“Do you want to come on a recce with me up Mount Meltzen, it is a long day out? ” Charlie asked. Of course, the answer was yes, immediately followed by feelings of trepidation, since he is so much fitter and faster than me. Mount Meltzen is a big standalone mountain in the Atlas. On a clear day you can see it looming on the horizon from Marrakech. Charlie wanted to go and scope it out for one of his trips and I was really happy to be invited along.
We set off on the Sunday evening and got to Rachid’s house just as the sun went down and everyone was settling down for Ftour (breakfast in Ramadan). The call to prayer sounded and Rachid went to the mosque. then came back and the whole family said, “Bismillah” (in the name of God) and tucked in. There was a drink of milk with apricots to soothe the throat after a full day of nothing to drink, harira spicy soup with a sweet honey-covered pastry and dates to go with it, aubergine and tomato, mint tea and a nut butter with sugar, lots of fresh baked bread and a big communal chicken tagine with fresh vegetables.
After supper we walked through the moonlit village to see the new gite that Rachid has built. A really impressive three storey traditional house, with a big communal area and terrace and then tidy comfortable rooms and shower blocks. He had thought of everything with a separate area for the guides to relax in and even a second kitchen so that groups could do their own cooking.
We went back to try and sleep but with Ramadan turning everyone’s schedule upside down, we knew that there would be lots going on around us as people caught up on the day. At around two in the morning, we heard the sound of a long horn being blown in the alleyway outside. Rachid had warned us about this, it was to wake people up for the mosque and more food before sunrise.
By 5.30 am we were fed and watered and starting our hike. We had a guide for the first part to navigate us up to the base of the Mountain through the Yagour plateau and then we would be on our own.
The first kilometres were up through a vivid red gorge, with bright green cultivated terraces on each side of the river and shady forest all around us. It was up and steep from the start and the boys were soon well ahead.
When we got up past the trees, the scenery changed into rolling golden meadowland, with little trickling streams and a cacophony of wild flowers. Yellows, purples, pinks all vying for space. There were crowds of black and white spotted butterflies and with every step I startled dozens of clicking crickets, who bounced up ahead of me.
We gained height pretty quickly and soon got up to the base of the Mountain, having already gone up around 700 metres. By now, Charlie was far off and I could just spot his red Tshirt in the distance, which showed me the rough direction to go in.
The guide, Mohammed, was on his way back down. ” Go up to the right of the big rocks, ” he said, “There are Garsha. Then turn left behind them, and then straight straight straight.” Only a couple of problems with this. One I didn’t know what Garsha were, although I was guessing zig zags and two there were an awful lot of big rocks.
I fixed my eyes on the place where I had last seen Charlie’s splash of red and started climbing. I couldn’t find a path so I was hand over foot straight up the sheer, rocky face and making heavy weather of it. I saw Charlie waiting up ahead and he yelled “Go right, go right, look for the cairns.” I headed right and eventually found the path. It was sketchy and easy to lose but it was a million times better than what I had been doing.
For this main part of the climb, I kept as steady as I could and Charlie went on ahead, sporadically waiting for me. The differences in our paces was telling and I knew that it was going to be hard to make it to the summit in the 7 1/2 hour cut off time.
The views from the mountainside reached out over the rocky terrain on either side, dotted with clusters of wild daisies and thistles and a purple plant that is a bit like a spiky heather, and out on to the wide grassy plain, slashed by a broad silver river bed. Magnificent and not another person in sight.
We rendezvoused at about 300 m from the top. The mountain stands at 3600+m and we had started at 1700m and been going for around 7 hours without any big breaks for me – although Charlie had had to do quite a bit of waiting. My legs were definitely wobbly by this stage.
There was no way I could cover that 300 m ascent over 2km in the next half hour. I was getting slower if anything and I didn’t want to stop Charlie from summiting. We agreed that he would go on and finish it and I would turn back and we would catch up on the descent.
A FAIL! A did not finish. I knew I couldn’t do it though, and we had to get back down to the valley in time to drive down the dangerous escarpment in the light. Of course, I was disappointed, but I was still having a brilliant day out in the mountains. Also, I had already done the equivalent of Ben Nevis+, so I felt surprisingly ok about it.
I watched as Charlie stormed up the ridge at a really impressive rate, dragged myself up and went up a bit further with the thought that you should always do just a bit more than you want to. Then I started the long descent.
It was steep, loose and deadly. I went over on my arse almost immediately, feeling that sickening rush of adrenalin as my feet slid from under me. I had decided to wear my trail running shoes and take my ultra poles. Both were bad decisions. They were just not hard core enough for the conditions. My toes were constantly crammed to the front of my shoes and there was no protection from the rocks, my pole bent almost in half on one of my falls, leaving it banana shaped. I fell several times, fortunately just picking up a few bruises and scrapes.
Charlie caught up with me, as I was starting out towards the easier ground of the plateau. He had done an amazing time up to the summit and back. Fit lad.
The next stage of the descent was endless. We had some ups and downs but I just didn’t remember it being that long on the way up. We stopped to have a bite to eat, refill our water and put our feet into an icy stream. It was so cold your feet went a kind of burning numb after you took them out.
Once again I lost the path and got stuck in a maze of stone walls to clamber over and down sharp terraced drops. By now I had a stone lodged under the fleshy middle part of my foot, but I didn’t want to slow Charlie down further by taking it off and my feet and legs were hurting so much anyway, it didn’t make much difference.
The third segment of the down through the gorge, was the worst. My legs had stiffened up and my toes were mashed so every step jarred. I got clumsy as I got tired and kept stubbing them on random rocks, sending extra white hot shoots of agony up my legs and trying not to let out little yelps.
“How long can this *********descent be? It is **********endless.” At least Charlie and I had the same thought. I don’t think I could have borne it if I had been marching down with someone who found it easy.
We were almost back down in the forest and Charlie had gone ahead to cool off at a little waterfall and pool he had spotted on the way up. I was tromping down, focussing on my steps.
“I think the snake is dead, ” he yelled up at me. I stopped dead. I hate snakes. “It is there, on that stone, can you see it? I prodded it and it didn’t move.” I clambered awkwardly detouring around it and stood under the waterfall for a minute.
“Did you think that was a euphemism?” asked Charlie a moment later. Umm no. I thought it was a snake.
Another half an hour and we were finally in Ait Milk, the little village where we had left the car. There was a tiny shop crammed into a house. Joy of joys, it had cold cokes in the freezer and a dead baby goat’s head on the counter. We got two cokes and headed for the car. It was still about two hours until Ftour (breakfast) so it would have been cruel to drink them in front of people who were fasting.
Ahh the pleasure of sitting down and that first long drag on the bottle. Pain yes and failure yes but what a gloriously beautiful day out in the mountains.