‘Ammar to Talzemt via Tizi ou-Mouch, through quaint Aghbal hamlet lost high up in the cedars, and over Tizi Widal. It worked out as a 10-hour + jaunt, yet without undue distress for toes and/or boot-soles.

The second day was marked by a crossing of the impressive Meskeddal gorge, with cedars jutting out from ledges half way up cliff faces. Quite a place; in fact, the last local resistance fighters in 1927 had holed up in this canyon. That evening, the party slept in the house of shaikh Abdallah ou Bni Bhar at Tamjilt.

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Eastern Midle Atlas showing Bou Iblan tour itinerary (2131-2134)

The following day our walkers put their backpacks onto a mule for the tough, arid climb to Tizi Tandadart where they said goodbye to their escort. A lengthy descent ensued, over pastures and then across impressivley steep, cedar-covered slopes below the cliffs of Ich Izedian.

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With A. Kerouach below Ich Izedian on « Tour du Bou Iblan » May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

Arriving in Tanchraramt around tea-time, the party were kept waiting, somewhat boorishly un-entertained, until the moqqadam showed up, when traditional hospitality was finally forthcoming. The last day, fortunately with mule support till half-way stage, developed into a mammoth 11-hour walk past Tizi n-Hatran and its flower-carpeted meadows, followed by a plunge down through impenetrable oak forest  to Beni Suhan. From there a blistering bout on tarmac brought our backpacking pair to « Jerda », whence they hitched a ride on a van back to Ayyad’s house overlooking the Zloul plain.

The focus was to remain on the Middle Atlas that autumn during an outing with Michel Barbaud from Immouzzar-Marmoucha to Oulad ‘Ali and back, over the weekend of October 6-7, 1984. This was backpacking with a vengeance. Day 1: a gruelling 11-hour grind from Ayt Youb n-Temghilt Forestry Hut, to Tizi n-Rsas and over the Chegg el-Ard escarpment to Ayt Belqassem just above Oulad ‘Ali.

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South of Bou Iblan with M. Barbaud, Oct 6, 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

After overnighting in the house of Haddou Lahssen, crazily perched on a cliff-edge, the return took just 7 hours by the direct route: back across the plateau toTafercht n-Tammlalt, Tizi Amghan, the Tiferqwatin pastures and Wawlzamt village. Just before the last-named village a couple of foxes were spotted, a rare sight in broad daylight.

Tounfit back-country trails

A month later, it was back to the Tounfit area with daughter Caroline, Claude and Michel Barbaud,  and friend Béatrice Humbert. On November 4th, we reached the Tirghist  Forestry Hut in 10 hours via the usual Assaka-Anefgou route.

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B. Humbert & C. Peyron, amid cedars of Tizi n-Ayt Brahim, Nov 4, 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

The next day fresh ground was broken as the party pushed past Tirghist village to foot of Wilghissen, which was ascended by an unlikely, steep and winding path, known as sellum n-igenna (‘heavenly staircase’). Quite a grind, that! Then due E along the Wilghissen ridge as it started to snow; finally down to Tizrawlin village and great welcome in the house of moqqadam Boulman Ouzzeriy. An 11-hour grind in all.

The third day, as they had to return urgently to Rabat, the Barbauds braved a blizzard and-a-half (narrowly avoiding frost-bite in the process) as they clambered back due north over Tizi n-Oulmou Igri to Anemzi, while the rest of the party headed off down-valley to Tazzarin. Here they caught a lorry at 18:00 which put them in Rich by 21:00. After a light snack they boarded the night bus from Rachidiya at 22:00 and were in Meknes by 04:30 the next morning. They finally made it to Rabat by taxi at 06:45 on November 7, 1984.

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Serious backpacking: M. Barbaud & friends head past shrine of Sidi bou Wnzar, Dec 7, 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)

A month later exactly, the present writer was back again at the Tirghist Forstry Hut with Fournié, Michel Legras, Hélène Ripoll and Michel Barbaud. This time, however, on December 8th, the party turned right and made for Tizi n-Isswal, then to Enzar n-Oufounas on edge of Lakes Plateau, over Tizi Widammen and down to Asif n-Ougheddou. This was followed upstream, involving some wading, along foot of Jbel Tazigzaout to Agheddou village where, arriving after the by now standard 12-hour path-bash, accommodation was easily obtained. From there, on December 9th, the backpackers crossed Tizi n-Ighil, descended through the cedars and made it to the Sidi Yahya ou-Youssef Forestry Hut (where vehicles were waiting) before lunch .

