Posté par Michael Peyron le 15 octobre 2010
by Michael PEYRON
Mr & Mrs Baude + L. Villard prepare for action, Tizi Ouaggan, Jan 1966 (photo: M. Peyron)
The following is a short record of this writer’s experience on ski in the Moroccan High Atlas during the period 1964-1985, which witnessed meaningful change both in the approach to ski-mountaineering and in the increased commercialisation of the sport at the hands of Tour Operators. Initial weekend outings to the Toubkal massif with Casablanca-based friends were conducted along stylish lines with muleteers and Berber HAPs (High-Altitude Porters) to convey baggage and skis uphill. Later excursions to outlying ranges, especially after the author’s move to Rabat, while remaining heavily mule-dependent, saw a reduction in the use of HAPs, exponents usually humping outsize packs and resorting to skis equipped with seal-skins and up-to-date touring-bindings. By the close of this period, with the 1990s in the offing, and the ski de couloir craze in full swing, skiers were tackling 35-40° slopes without batting an eye-lid! The present writer does not purport to be an extreme ski specialist – far from it – in fact as one of his friends told him one fine spring morning as they were coming down the Selle de l’Albaron, in Haute Maurienne, that he probably qualifies as « the worst frigging skier in the whole frigging French Alps »! However, this brief account gives some idea of Atlas skiing during a period marked by changing trends both in equipment and in the rationale behind the sport.
Thanks to friend René Proton, at the close of 1964 this writer was able to meet Louis Villard, one of the leading local skiers and mountaineers of the day. Thus was he introduced to the joys of the Igenwan run above Tacheddirt, a standard, mule- and porter-assisted 36-hour weekend outing from Casablanca, through Imlil at the foot of Toubkal. It was considered wise to wait till mid-March when snow conditions, given the proper combination of precipitation and sunshine, were usually just right. By then, too, any snow that was going to avalanche, would have done so!
R. Proton nearly comes unstuck, Tacheddirt trail, heading for Igenwan, March 1965
After overnighting at the Tacheddirt Hut (perhaps rubbing shoulders with famous people like Hamish Brown!) an early start was called for on the Sunday morning. Mules were used as far as Tizi n-Tacheddirt, after which the HAPs shouldered participants’ skiers up Tigourzatin and onto Adrar n-Ouayyour, start of the Igenwan run.
Freedom of the slopes: L. Villard, Bouchet & R. Proton, start of Igenwan run, March 1965 (photo: M. Peyron)
The above picture (March 1965) is typical of the pre-Tour Operator period: apart from a couple of Berber HAPs, our three enthusiasts are alone on the mountain, poised for an exhilarating run on firm, spring snow. We see our skiers adjusting their cable-operated bindings prior to the long zigzag descent below Igenwan proper and down to Amazzer Imeqqorn. From there the idea was to choose the most promising lick of snow, calculated to take our jet-turning sportsmen as low as possible opposite Tacheddirt.
Tour Operators take over: start of Igenwan run by swanky savoyard skiers, March 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)
Another photograph, taken some twenty years later. Times have changed. A grizzled Proton and his companions now share the Igenwan slope with a bunch of show-offs in Gore-Tex jackets from the Alps, belonging to some Frog TO outfit. The snow and blue sky haven’t changed one jot, but the atmosphere is irretrievably spoiled by the presence of commercial caravans.
L. Villard & daughter, L. Baude, R. Proton outside old Neltner Hut, Jan 1966, (photo: M. Peyron)
This January 1966 shot, typical of a 48-hour outing to the Toubkal massif, depicts the old Neltner Hut in its heyday (with an overload capacity of 30-40 persons), as Villard’s party get ready to scale the slopes preparatory to their morning ski run. Note period equipment: ancient Rossignol ‘Strato’ and Dynamic VR 7 skis with cable-bindings, plus-twos and ankle-gaiters worn with lace-up leather boots. The Berber hut custodian, warm in his woollen cloak, looks on.
