As I write, the wind is howling. The weather forecast for the night is three to six inches of snow and a wind chill of -15 to -30F° (roughly -20 to -30° C). There is shore ice on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is rapidly freezing over. Temperature is -20° C.
Sitting indoors, the weather outside invites us to reflect on sunnier climes, both here and abroad. I have been thinking about Jbel Toubkal.
As it is the highest mountain in North Africa, and, one of the most easily accessible high mountains on the entire continent, hikers and climbers flock to Jbel Toubkal. A short bus or taxi ride takes one to Imlil, a large village in the valley below the mountain.
Since I first visited Toubkal about 50 years ago, a serious tourism industry has grown up in this area. In my time, other than a stone dormitory building that the Club Alpin Français (CAF) left, there was just a village there, with villagers willing to sell you food, and muleteers offering their services to take you to the CAF huts of Neltner, De Lépiney, and Tachdirt. Today I see that a second hut exists next to the renamed Neltner, that businesses have grown up around Sidi Chamharouch, and that Imlil itself has holiday lets and lodging for tourists.
Bemoaning commercialization would be mean and selfish. There is no begrudging the living that the locals can make off of tourism. Life in the mountains is always difficult, and tourism is a great addition to the local economy.
There is no pretending that Toubkal is remote. In the seventies, a motorcycle group surprised us at Neltner, getting all the way up to the hut with their large bikes. On the other hand, the hut was never crowded in those days, and, once out of the hut, one hardly saw other hikers or climbers in the mountains.
My first visit to Neltner was in the summer of 1969, with other Peace Corps friends. Mules took our baggage up, while we walked, a good way to acclimatize.
We climbed the mountain by the gulley opposite the hut, an easy walk via a steep scree slope.
John Paulas and I had fun taking giant, gliding steps in the scree, and made it down from the summit in no time.
This is the standard walk up route, and not much of a problem for a reasonably fit person in dry weather. There are good views from the summit.
The real dangers on Toubkal are snow, ice, and bad weather. In 1970 an ill-prepared group of embassy people had a bad accident, with a member of the Turkish embassy slipping and sliding a long way down the standard route, and suffering serious injuries. Skiers can face avalanches in the winter, too.
The classic climbing route is up the west ridge, which starts at Tizi Ouanoums. I found it easy, and did it once alone, and, another time, with an Englishman whom I met at Neltner.
I do remember meeting a couple of young French climbers in Imlil on one of my visits, who complained in disappointment that the rock was rotten and that the route was not very challenging. I can understand that. The climbing is straightforward, not very exposed, and the rock could be better. With my limited skills, however, I found it enjoyable, and it is more scenic than the gulley route.
Neltner, at 3,200 meters, also served as a base for other trips: Tadat, Akioud, and hikes to the Lac d’Ifni. Tadat is a rock spur or isolated tower on Tizi n Tadat. Akioud is a ridge between Ouanoukrim and Afella that offers an easy traverse. The Lac d’Ifni is a tarn lake in the Massif of Toubkal, and is said to contain native trout. One simply follows the main valley above the hut over Tizi n Ouanoums, and down to the lake. Of course, if you don’t know where you are going you may have problems. I once stood on Tizi Ouanoums shouting at the top of my lungs to my friends Maya and Dan, who wanted to go to the Lac d’Ifni, but were heading toward Tizi n Ouagane! At least a thousand feet above them, they simply could not hear me, and there were no others on the route to set them straight. They only discovered their mistake when they found no lake at the bottom of the valley! Still they had a great time.
I ended up summiting most of the highest peaks around Neltner, all of which are easy walk ups. If you are thinking about doing it, go when there is snow on the mountains. They are parched and bleak in the summer.
I always wanted to climb Tadat, but never managed to do it, though my friend Jean-Michel Vrinat, and some other French friends with whom I climbed did it. Jean-Michel was a coopérant, who arrived in Morocco with a carload of sporting equipment (fencing foils, shotgun, etc.) which included climbing gear. I did lead this group, with friends Gilles and Sylvie Narbonne on a traverse of Akioud, which I had done by myself before, and I think that they really enjoyed it.
Akioud is an easy walk from the Neltner Hut, and, done from south to north, requires no rappelling. A rope for belaying and security is useful, but not needed for good climbers.
Finally, a trail leads to the third CAF Hut, Tachdirt, near the village and below the pass of the same name. I visited Tachdirt twice. In the spring, there was too much snow, and I think that we spent a couple of cold days in the hut before going back down.
A second time, we thought we could walk the ridges between Tizi n Tachdirt and connect to the trail to Neltner. We totally underestimated our physical condition and the difficulty involved. Having climbed from the pass to the ridge of Jbel Anrhemer, we camped out just below the ridge. I awoke sick the next morning. Climbing along the ridge, I became increasingly dehydrated, and needed water, which necessitated descending to the nearest snow patch (of which there were precious few—this was summer.) We ended up returning to Imlil, then walking the trail to Neltner, arriving in the middle of the night, in my case with the assistance of a mule for the last kilometer. What a day!
This article is about Christmas, of course, not the Prophet’s birthday, the Mouloud, which Moroccans, and most Muslims celebrate. This year the Mouloud fell in December, within a month of Christmas, which my wife and I just spent in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her brother and his wife. While there I reflected on the holidays that I spent abroad, though there have not been very many. Of them, the Christmases and Thanksgivings come to mind first, most likely because they involve iconic symbols, and childhood memories. Christmases also fall within a week of New Year’s Day, and often make up part of a larger period involving school semester breaks and intermissions, important in the lives of young people and probably producing more intense and lasting memories.
In Morocco, volunteers would often travel at Christmastime. The Moroccan calendar had all kinds of holidays, and accommodated as well as it could both Christians and Jews. Many foreigners still worked in the GOM in the sixties. If PCVs had vacation time, it enabled them to visit remoter parts of Morocco, or to go to Spain. When my cousin, who was studying in Angers, France, visited me in 1968 or 1969, I traveled with her and Gaylord Barr to Meknes, Rabat, Marrakech, and over the Atlas and across the pre-Sahara to Ouarzazate and Boulemane and Erfoud. Another time, I went to Gibraltar with administrator and volunteer friends.
Ceuta was still another possibility for those of us in northern and eastern Morocco.
Just as often, volunteers would get together in larger centers and big cities, where they were often numerous, and have parties. Those traveling would look up friends for places to stay and for good cheer. By the time I got to Morocco, there were fewer and fewer churches, and I do not recollect any volunteers going to them to pray.
Actually the celebration of Christmas and Thanksgiving usually had little religious significance to the volunteers whom I knew. Christmas had attained an almost secular status in the United States, and was, and is today, dominated by commercial rather than religious sentiments. Recently some right-wing Republican politicians have argued that there has been a “war against Christmas” by more secular politicians in the center. They point out attempts at what they see as “political correctness” as well as a more consistent effort to keep religion and the state separated, as the Constitution requires, though they do not see it exactly that way.
