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MGoun Traverses and Circuits - High Atlas, MGoun, Morocco

Jebel M’goun Traverse, early Oct 22, WM account

Day 1 – To Upper Arous Gorge

We start from Agouti in the Bougmez valley to the north of the M'goun massif at 8.10 after a reasonably efficient pack and good breakfast.

It is always an exciting moment, full of anticipation. We cross the stream and set off up a dusty track through orchards alive with apple pickers. 

We soon get our first taste of the of life here. We cross an irrigation channel and in an instant we are trudging over a barren little plain, to cross small gorge to a village sitting in its rich fields, with fierce cliffs behind. It is strikingly pretty in the clear morning light.

The street is lined with walnuts, many ancient. Our guide, Hakim, leans into an apple-picking lorry to speak to the driver, his brother.

At the river beyond the village, we turn right, to start a steeper climb up its rough and barren gorge. We pass shelter-caves up a loose cliff-face made by prehistoric inhabitants and emerge into a gorgeous wide upper valley of close-cropped meadows and tiny fields and sit at a summer hamlet, drinking in the beauty and atmosphere and autumnal warmth.

We wind on delightedly through the fields, climb to a deserted village Azib Arouss, and turn up a steeper side valley. We get to our campsite at round 2,200m at noon, a rough place but with an irrigation rill and its grassy banks running just below it. We sit around and talk in high good humour, then address lunch in our mess tent. We then draw for choice of tents and take some down time.

Mid afternoon, we walk back down to the village and turn up the main valley, passing through some fields to join the wide and rocky riverbed, which we pick our way up repeatedly crossing the river.

We admire a little waterfall spouting down a tiny canyon, then head on up the main valley into the narrow and sheer Arouss canyon, which reminded me of Utah's best, to a waterfall falling rather scruffly down impassable boulders. Beautiful.

We head back to camp in rich late afternoon light.

We change, I draw, we eat a delicious ragine supper, we play Scrabble then head to bed at a princely 9pm. It is cold, but not bitter. A restless night of light sleep, as my first night under canvas usually is.


Day 2 – Aghouri Pass to Tarkeddit Plateau

Woken at 7 - breakfast time. My alarm hasn't gone off. A quick change then delicious pre-trek fill-up. Then a busy change and preparation and loo-going. We leave 7 minutes late - an achievement, I think in the circs. We are going to be climbing some 1,200m (4,000ft) to the high Aghouri pass, then dropping 600m to the wide, grand, remote valley that is the Tarkeddit Plateau, between two ranges and wide enough to be called a plain, but hard to really call a plateau.

It is a gorgeous morning, a clear sky but with our valley still in shade. We climb steadily up a good path, through rock and bright low shrubs and patches of taller dark green juniper bushes, to the high ridge at the valley end in a bit under 2 hours. Craggy drama dominates both sides high above us.

At the valley-top col, we meet a new world of an endless slope up to the 3,500m high ridge to our left, and the other way our mountains sinking to the distant ochre hills to the north. 

We start the 2 hr climb to the day's high point, the 3,450m Aghouri pass. A joy of a mule track is that it is never too steep, favouring zig-zags over frontal assault, leaving us free to think and talk, with less of the latter as we get higher. It becomes harder work as the air thins and slope steepens, until an easy final traverse of a steep bouldery slope gets us to our col and a dramatic if hazy sweep across the Tarkeddit Plateau to the long (15km?) ridge that has Jebel M'Goun, Morocco's second-highest mountain at 4,085m, at its heart, a slightly nondescript cone which is barely higher than the remarkably level ridge to each side.

We have a snack which turns into a sleep in the sun. A delightful hour passes.

Then it is a descent of the good path down the steep and forbidding southern slopes to the plateau and a trudge across to the Tarkeddit Refuge, a square building at 2,900m with our tents parked in the enclosure beside it. A delightful 3pm lunch on a table in the sun of a beautifully arranged salad and pulse tagine arrives soon after. We then have a lazy afternoon off, I draw in the shade behind the refuge, doze and change for the cold, then we talk in the mess tent before another large and tasty tagine supper.

Cards - Oh Hell.

Day 3 – M'goun summit

Up at 4 for an efficient porridge breakfast and a prompt 5am departure. It is cold and breezy, and of course pitch dark, as we cross the plain the start the long climb towards the M'goun ridge at 4,000m+, 1,100m above us.

After a tramp across the broad valley bottom, we start a steady climb up the lower flanks, picking our way between low rounded bushes, taking a diagonal route round to the left before climbing an easier ridge, rather than the direct but very steep slope we come back down much later on. It is tiring nonetheless at this new altitude, although mysteriously beautiful in the torchlight.