L. Villard & R. Proton with Berber HAPs, Tizi Ouaggan, Jan. 1966 (photo: M. Peyron)
One hour later, braced against gusts of icy wind from the col, our two skiers are more than grateful for the paid help provided by HAPs. This kind of ski run usually ended some 500 metres below the Neltner at a place named « la Source« , where the mules would be waiting. Equipment and kit stowed on mule-back, the party would then descend to Imlil for the 4-hour drive back to Casablanca (usually including a brief stop at the « Renaissance » café in Marrakech).
Biguinoussen (L) and Tazaghart, March 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)
After exceptionally heavy snow-fall, actually getting to the Lépiney Hut can prove quite an outing in its own right. This picture shows the NE slopes of Tazaghart in full winter glory with their successive buttresses (formerly frequented by rock-climbers), each one divided from its neighbour by a steep couloir nowadays calculated to attract the crème de la crème among extreme skiers and free-riders. In fact, today, Tazaghart has become the prime ski venue in the High Atlas, with visits by the likes of US back-country skier Andrew Mclean.
R. Proton skinning up towards Lépiney Hut, Tazaghart, March 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)
As an HAP had accompanied us, Proton was able to get in his fair share of seal-skinning. However, we were limited to 48 hours on this particular occasion (March 1972), so very wisely there was no foolishness involving ski de couloir. A brief stint took us up to the Lépiney Hut and a sandwich, after which we had to face the serious business of getting back to Imlil; then to Asni (track blocked by a land-slide); eventually by bus to Marrakech and hitch-hiking back to Casablanca.
A. Jourdan & party of ski-tourers beyond Cascade, above Lépiney Hut, Apr 1979 (photo: M. Peyron)
In this end-1970s shot, while on the Lépiney-Neltner traverse, with the steep Cascade section behind them, Alain Jourdan leads his companions up from the Lépiney Hut (where they have overnighted) towards Tazaghart. Note central skier using early model Marker ski-touring bindings with limited travel in uphill mode, while his companions have state-of-the-art hinged-plate bindings. Shortly after, having tied their skis to their packs, they donned crampons for the rather steeper section, known as La Cascade, leading up into the Aghzan cwm.
A. Jourdan topping out at Tizi n-Oumgharass n-Igliwa, Apr 1979 (photo: M. Peyron)
Around 3 pm, Dynastar ‘Yeti’ touring skis lashed to his backpack as the slopes are a little too steep and slushy for skins, Alain Jourdan in shorts emerges onto Tizi n-Oumghrass n-Igliwa. For a few minutes he enjoys the warm afternoon sunshine. From here a most satisfying run will shortly take the party down to the Neltner, followed by a post-sunset arrival in Imlil and a long, dodgy drive back to Rabat to round off yet another action-packed 48-hour weekend.
Initially designed as an updated version of the 1938 Dresch and Lépiney Massif du Toubkal guide-book, Cominelli’s useful little effort eventually became the standard ski-mountaineering guide-book to the Toubkal Massif (1984). Marrakech-based Cominelli had had endless weekends, each winter, to scour the Toubkal Massif from end to end. The result is an authoritative, invaluable and workmanlike reference tool still valid today. Well done, Claude!
Other Atlas Massifs
M. Morgenthaler & R.Proton climbing Erdouz-W, May 1, 1971 (photo: M. Peyron)
Attraction-wise, apart from the presence of Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak, the area was also the most easily accessible for some 40 years. And yet there were many other suitable venues throughout the length and breadth of the Atlas ranges.
M. Morgenthaler descending from Erdouz-W, May 1, 1971 (photo: M. Peyron)
One such site was the Erdouz Massif (Western High Atlas) that could be reached by a reasonable piste serving the Erdouz UMAO mines from Amzmiz. Sleeping accommodation was available either at the mines, or at a canteen near Azgour village which also did dinners. A fairly large ski-area was easily accessible from the main mine-shaft. The above picture shows an enthusiast enjoying excellent conditions just below the western summit, 1971 having been a year of exceptionally late snow-fall.
