I take a sip of hot, sweet, strong mint tea. Rod and the taxi driver are looking at our topo map of Jebel Toubkal as another young man points out the trail and route. We have just arrived after a two hour drive from Marrakesh, and are waiting for our lunch sandwiches (egg with fried onion and tomato in flat bread) to be made before we start our hike. The air is clear and hot, but the sad, desperate screams of two goats, who are laying on the ground, legs tied, awaiting slaughter, are making me uneasy. What does Atlas have in store for us?
A long time ago, Gaia and Uranus had 12 children. Known as the 12 Titans, these are the parents, aunts, and uncles of the Olympian Gods. The Titans Cronus and Rhea are the parents of Zeus, and Titans Lapetus and Clymene are the parents of Atlas. So, Atlas and Zeus are cousins. The Titan Cronus ruled the gods, but Cronus was getting old, too old. His son, Zeus, wanted to rule the gods, so set out to fight Cronus and take the throne. He organized his brothers and sisters into an army against their father. Atlas, in defence of Cronus, organized an army too, and they fought a battle for 10 years. Needless to say, Zeus' forces won. Zeus banished all those who fought against him to Tartarus (where they remain), but since Atlas led the opposition, he was punished more severely. He was sent to the farthest western corner of the world, where the sun sets, and there he must hold up the heavens on his shoulders for eternity.
The air is heavy as we set out from the village of Imlil, up the Mizane river valley, toward the climbers refuge where we will spend the night. The high Atlas mountains are beautiful, rugged, and brown, scattered with brilliant green oasis of palm trees or small irrigated plots of wheat or nut trees. We walk with full packs up the dusty trail, getting passed by horses loaded with the backpacks of other hikers, and then by the hikers themselves. At one point, we pass two Berber girls, selling bottles of soda cooled in a small waterfall. They decide to taunt Rod, yelling in Berber and gesturing to him that because he has a necklace on, he must be gay... or a dog... we aren't exactly sure. We stop in a little village for a cup of mint tea where the trail crosses the river. Later, tired and hungry, we finally see the climbers refuge in the distance. As we walk up the valley toward it, a cold wind picks up and we get basted with some icy rain.
A long time ago, Hercules walked up the valley toward where Atlas and his wife Phoebe had their home and garden. Hercules was completing the 'Twelve Labors' required of him if was to escape enslavement and become immortal. One task was to get a golden apple. In the orchard at Atlas' house was the golden tree, guarded by a fierce dragon, that bore golden apples. Hercules approached Atlas as he stood holding the heavens on the ridge top, and asked for a golden apple. Atlas thought his release had finally come! He said to Hercules, "Sure, you can have an apple. I can go get it for you from my orchard, the dragon cannot hurt me. If you just hold this burden for me, i will go get the apple." So Hercules took the heavens onto his shoulders. Atlas thought he was very clever for tricking Hercules. Atlas was free! That dumb lump could hold the heavens for eternity! So Atlas went to the garden and got an apple and brought it up to where Hercules was, like he said he would. Because Hercules could not take the apple into his hands, Atlas put the apple on the ground and thinking he was so slick, started to walk away. Hercules, thinking quickly said, "Oh how could i have been so tricked! Now i have to hold the heavens on my shoulders forever! Whew, this is really uncomfortable! If i just had a pad to put between my shoulders and the heavens, it might be more bearable..."
Atlas turned and looked back.
"Atlas, you have tricked me! You could at least give me a pillow!"
So Atlas, being kind, but not the brightest Titan, went and got a pillow for Hercules. When he brought it, Hercules asked him if he could just hold the heavens for a second, while he got the pillow situated. So Atlas took the heavens, and Hercules, laughing, grabbed the golden apple off the ground and ran off.
"Salam aleikum" the refuge keeper replies as we approach the door. "Take your shoes off."
We put our dusty, stinky boots on a shelf by the door and enter the large refuge. This is the biggest refuge we have seen yet, it sleeps 80 people, and has two dining rooms. The French Alpine Club built and manages the refuge, while local Berber men work there. There were many other climbers at the refuge, all resting and getting ready to climb tomorrow morning. A amiable chatter filled the room with the fireplace as evening set in. Unfortunately, the friendliness, of the keeper at the door did not extend to all the staff. One man in particular was openly hostile to us. I don't know why this was exactly (except that we were not either Moroccan or French), and it was not a common occurrence in Morocco, but the experience certainly discolored our moods as we prepared dinner and settled into our beds that night.
A long time ago, Atlas' wife, Phoebe brought the golden tree that bore golden fruit to their orchard. And Atlas was told a prophecy, that one of the sons of his enemy Zeus would come to steal the golden tree from him. Atlas, understandably, was not very keen on the family of Zeus having his best treasure. So one day, as Atlas was kickin' it high on the ridge with the heavens on his shoulders, Perseus, son of Zeus, arrived. Now, Perseus was not out to steal Atlas' tree, he was just really tired and hungry and in need of a place to stay... after all, he had just fought and beheaded Medusa. Atlas, thinking this was the thief of the oracle, refused him. Perseus was irritable, being tired and hungry, and got really mad at Atlas. He grabbed Medusa's head from his bag, and averting his eyes, he held it up to Atlas. When Atlas looked at it, he turned into stone... the stone that is Mt Atlas. And upon the shoulders of this mountain, all the stars and the heavens are held.
With so many people at the refuge, and heading out tomorrow to climb, we decide that we will get up extra early (3:30 am) to assure a pleasant climb with no other people around. We quietly prepare breakfast, and slip out before anyone else is up. Under the stars, we follow the route across the small river, and up the steep narrow valley directly east of the refuge. The icy wind is blowing (!), and the gusts make us stumble as we climb. Soon, we are walking up firm snow fields, and the sun rises as we crest the first moraine and see the summit in front of us. The wind up here is even worse! My fingers are painfully numb with the cold, and we bundle up with everything we have as we reach the top of the second moraine. Here, while trying to maintain balance as the wind gusts, we have the choice to either follow the normal route up the south ridge, or skirt around the large bowl under the summit and climb the north ridge. It is funny because the staff in the refuge last night insisted that there is only one possible route up to the summit, only one! And we can see two easy ones just up this side... there must be hundreds of ways to summit this non-technical peak.
We stash our crampons at the top of the snowfield, and begin the loose talus and gravel slog up to the ridge top. From the top of the ridge, we see the first of the other climbers coming up over the last moraine below us. We walk along the ridge top to the summit (4165 m), amazed by the beautiful views. To the east and west, more jagged peaks (the high Atlas mountains), to the north, faint mountaintops in Spain, to the south, the Sahara desert. We get to enjoy the summit in solitude, warming in the morning sun, as the brutal wind has died down. After a while, the onslaught of climbers begins. There must be 15 people on the summit when we leave, and we pass maybe 20 more climbing up as we descend. We decide to walk the south ridge down, to make a loop of it. The decent is fast because most of the snow fields have softened up, and we can have fun with sitting glissades.
Back at the refuge, we pack up our stuff and have some lunch. Then we begin the dusty walk down. As a man with horses passes us, Rod asks him if his animals can carry our packs. Relieved of our burdens, we walk more happily down, stopping for tea, and playing word and number games as we walk. In the village, our taxi driver is waiting for us, turns out, he came 2 hours early. We have one more cup of sweet mint tea and begin the drive back to Marrakesh. As we pass through the agricultural valley at the foot of the mountain, nice old Atlas gives us one last gift... in his orchard, we see a flock of nesting storks!