There is a real argument here over all kinds of issues, and if you are very religious you may be offended. My own opinion is that though most Americans are nominally Christians, government institutions should be secular. Am I making war on Christmas? I say Merry Christmas where appropriate, attend religious services, give gifts, and assiduously attend to the customs associated with Christmas. Do I care if there is a crèche in front of City Hall? Not much. And it certainly should not be there if it offends my compatriots.
Christmas is not the central focus of Christianity. Indeed, many early American religious denominations, such as the Puritans, did not hold Christmas sacred, did not celebrate it, because they considered it a pagan holiday. After all, it aligns with the winter solstice, which was widely celebrated in pagan religions of the ancient world, and it isn’t clear exactly when Jesus was born anyway. The real essence of Christianity, all true Christians would agree, is in the death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Christ, and the redemption of the sins of mankind by his death on the cross. Indeed, these very beliefs set off Christianity from Judaism and Islam. Though most Jews believe Jesus existed, and all Muslims revere him as a prophet the message of Judaism and Islam is elsewhere.
Christmas retains its religious significance for many, but in the United States today, as in the United States 50 years ago, Christmas is largely a children’s holiday involving family get-togethers, food, and, above all, gifts. I came from an Italian family, and my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill would follow a Sicilian custom, though their ancestors did not come from Sicily, and serve guests a Christmas Eve dinner where seven different kinds of fish were offered. Those who were observan often fasted until after they attended Midnight Mass. Then one could eat and open presents, while relatives and friends talked and drank and often played cards.
The social aspects of religious holidays are so important, not just to Christians, but to Muslims and Jews as well as adherents of other faiths. I remember with fondness the kindness of Muslim friends and neighbors, who invited me to their homes for all the major feasts. Indeed, I think I looked forward to Muslim holidays as much as my Moroccan friends!
As a volunteer in the sixties, celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas was dependent on mood and who was around or would be visiting. The first Christmas, having moved into the house in Seti Messaouda, Gaylord and I actually dragged a 12-foot cedar up the winding stairway and into the courtyard (where it touched the ceiling), and decorated it with homemade ornaments and garlands. The popcorn strung together in garlands eventually got stale and the hanging tangerines mildewed, and our Moroccan friends probably thought we were nuts or idolators. Only the cat really enjoyed the tree, climbing in the branches, and, there were no more trees after that.There were no religious celebrations, and I don’t remember exchanging gifts, either.
There was also a Thanksgiving or two when we cooked a turkey. One took place in 1970, when a couple of female volunteers, Ruth and Jan, were then teaching English in Sefrou. They lived next door in the house of the Hadja, a widow, so there was, with Jan’s boyfriend, a critical mass of Americans. Seti Messaouda for a while had a small American quarter within it, just within the gate. We invited friends, Moroccan and volunteers, and tried our best to put together a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Two ingredients were difficult or impossible to come by: cranberries were nonexistent and the turkey posed a problem. With more foresight we could have probably got the cranberries through someone we knew with PX privileges at the base in Kenitra.
Turkeys were a different matter. Turkeys were not common in Morocco. They are not part of traditional cuisine. They are harder to raise than chickens and less hardy. Where I lived, they were known as bibi, though in the former Spanish zone they were often called by the Spanish name, el pavo (from the tail, perhaps, as a peacock is el pavo real.) Turkeys have various names in the languages of the world. A late import from America, part of the Colombian exchange, the English named the birds after the country of Turkey. They were exotic beasts that merited an exotic name. In France, India was apparently more exotic as the birds were said to came from India. D’Inde became dinde eventually.
Whatever turkeys were called, they were not common. In Sefrou we were able to get one relatively easily, maybe from Fes, but, later, living in Chauen, I had to scour the countryside, driving to Ouazzane to find one.
Roasting the turkey also proved difficult. We had no oven, and, even if we had had one, it probably couldn’t have contained a large turkey. We decided to cook our turkey in the neighborhood ferran, the communal oven, where Khadija baked our bread daily. We always has a Muslim man kill animals for us so the meat was halal. The recipe called for basting it every twenty minutes with butter. After a couple of hours, the baker, the mul el ferran, said safi, enough is enough. The ferran was busy and it wasn’t helping his business to keep opening the oven and taking the turkey out. Luckily, with the hot temperature of the bread oven, the turkey was properly done, crispy and cooked through.
And so we ate turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and other dishes, and celebrated our American holiday with Moroccan friends. And what was left over, and there was a lot of it, went to the poor outside the main mosque, where excess food often went if Khadija didn’t take it all home.
Living in the eastern Middle Atlas, the High Atlas beckoned from afar. Marrakech required a long bus ride through Kenitra and Beni Mellal or a trip to Rabat and then south to Marrakech. I never got to the Toubkal Massif as much as I wanted, and envied volunteers who lived closer. I did climb many of the peaks there, accompanied by friends, and even family. Perhaps as I digitize more of my old Kodachrome slides, I will get into specifics, but this post is a compendium of a number of trips and a tribute to a spot of the world that was important to me, the mountain named Tazaghart.
Today the High Atlas mountains are served well by climbing and hiking guides, but the main sources in my day were the Club Alpin Français’s long out-of-print guide to the Toubkal Massif, the curious guide book, Villes et Montagnes (a guide to cities and mountains, but nothing else), and topo maps. Today there are any number of tourist organizations that will take you on long walks and climbs. And there are good English language guides to the High Atlas by Hamish Brown and Des Clark. In my day, the heritage of the French Protectorate was a number of huts and a larger dormitory at Oukaïmeden, primarily for skiers. That may not have changed much, but I suspect all are used more intensively today. The route up to Toubkal is much more developed.
I have also noticed more young Moroccans climbing Toubkal, and it is nice to see they take that much interest in the natural beauty of their own country. Nature is always under pressure in the Mediterranean world. Morocco has more than twice as many people today as it had when I lived there 50 years ago.
One of the great charms of the place was that the mountains were empty. One seldom saw another human in the high mountains, and, except at Neltner, below Toubkal, the huts were generally empty. I was there at a time when few Moroccans climbed mountains and the French were still leaving Morocco.
Rather than try to assemble all my memories into a single post, I am limiting this one to Tazaghart, in the Toubkal Massif. Future posts will cover Toubkal, Angour, and some day excursions around Toubkal. As I find more of my old slides, I may add to this collection. I realize that they are of uneven quality, but in my day film was expensive and Kodachrome was beautiful, but slow. Exposure was often a problem. I do envy modern photographers who can shoot without running out of film.
When I re-upped, I went home to the States by way of Paris, where I spent a few days. I went to Chartres to visit its Cathedral, I discovered that I could speak Arabic to Parisian waiters, mostly Algerians, who were delighted to hear their dialect from an American, and I missed an opportunity to hear Georges Brassens perform, for which I will ever experience a sense of loss.