Skinning up to Tizi Keb-keb, Bou Iblan, March 1978 (photo: M. Peyron)
Two early bird skiers make tracks for Tizi Keb-Keb after three days of continuous snowfall. Shortly, they will veer left along the ridge to the head of a pleasant little gulley, whence an exhilarating run will take them back to the Taffert Hut. Situated well beyond Fez, the Bou Iblan Massif is easily the most attractive ski venue in the Middle Atlas, guaranteeing plentiful spring snow any year almost as a matter of course. What with snow-drifts and mud-slides, until a road was built in the late 1970s access remained hazardous, providing plenty of opportunities of getting well and truly bogged down with one’s vehicle.
B. Pinatelle on Tichchoukt S slope, March 3, 1979 (photo: M. Peyron)
A less promising, though more easily reached Middle-Atlas ski venue is Tichchoukt (2796m). Warmish air currents from the Recifa/Boulman gap usually preclude abundant snowcover, though the early spring of 1979 proved an unexpected exception. After a freezing bivvy near the Amekla plateau, over the March 3rd weekend, some excellent sport was had on the S slopes of Lalla Oum El Bent by the author, together with Yves Pinatelle, Denis Dourron and Jean-Pierre Bourguet.
D. Dourron skiing below rock-band on Bou Ijellaben, Jan 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)
Pyreneean enthusiast Denis Dourron tackling crusty surface with his tried Villecamp skis featuring mixed downhill/touring cable-operated bindings. Bou Ijellaben (2742m), a modest summit in the Eastern High Atlas, accessible from Tounfit, is typical of those out-of-the-way ski destinations where a little effort will afford some genuine wilderness skiing for the enterprising backpacker. The presence of a rock-band makes a tumble on the initially steep slopes a bit of a gamble. Once in the cedar forest above Assaka village, however, conditions are somewhat safer!
Between Tounfit and Imilchil
Dominating Tounfit, from which it is readily accessible, lies Jbel Ma’asker (3277m) a long, flat-topped ridge, its steep N slopes scarred by long licks of snow well into the spring and providing the ski-mountaineer with plenty of scope for indulging in his favourite sport. After extensive snowfall at the end of May 1976, with Fez-based companion Denis Dourron, we attempted an ascent on ski. After spending the night at Ardouz village a short approach brought us to the foot of the snow-slope.
D. Dourron ascending snow couloir through rock-band on Jbel Ma’asker, end-May 1976, (photo: M. Peyron)
Uphill progress proved easy until the rock-band was reached, when our access route narrowed into a narrow, steep couloir, beyond which slopes rose unrelentingly towards the skyline. We kept on upwards for some time, our skis stowed cross-wise on our backpacks, till the texture of the snow became distinctly soft and avalanche-prone. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour we stepped into our bindings and set off downhill, gingerly at first, then acquiring confidence as the quality of the snow improved at lower levels.
The photographer (D. Dourron) photographed, Ma’asker foothills, March 1977 (photo: M. Peyron)
One year later we were back at the foot of Ma’asker with our skis. Here, on Day 1 of a 12-day Tounfit-Imilchil traverse; Denis Dourron casually retains backpack (+skis) to photograph the author during the walk-in to bivvy in cedar forest, prior to next day’s ascent of Azgaw fore-peak, barely visible in background.
Day 2 of 9-day Tounfit-Imilchil ski traverse, March 1977 (photo: M. Peyron)
Another Eastern High Atlas venue: the above picture of Ma’asker-W shows Jean-Yves Raffin, Soto and Denis Dourron, fresh from freezing bivvy in the cedars, skinning up towards Tizi n-Ouzgaw on the second day of a strenuous traverse from Tounfit to Imilchil humping outsize, 25-kilo back-packs. On the way down through steep forested terrain this writer came unstuck in a big way and slithered some five yards, narrowly avoiding bumping into a mammoth cedar.
Day 3 took them through the Tatrout gorge to Mschitt, whence they had a go at a couloir on Jbel Baddou. Raffin, a ski-touring expert, made his way nearly to the top of this couloir on 40° slopes. The others cautiously stopped half-way up. After a restless bivvy in a chicken-coop at Mschitt, the party crossed Tizi n-Ayt Brahim in a blizzard, then followed Aqqa n-Ouyyad to Anefgou and the Tirghist Foresty Hut.
