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Aloof and lofty ‘Ayyachi – a queen among Morocco’s mountains

Posté par Michael Peyron le 12 novembre 2010

Aloof and lofty ‘Ayyachi – a queen among Morocco’s mountains

by Michael Peyron



  General view of ‘Ayyachi from Tadamout, one of the Midelt kasbahs, Jan 1975 (photo: M. Peyron)


 There is little doubt that of all Moroccan summits, ‘Ayyachi (also Ayachi) is the one that makes the greatest visual impression on the traveller and leaves the most enduring memory. Rising in one gigantic sweep above the High Moulouya plain, where time and space almost blend into one, it irresistibly draws the eye from a distance. If mist enshrouds the foothills, the main range, snow-capped some seven or eight months a year, will appear quite remote, even disembodied. Hence may the mountain be admired in immaculate winter raiment from as far away as gara Mrirt, North of Khenifra, or from the Bou Hayati pass on the Agelmous road.


  ’Ayyachi from ‘Arid plateau, Boumia-Tounfit road, Jan 1975 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Its semi-permanent snow-cover nurtures life-giving waters that provide sustenance for local Berber village communities (to whom it is known as 3ari n-ou-3ayyash), from the Ayt Merghad of Tattiwin to the Ayt ‘Ayyach of Ta’ara’art. ‘Ayyachi has became famous, too, for its grazing-grounds that have for centuries attracted the region’s pastoralists. Its very presence influences the lifestyle of the surrounding populations and has also had repercussions on their history. Its austere reaches have attracted Muslim mystics down the centuries, the Zawiya Sidi Hamza having enjoyed periods of repute (especially during the XVIIIth-XIXth centuries) as one of the main centres of Moroccan Sufism. Its wandering bards (imdyazn) were famous over a vast Tamazight-speaking area.

 Approaching and climbing the mountain

 A mountain to be admired from afar, for sure. But also worth climbing, if alone for the 360° view  from the top.  However, for long ‘Ayyachi remained relatively inaccessible to mountaineeers with its bumpy, wickedly rutted tracks, exposed to rock-slide – especially near Ja’afar – a situation that only changed after 2010 with the surfacing of the new road to the Tamalout dam. This  brought Imtchimen within easy striking distance of all and sundry (via Ayt Oumghar) .


 Amkaidou and main ‘Ayyachi ridge from N, Ayt Oumghar-Imtchimen track, May 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

 For weekend skiing enthusiasts, it was usually a toss-up between the various tracks: Tattiwin, Tagouilelt-Ja’afar, Ayt Oumghhar-Imtchimen, or Tounfit-Tizi n-Zou. The last-named, even if it involved making a long detour, was usually the safest bet.


 Western end of ‘Ayyachi range (Aqqa n-Bou Ghaba) from track between Tounfit and Tizi n-Zou, Summit-3737 at far L, Jan 1978 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Receiving the most precipitation, the western end of ‘Ayyachi boasts fine snowfields – rarely visited since situated far from the relatively attractive main summit – and magnificent cedar groves, principally near Aqqa n-Bou Ghaba. Once at the foot of the mountain, it takes a thirsty, 4 to 5-hour grind to reach the summit ridge, an important factor being the lack of springs above the 2200m contour; a well-filled water-bottle thus remains essential for a successful ascent.


 Cirque of Ja’afar from Tizi n-Tmerwit, pyramid-like Summit-3737 R background, end May 1969 (photo: M. Peyron)

April/May is arguably the most suitable time of the year for attempting ‘Ayyachi, though October also has its merits. After enduring a bone-jarring 4-WD drive over an atrocious track, most visitors tackle ‘Ayyachi from the Ja’afar side. This approach guarantees challenging vistas of the main ridge from Tizi n-Tmerwit, undoubtedly one of the finest mountain landscapes in Morocco. Much-abused, residual cedar forests add an extra touch of natural finery. Usually wise to continue on foot as section down into cirque can be pretty hairy due to fierce erosion; descending there in Peter Hardcastle’s Land-Rover in April 1998 we nearly « lost it »!


Combination of scree and snow on N slopes beneath summit-3698, May 1965 (photo: M. Peyron)

 From the bottom of the cirque of Ja’afar, a swift-flowing torrent (Asif Ijimi, which dries up at summer’s end) is followed through a narrow gorge and into a vast inner sanctuary hemmed in by mournful, seemingly unending slopes. The easiest ascent line angles SW along the valley-floor, till the NE ridge of Summit-3737 (Saïd ou Hadi) is reached.