But, in the cold and drizzle, I discovered Au Vieux Campeur, an outlet for camping, climbing, and other outdoors pursuits, on the Left Bank, not far from the Sorbonne. I invested in an ice axe, ropes, down clothes, and other paraphernalia which I thought I would need to climb more mountains. The memories of crossing the Pyrenees were fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t going anywhere unprepared again. The items that I bought got their first use on Tazaghart, my favorite place in the Toubkal Massif, and, later, more extensively in the French and Swiss Alps.
Louden Kiracofe and I had climbed Toubkal by the standard walk-up route in the summer of 1969, as part of a large group of volunteers. Now we would go to Tazaghart, and climb it via the Couloir de Neige, a steep gully filled with snow. We knew it had a bit of real climbing, and some steep snow, but we were up to it. Or so we thought.
Tazaghart caught my attention the first time I read its classic description: “Le plateau est un désert de pierres, plat, nu, vide, si haut perché qu’on n’aperçoit rien sous le ciel.”
A loose translation might be: “The summit is a rocky desert, flat, bare, empty, perched so high there is nothing but sky.” The name tazaghart is Berber and means “little plain or plateau.” What is remarkable is how high it is: over 13,000 feet. Most of the mountains in the area are lower than this. No others have a summit big enough for a football game!
One has a good view of the Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden and Jbel Angour. At Oukaïmeden, the French put up a tableau d’orientation, which identifies most of the mountains in the massif. I have a better picture of it that shows Tazaghart, but I haven’t found it yet.
You find these tableaus, usually installed by the Touring Club of France, now defunct, all over France and in many parts of its former empire. There is one in Fes, for example, that points to Sefrou and Bouiblane, among other places. Though you can see Tazaghart from Oukaïmeden, the most spectacular views of the mountain are from the valley below it and from Jbel Ouanoukrim.
We traveled with Louden’s wife, Ginny, and an old school chum of hers, and stayed at Le Sanglier qui fume, a restaurant-hostellerie run by an elderly Frenchman, at the beginning of the road up Tizi n Test.
Louden and Ginny had stayed there before, after an exhausting winter drive over Tizi n Test, and had been charmed by the warm welcome, decent food, and the fire burning in their room. The owner was Paul Thenevin. Today the hotel is still there, but managed by his son. There was a boar’s head in the dining room, with a pipe in its mouth that puffed smoke.
It was June, I think, when I first went there. The weather was fine, and we drove to Imlil in Louden’s VW station wagon, and found some porters to take us to the de Lépiney refuge owned by the Casablanca section of the Club Alpin Français. As it happened, they only took us to an aluminum shelter much lower in the valley. I think the spot was Azib Mzik. The place was basic, hot, and stuffy.
The women must have stayed there, as Louden and I hiked up to the de Lépiney Refuge, which sits in a beautiful spot that offers views down the valley, and across it to the face of Tazaghart. We wanted to see Tazaghart. The walk up the valley was beautiful.
I think that we came back again to do the Couloir de Neige, I can’t say. It’s hard to imagine leaving the women by themselves below. So it was probably yet another trip. De Lépiney was an early French climber, and instrumental in making climbing a sport for all. He spent much of his life in Morocco, and, sadly, died there in a freak accident at Oued Yquem, a spot where climbers from Rabat still rock climb.
From the azib, the foot of Tazaghart is reached by proceeding directly up valley on a good mule trail. It follows a small stream through some ancient junipers, past a small falls, and eventually emerges above the tree line, in sight of the de Lépiney hut.
The de Lépiney Hut was comfortable. It was not heated, which was no problem in the summer. We left the windows open.
Situated at about 10,000 feet, it was cold during the other seasons, but certainly preferable to camping in the snow.
In any case, late that day, we climbed out of the valley, up behind the refuge, for a good view of the Tazaghart face and the Clochetons de Ouanoukrim.
Most of the Couloir de Neige can be seen. The only serious obstacle is a chimney, which, when the snow is melting, can become a shower.
It was late, and Louden had stumbled and cut himself on a sharp rock so we descended.
Early the next day we entered the Couloir de Neige.
Once we entered it, we found that the snow turned to ice, and our crampons hardly gripped it. Louden had an ice screw, but neither of us had experience cutting steps, so we gave up. I really think it might have been too soon. I think we could have negotiated the chimney, and, once above it where the snow would have been softened by the sun, we could have continued. We had ropes so setting up belays was not a problem. I wish now that we had tried that, but I always remember St. Loup’s La montagne n’a pas voulu. Better to be safe and sound. You cannot count on being lucky. We left the couloir, and continued up the main valley to Tizi Melloul.
Five years later, I was back in Sefrou studying, and Gaylord Barr, my former Peace Corps housemate, showed up for a visit. He brought me a new pair of Reichle boots which I had ordered from R.E.I., and we went down to Marrakech to climb Tazaghart.
It was July or August. Marrakech was hot. In the USA, John Dean had just given testimony to the Senate Watergate committee, and President Nixon’s days were numbered.
We stayed overnight, picking up some supplies, and took a bus to Asni, I think, from which we got a taxi to Imlil.
Gaylord had been to Marrakech several times, and crossed Tizi n Tichka on the way south, but he had never hiked in the Toubkal Area. We hired a mule for the baggage, and left Imlil in the middle of a moonlit night, passing through sleeping villages on the way to Tizi Mzik. The only noise was the clipclop of hooves and an occasional watchdog bark. The full moon provided great views of the valleys and peaks. We reached Tizi Mzik by dawn.
We had good weather. In the summer, bad weather is rare. Just don’t count on finding water along the mountain crests. We stayed a couple of days. The view from the De Lépiney Hut is grand, with a waterfall, an expansive view of the face, as well as pretty views down the valley. I think one can also see the lights of Marrakech far off on the plains below.
Everyone wants to climb Toubkal, but Tazaghart is much more scenic. If one has the time, it isn’t difficult to visit both areas in the same trip, and be rewarded with great scenery.
The easiest route up Tazaghart is up one of the several gullies that furrow the face. We chose one on the right, either Tsoukine or the one to its left. Or maybe the Diagonal. It’s a bit hazy now.
It was easy enough for a local dog, which we had been feeding, to follow us up to the summit, though the dog had to be resourceful to get around a few steep bits. Maybe we did do the Diagonal.
At the summit there were clouds rolling in, and thunder in the distance, so after a brief rest, we descended by way of Tizi Melloul fearing rain and lightning. We got a bit of rain, but no lightning.
The next time, and last time, I visited Tazaghart was in the late spring or early fall of 1977.
The weather was cold and wet, and I don’t remember climbing anything, but I did witness a spectacular landslide that involved some house-size boulders rolling down one of the couloirs, a good reminder that even easy routes may have unsuspected dangers.