The GTAM comes of age (1985)

In January 1985, after intense editorial efforts over the previous six months, the first edition of the GTAM guide-book in French was officially launched, backed by book-signing  and lecture evenings in Rabat. A 280-page volume, the Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain (GTAM) represented the sum total of the various recce trips and traverses done up till then, with miscellaneous loop trails, variants, ascents of easy summits, together with some info on ski-touring, including the  classic Atlas off-piste ski-runs.

Its unavowed purpose was to provide the dedicated, independent backpacker with the necessary tools to do his own thing, to go it alone or with a fistful of hand-picked companions. Above all, to dispense with the services of a TO.

Actually, there weren’t awfully many of these outfits in the Atlas game at the time. It was a pretty exclusive club: Explorator, Sherpa,Terdav, Mountain Adventure, French guides Rey, Jaccoux, and « Bernouze »,  some of their Swiss and Italian counterparts, etc. But the very fact that they were out there, with their glossy catalogues and programmed trips every spring and summer, represented the thin end of the wedge. It was easy to visualize a rapidly expanding market, as other players jumped onto the band-wagon. Not to mention the saturation that was to follow, the unsavoury fall-out from regular visits by the big battalions, the abuse of Berber hospitality and culture shock, over-use of mules to the detriment of local agriculture, and other factors that would gradually destroy the undefinable appeal of these beautiful hills. That the guide-book was an anti-TO exercise was patently clear, for which reason the present writer came in for a fair share of flak from some quarters. In fact, to say that the Peyron volume caused quite a stir at the time would have been the under-statement of the year. The more so as certain parties that shall remain unnamed, feeling that somebody had stolen their thunder, chose to register disapproval. Anyway, deservedly or not, the offending volume sold out within a few months.

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Cover of the 1st GTAM guide-book, January 1985

The main dish on the menu, of course, was a blow-by-blow follow-through of the basic GTAM itinerary from Imi n-Tanout (SW of Marrakech) to Taza (a foothill town N of the Middle Atlas). As such it  became the first guide-book description to take in the entire Moroccan Atlas chain. As the author was at pains to point out, however, existence of the guide-book was not an end in itself. Allowance obviously had to be made for development; like a living entity the GTAM project was bound to undergo pruning and embellishment over the years to come.

Adding further bits and pieces

The spring holidays of end-March 1985 witnessed an interesting medium-altitude traverse from Imi n-Tanout to Amzmiz with daughter Caroline and four of her school-friends from the Rabat Lycée Descartes: two boys, two girls. The idea was to see how a group of teenagers would fare in the mountains on a backpacking trip, sleeping in Berber villages, eating simple but healthy food, and generally roughing it well away from Mum and Dad.

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G. Cressman, A. Desfaut & B. Steinger fording Seksawa torrent, March 24, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

The first day saw the party emerge somewhat cramped and stiff from a night in the Imi n-Tanout funduq. There ensued several hours following the lower reaches of the Seksawa river, sometimes wading (wow! the water was perishingly cold…). Slept at Tabratjout in house of Mohammed Chitithi, but decided, for the morrow, to hire a muleteer to convey the party’s baggage on the first leg to a col west of Addouz. Fom there, once more with packs on their backs, with challenging views of the Erdouz massif ahead, it would be plain sailing for the teenagers down to the Adassil administrative outpost and the completion of a gruelling 11-hour stage.

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With teenagers at Tizi n-Tazoult, Erdouz massif in background, Mar 25, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

This proved to be a sizeable village, with the qayd‘s building affording some makeshift lodgings for the night. The third day was spent on the track that climbs E from Adassil to Iberdaten, where a hospitable villagers entertained the party to lunch. They then worked round the base of Wirzan, crossed a low col and descended on Medint with its maze of walnut-trees.

27imintanoutamzmizmar19851.jpg

C. Peyron, A. Desfaut,  S. Alaban, G. Cressman & B. Steinger above Adassil, March 26, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)  

No invitation at Medint so pushed on to Anerni where, after being 10h30 on the trail, we spent the night in the very friendly house of Ali Ayt Abbou. The final day saw the party cross a low ridge into Asif Anougal, which valley was then followed without further ado to Amzmiz. By a combination of taxi and electric train, Rabat was reached that night via Marrakech. The outing had proved that teenagers are quite apt to stand up to the rough-and-tumble of adventure backpacking in the Atlas Mountains. No cry-baby behaviour; no wanting to be back home with Mummy! Less so, in fact, than with certain grown-ups.

