• Josh Bulpin

Getting frostbite on Toubkal, and paying £30 for a bag of nuts. One of those things happened

“…just take some deep breaths mate”

Apparently, this counts as sympathy from one of the kindest people I know, my adventure buddy Cormac.

We’d left the refuge on Mt Toubkal at 3207m bound for the summit at 5am, aiming to climb the 900m of ascent in time for sunrise at 7.30. It was bitterly cold with wind chill higher up bringing the temperature down to -10 degrees (centigrade). In my wisdom and experience as an expedition leader I’d only packed one pair of thin liner gloves, and by the time we reached the shoulder before the final ascent, the battering wind gusting up to 40mph had left me with no feeling in my digits.

I was fuming with myself, and of course responded calmly and pleasantly to Cormac’s sage offering with the conviction that I wasn’t sure mindful breath was going to solve my problem. But thanks. If only I had sounded that pleasant.

The rest of the ascent in the dark had been magic. The calm focus involved in slowly climbing the final part of any mountain has always been a special time for me. There’s no deep thoughts or room for wondering around your own space, you just keep going, one foot in front of the other, working hard and occasionally waking from your trance to look behind you and make sure your mate is still plodding on in your wake.

The strong wind made this ascent a little squeaky-bum, knocking me off balance more than once. It’s quite a steep schlep but as we approached the summit the sky was beginning to lighten and a bold line of red appeared on the horizon. As the red turned to orange and the burning circle breached the far off line the Atlas Mountains were illuminated gold around us in the clear morning air. The views were spectacular, and for a while the freezing wind was forgotten.

At the summit, after taking the appropriate photos to prove one’s epicness I’d stuffed my numb hands into my pockets. As I watched the sunrise and took in the literal awesomeness of my surroundings blood began to run back into my hands and the pain was excruciating. It lasted until we were halfway back to the refuge, and made the descent on now sun-warmed loose scree without very useful hands a little interesting to say the least! Yet another lesson of humility taught by mother earth and her machinations. Never again will I only pack shit gloves.

Cormac and I were in Morocco to recce a two-day route up and down North Africa’s highest mountain.

After a brief stop for some hot coffee and a hug at the refuge we continued our long and beautiful descent back down the valley to the mountain village of Imlil. I’ve always found the descent from a trek or climb a really special time. No longer are you wondering what’s ahead, your body is loving sucking in more and more oxygen as you decrease in altitude and you can really enjoy the environment around you, while taking the opportunity to reflect on your experience and what it means for you and your team mates.

Cormac loves a bit of mindfulness, his leadership on expeditions includes a focus on being present, and it’s one reason I love adventuring with him. On this occasion however, as I demonstrated that the tips of three of my fingers still had no feeling, we laughed out loud at his summit suggestion of taking deep breaths to solve that hand issue. It turned out the mindful guru had a spare pair of gloves the whole time! Deep breaths indeed.

We reflected on the rest of the trip too. We’d arrived in one of my favourite cities in the world, Marrakech, two days previously. I’d proudly set about introducing Cormac to some of its hidden, and extrovertly noisy gems. We’d visited the ‘museum de la photographie’, had a mint tea overlooking the place d’epices (the original old square) and had a stroll through the sounds and smells of the magical souks.

Before heading out for our first tagine we thought it’d be a good idea to get some snacks for the trek up Toubkal ahead.

We headed to Djem el Fna, the main bat-shit brilliant square to find our munchies. The atmosphere was intoxicating and we were quickly caught by a guy who had the answer to all our nibble needs. He eloquently charmed us, filled up a bag with beautiful Moroccan dates and a variety of nuts and, before we knew what had happened we’d paid him 320 dirhams. As we walked away excited about the quality of grazing we would have in the mountains the penny, or in this case dirham, dropped. 320 dirhams is about £30!

You’ve got to give it to the guy – he was good. Not even Wholefoods would charge the non-financially challenged that for nuts! He was great, and ultimately so were his nuts.

The sun was bright and warm as we strolled, lighting up the valley more as it rose, and we headed down along the stunning trail that leads from Imlil to the mountain, and back again. My fingers (three of them) remained numb at the tips (even as I write this) but they’re not frostbitten.

About two thirds of the way, in sight of our final destination we stopped and enjoyed a mint tea looking down at the river and the goats grazing along its banks. We took a deep breath, and we ate the last of our nuts.


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