The team has clearly eaten something bad. Our support guide can't even start, and it turns out that Hakim is ill, and has to leave us several times for what can only be an unpleasant wrestling with nature.

I am making slow progress behind the rest of the group, labouring steadily towards the grand cirque we are aiming for. A dim red light grows around us, and we see the sheer flanks of the M'goun directly above us as we climb a pleasingly shaped little valley, now glowing in the pre-dawn radiance.

We enter the heart of the great cirque, winding though flattened heaps of moraine to the left wall, where we are going to make the tough section of our climb to the high ridge. We start passing snow patches, then are well above them. It is an endless, dreary slog for me, but Paul kindly follows a couple of paces behind, so I don't feel too badly about my slow pace.

We eventually reach Bill and Lucy for a snack and rest in a small hollow at the top of the slope, at the point where it becomes a very broken steady slope up around the base of a peak to the outside of a huge cirque in the high M'goun ridge, with elegant little streaks of snow at its base and around its sides. I'm shattered. A 20 minute traverse across a very steep shale slope gets us to the high ridge at its head – and a freezing breeze and a vast view southward across receding lower slopes towards the Jebel Sahro range and a dry Sahara haze. To our left is the glory of the long, undulating high M'goun summit ridge, which starts wide and rocky until it reaches a minor peak, then becomes a narrow, steadily curving spine, to our left dropping sheer into the vast northern cirques and falling as long and steep shale slopes to the dry lower slopes to our right. It is gorgeous and thrilling. We hit it at around 4,000m and the summit is 4,071m. It is some (5km of walking heaven.

After a pause to drink it all in, we start the trudge to the summit, Paul now whizzing off ahead with the others. This is easy walking at first, maybe 1.5km steadily downhill to a col. After that, it is a short, steep and to me painful climb to a minor summit and a brief lunch together in a small corner of shelter round the back.

We are now on the main continuous high ridge, which can only be called glorious, although the altitude has got to me and enjoyment has to be worked on. After maybe half an hour of this superb walking atop the now narrow ridge, Hakim the guide and I meet Paul, who is heading back our way. He has been hit hard by the altitude and is struggling to breathe, to my surprise as he is such a strong walker, although I recall that he had issues in Mustang as well. He is very forceful about the need to head back, and I do not remonstrate. I carry on, then call Hakim and say that he should head back and keep an eye on Paul. I will try to marshal the forward troops.

 I head on towards the summit, then have a rethink. Bill and Lucy are nearly at the summit, and I have sent Hakim back after Paul. If I go on to the summit, we will end up even more strung out and I will be well at the back and totally on my own in this freezing wind. If something went wrong, it could easily end very badly. I take the sensible but really boring option, and turn back, reducing the future distance between us all. I've left it late to put on my thick windproof top layer, and am really quite cold. Fool.

The return walk is lovely but hard work (and it is a shame to know you are not enjoying the extraordinary surroundings as much as they deserve), back along the amazing ridge, traversing back down round the steep top of the first high cirque, and back across the broken slope to the hollow at the top of the cirque we climbed up. We are together now, Lucy and Bill having caught me up, and we scan the grand wastes below us for the red dot that would be Paul. But there is no sign. We labour down the long slope back into the cirque, and across the heaps at its base and out to the outer slopes, with their huge views across the Tarkeddit plateau. Gorgeous.

A final uncomfortable slog down a long and very steep slope gets us to the wide valley bottom and a trudge back to the refuge at around 3:00 PM. What a day.

Paul is safe and sounds, having felt a lot better as soon as he was down into the ascent cirque. Such are the effects of altitude.

We have an excited and happy lunch, then a luxurious afternoon kip. My legs are surprisingly OK after a demanding 10 hour walk.

A cheerful supper, then we somehow play a good game of Scrabble in the mess tent.

Day 4 – High crossing to Tassaout valley

An incredible night of lightning, thunder and hail so fierce we feared our tents wouldn't take it. I have one of several knee-locks, this one in my sleeping bag, and have to crawl out in the elements to sit and straighten it. Time for an operation?

A relatively leisurely 8am departure. We are going to head west along the plain, then cross the hills to the north before dropping to the famous Tassout valley.

It is a clear, bright morning and we feel throughly ad idem with the world as we stride out across the cropped grass of the valley floor, with steep rocky slopes rising high on each side. The M'goun ridge is in cloud, but we can see fresh snow below it. 