Soto climbing beneath Isswal summit cornices, March 1977 (photo: D. Dourron)
Based on the Tirghist hut, the party spent Day 5 with their skis on Isswal, one of the Lakes-Plateau fringe peaks; then made short work of its challenging slopes as the snow melted rapidly. Further sport was had on nearby Afoud n-Awjjil and Akkiwn.
Author with J-Y Raffin on Msedrid, Ma’asker and ‘Ayyachi in background, March 1977 (photo: M. Peyron)
Day 6, with mule-assistance, took them past Tighediwn to interesting ski slopes beneath Tizi n-Inouzan, then on to Tilmi n-Ayt Sidi, where they spent the night. Their arrival caused something of disturbance in the village, the children being frightened by the appearance of these strangers with skis that reminded them of helicopter rotor-blades! Day 7 was devoted to Mesdrid, another peak on the Lakes Plateau fringe. This proved a disappointing run, the snow petering out half-way down the N slope. The remainder of the day was spent marching to Imilchil, where the party got its first square meal in a week on reaching Boudrik’s inn! Munching dates, figs and dried banana on the trail, or dining off bread dipped in rancid butter in some Berber house, had hitherto been their daily fare. They must have been hard men in those days. The next stage took them up to Tizi n-Oughroum, just below Tissekt Tamda, for a final afternoon run down a long snow-lick, when their high-speed snow sliding threw a nearby herd of sheep into total confusion! Then foul weather set in and it took them four days to struggle back to Tounfit, without enjoying the bonus of any extra ski runs.
Author’s daughter Margaret with Bové and Henry at Lmerri, foot of Ighil ou Ahbari, March 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)
Nine years later we had a shorter, repeat performance out of Tounfit, the author joining forces with Rémy Bové, Henry and his daughter Margaret. Some idea of the participants’ uncomplaining load-carying ability may be gained from the above photograph. Note typical period equipment: Bové sports a pair of ‘Choucas’ – not really a success story in terms of touring skis; Henry has a pair of later model Rossignol ’Alpes 3000′ skis guaranteeing better bite on icy surface – a feature that the ‘Choucas’ lacked.
Margaret (load-carrying can be tough!) with Zinba’s daughter, Assaka, March 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)
Picture taken as we were about to leave Assaka for a lengthy day’s hike up the Tatrout gorge, over Tizi n-Ayt Brahim, then on past Anefgou to the Tirghist Forestry Hut for a go at Isswal on the Lakes Plateau fringe.
Same party on Isswal at close of 5-day Tounfit-Lakes Plateau ski traverse, March 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)
On this occasion, there was a wee bit more walking and less skiing, though we got in some good runs on Ighil ou Ahbari, down through the cedar forest and a repeat of Isswal, with a magnificent panoramic view as far as Azourki (cf. above). This time, however, we did not venture west of Tirghist and made the bone-thumping return trip by truck to Tounfit. From there a taxi took us to Imtchimen for a ski ascent of Ayyachi.
From Kousser to Imilchil
Author in full marching order, Asif Tamga, Cathedral Mountain in background, March 1979 (photo: D. Dourron)
In 1979, this writer was joined by D. Dourron, M. Suzor and H. Buissard, for a first ever foray on ski into the Kousser Massif (Central High Atlas). It was back to healthy 25-kilo packs complete with ice-axe, crampons, sealskins, gloves, duvet jackets, sleeping-bags and fish-rod, but we were in good shape. After an evening approach by truck from Wawizaght and uncomfortable digs at Zawiya Tamga, we trudged up through the pine woods of Asif Tamga to establish our bivvy at a fork well up the valley.
Skinning up Jbel Taytriqt, 4-day Kousser traverse, March 1979 (photo: D. Dourron)
The next day we skinned our way to Jbel Taytriqt summit. The descent was moderately satisfying, the snow somewhat sticky as it had only fallen a couple of days before and the sun had been working at it. After another night out under the stars, we skinned up to Tizi n-Wanargi.
