Looking out from near the top of the Oukameiden, I see the lines of snow in shaded trenches around the peaks, the pink orange of barren rock, strips of lush grass following the waterways, animals grazing, the powerful beauty of the landscape, and pain in many forms.
The instinct to give up, fighting against the desire to finish, both having the same end of making the pain stop. How on earth did I get here? It started with not being good at saying no.
Taking on a bike ride of more than 90 miles and 10,000 feet up a mountain for the first time, you listen, and take all the advice you can get. As if hearing of people being taken off the mountain in ambulances through dehydration isn’t enough to get the message across. Drink as much as you can (which has always been a motto of sorts). If you’re flagging along the way, like a boxing referee they look into your eyes, and if you can’t focus: sorry champ, into the back of the lorry with you.
Just after 8am, having missed the official start, we head south out of Marrakech on a gentle ascent for 30kms to where the Ourika Valley begins. This is a long straight road, with development going on, but with the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, their peaks streaked with shelves of ice and snow that look almost painted on. Chris is on form, a form he keeps up throughout the day, while James is ominously suffering from cramp and a sore back.
We reach the first staging post, and so far so good. There’s a table full of delicious dates, prunes, dried apricots, nuts, bread and honey, and bananas. We top up water supplies and start the next stage.
The next step
There’s a change from urban to rural as we enter the Ourika valley and start the ascent. The road immediately starts to wind. Rugged beauty is an often-used phrase, but it works in this case. There’s a feeling of exhilaration that we are finally tackling the mountain. The up and down nature of the road gives some respite, but as the day warms up the heat starts to take its toll. The sweat running down the inside of the sunglasses is a reminder to keep drinking. And then drink again. A brief period of cloud cover brings some respite.
It’s here that we start to pass through the Berber villages some with crafts on display, herds of livestock and people going about their business. Always groups of children lining the way, looking curiously at the tandem, some shy, some extrovert, reminding us of one the reasons we’re here.
The stop is a smart café, with pristine facilities and a trout farm being built beneath. We’re 50km into the 70km ascent, and the team is looking good, although we all know the next 20kms will be hard earned.
Last stage but one before the top
Now it started to get tough. The up and down of the previous stage becomes a relentless uphill slog. Pain comes in many forms, but for the first time ever in my life, I hear a woman say “It’s worse than childbirth.” Spoken however lightly, or with what quantities of poetic licence, she surely must have had a painful downstairs that we could all identify with. That sounds a bit wrong.
The last staging post before the top, and we enjoy a glass of mint tea. The gentility of sitting at a table with that delicate vessel in hand seems very British and slightly comic with the thought of the task ahead.
Taking the mountain
This is hard. I’d noticed my breathing becoming more rapid in the previous stage, but now it seems hard work in itself to get enough air into the lungs, and deal with protesting leg muscles, a thirst that had to be kept at bay, and an agonising seat.
The human settlements became scarcer and more sparse, and the landscape took on a massive quality that made you feel like a pebble among it. Now we were close enough to the snow to make it look invitingly cool, but enjoyment of the landscape was not to be had because the physical exertion demanded everything.
The red flag marking the end of the ascent fluttering in a breeze is a milestone achieved, but there’s still another 500 metres along to the rest stop. We’re presented with a welcoming stiff gin and tonic by Chris McHugo.
How on earth did I get here indeed.
There’s an element of what feels like time travel in the rapid descent of a mountain that took hours to climb. Within moments we passed landmarks that moments before had seemed far behind us. The extra sets of brakes James had added to the bike were earning their keep as we sped down the mountain, overtaking the occasional motorised scooter. As stoker I was hoping for a chance to look around at the scenery, but the slightest movement of the head sent the bike on a discernable wobble. But it was still distractingly beautiful. The wind whistling by turned the bike into an eolian harp playing out some eerie tunes. Chris was way ahead clocking some outrageous speeds while we took it carefully by comparison, given the 200 kilos of momentum that were powering our descent.
The final stretch
Tiredness had taken hold in the final 30km stretch, but with gravity on side and the end in site the pain was bearable. We powered along as fast as we could to get to the end on the straight road into Marrakech, coasting every now and then to relieve the pain.
So I’d made it. A few people asked, will you do it again, to which the answer should be no. If you say no it’s easier to then say yes, but if you say yes…well, I’ve been down that road before.