near Taouraout, Meknès-Tafilalet (Morocco)
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Jebel Ayachi is the most outstanding massif of the Moroccan High Atlas north of the Mgoun massif. Going further north one finds only another isolated big mountain, Jebel Bou Naceur, 3340 m in the Middle Atlas. To pass the 3000m threshold again one has then to go past Gibraltar, to the Sierra Nevada.
I was on the way from the desert to Fès, when a nasty wind began to blow wildly on the vast and unprotected high plateaux of the Atlas. When in my favour, it could push me over easy ascents without pedalling, but when against me it could prevent me from going beyond a 8 kmh speed on the descents. Worst of all, when it come from the side, I could barely keep my trajectory, which became tricky when I was overtaken by trucks passing by at foolish speed.
In view of such conditions, I decided to head to the mountains, leaving the remaining kms to bus transportation. From Midelt I followed the 30 or so km piste to the Cirque de Jaffar, which then leads in 120 further kms to Imilchil, the half-legendary Berber village of the bride moussem and of the lakes.
Darkness fell right when I was reaching a 2200 m pass where I slept in my tent. After that point, the piste plunged to 2000 in a small circus where one could guess some shepherd huts, equipped with dogs vaguely barking in the dark. I do not know whether Cirque de Jaffar is the name for this small space or for one of the two wide plateaux marked in the image. Neither do I know if the piste followed by me is the easiest to Jaffar - I received contradicting information under this respect. My Ayachi visit has raised more questions than it has answered.
The next day - Easter Sunday - in order to locate the summit on the 35 km long ridge (!!) I had at my disposal the 1:1.000.000 Michelin map, plus hints from the territory... In face of me stood out a snowy ridge which plunged down to the Jaffar region. The piste was regularly interrupted by the stony beds of flooded rivers, until one riverbed come, which was wider than the others. It seemed to come from a deeply carved gorge, and this led me to the correct intuition: the snowy ridge in evidence was only a NW counterfort, the true Ayachi ridge was to be found on the other side of whichever was beyond the gorge. I parked the bicycle on the riverbed, I walked into the gorge and I emerged in what I called the "Hidden Cirque". Here I was alone with an empty shepherd hut (azib) and with four donkeys left to themselves. To test the animal/human presence in the gorge, I left close to the bicycle some bread and some money - and I was going to find bicycle, food and money untouched.
The "Hidden Cirque", 2200 m, was closed on the SE side by a mighty snowy mountain with had the only defect to look out 3400, not 3700. I could not point towards it on the treacherous snow that at times let me sink up to above my waist. There was an unique snow-free ridge, which I called "Lomo Pedregoso", but when I first discovered it I was already engaged in a detour that brought me high on the flank of the NW counterfort. This was a luck, since that viewpoint revealed to me that the mighty snowy mountain was only a prominence of the ridge leading to the standpoint of the present view. Few moments later they would become the "False Ayachi" and the "False False Ayachi". Moreover, I discovered that the ridge continuing the "Lomo" and joining "False False" to "False" ended up with a severe escarpment almost certainly requiring snow gear. At the same time, an alternative ridge on the far side appeared, whose mixed terrain seemed no joke but also no impassable barrier. Actually, at 14.30 I found myself on top of the snowy dome taking the present photos, controlled from east by a curiously snow-free scree dome, which I was to climb next, and which seemed to be somewhat higher. Actually, my GPS rated it 3770, in place of the 3730 of the snow dome.
From this "True Ayachi" I had to guess a reasonable descent route. From a further "NE Dome" rated 3690 I safely descended to a snowy "High Cirque", from which a winding valley lead down to the "Hidden Cirque", reaching it quietly, without any treacherous snow or scree slope. Incredibly, I had guessed the best descent, which would also be a superb ski-touring path, strikingly similar to the descent from the Palon de la Mare to the Rifugio Branca in the Cevedale group, and with even more grandeur in its 3700 to 2000 m span. There is nothing comparable in the popular Toubkal group; let us hope that no adventure-touring agency ever discovers this place, otherwise the peace of the "Hidden Cirque" would be severely threatened!
The Lonely Planet guide dedicates few lines to the Jebel Ayachi. For the ascent, the advice is to start from the Berber village of Tattiouine, hiring mules and trying to bivouac as high as possible in a valley secretly communicating with the "Hidden Cirque". But with a rough Google Earth simulation I have checked that the Tattiouine way to the summit is more than 22 km long, while my "Palon" way is no more than 10 from the Jaffar piste!
The next day, Eastern Monday, on the way back to Midelt, I managed to include a detour to Tattiouine, where I met a pedestrian who after some communication in French an English turned out to be Italian... he works for charity in Armenia, and here he was going to the village to eat the Easter lamb. Namely, in Midelt there is the Christian monastery of Nôtre Dame de l'Atlas where the nuns run a school of embroidery for local Berber girls. They also run little schools in the nearby villages such as Tattiouine.
In the image I have marked Jebel Issoual, behind which are hidden the two lakes of Imilchil, formed according to the tradition by the tears of two young Berber people who have not been allowed by their families to marry.
Left of the main ridge one guesses an indefinite bunch of snow-covered mountains: this is the 180 km far Irhil-M-Goun, much more vague in the reality than in the Udeuschle rendering. Right of it, one sees the outstanding Jebel Mesker and the far Tassemit, towering over Beni-Mellal. Here the present 360° panorama ideally meets the old n. 9534, "From Tassemit to Toubkal". Putting together these two panoramas one has a thorough overview of the whole 3000-4000 m section of the Atlas.
I do not know the true name of this pass, in case one exists. It gives access to the Cirque de Jaffar.
Start of hike
Here you leave the piste and head south into the valley.
The short gorge leading to the "hidden valley".
The highest that I found in the hidden valley.
I went south of the valley in order to avoid some large snowfields that occupied the upper part. Of course this detour can be avoided.
Ends the main valley. The view opens up in direction Imilchil.
Without ice gear, this was the key point for me. I had to balance between rocks and slippery hard snow.
Said ou Ali
The second-highest summit of the massif is much more beautiful and interesting than the main one, which appears merely as a heap of stones.
Saddle between main summits
Highest summit of the massif.
This would be perfect for ski-mountaineering.
Join main valley
The point where the side valley joins the main, "hidden" valley.
Azib after gorge
The only one in good condition inside the hidden valley.
Old cedar trees
Scattered on the flank of the gorge.
The point, already away from the piste, where I left the bicycle.