Winter Toubkal Trek: Day Five

Friday 15th November

The day was finally here. We were summiting Toubkal. As said in my previous post, I'd downed Ibuprofen the night before, and the first thing in the morning I downed some more. My legs felt good ... I moved them tentatively and couldn't feel any sign of soreness or stiffness. I hoped it was going to last!

I was anxious all morning to get started, but in the same mind not wanting to do it at all. I willed the day to be over!

It was another very early start; it was again very dark and very cold! At first I thought I could see snow in the air but I was mistaken; there was just a decent breeze kicking a little dust and sand up.

We set off and headed in a slightly different direction to the previous day and reached a very small scramble point. I joked that that was the first lie of the day; the guides had promised no scrambling, but here we were in the first five minutes using our hands to get by!

It's a known phenomenon that guides quite often stretch the truth with regards to how far something is, how difficult it is or how long it will take. When we were in Nepal, the guides used to tell us the walk was going to be flat ... it never was, and so the term 'Nepalese flat' was born. If something is Nepalese flat it is, in actual fact, very up and down!

Mohammed and Reduan were no different; "it'll take 5 minutes" when it took 20, "it's a smooth trail" when it was steep and rocky, and "there'll be no scrambling tomorrow" when here we were, scrambling.

Again, it was fine. It took less than a second to get up and then we were on a decent incline towards the summit. This is when the wind started to let itself known. It was bitter and hard, and if you weren't steady it knocked you off balance. At this point I was close to the front again and feeling like I was managing OK. My legs were holding up; they did not feel sore ... I was relieved! We trudged on and got to our first quick break. Mohammed said the first hour and a half of the walk was important for us to keep going with minimum breaks so I knew we weren't going to linger.

Taking a welcome break.

The sun was starting to rise so there was enough light to see without the use of head torches ... mine remained firmly on my head though as it was helping to keep my hat on. We set off again and came to an area where we were walking and climbing over large boulders. Legs were still holding on!

Eventually we reached a stop where Mohammed pulled Anna and me to the side and explained that he and the rest of the group would go ahead, and Reduan would stay with us as the next bit was going to be steep and precarious and he knew we'd struggle with it. I was relieved; as good as I felt that so far I was managing to keep up, the lethargy was taking it's toll and I felt guilty for slowing everyone else down.

Mohammed wasn't lying! The next part was steep and consisted of that awful 'loose stone' terrain underfoot. The wind was picking up even more and it was freezing. I couldn't feel my hands and the cold was affecting my ability to breathe normally.

Eventually, I could see and feel the sun coming over. It wasn't enough to counteract the freezing cold wind though. Anna, Reduan and myself reached the top of the area we'd been climbing and huddled by a rock for a quick break. Reduan tried to get the circulation back in both Anna's and mine hands by getting us to rub them together, but it felt too late for that. I was trembling with cold, and should have put my down jacket on at this point, but the thought of having to take my rucksack off to get it out and put it on wasn't doing it for me! I just wanted to stay huddled. It was so cold the water had frozen in our hydration packs!

The next part was the worst. Reduan said we were at the last 20% of the mountain ... I looked up and it didn't look too bad. Again, my legs were still being kind to me (I was so thankful to my body at this point) and I was determined to fight through the cold and lethargy. 'I've got this' I thought.

I'd thought wrong. Part way up the last 20% of more hard winds, freezing cold temperatures and loose stones I ashamedly said that I wasn't going to be able to do it. I think Reduan saw red. At that, he grabbed hold of me and basically dragged me up the next part along with Anna. Before long we could see the tip of the structure that sits on top of the summit ... if I'd had the energy I would have cried with relief.

Mohammed saw us coming and headed down to help us up the very last part. And we did it.

Anna and me at the summit.

They directed Anna and me to stand under the structure and get our photos taken. I was so cold I couldn't bring myself to take my phone out of my rucksack so the photos were just taken on Anna's phone. I'd also brought my Toubkal mascot with me (Tapaidh the Tiger) whom I'd intended on having a summit photo shoot with, but again, my lack of energy and body heat decided 'No. It's not happening!'

We joined the rest of the group in a sheltered section from the wind and had a short break. It was then time to set off again. I was nervous of the wind going back down but thought it couldn't be anywhere near as bad as walking up in it!

As we were walking down, as well as slipping a few times, I remember thinking that I just wanted to get out of the wind as the sand and dust it was kicking up was making it so hard to see. My eyes felt like they had a ton of grit in them and it was irritating me. I noticed the further down we got the worse my field of vision was getting. People only mere feet away from me were just silhouettes, but nobody else was commenting on how hazy it was; it was like being in the middle of a sandstorm ... why was nobody else complaining?!

It was a short while later when visibility was getting even worse when I stopped and asked Kerry whether she was finding it difficult to see. She replied no, that she was fine and checked my eyes for me. Again, I just felt like I had a load of grit in them and figured that that was why I was struggling to see. My eyes looked fine though ... just runny with the wind.

I carried on down thinking when we next stopped I would try and have a good cry to flush the crap out of my eyes, but when we got to the next stop nothing I did to try and clear them was working. Bob held his hand up and asked me how many fingers he was holding up but I couldn't tell him. All I can describe it as was like having tissue paper in front of my eyes. I panicked. Bob joked that I had snow blindness without the snow, but I was still adamant it was the dust that was bothering me ... maybe it had scratched my corneas? I didn't know, but I let people know that I genuinely couldn't see and asked if someone would stay near me to guide me down.

Reduan offered and linked with me and tried to point where I should be putting my feet, only thing was I couldn't even see where he was pointing! Only I could climb the highest mountain in North Africa and then not be able to see my way down! I felt pathetic. Here I was with another ailment. I wondered if people thought I was exaggerating.

Simon, our doctor, had had an accident at the summit by climbing the structure and landing awkwardly on his ankle so he was at the back with myself, Anna and Reduan. We were a sad little sight!

As we got further down my eyes got worse. Reduan would point and say 'Can you see the refuge yet?' and I genuinely couldn't. It was scary. Being the dramatic soul that I can be, I started wondering if I'd damaged my eyes with the grit and dust permanently. I contemplated how I'd manage to get back home on the tube and train, and after that contemplated life with a guide dog! I really thought I'd knackered myself.

Some time later, we somehow got to the bottom and back to the refuge. Everything was still foggy and blurred. I wanted to be able to celebrate achieving what we'd achieved but was too anxious about what was going on with my eyes.

Poor limping Simon said he'd have a look for me and flushed them out with a saline wash ... God it stung! He said he was pretty happy that there was nothing in them and insisted that even if there was, it wouldn't have affected my vision in such a way. In this instance it was a case of snow blindness ... yes, without the snow. He advised I lie in the dark for an hour or so and reassured me that they'd start getting better within the next few hours as long as I avoided light and rested them.

Since coming back home I've looked into snow blindness and can confirm it does happen without snow! Being at altitude, the atmosphere is thinner so UV rays are filtered less. The rays can reflect from sand as well as snow, so if you're up on the top of a sandy mountain constantly looking at the ground at where you're walking, as I was, (with no sunglasses tut tut), you're at higher risk of getting snow blindness!

Anyway, after my eyes had been rinsed, I did as I was told and rested my eyes. It was uncomfortable ... it really did just feel like I still had a load of grit in them, and they streamed constantly. After an hour or so, I tentatively took of the buff that I'd placed over my eyes and had a look round the room. While my vision was nowhere near perfect, it was better than it had been! Thank heaven! By the time morning came after a good sleep I would say they were 95% better ... still pretty sore, but at least I could see!

Now, all we had to do was get back down the rest of the mountain back to civilisation!

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