On that trip we captured a dormouse and took it back to Chauen. When I left Morocco in 1978, a Peace Corps couple in Tetuan took the creature and continued keeping it as a pet. It was cute, but dormice are most active at night. We rarely saw it, but we always heard it scurrying in its enclosure after sunset. It was part of a menagerie of cats and tortoises.
Jbel Ayachi is the highest mountain of the eastern High Atlas. It appears from much of the eastern Middle Atlas as a long, snow-covered ridge that looms, all winter long, above the halfa covered plains of the Upper Moulouya River.
Until precise geodetic measurements were made, some considered it the highest point of the Atlas, but Jbel Toubkal is over 400 meters higher, and many other High Atlas peaks exceed its height. Ayachi’s prominence arises from its proximity to the plain that borders it.
When I worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fes Province extended south to Missour, but most of my work was in the Saïs and the pre-Rif. I most often saw Ayachi as part of the faraway, snow-covered High Atlas crest when I traveled across the Middle Atlas plateaus.
In the spring of 1969, however, I convinced my buddy, Gaylord Barr, who shared the Sefrou house with me, to drive down to a place known as the Cirque de Jaffar, which is a good starting point for climbing the mountain. We had no intention of doing that. We were just playing tourists for a day. We were able to do this because I had an old Willys Jeep for my job in Fes, and though I was not supposed to use it to sightsee, I did so once in a while.
The French use the word cirque loosely. When connected to mountain terrain, it is technically a term for a bowl carved out of a mountain valley by a glacier. The Atlas show little signs of glaciation. Even among the highest peaks in the Toubkal area, little snow survives the hot, dry summers, and glacial features are lacking. The Cirque de Jaffar is not glacier made, just a deep indentation in the edge of the mountains made by a stream. In this sense, it is a bit akin to the Cirque de Navacelle, a river-formed depression on the edge of the Massif Central, north of Montpellier.
However the Cirque de Jaffar was formed, the natural scenery around it is spectacular. Some tourists pass through it en route to the Todra Gorges, but the piste is rough and this route probably should only be considered by those with solid four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped to operate off the road. The piste from Midelt to the Cirque, though unpaved, wasn’t bad at all when I was on it for the first time in the spring of 1969.
May is a wonderful month in Morocco. The weather is warm and sunny, and the wheat fields are green. Wildflowers are everywhere, and the rivers and streams are brimming with water from the melting snows of the Atlas. The frigid cold is gone, but the land has not yet been baked dry by the unrelenting summer sun.
The drive from Sefrou to Midelt follows the old treq es-Sultan. The King’s Road connects Fes to Rissani and the Tafilalt, the birthplace of the Alouite dynasty that governs Morocco today. The road climbs over successive Middle Atlas plateaus, passes through Boulemane, under the shadow of Jbel Tichoukt, and then descends to the the Upper Moulouya plains. It is an easy drive, though winter snows can make it difficult for truckers. After a storm it is not unusual to see trucks that have slid off the slick highway.
The Upper Moulouya is covered with halfa, Stipa tenacissima, a grass that is woven into ropes and mats, and also used in the mattresses of those not wealthy enough to bank wool. All my banquette mattresses were stuffed with halfa, as was the mattress of my bed, and though not as comfortable as wool, the scent of the grass was sweet and pleasant.
Halfa is also known as Esparto grass, and grows over wide areas of the Maghreb and Spain, and everywhere it is used for artisanal purposes. In the rain shadow of the Middle Atlas, agriculture in the Upper Moulouya requires irrigation, and herding is common.
In the past, when Morocco was divided between the Bled es-Siba and the Bled el-Makhzen, the powerful Berber tribes of the Middle Atlas moved their flocks between the Moulouya and the plains surrounding Meknes and Fes, practicing a transhumance involving summer pasturage in the Middle Atlas mountains and winter in the lowlands.
At Midelt, the itinerary leaves the paved highway, and becomes a dirt and gravel track, which Moroccans often denote by the French word, piste. Climbing along the edge of the mountains, the piste reaches an altitude at the Cirque, where it is high enough for cedars to grow. From that point, there are great views of Ayachi. All along the way, the fields were full of wild flowers which we stopped to photograph. In the cirque itself, the cedar forest was open with isolated and gnarled trees.
Alas, on one of many photography stops, I did not use the parking break. It was only by chance that I notice the jeep rolling back down the mountain road. I shouted to Gaylord, and he caught up with it and jumped in, but sadly he was too late. The jeep slipped off the road. Luckily, he wasn’t’ hurt.
Our jeep ended in the drainage ditch on the mountain side of the road, and was not traveling fast enough to be damaged badly. The windshield had cracked, but did not shatter. On the other hand, the ditch was deep, and the undercarriage was caught up in such a way that even the jeep’s four-wheel drive couldn’t get any traction. As we wondered what we could do to get out, a forestry officer rode up on his mule, but the jeep was too heavy and too stuck for the three of us to lift it up and out. Then an elderly French couple, touring in their Peugeot 404, happened by. They kindly lent us their little emergency shovel, and we dug out enough of the jeep to get back on the road. We thanked them, they continued on their way, and we, thoroughly chastened, returned to Sefrou without further incident.
A Moroccan rule of thumb is whenever you are stuck along a road, someone happens by to help you! Another time, later in my life, I was driving from Chauen to Tangier in a winter rain storm. The battery of my little Simca 1000 wasn’t charging. I think the problem was corrosion on the battery terminals, but rather than clean them, I decided to chance not stopping on the trip and fix things in Tangier. I could easily roll the car fast enough to start it. To compound my stupidity, I chose to take the coastal road, not the main Tetuan to Tangier highway. About halfway between Tetuan and Tangier I came over a rise and descended into a valley where there was mud on the road and water running over it. The car became mired and stopped dead. The water was high enough to lap at the door sills. Rain was pouring. It was pitch black. I opened the car door to see how high the water was, and my glasses fell into the running water. At that point I began to wonder how much worse things could get.
I did not have another pair of glasses with me, and I am very nearsighted. I began to take off my shoes and socks in preparation for a search, but luck was with me and blind groping in the mud without leaving the Simca proved sufficient. I found them! Better yet, a group of men from a local douar appeared out of the darkness, and they were able to push the car out of the mud. Then they gave me enough of a push to start the car. I thanked them and rewarded them, and, though I secretly wondered if they just hung around waiting for cars to get stuck in that spot, I was very, very grateful. In a later post, I will write of yet another personal stupidity involving cars and batteries that left me stuck halfway between Taza and Fes.
The encounter with Ayachi in May 1969 whetted my appetite for a real exploration of the mountain. I knew it was an easy ascent. I got my friend and climbing buddy, Louden, the Peace Corps doctor, to drive down to Ayachi in August. The director of the CT in Sefrou, Si Kammir, knew the supercaïd in Midelt, and arranged to get a local man to guide us.
We drove directly to the cirque, where we camped that night. After the dry and hot on plains, the air in the cirque was refreshing. The guide showed up on his mule the next morning.