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Approaching Tizi n-Tighboula with M. Barbaud between Izoughar and Tafrawt n-Ayt Abdi, April 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

In keeping with the evolutive rationale of the GTAM, in April 19-22, 1985, a stimulating weekend recce trip was undertaken with Michel Barbaud to investigate the possibilities between Bougemmaz and Zawit Ahansal. Highlights included a bivvi at Lake Izoughar; a 12-hour stage to Tafraout n-Ayt Abdi; an almost equally long haul over Tizi n-Ifferd, with a peep at its exciting snow-melt lake, followed by the descent to Zawit Ahansal.

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About to descend from Tizi n-Ifferd on Zawit Ahansal, April 1985 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Weekend of November 7th-9th, 1985: a great little outing to the Imilchil region in the by now well-established autumnal walking tradition, with Michel and Claude Barbaud, Michel Legras, Jacqueline and Lou-lou Audouin. Basic ingredients: bulging, body-hugging backpacks, tough trail-bashing, uncomfortable bivvi, hospitable mountain Berbers and photography. Reaching Imilchil in perfect weather on Friday, November 8th, we parked our cars near the Boudrik café-hôtel (Izlane) and lost no time making tracks for Oul-Deddi village, a few hours downstream.

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Drinking tea with Saïd ou Haddou, C. Barbaud, Mme Audouin, J. Legras, at Ou-Lghazi, Nov 8th, 1985 (photo: L. Audouin)

Were away by 9am next morning, skirting Asif Melloul and following track to Oul-Ghazi, where we looked up our old companion Saïd ou-Haddou. After drinking mint tea outside his house, got him to show us the way up Aqqa n-Tissout n-Iysan thus putting us on the trail to Amandar, where we intended to bivvi. There ensued a bitter night in a roofless sheep-pen. Next morning, however, (November 9th) came the reward: a smooth ridge traverse of Amandar (3037m) mountain with superlative visibility: all-encompassing views rom Azourki at our backs to Ayyachi ahead of us.

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Very essence of serious backpacking; C. & M. Barbaud on Amandar ridge, Nov 9th, 1985 (photo: M. Peyron)

A brief descent took us past Aghbalou n-Inejda into the upper part of Aqqa n-Sountat; followed this along a R-bank path, recognizing scenes from photographs in classic book, Maroc central by J. Robichez, below distinctive peak of Amghid, and thus to Asif Melloul at Sountat village. From there all that remained was a straightforward road-bash to Imilchil.

Now was the time to return to the Marrakech High Atlas. Proved quite a lark, it did, that outing with Andrew Byatt along the far western leg of the GTAM, from Timezgadiwin to Ijoukak, April 24-28, 1986. This is how it went.

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Imi n-Wasif village and Ras Moulay Ali, Apr 26, 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)

After an approach by rail and bus the twosome backpacked through the western hills, sleeping in Berber villages along the way, from the 511 road to the Aghbar Forestry hut just below the Tizi n-Test, whence they hitch-hiked down to Ijoukak.

andrewbyattapr1986whighatlas1.jpg 

On Western High Atlas traverse, Apr 24-28, 1986 (sketches by A. Byatt)

Andrew proved a superb walker, with plenty of Scotttish Highland experience to draw on. Berber polenta, however, gave him a bad attack of the trots, and he slowed dramatically on the climb to Tizi Azdim. Rallying bravely, he led on uncomplainingly down into the tangled Tiziatin forest and trout-filled Aghbar stream. For this writer it was a perfect treat to revisit those unspoiled Seksawa valleys and their beautiful peaks, « which reach to the sky » according to Ibn Khaldoun’s Histoire des Berbères. Little had changed in the past 20 years since he’d visited them for the firts time.

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The GTAM was to be re-visited just a couple of times before the present writer went into French exile for a decade. First, a winter stint: Tounfit-Tillougit December 23-28, 1987; followed by a final fling the following spring: Telwat-Tillougit March 1988.

It was a party of eight (including daughter Caroline as far as Imilchil) that swung off along the well-trodden track through Tiboulkheirin forest. Lodgings were obtained at house of local circumciser, Ou-Baâ, at Lmerri. Uneventful progress saw party reach Tirghist Forestry Hut before dusk.