  Summit-3737 (Saïd ou Hadi) seen from N, May 1965 (photo: M. Peyron)

 By ascending easy slopes, then a steep couloir, one emerges on top of the NE ridge, within striking distance of the summit pyramid (Saïd ou Hadi). The finishing stages up the N face involve a little scrambling and some mixed, grade III climbing. Depending on conditions, a rope and/or ice-axe may prove useful for the penultimate stages of the climb.


 M. Morgenthaler, G. Artigarrède and J. Frieh topping out on summit-3737, N ridge, May 1st, 1970 (photo: M. Peyron)

 A short traverse along the base of the pyramid over relatively easy ground so as to complete the ascent via the N ridge allows a less exacting finale. Once on top, ‘Ayyachi proves something of a disappointement; the climber is confronted with a huge whale-back ridge of shattered shingle. While southerly prospects shimmer in the heat haze, views of the Middle Atlas to the N, or towards Mgoun and Azourki in the SW are more rewarding. A wind-proof jacket will come in handy for the piercingly cold wind that blows up here at most times.


  N slope of Saïd ou Hadi (3.737m), June 1975 (photo: M. Peyron


 ‘Ayyachi as a ski-mountain


 ’Ayyachi ridge above Imtchimen, showing challenging ski runs, Apr 1974:  a) Agouni Bou Ikherban & Imi n-Tkhamt; b) Agouni n-W’arfa (photo: M. Peyron) 

 The above picture depicts the northern slopes of ‘Ayyachi with the two main ski runs converging on Imtchimen. Ideal conditions occur April/May after at least a fortnight of continuous sunny weather will have allowed snow to avalanche before developing a fine, hard-packed surface. Skiing should not be attempted after recent heavy snow, however, as ‘Ayyachi has a sinister reputation for avalanches – in the early 1960s there occurred a much-publicised fatality in Agouni n-W’arfa.


  Moha ou Lhoussein at cedar bivouac, Imi n-Tkhamt, May 1972 (photo:M. Peyron)

Taking advantage of mule-hire available in Imtchimen, ski-mountaineers usually establish a bivouac in the cedars of Imi n-Tkhamt, near the last spring, thus saving at least an hour’s effort. A pleasant site, it usually affords a convivial, after-dinner camp-fire.




 R. Proton with Moha in avalanche debris, Agouni Bou Ikherban, May 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

  On this May 1972 occasion we hired Moha ou Lhoussein from Ayt Ouchen so his mule could transport our gear up to cedar bivouac. Next morning he acted as HAP, escorting us well into Agouni Bou Ikherban where we found a vivid reminder of ‘Ayyachi’s lethal potential in the shape of avalanche debris on a scale rarely seen in the Atlas Mountains.



  R. Proton ascending slopes of Agouni Bou Ikherban, May 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Agouni Bou Ikherban is a glacial cirque enclosed by steep slopes, sometimes in the shape of small cliffs and rock-bands, insterspersed with avalanche couloirs. The route to Summit-3737 follows moderately difficult snow-slopes to the E up which René Proton is seen making his way.


  Whoops! R. Proton gingerly tests the snow, Agouni Bou Ikherban, May 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)

 On this occasion the avalanche hazard in the shape of cornices high up on the rim of the mountain precluded a serious attempt on the summit. Proton accordingly started his ski-run from about half-way up. An experienced ski-mountaineer, he made the most of a trouble-free descent, prioritizing safety over style, as can be seen in the above photo.


  Author near Tagouilelt on Day 1 of a 3-day circuit, Jbel ‘Ayyachi, end-May 1976 (photo: D. Dourron)

Determined to take advantage of the above-average snow-cover in the High Atlas, during the last week of May 1976, this writer teamed up with an old companion of his, Denis Dourron from Fez. Driving past Midelt they reached the Bou Admam Forestry Hut, where they left their car. Donning light-weight hiking boots they loaded up their backpacks with sleeping-bags, skis, sealskins, ski-boots, ice-axes and food for two days. Thus equipped they left the Hut after lunch and made it to the Asif Ijimi gorge by sundown. Here a bivvy was established in the lee of a huge rock and a firewell to the lit. In spite of intermittent rain, the fire kept going all evening, generating so much heat that it actually split in two a neighbouring boulder!


  Summmit-3737 top L, from Agouni Bou Ikherban, end-May 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

Having grabbed minimal sleep, the pair headed on up into the sanctuary and topped Tizi n-Tirecht (3134m), well below and to the N of Summit-3737. Given the visible avalanche danger, there was no way they were going to attempt the steep main slopes. So from here they skied gently down over a potentially leg-breaking, slushy surface across the mouth of Agouni Bou Ikherban, and into Imi n-Tkhamt till the snow ran out. Then, stowing skis and other gear onto their backpacks, they marched NE to the sanctuary of the Mitqan Forestry Hut, where the Forester entertained them with tea, bread and butter. On the third day, they hired a mule and without further ado returned to Bou Admam via the Tila’win n-Ja’afar gorge.