He had been waiting at a location closer to Midelt, where another trail led to the summit. He must have been dead tired, riding much of the night after he figured out where we probably were.
The cirque trail follows a stream that goes through a narrow defile to pass through the lower hills, then just climbs up through relatively wide valleys. There really is no trail once one starts up.
The mule went most of the way up the mountain, only stopping just under the summit.
The presence of numerous goat trails showed that shepherds took their flocks almost to the summit. We had no map, and decided that the more prominent western summit was the high point.
When we got there it was clear that it wasn’t. By then it was late in the day, so we descended, tired and disappointed, not only that we hadn’t reached the main summit, but also that the scenery, dry and parched, was so uninteresting. There was no water, a regular problem on the high peaks of the Atlas, but we found some snow and melted it.
The best views were to a huge anticline to the west and downward into a valley.
The southern view was mountain after mountain with no vegetation.
The eastern view was blocked by the main ridge of Ayachi. We decided that we would return and do a spring climb. And so we did.
In March of 1970, Louden, Don Brown, and myself, equipped with down parkas, ice axes, and crampons camped at the Cirque, along with some Berber shepherds, who had their flocks there. We got there late in the afternoon, and set up camp.
I arose in the night, probably to relieve myself, and looked up. The air was brisk, and the sky dark, clear, and full of stars. There were no lights visible anywhere, except for a spotlight shining from the top of a mountain on the left side of the cirque. This puzzled me until I figured out that I was looking at a comet, the first that I had ever seen! It was in a position that made the tail appear to extend off the top of the mountain, and the lack of light in the sky enhanced its brightness. I have seen several comets since, but none have been as striking as the first.
We got off to an early start and followed the same route that Louden and I had used the previous summer. Don petered out at a lower altitude than the mule had climbed to on the previous trip, but Louden and I continued up to the highest point on the mountain.
This time the vistas had snow and greenery. It was cold and we only stayed long enough for some pictures. The descent was uneventful.
The trip was eventful for other reasons. Gaylord had gone to Aïn Kerma, south of Oujda, to visit the father of one of his lycée students at Sidi Lahcen Lyoussi. Marc Miller, a Morocco X volunteer who was by then in Casablanca working in fisheries, went along with them, but only stayed a week before returning to Casablanca. Shortly thereafter our paths crossed at the Hotel Royal, a Peace Corps haunt, clean and affordable, in a rooftop single that cost even less because it was unheated.
I was on my way to what was then the U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón outside Madrid on a flight from the U.S. Navy base at Kenitra. Marc was on his way home to the U.S., though he did not tell me. When I returned to Morocco, and found out he had left the Peace Corps, I was shocked and bewildered. When I saw him again in the U.S. he explained everything. Marc had contracted meningitis the previous year, and was hospitalized at the base hospital at Kenitra, where Gaylord and I went to see him not long after he regained consciousness. Marc looks well in the photo below, but he was still working to regain his memory.
Marc was one of the volunteers with whom I had developed a friendship in Morocco. In the Morocco X program, he was stationed at a CT in Azrou. I was at a Centre des Travaux Agricoles about 13 kilometers south of Meknes, off the main road to El Hajeb and Azrou. Marc was open and friendly, and always willing to lend a hand. When I had trouble with the hens laying eggs under the nesting boxes, Marc came up to Sefrou and helped fix up chicken-wire barriers to keep them out. Marc was handy and I was pretty hopeless.
In the months of service, I spent a lot of time traveling on weekends. I went up to Azrou early on. Marc was living with a group of guys that worked at the CT. His living conditions were no Posh Corps. The apartment was small, cold, and dark. Azrou is high enough to get seriously cold. I, at the CT, had my own room in a small house, and a heated shower. I was impressed by his adaptability to what I thought were harsh accommodations.
I will never forget the bus ride home from that trip. It was early morning. As the bus followed what the French called the belvedere, there was a view to the west over the Pays d’Ito. The valley was in clouds. Dozens of little volcanic peaks poked through them, appearing as an archipelago of islands. Sadly, my camera was not handy and I have only my memories.
Nothing is easy when you make it difficult. On that trip down to Rabat, when I was on my way to Spain and Marc was making preparations to leave Morocco, I planned to take a CTM bus from Fes. I bought a ticket to reserve my seat and checked my bag. Carelessly I had placed my passport in my old beat-up and unlocked suitcase. I had a couple of hours to kill, and went to see one of my friends who lived in the Ville Nouvelle. I ended up killing just a little too much time, and I missed the bus. Desperate, I decided that if I were lucky I might hitch a ride to somewhere along the route and catch up with the bus. I soon got a ride. The car was a new Peugeot 504, I think, and the young driver spoke French until I realized that he was an American, who had graduated from the same college as myself. Stationed in the military at the “secret base” at Sidi Yahia in the Gharb, he agreed to drive me to Rabat. Even stopping at the base, we beat the bus and I retrieved my bag and passport. My savior’s parents had served in the U.S diplomatic corps, and he acquired his French, which was excellent, growing up. When you are stuck in Morocco, someone always comes along to help you out.
I flew out of Kenitra on a routine Navy flight. Seated next to me was a civilian contractor, probably an ex-military. He worked for Lockheed, I think, training Moroccans to fly F-5 fighters. He was interested in the Peace Corps, quite impressed with my Arabic and French and knowledge of the country. As we flew into the Navy base at Rota, he remarked that he could use a few Peace Corps volunteers in his program. I just let the comment stand. In 1971, F-5 pilots were part of a coup attempt that involved shooting down the Royal Air Maroc passenger jet carrying the King. Embassy scuttlebut has it that Hassan II never really trusted Americans completely after that attempt on his life, believing that the Americans must have had advance knowledge of the plot and could have warned him.
The medical exam at Torrejón completed, I was asked if I wanted to go back to Morocco on the next flight. Of course I said no, so I was put on a later flight to Kenitra, and got to spend some time in and around Madrid. Madrid has been the capital of Spain for a long time, and many interesting places surround it that are easily reached by train or bus. I had studied Spanish as my first foreign language, and I could use what I remembered to get around comfortably. It is alway so much better to know a little of the local language. My travels in Iran were immensely enhanced by the fact that I could speak a smattering of Farsi, but that, too, is another story for the blog.
At Torrejón I learned that my GS-4 status only got me a crappy shared accommodation on base, so I stayed in a modern hotel near a subway stop off base for about five bucks a night. The airforce wanted as much for the GS-4 accommodations. In Toledo, I stayed in a pension for less.
I had been to Toledo before (and would return again), but this time I had some leisure to see the sights, and it was not tourist season.
I also visited Ávila and the birthplace of Cervantes in Alcalá de Henares.
March is still very cold in Madrid and I do not remember being dressed very warmly. The proverb about Mardrid’s weather, « Nine months of winter, and three of Hell, » has a basis in fact.
