Last summer we began an ascent up the highest mountain in Northern Africa – Jebel Toubkal, a dominating peak of the High Atlas some 4,000m high. Battling searing 40 degree sun on an exposed mountain we fought hard to reach the summit. Ultimately we succumbed to a combination of brutal heat and altitude sickness. The result of poor planning, inadequate training, and me expecting too much from my children.
So when Charlie’s 13th birthday rolled around we sat and spoke about the transition from a boy to a teenager, the raised expectations, responsibility and indeed accountability. Once we had got the usual father/son talk out of the way I asked him what he would like to do for his birthday. Given it was his ‘milestone’ birthday I explained that we could do something special. I saw his face instantly start to ponder. A look of confusion mixed with excitement. “Go think about it” I told him.
A few days later I asked Charlie if he had thought of anything. “Can we go back and summit Tobkal dad, just the two of us”. Now, there is a bit of history in this one, when we failed last year Charlie was about 20m ahead, looking back he didn’t hear the conversation between myself, Abi and Jack. When I told him to begin the descent; that we were going back down he was destroyed. He later explained that he had put so much effort into getting to the summit that he felt like he had suffered defeat for someone else. And though he understood we had to go down, it left within him a failure which he had suffered through no fault of his own. He was determined that one day he would return and summit the mountain.
I spoke with his mother and we worked out the logistics, costs, training and equipment. One big concern was that we would have to do the mountain in winter meaning it would be a full winter ascent requiring specialist equipment and skills. Over the next couple of weeks I put a package together, sat back and assessed the reality of it all and determined that the only thing we couldn’t overcome would be the weather. Everything was achievable and as long as the weather was in our favour a summit was potentially possible. With that in mind I booked everything, planned a few days around the ascent and looked forward to a week in Morocco in the February half term.
I knew that Charlie and I were fit enough to hike 4,000m, and it felt a little pointless to just train for the sake of it. So, when the snows came around in December we set out getting some winter hiking. Boxing Day we hiked some 20 miles in the Dales and we barely broke a sweat. We did more hiking just to keep ourselves moving, but come January I knew we needed a challenge a little more specific to what we might expect on Toubkal. We could of course not train at altitude so I focused on keeping us going at a fast pace on steep inclines. With that in mind we headed back to the Dales and to the highest mountain there. We rocked up on a freezing cold day and I had given us a route which took us straight up the side of Whernside. Within no time at all we were tabbing it out along the summit, past snow 3 feet deep and then back to where we started. The speed at which we had summited Whernside convinced me that it wasn’t training we were doing, but just testing ourselves and our equipment. All of which was fine.
As February rolled around I knew we had to get some ice axe and crampon use. I called upon a friend of mine who runs an adventure company in Wales called Open-door Adventure. “Trevor, can we borrow some crampons and a couple of Ice axes for an ascent of Toubkal in Africa” I asked. “Yeah course you can mate, pop down” was his casual response. I figured that we could head down to North Wales, pick up the gear and then go summit Snowdon all in the same weekend.
Arriving at Opendoor adventure brought back some great memories. It is a grand hall in huge private grounds, surrounded by the beauty of North Wales. I was met by another friend Dave Orange, a man who has climbed just about every mountain worth climbing, including a summit of Mt Everest. The sort of bloke you can crack a beer open with and just sit and listen to all night. Put simply, if there was something to know about mountaineering that Dave didn’t know – It wasn’t worth knowing. “Toubkal is a great mountain in winter, you’ll love it” he smiled as he shook my hand as we left.
There are a number of ascents up Snowdon, the easiest is from Llanberis, a steady stroll up to the 1,000m summit. We chose the Pyg trail, a relatively steady hike up from Pen-Y-Pas. Parking is a scandalous yet typically British £10 per day. Pissed off we set off into the snow. Charlie had his ice axe from the off, I was content with my walking poles for the time being. Not long after setting off we saw a sign explaining that crampons and an ice axe were ‘essential’. Naturally we passed people on the mountain who had neither. About half way up the snow had got thick, slippy and the path was around a foot wide with steep drop offs to one side. Sitting on a rock we put the crampons on and set off for the summit.
For anyone that has never hiked with crampons, you can’t imagine how much harder they instantly make things. Your feet naturally become heavier, but you lose the flexibility from your sole meaning you have to walk flat footed, with each foot wide enough apart to not catch on the other. If it does catch (as Charlie found out) you trip over, face first. As we hiked up Snowdon we found ourselves passing people, and watched in amazement as idiots that had ignored the winter warnings were forced to retreat just 200m from the summit.
The summit of Snowdon is beautiful, it really is and is probably our favourite mountain in the UK that we have climbed. I suppose being up there with everyone else in crampons certainly adds to the achievement. For us it wasn’t just about the achievement, but it signified our final day of training for Toubkal.
Getting onto the train in Wakefield we set off for Morocco, determined, hopeful, but also conscious that the day previous temperatures were -25 degrees on Toubkal, winds were some 65mph and there was a foot of snowfall on top of what was already there. With the snowline at 2,300m it would be an almost complete winter ascent. I asked Charlie how he felt, he just looked at me, smiled and said “let’s do it”.
It was on J