Various Rossignol models on display as seal-skins dry in the breeze, Tizi n-Wanargi, March 1979 (photo: D. Dourron)
The above picture gives a good idea of the miscellaneous hardware we were packing in those days: Rossignol ‘Saga’ and ’Futural’ piste skis adapted with touring bindings, and a pair of compact ‘Choucas’ touring skis fitted with the early-model ‘Marker’ binding. Each one of us was still using late-design leather lace-up boots either from ’Galibier’ or ’Val d’Or’ (with hooks). With obsolete equipment such as this we were still managing to cut a respectable figure on North African snows, far from Europe’s ‘Hautes Routes’ with their fashion-conscious ski buffs decked out in the very latest gear!
From Tizi n-Wanargi the abundant snow in near-avalanche conditions gave us another average sort of run towards Ayt Boulman. Half-way down the slope Marc Suzor performed the unlikely feat of turning a full sumersault on ski – by mistake on purpose, sort of thing! A restful night at Anargi outpost saw us hiring a mule next morning to convey our skis and rucksacks 3/4 of the way up onto Jbel Mouriq; the resultant run was slightly better than the previous day’s. The next morning saw us mule trekking (involving some unexpected wading) with al-Hansali, an old muleteer friend of ours, via the Asif n-Oukhashan gorge all the way to Tillougit to catch a truck back to Wawizaght and our hotel.
M. Suzor contemplating slope above Tasraft, on Day 3 of 9-day Boutferda-Imilchil ski traverse, March 1980 (photo: M. Peyron)
End-March 1980. This was a relatively ambitious traverse with Marc Suzor, Michel Putz (a Commandant in the Chasseurs Alpins), and four other companions from Rabat. Putz was an expert skier and taught us a trick or two. Equipped with standard-issue French Army skis fitted with cable-operated bindings, he spurned the compromise of mixed leather boots, settling for plastic downhill boots, even if it meant slithering around in tennis shoes when off the slopes! We ventured from Boutferda into the heart of Ayt Sokhman country - probably never ever done before on ski. It was the only outing during which we actually had an official escort, a mokhazni, assigned to us by the qayd of Aghbala. This, of course, proved invaluable in obtaining board and lodging, or mule transport, as and when required.
Sheep-pens at Tasraft village, Ayt Sokhman, March 1982 (photo: M. Peyron)
An official Land-Rover actually helped us along the way as far as Imiferwan, where we started climbing in earnest to reach remote Tasraft village, in the face of the first snow flakes. The two following days the weather improved somewhat, enabling us to skin up two different cwms of Jbel Mouriq, which turned out to be quite an interesting ski summit. In between outings, we dined on roasted mutton at Tasraft and had the satisfaction of seeing our wet clothes actually steaming as they dried out near the wood stove.
Instructor M. Putz and his ski-class on Msedrid, above lake Izly, Mar 1980 (photo: M. Peyron)
The high point of the trip came when we reached Ou-Deddi from Tasraft after a gruelling traverse up Tizouggwat and over Ijberten. It snowed practically all the way. The stark, Saharan-style ighrem, dimly seen through the snow flurries, was quite unforgettable. The next day, after lunching at Boudrik’s restautrant in Imilchil we pushed on to bivvy in a sheep-enclosure by lake Izly. The following morning we were in fine fettle to tackle the N slopes of Msedrid on seal-skins. Our reward was an almost perfect run under Putz’s expert guidance. By the end of the afternoon we had crossed Tizi n-Isswal and reached the Tirghist Foresty Hut. After a final ski descent of Jbel Isswal on the morrow, the following day we walked to Tilmi and caught a truck that deposited us in Imilchil for lunch. On the way, an Ou-Hediddou warned this writer that so long as we stayed on dirt roads we were safe from thieves and robbers; once on tarmac roads (gudrun) near Aghbala, however, we would be easy prey for bandits! The final day we caught a taxi to Boutferda to pick up our transportation; then came the usual, prolonged night-time drive back to Rabat via Rommani and its dangerous swerves.