Interestingly, a year and a half later, as I was leaving Morocco, Gaylord Barr was being airlifted on the same Kenitra to Torrejón flight, with a severe case of typhoid, and he spent a much longer time there than I did!
Peace Corps volunteers who taught English as a foreign language were tied to their schools during the academic year, but had long summer vacations. A few undertook special projects, but many took the opportunity to travel. Outside of what was then called TEFL, volunteers had to take time when they could, though many had jobs that gave them a lot of freedom. The Moroccans often described our jobs using the French word stage, essentially meaning training, and didn’t always expect much from us.
As Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco, travel to Europe, except for Spain, violated the Peace Corps country rules that were in place in the sixties. Many volunteers simply ignored them as they did other rules that they thought were unreasonable such as owning motorcycles. Volunteers seldom got caught and there was no real punishment. Staff probably found the rules restrictive, too, and often looked the other way. Without examining your passport, how would Peace Corps know what you did last summer?
There was a problem for volunteers, however, and that was Morocco’s location. Where could one go? It is not without reason that Morocco is known as the land of the farthest sunset. With an ocean to the west and a desert to the south, Morocco was a cul-de-sac.
Algeria was off limits as a hostile country in the sixties, sadly as my experience in Algeria suggested that Algerians were friendly and eager to meet Americans. Anywhere else required expensive airfare or a daunting trip across the Sahara. If you follow this blog, you can read about my Saharan adventure later. A few of us actually did the trip, crossing the Algerian desert by truck, but it was not a casual affair.
I think that these rules may have loosened up over the years. Some volunteers had families with the means to provide funds for European trips. In the sixties, the Peace Corps was definitely elitist, just as the foreign service has always been, with many members coming from the Ivys. In any case, given the historical connections with Morocco, the Peace Corps judged Spain to be acceptable, but put the rest of Europe off limits.
By July, the heat had settled into Sefrou. The grain fields around the city had been harvested, and the country had taken on the thatch and earth colors that it would keep until the winter rains.
Bouiblane disappeared into the haze at the horizon, and the streets became dusty. Melons were on sale in the market, and life slowed down a bit.
Gaylord Barr, the volunteer with whom I shared the house in Seti Messaouda, and myself had persuaded one of the Peace Corps administrators, Don Brown, to come to Sefrou. Don had served in Oujda. He had never learned much Arabic, and wanted to improve his command of the language. We had a woman, Khadija, who cooked and cleaned for us. I fixed Don up with a tutor, my friend Hammad Hsein, and Don moved to Sefrou for a couple of weeks, where he had a chance to immerse himself in dialectical Arabic. Khadija would take care of Don and the pets. Off we went. I don’t know how much Arabic Don learned, but I know he enjoyed his time there that summer. Old Sefrou was lovely with its gardens and country walks.
It always gave me a lot of pleasure to see women taking strolls past the old Jewish Cemetery or students walking together, studying for their exams.
Hammad was an elementary school teacher. He lived in Seti Messaouda, as did his extended family, just outside the city wall and down the street from me. I had gone to his and his brother, Hassan’s wedding, and I often ate at his house on feast days. I was told that he emigrated to France, as many other people I knew have done.
In early July, the mesetas of central Spain bake in the sun, just like much of Morocco. Oleanders flower in the dry water courses, but the only green is where farmers can irrigate. The early Arab invaders surely felt at home there. For them, Spain might have been Syria. And when the Abbasids wiped out the Umayyads in the East, the Umayyad kingdom in Spain survived and continued as the caliphate of Córdoba until overrun by successive waves of Berbers from the Atlas.
The previous summer Gaylord and I went off individually and traveled in Spain, making short forays into southern France and visiting Carcassonne, Albi, and Pau. By coincidence or by the nature of things we traveled much the same routes though we were not traveling together. In retrospect, I think I might have suggested the French sites as I was interested in visiting them myself.
Carcassonne needs the least introduction. The fabled walled city, heavily restored by Viollet-le-Duc, justly deserves its reputation as an icon of medieval military architecture, though if you would like to see a more authentic walled town, you might visit Aiguës Mortes instead.
I had wanted to visit Carcassonne, when I lived in France in 1965, but never made the time. In December 1965, I was living in Castelnau-le-Lez, and a neighbor and host to another foreign exchange student took us along with his daughter and dog, Blackie, to see the sun set on the walls of the city. I have returned a couple of times since. The last time my wife, Liz, and I walked the entire circuit of the wall, then dined on mussels at a little restaurant just outside the main gate.
Aiguës Mortes was built as a port for the Crusades, in a very short period of time, but it was never used as the French soon acquired more territory on the Mediterranean gaining better ports. It soon silted in, and lost all importance, for which we have to thank for its extraordinary authenticity and preservation.
Albi is probably known to most Americans as the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the place that gave its name to the Albigensian heresy, though it was never controlled by Cathars.
The center of Albi is occupied by a fortified, red brick gothic cathedral, and the adjacent bishop’s palace is a museum for Toulouse-Lautrec art. The buildings in Albi are distinctively red brick, and strech along the banks of the Tarn.
Pau would be the least known for most Americans. It sits on a hill that gives it an expansive view south to the Pyrenees.
Henri IV was born in the Renaissance château in Pau, and cradled in a giant turtle shell. A statue of him stands outside the château, with the inscription, «Lou nostre Henrico », and the locals remain rightly proud of their native son. To ascend to the throne of France, he converted to Catholicism, and is known for the apocryphal quote, « Paris is well worth a Mass. » This cynical comment belies his success in putting an end to the religious wars that were tearing France apart, as well as for a public works program that helped modernize his kingdom.
Unfortunately, Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, and the regency of Louis XIII began, which, you may remember, was the setting for Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Its protagonist was the hotheaded D’Artagnan, a Gascon. Pau is in Béarn, a part of Gascony, a traditional term that applies to the lands south and east of Bordeaux. In Pau people appreciate armagnac as opposed to cognac, and local cuisine is shared with the Basque provinces next door.
Pau was a nineteenth-century watering spot for the British and a few Americans. The climate is mild and the atmosphere is calm. So much so that France trains paratroopers there. Today it is a regional administrative center with a university. I studied there in the summer of 1965, and my reason for returning was to see my former landlady, Madame Pinaud, who fed me a nice dinner, set me up with a date, and put me up over night. She was a widow, and the boarders she took in were an important source of her income.
Pau was the setting for a movie with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and a young Omar Sharif. Behold a Pale Horse is worth a watch. Banned in Spain during the Franco years, it dealt with a bitter Catalan anarchist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War (Peck), and a corrupt officer of the Guardia Civil who is out to catch him (Quinn).
It never gained any popularity as Peck’s character is dour and bitter, the movie was in black and white, there was no love interest other than Quinn’s mistress, and the setting is obscure. Peck usually played a hero and nice guy, and his fans expected roles with those attributes. In his final trip to Spain, Peck enters Spain through the Brèche de Roland, of which more later.
