Ex NORTHERN ATLAS was a high altitude trekking expedition in Morocco’s Toubkal National Park. The expedition was conducted under a Defence Engagement Agreement between Morocco and the UK, with both nations assembling a team of fourteen to trek together in the Atlas Mountains. The main objective of the expedition was to ascend North Africa’s highest Mountain; Mt Toubkal.
In preparation for this expedition three training weekends were conducted between February to April, to prepare and assess all potential participants ensuring that they were both physically and mentally up to the challenge. The training weekends were conducted in Snowdonia National Park and the Lake district. As well as providing valuable physical preparation for participants and instructors, the preparation weekends also delivered theory lessons associated with the risks when high altitude trekking.
On completion of the prep weekends, the fourteen-person team composition was finalised. Participants were selected from 102 Bn REME’s English, Scottish & Northern Irish Company’s (102 Bn REME has somewhat of a large footprint!). The main effort after team selection was to source the most cost effective Marrakesh bound flights, hoping the departing airport wouldn’t cause any logistical problems with respect to the geographical spread of the participants. Loan pool equipment and satellite phones were collected from Bicester & Upavon respectively, and a Moroccan support team www.climbingtoubkal.com were contracted to assist with expedition logistics.
Deployment / Day 1:
102 Bn REME’s team mustered at McKay VC Barracks, Rotherham, on Sunday 9th June 2019. Loan pool equipment was issued and revision conducted from what had been delivered on the preparation weekends previously. Subjects covered were:
- Heat injury signs, prevention & treatment.
- Cultural considerations.
- Satellite phone operation.
- Altitude Mountain Sickness including HAPE / HACE.
- Blood Oximeter & Lake Louise Score Card.
We departed for Gatwick Airport in the early hours of Monday 10th June 19, to catch our outbound 0600 hrs flight to Morocco. On arrival we joined the long passport control que and after safely negotiating customs, were met by our driver who swiftly transferred us to other trekking start point Imlil (1740m). Imlil is a beautiful Berber village nestled in a stunning valley at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. The driver dropped us off perhaps a 15 minute walk below our accommodation, as it could not be accessed by vehicle. Ascending up the track to the accommodation it became very apparent what a unique and fascinating adventure lay before us.
Settling into our rustic and traditional digs for the evening we conducted final personal administration before starting the trek the following day, while WO2 Adams met with our Moroccan Army comrades for the first time. In the evening we enjoyed plentiful mint tea on the guest house veranda, overlooking Imlil’s spectacular views as the sun set and the calls to prayer echoed through the valley.
Expedition Day 2:
Up bright and early at 0600hrs having enjoyed our final sleep in a bed for ten days, we met for breakfast at 0700hrs. Breakfast consisted of various jams, cheese, yogurt and bread. This was washed down with more mint tea which became the staple beverage for the rest of the expedition. Departing our accommodation with our local guide Ibrahim, we met our Moroccan Army counterparts down in the village. Following a slightly nervous and apprehensive introduction and ice breaker, the now multination team of twenty eight took our first steps with Tachedirt (2330m) being the days end point. The pace was steady and mainly parallel to the main road out of Imlil through the narrow streets. As we left the town our attention drew to a sign above a mud hut store which proclaimed to be “cheaper than Asda”. We assumed the claim a reference to the supermarket chain, however did not rule out it could be coincidental and perhaps the name of a rival store holder! Either way it was a crafty marketing strategy no doubt!
As we approached our first lunch stop, we settled under some trees to give a welcome respite from the mid-day sun. The lunch consisted of salad, bread and a chick pea curry accompanied by bread. Unfortunately, there was to be no food for Sgt Hirst who had become our first (and only) victim to the renowned upset stomach, that is not unusual when trekking in this region. Negotiating the beautiful mountain pass and reaching Tachedirt by late afternoon, we were all glad to have reached our first camp. The camp site was a small grassed field at the side of a hillside road. Here we pitched our tents and it soon became apparent that some needed a bit of repair to the poles. In true REME tradition out came the black nasty and the poles were soon repaired but with perhaps a 10 day warranty at best which should hopefully be just enough !