We drop gently to the very middle of the long plain, then climb slowly to approach the steep hillsides at the valley end: the streams disappear into the earth in the middle in an invisible sink hole.

We turn right, and a make a long, steady climb above a side valley to cross interesting and varied high ground, swinging round the head of a canyon, crossing below and between outlandishly eroded formations and across a windy plateau of sparse scrub, with a summer settlement, now abandoned for winter, even in this godforsaken place. 

We pause for snacks at the low Sdremt col (at 3,250m) at the head of the gorge we will follow down into the deep Tassaout valley. A long zig-zagging descent gets us to the bottom, which we follow out as it falls away again below us, leaving us to traverse tremendous cliffs on an at times giddy balcony to a tiny hidden notch which has been built up so mules can get down it. 

A long, exciting descent gets us to dry slopes dotted with ancient, beautiful junipers, which we wind among for a happy half hour. We are not staying at our planned campsite here – something to do with the rain – so we have a longer day; making a long traverse of the steep slopes above the Tassaout valley, then dropping steeply to the village of  Tassagaiwelt where we'll be camping tonight. We get a first proper view of the valley, delightful irrigated fields between harsh craggy hillsides – and our tents on terrace just below us.

Our camp is on stony ground but it is a pleasing spot on the village edge, with orchards and fields below us.

My knee goes again for no reason. Definitely op time.

Snooze, supper and Hearts.


Day 5 – down Tassaout valley

A luxurious lie-in to 7.30, emerging to a morning of light cloud and porridge for breakfast. Everyone is cheerful after good sleep and with an easy walk ahead. 

We walk along the contour towards the village, above almond terraces and below steep, unstable boulders. The village is poor and basic, but the school is freshly painted bright yellow and blue and implies hope for the future.

Across an expanse of rocky river fan, we join the road and start an enjoyable 4hr trudge down-river, above a vivid patchwork of little irrigated fields, orchards and trees, the far bank changing from red-purple slopes to orange cliffs, with gorges retreating away with their own little riots of colour between their cliffs. The river rushes cheerfully through the middle of the world it sustains.

The trees are just turning towards Autumn, so sport a multitude of greens and golds. Villages nestle on the hillsides above their precious fields. 

The cliffs get more dramatic as the valley descends, steadily, towards a mid-course gorge. Just above the turn of the river into the gorge, the hamlet of Imin Ikkis perches (at 2,100m) on a rise between two wide incoming rocky river-beds, our tents visible among trees beside some houses on the far side.

This is a very pleasant place, our table sitting smugly in an orchard in the shade of some young walnut trees. We eat a delicious lunch of salad and vegetable omelette mush. Cheerful, leisurely talks.

I draw a bit.

Supper is soup and vegetable tagine – no surprises, but always welcome.

And we play some more Hearts.

Day 6 – on down the valley to Ait Ali n Itto

We make another leisurely breakfast of porridge and bread in our orchard as the sun hits the cliffs across the valley. It is a really magical moment. We pack and leave at 8, to begin a completely delightful day's walking.

We tramp along the road for an hour through the gorge below the river junction where we camped, enjoying the contrast between the greenery in the narrow bottom and the oranges of the crazily eroded cliffs above them.

After a while, we sit on grass by the river to swig some water, then just hang around in the sunshine with a sense of ease and luxury after the rigours of the high walking behind us.

After a bit more road, we drop down to a track by the river to start a really beautiful 2.5 hrs among trees and little fields of maize and livestock in the valley bottom. We cross the river several times, boots off twice, and splash through the steam as it invades the track from time to time. 

There are many memorable moments: a Berber village tightly packed on its rocky spike dead ahead of us; looking back up the valley to the light sparkling off the stream descending through scruffy grass and rock and scrubby trees, and behind them the glue of the verse ochre cliffs; a pair of patient little mules labouring under enormous bundles of wood, chivvied along by a young girl with a stick.

It is a real delight.

We rejoin the road and are soon climbing the path to our gite at Ait Ali n Itto above the junction where the Megdaz road heads up a wide, rocky valley to the south.

A good lunch in a light, ornately furnished upstairs room: salad, a lentil dish.

A luxurious short kip.

The afternoon involves a mule ride up valley to the Berber village of Megdaz, a remarkable if possibly over-restored World Heritage Site. We climb up pole-ladders through the dusty little chambers of the castle – apparently 500 years old (impossible to tell with these materials) – to the creaky mud roof, to gaze on the village in its so-green bowl in the high mountains.

We walk back.

After a clean-up, we play hearts, scoff a superb chicken and veg tagine and play a final session of Scrabble.

By William Mackesy ()

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