   J-Y. Raffin ascending upper slopes, Agouni Bou Ikherban, June 6,1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Barely a fortnight later the author returned with Jean-Yves Raffin for an attempt on Summit-3737. By now we were in June and, although there was residual avalanche danger from summit cornices, the snow had had time to settle down. Using Moha’s mule we pitched our camp among the cedars.


J-Y. Raffin below summit-3737, June 6, 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

 Next morning we climbed into Agouni Bou Ikherban and reached Summit-3737 via the N ridge after ascending steep slopes of frozen snow. As can be seen in above illustation, Jean-Yves used couteaux and sealskins; this writer felt safer wearing crampons. On the right of the photograph are unmistakable signs that a whole slice of mountain-side has recently avalanched!  The ski-run back down the mountain was A1.




Author with M. Morgenthaler starting up Agouni Tiduggwa, May 1979 (photo: D. Dourron)

In 1979, as we approached ‘Ayyachi for our usual end-May fling on the mountain, Morgenthaler observed that the snow-cover appeared disappointing when seen from the High Moulouyya plain, prompting doubts as to whether we should unload our skis.  We nevertheless motored on via Tounfit to Imtchimen, where we met up with Moha.


    M. Morgenthaler, Agouni Tiduggwa, Amkaidou in background,May 1979 (photo: M. Peyron)

After pitching the usual camp in the cedars and spending a restful night, we climbed up into the entrance of Agouni Tiduggwa, a R-hand side-valley.  Here, to our delight, we found abundant snow, hidden from view the previous day by an intervening ridge.



  Author near head of Agouni Tiduggwa, May 1979 (photo: D. Dourron)

 There ensued a satisfying plod over firm snow till a point high up in the Agouni was reached. It was time to turn our thoughts to serious skiing, as the surface was becoming slushy. Donning our skis we enjoyed a terrific run, though as he made his first turn Michel Morgenthaler spoiled things somewhat when he half-buried his near-side ski; the subsequent cartwheel was spectacularly funny, though luckily resulting in no broken bones!



   D. Dourron near head of Agouni Tiduggwa, May 1979, (photo: M. Peyron)

   The above picture, taken shortly before Morgenthaler came a cropper (with Denis Dourron in the foreground) vividly illustrates the wild, high mountain conditions obtaining on ‘Ayyachi in late spring. It was to become a regular fixture, year in, year out.


   M. Suzor & M. Putz skinning up Agouni Tiduggwa, May 1980 (photo: M. Peyron)

   So much so that barely a year later this writer indulged in a repeat performance with Marc Suzor and Michel Putz. The only difference was that participants took advantage of seal-skins to gain a start-off point for their run much higher up the mountain.


Author terminating his ski-run, Agouni Tiduggwa, May 1980 (photo: M. Suzor)

  This particular outing proved event-free, apart from a thunder-storm that struck as we left Tounfit. On the road to Boumia the ford at Asif Oudghes proved impassable and we watched tree-trunks and other flotsam swirling past for half an hour until the waters subsided and we were able to resume our homeward journey.




Henry, R. Bovis & author’s daughter Margaret, Agouni n-W’arfa, March 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)

   This picture illustrates a visit to ‘Ayyachi in April 1986, a postcript to a multi-day expedition when we took our skis into the Eastern High Atlas for a week with Henrys, Bovis and daughter Margaret.

 More recent ‘Ayyachi outings

  Once we started our series of visits to Al-Akhawayn, Ifrane, in 1998, ‘Ayyachi proved a fairly frequent destination. In April of that year, after an approach via Ayt Oumghar and Cirque of Ja’afar, with Peter Hardcastle, Marvin Zimmer, Paul Knott and Paul Hosken, we bivvied at the cirque and made an attempt on Saïd ou-Hadi that failed due to unexpectedly icy conditions (for which we did not have the right equipment) at the base of the summit pyramid.


   P. Hosken, P. Hardcastle & P. Knott at start-off of ascent, Agouni n-W’arfa, May 1999 (photo: M. Peyron)

   Not to be thwarted, the following year we came in via Tounfit (following a first-class bivvy before Tizi n-Zou) and Imtchimen with Peter Hardcastle’s Land-Rover. This enabled us to scrabble our way through scree and scrub well up Agouni n-W’arfa, where we parked the vehicle. From there the main ridge was easily topped, in the vicinity of Summit-3691.