The château of Pau also served briefly as a prison for Abdelkader, the Algerian patriot, known for military acumen as well as his chivalry. At the height of his power, Abdelkader controled much of western Algeria and even some of eastern Morocco.
From Pau, the easiest route back to Spain was by rail through Canfranc. The second largest railroad station in Europe, Canfranc is perched high in the mountains. Trains had to switch from one gauge of track to another, as the gauges differed between France and Spain. Trains do not pass there any longer. The station was shuttered in the early nineteen seventies, and today is just a curiosity, rusting away in the wilds.
I think that the idea of crossing the Pyrenees through the Brèche had been in my mind for a while. I knew that the site was spectacular as I had visited Gavarnie, and I had watched Behold a Pale Horse, probably one of the late night movies CBC Toronto used to show after the 11:00 p.m. news. It is said that the Spanish government blocked its showing on American TV networks. Over the winter of 1968-1969, I began a correspondence with a member of the French Alpine Club in Tarbes. I had wanted to get some serious climbing experience, and he counseled me to enroll in the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air, a summer sports program for French kids. I asked him about crossing the the Pyrenees from Torla to Gavarnie, and he recommended the hike, saying that it was not difficult. If you research it on the Internet, you may find it described as one of the finest treks in the world.
I cajoled Gaylord into going with me. He did not share my passion for wandering about high mountains, but he loved nature and appreciated Spain.
We set off in early July 1969, taking the train from Fes to Tangier. Crossing from Tangier to Algeciras, we took a night train to Córdoba, where we spent the next day looking at the medieval center and the Mezquita. I had been there before, and have gone back since. The Mosque is a gem. The previous summer I got off a night train from Algeciras and wandered at 4:00 a.m. through the twisting and turning streets of the old quarter. Here and there were lights of a bar or hotel, but most was shadow and dark and quiet. It felt very much as if I were at home in Sefrou.
Spain did not have many fast trains in those days, and second class ticket holders were crammed six or eight to a compartment. The weather was sweltering, but we were used to it and it didn’t bother us. I remember Águila beer was eight pesetas a bottle. With roughly seventy-five pesetas to a dollar, it was easy to quench our thirst. Águila was a pale lager, and, on the train, at least, it came in small bottles, cheap to buy and easy to drink. It has sadly disappeared, swallowed up by big European breweries.
The long rides afforded some time to read and I think I read Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War, still one of the best books on the subject sixty years later. The previous year I reread The Lord of the Rings. I remember riding a bus through the Catalonian Pyrenees on the way to Andorra. It had piped music, and the driver was playing the Concerto de Aranjuez. It was a grey day, a bit misty, and the forests appeared in various shades of green. As the bus climbed toward Andorra, the peaks moved in and out of the clouds. It was a magical way to take in the spectacular scenery.
Arriving at the Atocha Station, we got a room at the Hotel Atocha. I had stayed there before. The rooms were threadbare and ratty, but it was conveniently located near the center of Madrid, across from the station, and the staff were friendly and used to dealing with budget travelers. I had come down with something, and had a fever. I remember going to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which I had never seen, in a big theater with chilling air conditioning. I ended up spending a day in bed while Gaylord saw sights in the city. I made a quick recovery, though, and we soon left for northern Spain by rail.
Torla was a little mountain village and not on any rail line. I think we got off in Jaca, and had to hitch hike through Sabiñánigo to get there. It sits in a small valley, between the National Park of Ordesa and the town of Broto in the valley below.
At the time, Torla wasn’t as developed as it is today. Near the entrance of the National Park of Ordesa, if you were wealthy, you could stay in the Parador in the valley of the park. That was something like staying at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, and just as expensive. We stayed in a pension in Torla, paying five dollars per day for room and board. At the time, you were able to drive to the park, and we hitchhiked. Today there is a shuttle bus, and the park is closed to automobile traffic.
The food in Torla was local, fresh, and tasty, and was served with plenty of local wine. Gaylord remembered it, a few years before he passed away, as some of the best food in his life! There was a bar which had a TV, and one could sit and watch the Tour de France while drinking cheap Spanish brandy and expresso. There wasn’t much night life in Torla. With the windows open, you could hear the Río Ara.
We hiked around the valley for a few days before continuing.
We climbed the canyon walls to the clavijas of Cotatuero one day, but we had no harnesses or ropes so we couldn’t proceed.
Unfortunately, I had left my boots in Madrid. I desperately looked for replacements, but the choice was limited to either ski boots or canvas shoes with rope soled interiors, a cheap and popular choice in Spain.
My French correspondent had not factored in difficient footwear nor large amounts of snow, and, though the canvas shoes were comfortable, neither they, nor the heavier work boots that Gaylord wore, were really suitable to the task. Most of the way from Góriz to Gavarnie I walked in the equivalent of wet tennis shoes! We should have suspected a lot of snow as we found the Río Ara with an ice bridge over it in the lower part of the canyon. Ice axes would have been handy. The previous winter had been a snowy one.
The National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido has been designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and certainly merits the distinction. A steep glaciated canyon, with hanging waterfalls, lush beech and pine forests, and snowy uplands, the Park may not be huge, but it is breathtaking. It reminds me of Yosemite, with its waterfalls and vertical cliffs, but the rock is limestone and just above the canyon walls are snow-covered peaks.
Our plan, and a very reasonable one we thought, was to climb to the Góriz Hut, above the end of the valley, stay overnight, then to cross through the Brèche de Roland and descend to the town of Gavarnie, which I knew from a visit in 1965. We had no reservations at Góriz, but if you were to plan this trek today, you would probably need them. All we had to guide us was a rough trail map handed out by the park people. Today there are excellent maps. Góriz to Gavarnie is a long day’s hike.
The hike up the valley was easy, and we soon left the forest of beeches and pines behind.
At the Góriz Hut, there was a group of young Aragonese kids, dressed in local colors, who played flutes, sang, and danced after dinner.
I think they climbed Monte Perdido the next day, and I remember looking wistfully in that direction the next morning, before setting off for the Brèche. We would have been totally unprepared for that ascent.
We had left most of our clothes in Torla, to be retrieved on the way home, so that we could travel light. The proprietor of our pension packed a copious lunch and dinner of roasted chicken and sandwiches and, of course, wine. That was our food for the hike, and we didn’t buy food again until we reached Gavarnie.
We had sleeping bags, but I don’t remember real outdoor wear of any sort. We just had jeans and shirts with sweaters and light jackets in our packs. I had an old wool Pendleton shirt that my uncle Bill had handed down.
Luckily, the weather cooperated. The sun was brillant until we crossed through the Brèche. The French slope had damp clouds rising out of the valley, but no real precipitation.
We didn’t think finding that route would be difficult.
Had the weather turned, it might have been a problem, but the Spanish slopes are sunnier than those of France, and we had luck with us.
From Góriz we headed to the Grotte de Casteret, named after Norbert Casteret, the famous French caver.
