Turning back isn’t easy … but at least there is tea

Not making it to the top of a mountain when that’s the sole focus of a trip is hard. This is the first time I’ve had to turn away from a mountain summit, and on Mt Toubkal in Morocco, a mountain I thought would pose no problem. Compared to EBC and Mt Blanc, I thought it would be a walk in the park, no technical skill required and not too high, just good stamina and strong legs. Oh how wrong I was.

Trying to conquer a 4000m mountain in a weekend is certainly not easy, more than anything it’s the rapid altitude gain. It was here my over confidence in the mountains caught me out. I forgot that whenever I’ve been at altitude I’ve always had proper acclimatisation time, yet going from sea level to over 3000m in less than 8 hours was not easy on my body. No matter how fit I was or how little altitude has affected me in the past, there’s no way to anticipate it happening.

When it started I thought it was simply mild heat stroke, dehydration and tiredness. But when it was no better the next morning I knew I had to make that decision to come down. Having seen first hand how dangerous altitude sickness can be when I climbed Mt Blanc, I was reluctant to put the rest of the team in the position I had been in – so focused on helping someone else that you don’t know what you’re doing until later.

As I sit writing this, with what can only be described as a mini Moroccan afternoon tea, I’m surrounded by the mountains that bested me on this occasion.

The mountains here are so different from the towering Himalaya or the beautifully rugged alps, here they feel older some how. As I look up at them my eyes immediately seek out what could be the best lines to climb up, which gully’s could be a mixed route and which ridge lines would be an exciting adventure. For this trip at least my mountain adventures are over but at least I know I made the right decision for my body.

It certainly knocks the confidence having to retreat from a summit, but it definitely feels like a retreat rather than a failure. If anything I’ve learnt a lot about how I need to climb and it reinforces my decision to start working with private guides rather than booking straight onto pre-planed trips. Not that the guide on the occasion was anything other than brilliant. I simply just need more flexibility in my trips and better acclimatisation time.

As frustrating as it is not making it, I feel in an odd way like this is good for my soul, to give me a reminder check that even ‘easy’ mountains bring their own risks. More so that being in these environments challenges you, encourages you to learn and puts you in a position to come back stronger. After all the mountains aren’t going anywhere, they will still be here in years to come with their rocky faces and snowy tops.


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