  3/4 of the way up Agouni n-W’arfa route, Summit-3737 in background, May 1999 (photo: M. Peyron)

  After the gentle descent we started off on the homeward run but simply could not resist the temptation of a celebratory bivvy between Tizi n-Zou and Tounfit. It was well worth it. Swilling coke and usquebea around the camp-fire, we managed to polish off Paul Knott’s litre-bottle during the proceedings. A night to remember!



  « De Segonzac Centenary Climb », Upper part of Agouni Bou Ikherban corrie, June 2001 (photo: M. Peyron)

  The first week of June 2001 had arrived, and this writer suddenly realised it was exactly a hundred years since the Marquis de Sezgonzac, a French explorer travelling disguised as a Tripolitanian merchant, had made the first ascent of ‘Ayyachi. Fortunately, Peter Hardcastle was still in Ifrane and willing to return to ‘Ayyachi for an occasion like this. In his Land-Rover we arrived in Imtchimen around mid-afternoon. Unfortunately, Moha had departed, but, after tea at his place, we found another likely house-holder to accompany us as camp-guard up to a bivvy in Imi n-Tkhamt.



    « De Segonzac Centenary Climb », P. Hardcastle on top of Summit-3737 (Said ou Hadi), ‘Ayyachi, June 2001 (photo: M.Peyron)

Rising at crack of dawn, we made rapid progress up Agouni Bou Ikherban, then up the E slopes of that cirque, over tiresome, treadmill scree till the N ridge of Summit-3737 was reached. It ended with a gentle scree plod up the N ridge to the actual summit, where we spared a thought for the Marquis, our adventurous predecessor of a century before.

On returning to camp we met a wood-cutter and this writer told him that if they went on chopping down cedars at the present rate, within a very short period they would have an environmental disaster (tunant) on their hands. The wood-cutter appeared unimpressed.

  ‘Ayyachi: the human element


     Roof-tops of Tazrouft (Za Si Hamza) and Jbel Mawtfoud, S side of ‘Ayyachi, Mar 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

   The most significant settlement of the ‘Ayyachi area is undoubtedly Zawiya Sidi Hamza, seat of the Hamzawin line of saints for the past 500 years, the most famous of whom was a remarkable traveller, holy man and poet, author of a rihla, fluent in Arabic and Berber: Bu Salim al-’Ayyachi, who lived in the late 17th century. Actually, it is his name that the entire mountain massif now bears. Such was the renown of the zawiya that in the 18th century famous people used to reside, study and pray there including at least one reigning Moroccan sultan, Sidi Muhammad. Besides acting as a seat of learning, and religion, the zawiya, much like medieval monasteries in Europe, guaranteed board and lodging for pilgrims and passing travellers (inejda). Historically, the local saints (igurramn) also acted as mediators in the event of inter-tribal strife.


   Berber family at Ayt Ouchen, Imtchimen, Apr 1986 (photo: M. Peyron)   

While homo sapiens is widely represented along the S slopes of ‘Ayyachi (Ennd, Tazrouft, Tannghrift, Idalliwn, Ayt Ya’qoub, Afraskou, etc. ), on the N side he is pretty thin on the ground until one reaches the valley of Imtchimen (inhabited by an Ayt Yahya segment) where numerous springs and land suitable for farming have given rise to human habitation on a fairly large scale. The architectural style is of Saharan inspiration employing a stone base, adobe for the walls, cedar and poplar for the roofs. A widespread implement is the wooden ladder, much used to access roof-tops.


    Dispersed hamlets of Imtchimen, Ayt Yahya,  ’Ayyachi Summit-3737 top L, March 2010 (photo: M. Peyron)  

 A view of poplars, irrigated fields, flat-roofed houses in a choice foothill location typical of a region that acts as a half-way house between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas proper. Imtchimen is relatively blessed by nature, the nearby snows of ‘Ayyachi guaranteeing water all year round, while nearby forests (now seriously depleted) provide construction material and firewood.  


 Typical mountain house (taddart) at Ayt Chrad, Aug. 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)

 A typical dwelling will be cube-shaped, flat-roofed, often two-storied, with relatively small windows and a large, ground-floor door to allow mules to enter the house. On the upper Ansegmir, too, there are similar villages: Ayt Chrad and Ayt ‘Abdelfadir.   