Atlas traverses on foot and on ski between Wawizaght and Tounfit (1977-1980)
Azourki – the ideal ski mountain
Rough sketch-map showing Azourki-Waougoulzat ski-area (M. Peyron’s scrapbook)
When all is said and done, the most famous weekend ski summit in the Central High Atlas is undoubtedly Jbel Azourki (3690m), ideally situated in the front range near Ayt Bougemmaz, where it catches plenty of precipitation coming in from the Atlantic. 1971 having been an excellent year for snow, several skiers from Rabat and Casa foregathered early on a Saturday afternoon (May 8) at Ayt Mhammd above Azilal. Despite lowlying cloud and drizzle they pushed off up the Ayt Bougemmaz track, hoping to bivvy at the foot of Azourki. They never made it beyond Tamda. This was a sort of half-way house where there used to be a makeshift shelter, a mokhazni and a telephone. They decided to camp there and see what conditions were like the next day.
C. Aulard helps manhandle Proton’s R 16 out of a mud-bath, Tamda, May 1971 (photo: M. Peyron)
Attempts to drive further had been curtailed by the muddy condition of the track and they even had a spot of trouble pushing some of the cars around (you had to be proficient at this sport to survive in the Atlas in those days!) so they’d be facing in the right direction for whatever awaited them on the morrow.
Mme. Suzon with A. Jourdan, Tamda Hut, Azourki in background, May 8, 1971 (photo: M. Peyron)
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny, but one look at the track to Azourki warned them that it was going to be a no-go this time. In the end, they contented ourselves with squelching up to Tizi n-Tirghist, for a peep at Ayt Bougemmaz and the range beyond; that way, at least they got in some walking. Then back to the cars and the habitual arrival in Rabat well after dark. Yet weekends at Azourki didn’t always work out that way; there were some more successful ones, too!
Interesting late-season snow-licks on Azourki, May 1983 (photo from D. Dourron’s scrapbook)
As in May 1983, when our pleasant descent of the right-hand couloir, to circumvent the Tasselloumt rock-band (contrefort nord on above photo), became famous after some French Alpine Club bigwig from Casablanca had mistakenly claimed we’d attempted a suicidal gully further left (called Tifekhsiyt n-Ouzourki) and accused us of spreading tall stories. Amusingly, the ensuing misunderstanding led to a lot of idle talk up at the Ouakaimedden ski resort CAF chalet, never mind bad blood in local ski-mountaineering circles!
The author enjoying the snow near the top of Azourki, May 1983 (photo : D. Dourron)
For our May 1983 stint on the mountain, we joined forces with Hervé Buissard and Denis Dourron, together with some skiers from Casablanca, and spent a couple of days camping on the pastures at the foot of the mountain. We did the summit two days runing and enjoyed exhilarating runs on perfect snow. The couloir we skied down to avoid the Taselloumt rock-band proved such fun that Hervé went back for more after tea-time. Unfortunately, the snow surface hadn’t hardened up again and he came unstuck in a big way, crashing into some rocks that line the couloir, bruising a knee and actually ripping the back binding off one of his skis.
R. Proton & M. Morgenthaler on Azourki ski weekend, May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)
We staged a repeat performance the following year with Atlas stalwarts R. Proton and M. Morgenthaler. After bivouacking satisfactorily near a herd of dromadaries at the foot of the mountain, the two above skiers are in the opening stages of their Azourki run. Morgenthaler is already in full flight, while Proton pauses as he looks forward to taking full advantage of the ideal conditions: 500m of firm, friendly snow; developing a slightly slushy, though still « doable » surface down the final slopes of the mountain as the Moroccan sun gets to work on them.
Terminal phase of Azourki run; M. Morgenthaler exercises cautions as the snow turns slushy, May 1984 (photo: M. Peyron)
With these views recalling the carefree joys of a bygone age, we conclude this little survey of vintage ski-mountaineering in the Atlas Mountains. It serves to show that even with obsolescent equipment, given fine weather and hard-packed snow; even if, like the present writer, you are « the worst frigging skier » around, you can still have first-class fun on Morocco’s slopes. It is our fondest wish that it may provide enjoyment and inspiration for those who surf the net; who aspire to trample Atlas summits. That it may urge them to get out there and do their own thing; with basic maps, proper equipment, some orienteering experience, and perhaps a helpful local Berber, or two, to get by in the villages and during the walk-in. But have no truck with commercial caravans – leave that to the milksops.
Grenoble, October 2010
Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.