There was a group of hikers there, and, at that time, you could easily enter the cave. At about 9,000 feet, the cave has a frozen lake and waterfall. That itinerary took us out of the way.
We decided that we would descend to the basin under the Brèche and climb back up. This turned out to be trickier than we had reckoned. It was around noon, and the snow on the Spanish slope had melted and become slippery. We plodded up to the Brèche, slowly and carefully.
The Brèche is a imposing natural feature, a gap in a knife-thin rock face, about 120 feet wide and 330 feet high. It sits at 9,100 feet, above and to the left side of the Cirque de Gavarnie. It cannot be seen from Gavarnie, but it is clearly visible from many high points of land. From the summit of Pic du Midi de Bigorre, it appears as a tiny notch on the horizon.
The Spanish call it La Brecha de Rolando, and the locals attributed it to the times of Charlemagne. Roland was Charlemagne’s best knight, who accompanied the king to Spain to fight the Moors. Roland was mortally wounded, and fearing that his magic sword, Durandal, would fall into enemy hands, he tried to break it against the rock. The rock was split, but the sword did not break.
With some trepidation, we arrived at the Breche. Looking back was Spain.
Looking down into France, we saw a steep snow slope.
A couple of hikers were on their way up to the Brèche. They had ice axes, and we wished that we had had them, too.
The view to the east, into the cirque was spectacular.
To the right, clouds floated in the cirque. With no ice axes, we zigzagged back and forth, carefully traversing the slope, until we reached the hut.
I did not expect all the snow, and was relieved when we finally reached the hut, and got off the slope. A fall would have meant a long slide, and possibly an injury.
My canvas shoes had been soaked all morning, and my feet were wet and cold. We needed a break and ate some of our provisions while the clouds rolled up from the cirque. I was able to switch to a dry pair of socks.
There was a French couple with children at the Sarradets. I think that they were surprised to find foreigners, who did not seem very well prepared for what they were doing, and they eyed us suspiciously. Maybe they thought we’d walk off with their ice axes?
Having rested, we began the trip down to Gavarnie. The snow, which had caused so much consternation, soon disappeared, replaced by a broad stone trail. We met a young Frenchman coming up the trail to Sarradets, and said hello. He asked where we hailed from and was visibly surprised to find that we were Americans. The day turned darker as we continued down, and when we finally trudged into Gavarnie, it was almost night. We found a place to stay, showered, and went to bed. I think we were too tired to eat, and very sore to boot. I wanted out of those soggy canvas shoes much more than food.
The next morning we arose late to find the clouds parting. Sitting on a cafe terrace, we enjoyed café au lait, croissants, and a magnificent view of the cirque.
A rock wall rising thousands of feet, with a myriad of small waterfalls, the cirque has the highest waterfall in Europe. Victor Hugo described it as a coliseum, and, enclosed on three sides, it resembles an amphitheater. During the last ice ages, huge mountain glaciers occupied the cirque and hollowed it out. Layered strata form ledges and collect snow, and the snow provides horizontal banding that contrasts with the vertical walls adding contrast to the overall effect.
Since it was cloudy and dark, I took no pictures on the way down, but I have a couple from 1965 that give an idea of the trail and show the cirque from a different angle.
If I were to do this trip today, I think I would return to Torla on foot via Bujaruelo, or a more scenic route. I’d also be dressed for the trip. But that summer we were just happy to have arrived, and still tired. After eating we hitched down the valley. We wanted to get to Pau, but hitchhiking wasn’t easy and we only got as far as Lourdes. With nothing else to do and stuck for the night, we poked around the souvenir shops and went to a Truffeau movie, Mississippi Mermaid. The next day we bussed to Pau to catch the train to Spain. Picking up our belongings, we traveled back to Morocco, stopping in Madrid to get my boots at the Atocha Hotel. My big adventures were over till the next Peace Corps summer, the subject of yet another blog post.
In the east, the Middle Altas range ends in folded mountains that contrast with the elevated plateaus around Azrou and Ifrane. In the winter, from any elevated spot around Fes, Bouiblane and Moussa ou Salah dominate the southeastern horizon. Behind them, looming over the upper Moulouya, Bou Naceur is even higher. Access to these mountains used to require a long and rough ride, though they are easy ascents if one approaches them right (more on this in another post.)
Directly south of Fes, just outside of Boulemane, is a third, lower peak named Tichoukt, which I think means little mountain in Berber. At 2787 meters (a little over 9,100 feet), Tichoukt is close to the town, and an easy climb, requiring nothing more than good shoes, lungs, and feet. There are remnants of a cedar forest, and the area to the east of the mountain has now received a special status as a natural area.
We went up to the summit of Tichoukt three times. The first climb was memorable, because the soles on my boots fell apart. I had given them to Jim Humphrey, living in Rabat at the time, to have them resoled. The shoemaker put the soles on perfectly, but the rubber was so soft that the limestone tore it to shreds. I had hardly any soles left when we returned!
Louden Kiracofe was with me, but we were disappointed by the views, which were limited by haze and clouds. We just went up the west side of the mountain, which is separated from the true summit by a little saddle.
Gaylord Barr and Karin Carter and I climbed Tichoukt in the late fall, but the best ascent was with Louden in the winter. We approached from the south side of the mountain, climbed to the saddle, and just followed the ridge to the top where there was a geodesic marker.
The mountain had snow, and the view at sunset was memorable. The snow-covered summits of Bouiblane and Bou Naceur were sandwiched between the setting sun and the clouds, in a terrific vista.
In the sixties, Sefrou had one movie theater, the Maghrib el Arabi, but it was great! On a hot summer night, the roof would retract, slowly and almost silently, and the cool evening air would pour in from a sky full of stars. I went to the movies whenever I could. I loved films, and, frankly, how many things could you do in a small provincial city where almost everyone went home to their families at night, tired from a day’s hard work? Not that the theater was an entirely respectable place. Now, whenever I watch the Italian movie, Cinema Paradiso, I’m always reminded of Sefrou, its movie theater, and the people I knew.
In those days the choice of films was mostly between Bollywood musicals and spaghetti westerns. Occasionally there was an Egyptian feature, beyond the comprehension of someone already struggling with Moroccan dialect, and, sometimes, a recent American movie, and sometimes a classic. I remember watching High Noon, which for me was iconic and for my colleague puzzling, and, In the Heat of the Night, a contemporary drama about the civil rights struggle in the American South. The big cities had a much better choice of films. I saw Space Odyssey 2001 in the Theatre Mohammed V, not long after the film opened in the U.S. Needless to say, the Western movies were always dubbed in French.
But that was Rabat. In Sefrou, I still remember hearing, through the front windows of the house, the sounds of young men walking home through the empty street at night, a darkened medina street lit by an occasional street light, whistling the theme music from A Fist Full of Dollars (https://youtu.be/9uFlE1cO8Fc), and knowing they enjoyed it, but also wondering what they made of it. It was certainly more a part of their America than mine.