Sweat dripped from the motley mess of hat hair on my head to my nose as I bent to stuff a jacket into the top of my backpack. I gravely mishandled my layers this morning, and I was now suffering because of it. The red beam of my headlamp swung back to Abu’s grinning face as he cheerfully asked: “Good to go?” Evan finished his sip of water and on we went.
The trail snaked between boulders and snuck along high ledges; somewhere in the darkness below a river crashed down the mountain in the opposite direction. The temperature cooled as we trekked higher in into the High Atlas Mountains, on the way to the summit of Jebel Toubkal. As the morning carried on, the Milky Way climbed upward, almost pointing us in the direction of our goal. Just after pausing to strap crampons onto our boots, the sun chased away the night. The valley we had worked our way through over the last five hours revealed itself in a theatric presentation of mismatched rock and rotten snow. Breaking through 11,000 feet the effect altitude took hold and every step became a calculated balance of heart rate and forward progress.
The three of us were nothing but smiles and heavy breathing for the final two hours of the climb. Approaching the summit pyramid was a surreal feeling of being so far from home but doing something that is more homelike than anything else. Our little team of three just summited the highest point in Northern Africa.
We took some time at the summit soaking in the day and snagging pictures. While Abu did not speak a lot of English, and our combined French was rocky at best, smiles seem to be a universal language. “Good to go?” he asked again. Down we went at breakneck speed. We paused only so Evan could adjust a finicky crampon or to pass a slower group. Through the snow flying off crampons, I think Abu and I exchanged information using single words and lots of hand gestures. It’s also possible we interpreted each other entirely wrong. He had been up Toubkal seven times now in his twenty-two years living in the village at the mountain’s base, and was somewhere near thee middle of six siblings. We made a stop at a hut high on the mountain where we were treated to a cup of Moroccan tea while we stowed ice axes and crampons. The rest of the trek down would be on the dusty trail we had worked up through the dark of the morning.
At each group of panting European tourists slogging up the mountain, Abu stopped to talk with his guiding colleague. While I do not speak Berber, the incredulous glances from Abu to Evan and I then back after Abu said words that sounded like Toubkal and summit said a lot. The climb we were now finishing is most often done as a two or three-day round trip. Rolling back into town, past the military checkpoint that had extorted us the day before, at two in the afternoon right at ten hours after we set out, resulted in many raised eyebrows. By his friends’ reactions and Abu’s over-joyed expressions, repeating “amazing! So amazing!” left us to believe we had made some sort of a local celebrity out of the guy. Abu was an unexpected, and initially unwanted addition to our climb, but in the end, we were glad we shared the day with him. He took us back to his family’s Riad where Evan and I each bought a Snickers and shared a pot of tea as the blisters on our feet swelled.
Evan and I drove out of Imlil the next morning. As we did, we left behind a world for which we were grateful to have experienced. We were grateful for the perspective we had been given and grateful that places like it exist. By our obviously western standards, Abu and his village live a simple life, but they seemed to be filled entirely with joy and love for their families. There are many lessons to be learned from that outlook.