The next morning we got up early to begin the most strenuous thing I've ever done. We began a climb up Tubqaal (spelled in French as Toubkal) that was to last three days.
It began pleasantly enough as a big taxi ride, shared with 2 other Westerners we ran into, so there was plenty of extra room in the back. We paid only 200 dirhams for the five of us to Imlil, a town at the base of the mountains around Tubqaal. Upon arriviing in Imlil, and after some struggle to begin, we started a reasonable walk up the mountain. Quickly Mary had the brilliant idea to rent a mule, run by Mohammed, a very sweet young 13-year old boy. I resisted the idea for a while, wanting to get the full exercise in for the benefit of my stroke, but then, a little slow to the game, realized that the exercise would come regardless, and loaded up the mule with my pack as well.
It's beautiful, mountainous country. Already in Imlil you are starting at 1728 meters, and therefore there are concerns over altitude sickness- shortness of breath, dry coughing, tendency to repeat oneself, delerium, and tendency to repeat oneself. The evergreen trees quickly disappear, except for the occasional remnant, and all that you are left with is grass and a very intriguing ground cover, appearing to fill the fern niche around water, but upon closer inspection covered with sharp spines.
At about a quarter of the way up we stopped in the small town of Aremd for a snack, or Mary's 2nd Breakfast, pretending that we were half-way there. In the next hour, we hoped and hoped that the half-way point was passed. We knew it to be a vain illusion, but desired all the same. And when finally arriving within site of the Quba of Sidi Shemharush, we collapsed next to cooling drinks and a Snickers.
Shemharush is the only town between Aremd and the Refuge, our destination for sleeping at 3,178 m. It contains a Quba, the remains of a grave of a Muslim holy man, or Murabit, part of Folk Islam in Morocco. Morocco is perhaps the most heavily folk Islamic area of the Arab world, and these small white domed structures can be seen everywhere in the countryside- though only the aforementioned Sidi Abdul Rahman is present in modern Casablanca. A man will perform a couple miracles, be around a couple miracles, or a century later his family claims that he had miracles, and he becomes a holy man. The scuttlebut on him can be as good as the real thing. Thereafter men and especially women will come to make prayers for intercession from the "saint" (although officially there is no interceder in Islam) and leaving sacrificies and ribon mementos for a change in life, such as pregnancy. These practices are looked down upon by the upper-class and strict Muslims, but are still widely practiced throughout the country, and even secretly by the upper class.
The gravesite of Shemharush is less dome shaped then an amorphous blob- but it can only be seen from a distant height, as even approaching it is, like most religious sites in this country, forbidden to non-Muslims. But since I told them that I was studying anthropology, and asked, I got special permission to come closer.
The pictures above are from the closer proximity- but I did not feel comfortable taking pictures of the dimly lit interior. There four men and women sat comfortably on rugs, one praying, around a rocky cave, down which was a very small remnant of a grave. This particular quba is very inaccassible, so only the most devout, or those living in the small village, would come here.
From Shemharush we wound up the hill, and began the truly difficult part of the climb. This was no longer a walk; it was a climb. Not only was the angle greater, but so was our fatigue. Quickly after leaving the village Mohammed, our mulateer, left us to take a different route, or just left us- we weren't quite sure. It was with great effort that we found any ability to continue to climb at all- and this without our packs. 3/4 of the way up we came to a curiousity and drink shop, where the drinks are kept cool through an ingenious device, a hose sprayed on them constantly, running hundreds of meters across the valley to a mountain spring far away. Considering the primitive nature of the surroundings and the length of the hose (with pressure:length ratios) I'm amazed at how strong the water pressure was there.
Mohammed, who had returned, requested that I come with him at a quicker pace now, as he still had to return home to his village below, and I have had more experience with bouldering so am a little more used to the mountains. I tried my best to accomodate him, though I would dearly have loved to stay behind with Mary and David. But in the end there was no way I could keep pace with the younger Mohammed, and I ended up walking the rest of the way by myself, somewhere in between. I knew from Lonely Planet that the refuge was visible a full hour before you reach it. At every turn I expected to see it. It was not there. I expected it a moment later, any minute now. Still I was dissapointed. This went on for a good hour. Finally it appeared in view, and with a rock I scratched a note on a rock for Mary and David to see, that the Reguge was only an hour away. I had seen the light.
Still turning right and left across the glacial valley, I continued, barely able to stand. Through sweat stained eyes I saw the beauty around me. I have never seen a glacial valley before in real life, and indeed, with apologies to my Physical Science students, had thought that there were no glacial remains in Morocco. But here, in the High Atlas, I was surrounded by morraines, the rock jumbles left behind by glacial scraping. I stumbled in the middle of a perfectly U-shaped valley, cut by a glacier, and not the V of a river.
I think it particularly sadistic to structure a refuge at the top of a tall mountain range, on top of a series of steps. However, as this was the only option for sheltered sleeping, after about 5 minutes of climbing the 20 steps, I made it to the top, and begged for some water. Mohammed was there, of course, for at least 1/2 an hour eager to return home. Now that I was there he could leave our stuff with me, and head back home in the failing light. I grabbed our bags and laid them out on the beds upstairs, waiting for Mary and David. 1/2 an hour later they arrived, as the mist rose up through the valley.
We watched the sunset through the valley, and about an hour later, the most glorious night sky I have seen in many years. Little atmosphere to interfere, no light pollution, and a new moon, and there was a glorious sky so filled with stars it was difficult to discern any constellation, for the constellations themselves were occluded with stars. The Big Dipper was brilliant, it's stars as bright as Venus on an ordinary night. Jupiter rose up behind us, closer at perihelion than it will be for decades. And to the right was the gigantic Milky Way, so clear that even the interstellar gas between the stars could be discerned. It was wonderful to see Mary's joy and amazement and seeing all these stars, and the Milky Way. Her delight lights up a room even as large as the night sky.