Refuge de Lépiney to Refuge du Toubkal: Towards the Highest Peak in North Africa

February 16, 2017 – 9:00 AM GMT

I’ve been a little worried about today since the beginning of the trip.  Today we are traversing from Refuge de Lépiney to Refuge du Toubkal, where we are planning to spend the next five nights.  Although the distance between the two huts is only a couple of kilometres (one main valley to the east), there is no easy way to get there.  Our guide-book describes three separate itineraries, none of which sound particularly appealing:

– the first route offers the easiest descent to the refuge, but to get there you first have to climb over two high altitude passes for a total of 1500m of vertical climbing, all above 3000 m.  Great.

– the second starts off the same as the first but skips the second pass and instead heads straight to a 45 degree, 600 m long couloir.  The couloir itself sounds like fun, but not while wearing a 50+ pound pack, at the end of a long day of skinning and climbing.

– the third traverse requires the least amount of vertical (a casual 800 m of vertical climbing, above 3000 m), but the descent requires “a good sense of direction and solid route-finding skills”.  Whatever that means.

We pulled out the map over dinner last night and asked Brahim for his thoughts, given that he knows these mountains a lot better than we do.  When we mention we’re thinking of Option 1 – via Tizi Melloul – he seems unimpressed.  “Tizi Melloul very difficult” he says.  After more conversation he convinces us that Option three – via Tizi n’Tadat – is the best way to go: maybe 5-6 hours to get to Refuge Toubkal.  Having seen the initial stages of the Tizi Melloul route in days before, we’re happy to take Brahim’s advice and take the Tizi ‘n Tadat route.

The first part of the traverse actually requires us to go down in elevation a couple hundred metres to get around a long ridge and in to a secondary valley.  Given the snowpack below the hut, or lack thereof, it’s hiking boots on to start with skis, boots, and the rest of our gear all on our backs.  Not exactly the makings of an easy walk in the park.

After a couple of hours we’ve gone down far enough, and back up to the elevation we started at, so we can finally put the skis on and start skinning up the 800 m we have left to get the pass.  We can see the pass in the distance; although it looks far, it looks like we’ll be able to skin the whole way.  The skinning is a slog and tedious, but the views are amazing and the sun is warm.  When we stop for lunch we realize that we couldn’t see the actual pass from the start – it was hidden around the corner from where we put our skis on. The “real” pass, which is marked by a large, distinct rock formation that Brahim referred to as a thumb, looks a little farther and a little steeper, but still manageable.  At this point I pull out the GPS to track our elevation and monitor how much farther we have left to climb.

The last couple hundred metres are a real pain, as I am putting in a fresh skin track with steep switchbacks, and our heavy packs are starting to wear us down.  Finally we arrive at the pass: it’s shortly after three o’clock (already six hours in to the day – shouldn’t we be there by now?).  Although I am relieved that the climbing part of the day is over, and there is only the run down to the valley that is left, I immediately panic when I look at what the “descent” actually looks like.

At first glance, there is no obvious way down.  As I stare down into the valley below, I am however relieved to see that the majority of the snow on the face/couloir we have to get down slid in an avalanche after the storm a couple of days ago.  At least we don’t have to worry about any avalanches today, since the whole slope has already gone. Matt and I walk up the ridge a little way and debate perhaps traversing on skis across a bit of a rock field and in to the main part of the couloir, but that looks pretty sketchy, and any sort of slip or fall would not end well.  Next we walk down the ridge but from the rock thumb we can’t see what’s below.  We think the route might be on the south side of the thumb, so we pull out the rope and I belay Matt around the east corner to see what’s there.  The rope isn’t long enough and Matt still can’t see a clear route down.  By now it’s starting to push four o’clock and we still don’t know how to get down, and all sorts of thoughts are beginning to creep in to my head – maybe we’re  just going to have to turn around and go back the way we came, sleep in a snow bank somewhere, and try again tomorrow?

We walk back to our packs for a cup of tea and pull out the supposed guide-book.  After a thorough read of the description we realize the route down is in fact on the south side of the rock thumb.  So we crawl around the opposite side that I belayed Matt on, and we finally get a good look at the way down.  It looks totally unpleasant, but manageable.  My  spirits begin to lift, knowing that we’ll be able to get down.  We crawl back up to our packs one more time, re-load, and then creep back around the west side of the rock thumb and step in to our skis. (Side note: a few days later a couple Spanish guys we met climbed up the same route we skied.  They said they saw all of our boot tracks at the pass and had no idea what we were trying to do at the time. Makes sense.)

About forty-five minutes later we emerge at the bottom of the 600 m or so couloir that we managed to navigate (refer to the red line on the photo above).  The skiing is a combination of side-slipping down 40 degrees slopes of hard packed snow, and short jump turns on concrete-like avalanche debris; one of the most miserable ski runs I’ve had in recent memory.  As I jump into one last turn before popping out of the couloir, my left ski ejects and I stand there and watch it shoot off down the slope a couple hundred feet further than I planned to ski.  I’m too tired to even care.  At this point we are down safely; I walk down the hill to grab my ski and re-join Matt who is waiting just below the hut.  We have just completed one of our hardest days out in the mountains. Ever.

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