Alan Palmer recalls the culmination of his first trek to the summit of Ighil Mgoun (4068m), North Africa’s second highest mountain
e had spent the previous evening staring anxiously upwards. From the safety of the mountain refuge on the lofty Tarkeddid Plateau, the base camp for our final assault on the summit, there was no guarantee of success. “Insh’Allah”, repeated Hamid.
Ighil Mgoun, the second highest mountain in Morocco, indeed the second highest in all North Africa, rose majestically before us. Our challenge was not only to reach the top but also to descend again before the mid-afternoon summer storm clouds, ushering in thunder and lightning, rolled in from across the Atlantic. I removed the metallic watch from my wrist.
An unwelcome alarm clock pronounced the arrival of 4.00am. We wriggled out of our sleeping bags and dressed quickly.
Flocks of sheep and herds of horses grazed contentedly in the moonlight. We picked a thin trail which zig-zagged sharply up the lower slopes of Mgoun, taking care not to be misled by innumerable small goat tracks criss-crossing our path.
As the trail steepened, we paused evermore frequently and gasped through open mouths, sucking cold air into our empty lungs, while otherwise, all around, neither bird nor insect broke the mountain’s reverential silence. I heard only my own body’s faltering rhythm – the semi-regular lurching of my breathing, the pounding of my heart in my ears.
Soon the brightest of stars faded and the blackest sky, turning first to indigo, rapidly lightened in the east, just as we stumbled across the almighty glacial chasm of a sheer-sided corrie. Silhouetted Mgoun, the sun rising gloriously behind it, appeared as a flaming beacon which was set upon illuminating all the world.
Still I clambered upwards, mindful that our goal lay just ahead, even though the summit, playing tricks like a djinn, actually now seemed to recede. Finally, the earth levelled and I was greeted by a cloudless sky, a 360-degree panorama and a grinning Hamid, waving merrily from the mountain’s crowning cairn.
We shook hands fondly and kissed our fingers.
So we turned and swept cheerily down through the rocky Assif Ikraween gorge, a wonder of red and orange stratigraphy, until the valley opened onto an idyllic lush meadow. Here we flopped under the shade of welcoming boulders, seeking refuge from the sun, already fierce at just 10.30 in the morning.
Lahssen, our cook, led us on to a cave, our home for the night. Soon our gas burners were hissing and a heart-warming tagine consumed. As the chatter died down and we drifted into exhausted but peaceful sleep, an occasional gust of wind and splash of rain was heard outside, while angry clouds rumbled threateningly overhead.
By now, my hair was thickly matted, I had not shaved for a week and my clothes stuck to me. Still, a full day’s walk lay ahead before the nearest hamlet; but we had been fortunate and I was happy.
Just then, from nowhere, a kind-looking, bespectacled Belgian gentleman appeared at the entrance to the cave and peered at us through the gloom. “Puis-j’acheter une bouteille d’eau, s’il vous plait?” he politely enquired.
Alan Palmer is author of Moroccan Atlas the Trekking Guide (Trailblazer Publications). His passion for the Atlas Mountains led him to set up his company Trek in Morocco which offers bespoke treks and tours throughout Morocco for individuals and small groups.
READ MORE: to track Alan’s trek across Jebel Sahro, click here.