  Muleteer at qsar of Mendayyur, Nov 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)  

  Further upstream, on emerging from the Ayt Bou ‘Arbi gorge, one discovers the Ta’ara’art valley, wedged between ‘Ayyachi to the N and Mawtfoud to the S. Here the river changes names; from Toura n-Ayt Bou ‘Arbi it becomes Asif Tasfelalayt (‘sparkling torrent’). This valley is peopled by the Ayt Sliman who dwell in three villages: Tighermin, Louggagh and Massou.   


  qsar of Mendayyur, S side of ‘Ayyachi, Nov 1974 (photo, author’s scrapbook: M. Peyron)

  Yet  further up-valley an isolated segment of the Ayt ‘Ayyach, formerly the dominant tribe in the area and connected by alliance to the saints of nearby Zawiya Sidi Hamza, inhabit two qsur: Mendayyur and Ta’ara’art. These are among the most remote human settlements in the High Atlas.  


   Ayt Hadiddou transhumants in upper Ta’ara’art valley, May 31, 1975 (photo, author’s scrapbook, by D. Dourron) 

 A reminder of the predominantly pastoral local lifestyle: by the end of May, Ayt Hadiddou herdsmen from S-slope villages such as Ayt Ya’qoub pitch their tents in upper Ta’ara’art valley according to age-old treaties with the local Ayt ‘Ayyach. In return, the latter will be able to send their flocks on winter migration to pastures belonging to the southerners.  


      Oult-’Ayyach woman from Mendayyur at Tizi n-Mawtfoud, Nov 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)  

 The qsur-dwelling Ayt ‘Ayyach maintain their own herds of sheep in the valley from the end of spring till early autumn. The threat of winter snows then urges them to send their livestock south to sunnier climes, triggering a small-scale migration. The woman in the above photograph was thus in transit with her family when we met her at Tizi n-Mawtfoud.  


  Oult-’Ayyach woman, ksar of Ta’ara’art, end May 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

  This unveiled Oult-’Ayyach of Ta’ara’art wears what used to be the typical traditional garb of Tamazight-speaking tribeswomen of the Eastern High Atlas: a woollen necklace, ear-rings, a head-scarf (akenbush) and retaining head-band (tasebniyt) decorated with sequins (timuzunin).


  Men and women beating maize-cobs, Louggagh village, Ta’ara’art valley, Nov 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

  Maize, a staple component of the local diet, is harvested end-September or early-October, then allowed to dry on roof-tops for a fortnight till, one fine morning, the cobs are ready to be beaten with flails. This energetic communal occupation involves the cheerful participation of all villagers: men, women, and children.


  Oult-Sliman woman, Louggagh village, Ta’ara’art valley, end May 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

  The above lady is wearing a light cotton dress, a head-band, bead necklace and ear-rings. Observe her tribal tattoos: the tmart (‘beard’) worn on her chin; dar tbirt (from adar n-tatbirt, ‘pigeon’s foot’) between her eye-brows. She is busy washing wool in the stream at Louggagh village. With warmer weather heralding the approach of summer, sheep-shearing will have produced large quantities of wool, a basic, almost hallowed material much used for traditional clothes, sandals, carpets, mats, tents, etc.


Oult-Yahya woman, Ayt Ouchen village, Imtchimen, end March 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

  Another traditionally attired mountain woman, draped in a handsome white, sheet-like cloak and sporting composite headgear of  akenbush and tasebniyt, together with sequins and necklace. The akenbush in question, coloured a vivid yellow and red, used to be available on ssuq-s throughout the region. It is comparatively rare nowadays to find similarly dressed women: nylon dressing-gowns and even the all-pervading hijab, imported from the East, have penetrated Atlas valleys.

 From what we have seen above it is clear that ‘Ayyachi, its snowfields, valleys, gorges, forests and torrents constitute a privileged environment that has attracted human settlement since far distant times. Has acted as something of a lodestone for human endeavour, both peaceful and warlike. By and large, however, throughout history and despite episodes of anarchy, wiser counsels have prevailed, thanks largely to peace agreements brokered by Atlas saints, preserving the pastoral balance and guaranteeing continuity and ultimate harmony. Despite on-going change the local Amazigh communities remain greatly attached to their traditional lifestyle and customs. As a result, culturally speaking this remote backwater has remained a sanctuary for oral tradition, especially bardic poetry. As such, it deserves to be preserved. Accordingly, i3ari n-ou-’ayyash has in recent years become a happy stamping-ground for foreign skiers and backpackers, in return perhaps the latter can find ways of contributing to the area’s environmental protection, by creating awareness as to the enduring value to the Moroccan community at large of such a rich variety of mountain villages and eco-systems.

    Lone Backpacker


N.B. Unless otherwise stated, text and photographs copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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