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Chatting up Berber ladies, Anefgou, Dec 24, 1987 (photo: A.N. Other)

Next morning, it was Christmas and by lunch-time they had reached shores of Lake Izly which they shared with a lone yellow-footed Herring Gull (larus cachinnans micahellis). Christmas night was spent at inn of Moha ou Zayd at Imilchil. The following day, five of the party chose to catch northward-bound transport; this writer plunged on with two companions down the Asif Melloul canyon to Oul-Ghgazi.

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Backpacking in Asif Melloul canyon between Ou-Deddi and Oul-Ghazi, Dec 26, 1987 (photo: A.N. Other)

At this point, after four days of backpacking, the party felt they could resort to mule-hire. A short leg brought them to a lone house above Tousefseddi, where the author collected several poems that later appeared in his book, Isaffen Ghbanin. On December 27th our hikers settled down to a lengthy footslog to Agerd n-Wul and over the Achfart pass, that saw them home and dry in Anargui shortly after tea-time. The next day they got to Tillougit, and the day after a combination of Land-Rover and taxi landed them in Beni Mellal.

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Author near Beqrit, Middle-Atlas, June 1987 (photo: M. Barbaud)

Final fling along GTAM prior to French exile came in the shape of an 11-day valley-crawl and pass-trundle during end-March 1988 vacation. From Anmiter near Telwat up to Imi n-Warg, just short of Tillouggit n-Ayt Messat. Carried out with three companions as far as Tirsal, after which this writer went it alone.

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On Day 6 of 11-day traverse; Jbel Rat reflected in lake, Tirsal, March 1988, (photo: M. Peyron) 

It was a somewhat frustrating execise, at first, with snow at lake Inhgemar forcing the party to make a southerly detour before crossing Tizi n-Fedghat. Highlights included a restful night at Tagoukht; wading Tassawt’s swollen, muddy waters at Ayt Ali n-Itto; a superbly decorated ceiling adorning an igherm NW of Jbel Rat; an improbably peaceful  tarn nearby, and a warm welcome by mountain Berbers of Ayt Bou Wlli and Ayt Ayt Bougemmaz. Following a pleasant interlude among the Ayt Atta of Talmest, the final ride down to Wawizaght on the back of a lorry proved something of an anti-climax. But that is all part of the GTAM experience: « ye takes the rough with the smooth! »

Conclusion

Be that as it may, the above compilation contains the more outstanding trips that fit into the end-to-end traverse rationale. Gives some idea of what it took, in terms of blisters, blackened toe-nails, worn socks and boot-soles, of hours spent on mountain trails, to put together over 16 years so vast an undertaking as the present « Great Atlas Traverse », alias Grande Traversée de l’Atlas Marocain, or GTAM.

By 1988, the year this writer left Morocco for ten years in France to round off his career, he felt the time was right for a revamped version of the GTAM guide-book. The first edition of the GTAM  had been basic and amateurish, if detailed and genuine, even judged rather arid by some readers as it boasted no photos - only line drawings and sketch-maps. Remember: this in an age in which an uncompromisingly superficial reading public accepts nothing less than colour photos on glossy paper.

Result barely lived up to expectations. What the reader got was a coloured cover, a selection of black and white photos, a fuller account of the main itinerary and side-trips, but only a few very general maps, as route descriptions were directly linked to the corresponding 1/100.000 IGN sheets. Since these were rather hard to obtain from a tight-fisted adminstrative office in Rabat (Le Service de la Carte), with baffling opening hours, route-finding became something of a problem for prospective GTAM enthusiasts. Worse still, the number of typos and other mistakes was appalling and proof-correcting an unfinished nightmare. However, as it was, the book was there and available – at least until the turn of the century.* As the French say, au moins il avait le mérite d’exister.

  Lone Backpacker

michael.peyron@voila.fr

Grenoble, July 2010

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 Cover of 2nd edition, GTAM guide-book (1988) depicting M. Morgenthaler on Isk n-Yahya in June 1971

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Map of GTAM in 2nd edition of guide-book (1988)

_______

* Now, of course, it has become a collector’s item, with a copy occasionally featuring on Amazon.com !

N.B. Unless otherwise stated all texts and illustrations are copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in accordance with accepted academic standards.

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