Heading up North Africa’s highest mountain which stands over 4000m was never going to be easy. But I was convinced that with a bit of will power and a strong bond between us we could do it. The trek would take two days and is split between an ascent to base camp, (know as the refuge) at 3300m and then an early morning attempt for the summit.
The main issue I felt we would face was not the hard, steep climb, but the altitude. Previous high altitude hiking has affected Charlie and I and so before leaving the home-stay at 6am on the first day of the climb I sat and spoke with the kids. I explained to them about how we are a family and if all four of us cannot do it, then none of us can. It was really to emphasise the family ethic to Jack and that if anyone of us got tired, we should consider the affect that would have on the rest of us if that person started lagging behind, or complaining. At just 7 years old it was a tall ask for Jack, and so I split the load between Charlie and I. Literally all Jack and Abi would have to swap between them was my camera case. Charlie was to carry all the warm clothes for the summit, I would carry all the water and snacks for the first day of the trek. The second issue that I had was discussing the altitude, I had to make them aware of the potential symptoms, but I knew full well this left us wide open for any one of us claiming we had altitude sickness as a way out of the hike. With that in mind I told them that I wouldn’t tell them when we were above 2000m so they couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t suss them out. I knew full well Charlie would know, but he wasn’t my concern in this instance,
I had spoken with Khadija (the woman at our homestay) about sorting us breakfast for the morning. She explained she would be up for prayer around 3am so would bake us some bread and sort some eggs and juice out. So, at 6.30am we set off and made our way into Imlil before heading up onto Toubkal.
We left early to beat the heat, and it was a cool 24 degrees as we made our way down the hill to the village passing local farmers en route. The route begins at the top end of the village and is an instant climb through a forest before winding its way up to a track. It is pure uphill and was a tough introduction to what was going to be a very hard day. I had set a really good pace and led the way with Jack directly behind me, Abi behind Jack and then Charlie keeping up the rear. Within no time at all we were all sweating and I wondered how on earth Jack and Abi had energy to argue about who put the lid on a bottle tightly!
The uphill kindly blessed us with about forty minutes of flat plateux. It was from here onwards that we now faced altitude sickness.
I was keeping a close eye on all the kids, but particularly Charlie who by this point looked like he was struggling. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he was waiting for his second wind. But I wondered if the sun was getting to him, after leaving the trees (after about 15 minutes) we had been completely exposed to the sun, there was no shade and so it just happened we passed a building with an old guy sat outside. I asked to buy his hat from him and he went inside and came out with 2, one for Abi and another for Charlie. He charged me about £2 and off we went.
By this point we were surrounded by absolutely jaw dropping mountain beauty. Completely enclaved by 4000m peaks we steadily made our way up a dusty track littered with dry arid rocks strewn across the landscape. The path followed a huge gorge which took some very careful navigating as a single slip would have meant certain death.
After about 4 hours of hard hiking almost all uphill I looked at the line behind me and asked if they were ok, they all responded yes. But I knew they weren’t. We were at 2800m, I found some shade behind a rock and asked them straight to the point “Let’s have a vote, we can carry on or go back” It genuinely brought a tear to my eye when each one of them voted to continue. I asked how they were all feeling and Abi had a headache, Charlie said he could fall asleep instantly and Jack was fine. I had a headache for which I’d already taken a couple of paracetamol, but it looked good. And so we carried on.
A short while later we could see the summit of Toubkal and we had all naturally slowed down. We had been trekking up hill for around 7 hours and Abi had told me her headache was getting worse, Charlie said he was fine and Jack was breathing heavy. Again they all voted to carry on.
It was clear we were all tired as every couple of minutes we had to stop to catch our breath, the altitude was really getting to me and Abi, but I had expected it. And I know some parents reading this might suggest we should have quit, but symptoms of altitude sickness are common and whilst mild not dangerous. I knew we were literally 200m in height from a night of acclimatisation and I made the decision to continue on the basis that if symptoms got much worse, or if overnight things hadn’t calmed down then we would descend.
By the time we made it to the refuge we were at about 11,000ft and I was completely wiped out. The kids sat and waited for me to sort us a bed for the night which was to be nothing more than a dormitory bed in some concrete refuge building just a couple of hours from the summit.
The cost of each bed should have been 7 euros, but just like i had feared there was not a hope we were getting it for that price. Turns out the only beds available were full board ones for 20 euros each. I physically didn’t have that cash available since there was no ATM in Imlil. Naturally there was no wifi or visa services so I explained that I would transfer the money into his account once back in Marrakech. He was having none of it and so we left with 2 options.
I knew in our state it would be risky carrying on, the kids wanted to, but we were completely beaten. The trek had sapped everything from us. I decided I would ask if we could leave our bags at the refuge, and then we could make a last ditch attempt at making the summit. Having now descended Toubkal I know now that was the wrong decision. The warning signs were there and I ignored them.
We had a quick refuel, another talk, and we set off for the summit of the highest mountain in Northern Africa.
At around 3500m we could clearly see the summit and the way which we would be going. It was pretty much straight up and our pace had fallen dramatically, we were hours past our maximum effort and we still had to descend, As we pushed on the scenery to me was blurred in the distance, and I felt sick. I figured we would stop for a few minutes and try and catch our breath. Looking at the kids I noticed Abi had a nose bleed. I asked her if she was OK and why hadn’t she told me, she said “I didn’t notice”. I asked how she couldn’t have noticed and she looked at me blank and said “I didn’t notice” She had made no attempt to clear the blood from her face despite it now dripping down her chin. I knew we had to descend.
No one questioned the decision for a while, but once back down at about 2500m Charlie asked if I felt I had made the right decision, I asked him what he felt and he said absolutely you did. Of course I knew I had, but it was off the back of two very wrong decisions. People have asked me in the past if I feel like i ever push the kids too far and I do give it some thought, but then I believe everything worth living for is difficult and I teach my kids that if you stop working for something then you will never achieve your dreams.
But high on the mountain of Toubkal I pushed my kids too far, and through resilience, stubbornness and a closeness between us all we pushed on together. And though we failed in our ascent of Toubkal I personally learnt an important lesson of the capabilities of my children and just what they would put themselves through in the name of family and not wanting to let each other down.
As the day drew to a close I realised that I had learned and loved more in the last 16 hours than I had in a very long time.
Thanks kids, you’re amazing; sorry I pushed too hard 🙁