Expedition Day 3:
Reveille, breakfast and camp collapsed we loaded the baggage onto the support transport. Todays trek was generally downhill heading towards Imi Oughlad (1339m). The terrain again was generally hardstanding passing through various small villages. Unity was forming in the group as initial apprehension between us and the Moroccans subsided. Most Moroccans had a basic grasp of the English tongue. The two Moroccan officers held a much more comprehensive level, however still struggled with WO1 Strachan’s broad Yorkshire accent! Along the way we stopped for lunch and were soon the centre of attention for the local children, who had obviously become accustomed to visitors handing out sweets. Upon reaching our end destination and camp set we washed and laundered in the local stream, enjoyed the evening meal and settled down for the evening.
Expedition Day 4:
Departing camp we headed for Tassa Ouirgane (1186m). A steady days trek with various stops for refreshments and our daily intake of nuts, kindly supplied by our guide. Passing through the small villages we were given a cultural lesson by our Moroccan comrades local to the area, who explained how farmers separate the barley corn on the roof of a building, which was located on the side of the hill top. This was carried out by mules continually walking on top of the barley crushing it. It was further described that the roof top was actually the village granary, and this is where all the barley was stored for making bread and feeding the animals with little or no wastage. As we progressed along the route we had to negotiate a river crossing over a rather rickety bridge. Thankfully due to dry weather, the water level was very low. As we approached our destination for the day we encountered the expeditions only drop of rainfall, which I suppose at least justified carrying the Gore-Tex wet weather kit, even if it was only required for 10 minutes! As we approached our camp site it became apparent it was within a small farm and we were to camp within the olive grove. Camp set we were invited into the farm house by the owners and enjoyed some rather tasty pancake type snacks. After dinner we visited the village taking in the old fortress at the top of a hill, before enjoying some mint tea at a local cafe. During the night sleep was not easily achieved, due to mules crying, dogs fighting, the early morning roster and prayer calls.
Expedition Day 5:
Leaving camp somewhat sleep deprived we headed for Tiziane (1588m). The pace was slow due to the blistering heat and loose under foot scree. For the more nimble junior group members the terrain was not too much of a problem, but 102 Bn REME being a reserve unit and the average age of the group being above 40, caution was taken to minimise injury risk. The scenery still stunning we reached camp and settled for the evening. The group bond was now very close. Ex Royal Marine Cpl Todd would engage with the Moroccans in the evening, exchanging rope tying techniques, which somehow progressed to a rope line being tied between two trees and the “re-gain” demonstration which our hosts attempted with varying degrees of success!
Expedition Day 6:
The morning ritual was a little delayed this morning as team members had woken to a slightly flooded camp area. Unbeknown to us the local farmer had decided to open the irrigation channels in the early hours which directed the water flow through our camp site. After the tents had been bailed out and packed away, we set about our morning routine. Today’s trek was to (Tizqui D Knt 1800m) via a summit of 2260m. The pace again was steady due to the heat. Arriving at a camp site situated in the middle of the town square, we had the opportunity to take a shower at a small personal cost. The entire group of both nations jumped at the chance to enjoy a needed cleanse, less for its most frugal member Sgt Hirst who still opted to utilise the stream. During the night we were again subjected to every animal noise imaginable to man. At about 0100 hrs we were woken up by the sounds of mules, chickens, cows, roosters and even the sheep decided to join in. It can only be described as trying to sleep in a zoo.
Expedition Day 7:
Today was the final day trekking unfortunately for two British expedition members. In the morning we left camp after our usual breakfast of eggs, bread, jam and porridge. The day started well heading towards Tamsoult (2250m), as always in the basking hot sunshine and surrounded by postcard worthy scenery. Whilst descending into the local town where we were to camp for the night, disaster struck. Sgt Spence did his best “Bambi on ice” impression much to the initial amusement of the rest of the group. Walking off the stumble Sgt Spence made it to the days end point albeit, in a little bit of discomfort. Upon removing his boot, the pain became much worse and his leg swelled. Suspected as a possible fracture the decision was taken that Sgt Spence would have to go to a hospital to be assessed. The Moroccan Army arranged for a military ambulance to collect Sgt Spence, who would be accompanied by French speaking WO2 Grand, to a military hospital in Marrakesh. The ambulance journey was not for the faint hearted with WO2 Grand informing the stretcher bound Sgt Spence that he was lucky he couldn’t see out of the window! Sgt Spence received first class service on arrival at the hospital, seen by a doctor, X-rayed and plastered in short order, before being bedded down for the night. Unfortunately, neither could re-join the expedition and advanced to Marrakesh for a couple of extra days R & R.
