Trekking the High Atlas, Taking the Pain

Travel Stories: A fall in Morocco's rugged mountains left Jeffrey Tayler writhing in agony -- and wondering whether to abandon his journey

A week after my tumble, we dragged ourselves up a 10,000-foot-high pass. The noon sun seared the rocks. Dizzy from the altitude, with my back now in spasms and my footsteps beginning to falter, I thought, “This is it, mission or no. Why go on?” But then as before we had no way to call for help, and whom could we call in any case?  We could only descend.

A couple of hours later we caught sight of Lake Izoughar, a waterless oval ashen depression below us at 6,600 feet that was set in a rockbound valley streaked with grassy plots. As we neared it, the wind turned from hot to warm, the mules perked up. Later, while the sun sank, we set up our tents not on rocks, but on the powdery lake bed. From a shoreside well Khalid drew cold water—cold!—and we slaked our thirst. Wide-eyed children from a nomad camp nearby brought us lozenges of sand-baked bread, crusty and rich; a couscous dinner Driss cooked sated our hunger. Gazing up at the reddening sky of dusk, luxuriating in the cool, I felt returned to life. An irresistible drowsiness overcame me, and I retired, spreading my sleeping bag over the sand. I squirmed into this sand, and was, for the first time since leaving Azilal’s inn, able to find a comfortable position.

As the sky darkened, I reflected on my newfound ease. So much of our suffering stems from expectation, from the fear that our pain will continue or worsen, from the unknown—a matter of mind, not a product of the body or the environment. We don’t need to seek mountain peaks to experience this truth about suffering. Insofar as travel goes, a hot cramped bus ride in Africa, a roasting train journey across India, a night in a mosquito-ridden hotel room on the Mediterranean, all can seem equally endless and unbearable in their own way. Yet how quickly things change: The sun melts into the sands, the train creaks into the station, dawn breaks over the sea and the mosquitoes retire. In the course of a life, these moments are relatively few, even if we remember them vividly. They are just brief interludes of discomfort when our workaday equilibrium is disrupted. More broadly, sensations come, sensations go, some pleasant, some not, but all, by their nature, are fleeting. Yet they do much to determine our moods. No matter how well we plan, we rarely escape the tyranny of our senses, the alternating moods they bring on, our feelings of satisfaction and disgruntlement, our “joys and woes,” as Blake wrote. But nothing else lasts either. Even our sun is destined (in five billion years) for a supernova, and we, along with all life on earth, to extinction. Best to keep things in perspective.

Now I resolved to accept each moment of pain as nothing more than that, a moment, and thereby strip it of its emotional content, and get on with things. I would adopt an attitude of yogalike detachment to my body, something I had recently read of, but not understood, in the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita—the better to concentrate on, if not the eternal nature of Lord Krisha, then on what really mattered: finishing the journey and fulfilling my mission.

Around midnight I awoke shivering. I slipped into my sleeping bag, wondering at the change in weather. A nocturnal frost had hit—a harbinger of autumn! Outside, a full moon was silvering the lake bed, giving it the allure of heaven-dust; a lunar glow rendered sugary the stark surrounding peaks. From afar came the bleats of sheep, the melodious song of a shepherd. An owl flitted by, soundlessly, circling wide, and alighted on my tent pole, the quivering shadow of his silhouette majestically backlit by the moon on my tent’s wall—the very image of ephemerality.

Warmed in my sleeping bag, I sensed then and there that I would make it to the end.

After we left Lake Izoughar, as the days passed and we hiked on, I blanked my mind, feeling the heat, sensing the dust on my tongue, the sweat trickle down my forehead, aware of my surroundings, yet finally able to lose myself in the moment, in each step taken, in the rhythms of my breath, leaving the pain to flicker elsewhere in my consciousness, like summer lightning on a distant horizon. I observed all these sensations, some pleasant, most not, coming and going, aware that, unless I dwelled on them, none left a trace.

Five weeks later, after having ascended the lunar crags of Jbel Mgoun and Jbel Toubkal, picked over the ocherous screes of the eastern High Atlas, and camped beneath the fragrant pines of the Tichka Plateau, much bedraggled but deliriously happy, we descended to the cool emerald waterfalls of Imouzzer des Ida Ou Tanane, near where the last hills and valleys of the High Atlas flatten out to meet the Atlantic. Our odyssey was over, and my back slowly had begun to heal.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

3 Comments for Trekking the High Atlas, Taking the Pain

Nick 11.30.09 | 1:12 PM ET

Great article - evocative and inspiring. It’s heartening that you managed to accept the pain for what it was, and continue with your trek. Good thing your guides knew how to deal with the situation!

Thomas Hollowell 12.15.09 | 2:50 PM ET

A great story! And, well written, too. I love the way you bring the High Atlas to life and the spirit of the Berbers as well. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the High Atlas in 2002, before stopping my service due to other events. I am still in Morocco and wrote a book called, “Allah’s Garden: A True Story of a Forgotten War in the Sahara Desert of Morocco,” (You can see it here: ttp:// which is doing pretty well. In any regard, I wish you the best with your mission! Can’t wait to read the NG article! If you are in Morocco later, contact me : ) Very Best!

Ahmed 01.01.10 | 7:11 AM ET

It’s a lovely story and touchable one , Mr Thomas Hollowell ,I’m very interesting in reading your novel , can you tell me please where i can get a copy?

Many thanks

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.