February 12, 2017 – 3:00 PM GMT
It’s been a quiet day so far today at the Refuge de Lépiney. Not quiet in the sense that there isn’t a lot of noise, but quiet in the sense that we haven’t done much. It’s actually really noisy – the winds outside the hut are gusting up to ~80km/h (according to the forecast we read yesterday), and every time a gust kicks up it kind of feels like a freight train is going by. I think it’s starting to give me a headache.
Matt and I have dared to venture outside only a couple of times to see what it’s all about, mainly to go to the bathroom and shovel out the snow that is drifting up against the front door so that we can get out tomorrow. At points the wind has been so strong that we have half-joked about using a rope to belay each other out the front door out of fear of getting blown off the tiny ridge the hut is built on, at 3000 m above sea level. Brahim – the hut caretaker – has had a slightly more productive day, as he has graciously prepared our breakfast and lunch, set up the running water to inside the hut, and repaired a window that smashed earlier this morning, thanks to the howling wind. Apparently this is all supposed to blow through overnight and the sun should be out tomorrow, so the skiing part of this segment shouldn’t be far off. Until then it’s the waiting game.
We left Imlil yesterday morning and we had checked the forecast before leaving so knew what we were in for, but decided to go on anyway. The morning yesterday started out quite nicely. Our host at the gite, Jamel, organized a muleteer for us who arrived at 8:30 or so and we set off from there. The route to refuge here climbs 700 m up out of the village of Imlil, to Tizi n’Mzik at almost 2500 m elevation, then drops 300 m to Azib Tamsoult (azib is the Berber word to denote a nomadic village. Typically they are only inhabited by shepherds during the summer months). From Azib Tamsoult the trail again climbs 800 m through a narrow canyon/gorge and up, out, into the head of the Azzaden Valley, beneath the imposing cliffs of the Tazarhart Plateau. As with our trek to Tachedirrt (and Imlil thereafter), there wasn’t enough snow to put skins on at any point, so we walked the whole way.
The sun was out to start the day and half way up to Tizi n’Mzik a shepherd joined the muleteer and us for the walk. He spoke a bit of French and so we chatted along the way. It seemed a little odd to me that the shepherd was not concerned about leaving his flock of sheep and goats lower down in the valley, but it all made sense when we arrived at the pass. Shortly before we got to the pass the shepherd ran ahead and when we came to the crest he was preparing glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice in the little mudstone hut that he obviously uses. How nice of him. Of course it came at a price and the smallest bill we had to pay for the two glasses of juice was a 5 pound British note that I randomly had with me. Pricey orange juice at almost 2500 m above sea level.
From the pass we could see the trail down to Azib Tamsoult and it looked to be snow covered a few hundred metres from where we were standing. Typically the mules can only go as far as the snow line, so it was looking like we may have to carry the full weight of our gear for the first time of the trip. Between the shepherd, who spoke some French, and the muleteer, who spoke no French, we agreed to go as far as the mule could take the gear and we would part ways then. The only other option was to go down to the village of Tizi Oussem and up the valley from there, but that would likely add 3 three hours, and a few hundred more metres of vertical to the day. No thanks.
We started heading down from the pass and after about 15 minutes the muleteer had seen enough and indicated he was going no further. A short days work for the muleteer, as he would be back in Imlil before lunch time. We unloaded all of the gear and then re-organized it all to fit on our own packs. As I hauled my pack onto my shoulders I once again felt a little sorry for the mule: with skis, boots, and everything else I was carrying, my pack had to weigh at least 50 pounds. And Matt’s was no lighter. Our pace was about to reduce quite a bit, and we still had 800 m to climb!
About half an hour or so after leaving the muleteer we came around a corner and bumped into a Berber man who was smoking a cigarette while sitting on some rocks next to the trail. We started chatting and soon discovered that he was Brahim, the caretaker at the hut we are now staying in. As part of our booking at the hut – which is managed through the French Alpine Club – we requested full board. Brahim would be staying with us for the five nights to look after things and prepare meals for us. (Packing our own meals for five days probably would have been impossible considering all the gear we already had). Brahim had been in touch with the fellow at the club who I’d made the reservation with and was waiting to trek the rest of the way up to the hut with us. A couple hours later I couldn’t have been more happy that he had decided to wait for us.
After a short lunch at Azib Tamsoult we started heading up into the canyon and then eventually up into the valley. The clouds had started pouring in and then it started snowing. Brahim was leading the way up and as the weather deteriorated it wasn’t long before the visibility was so bad that we were literally following his footsteps in the fresh snow (Brahim had gone ahead, presumably to get the hut opened up). As we came out of the canyon it was obvious that we had been sheltered from the wind until then and once out into the valley we got to “enjoy” the full force of it. The last couple hundred metres up to the hut were painfully slow thanks to the high winds and our growing fatigue. It got to the point that we would stop to brace ourselves against the gusts, then walk as many steps as we could until the next gust kicked up or until we ran out of breath. We even had to pull out our ice axes for some added stability while crossing a couple snow fields leading up to the hut. It wasn’t exactly pleasant. Finally I looked up into the wind/whiteout and could see the hut! By the time we stumbled in the front door and dumped our packs, Brahim had already prepared a hot pot of mint tea and he quickly shoved a glass into each of our hands.
And not much has changed since then. We’ve drank a lot of mint tea, read some books, and played Uno with Brahim. Not to mention enjoy Brahim’s cooking. Last night he whipped together a delicious chicken tagine, basically on a Coleman-type stove. So we are doing OK today. Assuming this storm blows through by tomorrow, as forecast, we’ll have three full days of skiing before continuing to Refuge du Toubkal in the next valley to the east. After pouring through the guide book we have, it looks like there are about 10 great days of skiing to be had out of this hut, mostly in long narrow couloirs that come off the Tazarhart Plateau. Fingers crossed for good conditions.