Expedition Day 8:
A delayed start to today’s trek due to establishing the outcome of Sgt Spence’s injury and Informing ATG and 102 Bn HQ of the situation. Once communications were established with all parties, we headed back in the direction north of Imlil before setting camp early for the evening.
Expedition Day 9:
Following the collapse of camp and morning routine we loaded the mule train as there was no vehicle access from here onwards. Today’s trek was to Mt Toubkal Refuge (3207m). The trek to the refuge was a steady path and unlike the previous days of relative isolation we were very much on a well-trodden route, shared with plenty of other trekkers with the same intent. At lunch time we stopped at a small settlement called Sidi Chamharouch which centres around an Islamic Shrine built into the rock. Adjacent to the shrine was a large rock the size of a small house, most distinctive as it had been painted in white. Our Moroccan comrades informed us that it is believed by some that the rock holds spirits, capable of granting wishes, upon animal sacrifice. It was further explained that such a belief is only held by a very small minority and asking the rock for such things contradicts Islam as Allah is the only one capable of fulfilling such requests. Onwards we progressed to the refuge arriving by mid-afternoon. Tents still the accommodation we did have use of the refuge facilities to take another much needed shower. Following evening meal, we discussed the following days Mt Toubkal ascent and settled early for the evening.
Expedition Day 10:
On Wednesday 19th June we woke up at 0500hrs full of excitement and anticipation to attempt the expeditions main aim, ascending North Africa’s highest peak Mt Toubkal (4167 metres). Breakfast was served with us all huddled around the glow of a gas lamp. The sun began to rise and we set off at a steady pace at 0630hrs. We all seemed to be wearing an extra layer due to the chillier atmosphere at the higher altitude. We set a good pace through the morning and in-between a couple of scheduled stops on route in order to catch our breath, made good progress. The terrain was no different really to what we had trekked on for the eight days previous, only more challenging due to the less dense air. We reached the summit by mid-afternoon and celebrated the achievement with the Moroccan Army who by now we had forged a strong friendship with. Cracking out the REME flag we posed for a group photo at the summit. Descending down to Mt Toubkal base camp refuge for our final night with the Moroccans, we enjoyed a group meal and reflected upon on the whole magical experience. The group dynamic was now completely different from the first day’s apprehensive ice breaker, friendships made, social media details exchanged, Defence Engagement were most definitely achieved.
Expedition Day 10:
In the morning we descended back down to Imlil and said our farewells wells to our Moroccan friends, prior to transferring to Marrakesh, arriving by early evening. Meeting up with WO2 Grand and Sgt Spence, we exchanged stories in each others absence, attended to blisters and settled early for the evening in ourrRustic guest house accommodation.
R & R Day 11:
Following breakfast we split into small groups to explore Marrakesh. This is an experience that truly needs to be seen to be believed. If I had to describe this city in one word, I would say colourful. Never have I set foot in a place with as much energy and vibrancy as Marrakech, which is home to just under one million people and a popular tourist destination due to the many beautiful mosques, enchanting palaces and thriving marketplaces known as souks. We all RV’d in the evening to enjoy a final group meal over looking the Jemma el-Fnaa market square. Many stories from the expedition were re-visited including everyone in the group having a tale to tell about avoiding a snake charmer at some point during the day. We all reflected that it had been an absolutely fantastic experience.
Exercise NORTHERN ATLAS achieved its aims by way of all participants conducting high altitude trekking and twelve members of 102 Bn REME ascending North Africa’s highest mountain; Mt Toubkal. Defence Engagement was most definitely fulfilled via the strong bond that developed between out nations through this joint expedition. To be hosted by the Moroccan Armed Forces in this particularly beautiful part of their country is a very privileged experience. The warmth, openness and hospitality was truly humbling.
“I didn’t know donkeys made a sound like that”
Sgt Alex Hirst