Chronic Illness, Mount Toubkal and the Atlas Mountains

Now depending on how well you know me or how closely you follow me on social media you may or may not be aware that for the last 18 months Iv been rather ill… I first got ill in November 2018, following a trip to Ironman 70.3 Malaysia. What I originally thought of as fatigue following back to back races (Ironman Italy, New York Marathon and Ironman 70.3 Malaysia) went on for a while and soon needed some further investigation. Lots of blood tests, brain scans, spine scans, muscular testing and numerous other medical examinations took place and this was an incredibly stressful time for me. I struggled way more than most people would ever know… Every day was a battle and sometimes just getting out of bed or up a set of a stairs was a major issue. The general diagnosis was that I likely had a chronic illness and my life would change dramatically from here…

However the doctors persevered with their investigations looking at all options and it was eventually decided that I had contracted a tropical disease although by the time this decision was reached my body had fought the actual disease and the issues I was left with were the chronic pain and fatigue as my body had given everything to try and fight. I was told to cancel all plans for 2 years and lower my expectations of my capabilities. I’ve spent the last 18months fighting hard to minimise the impact of this on my life, trying to regain some fitness and lead as normal a life as possible. But slowly I have been getting better, relapses of chronic pain have been less frequent and I’ve been regaining some optimism that maybe I am over the worst of it.

A few months ago a friend of mine mentioned he was planning a trip to Morocco to climb Mount Toubkal and asked if I was interested… I had originally planned to do Aconcagua over Christmas 2019 but had to change plans due to my illness. So another opportunity to head out to the mountains was tempting.

I have to say that I was unfamiliar with the Atlas Mountains and it had never occurred to me that Morocco could be a good destination for some mountain days. I didn’t take much persuading and early December 2019 I signed up for the trip heading out on the 25th February 2020.

I haven’t been anywhere near a mountain in far longer than I would like to admit and with most of my free time occupied by cycling my training for Toubkal was pretty much non-existent. But I’m reasonably active at the moment and I already owned the majority of the kit I needed so it seemed like a good excuse for an adventure and to remind myself how much I love the mountains.

I stayed at an airport hotel with some friends the night before we travelled and we met up with another girl who would be joining the trip. I was looking forward to going somewhere new and having a mini adventure.

The morning of the flight I didn’t feel amazing, but early mornings can be tough and I hadn’t slept well the night before I took some pain relief, tried to nap on the plane and just figured I would be ok.

By the time we arrived in Marrakech I was feeling decidedly rough… Joints and major muscle groups were painful, my hands were swollen, everything hurt… I’d taken about as much pain relief as I could take safely and was massively struggling. I hadn’t had a bad bout of chronic pain since October, this was not good timing.

We met the rest of the team, transferred to a Riad we would be staying in and headed out to have lunch and explore a Souk. As time went on the pain got worse and worse, by the time we were walking around the Souk even my arms and fingers hurt. After a little time exploring we headed back to the Riad, I headed up to my room, laid down on the bed with pillows propped up both in front and behind me, tried to stay as still as possible and cried… I can not explain how horrendous the pain was even whilst completely still… I hadn’t felt like this for months but the pain was so recognisable…

I got up a little while later and joined the group for dinner, except I couldn’t eat, or move even to pick up my glass of water. The pain was unbearable, I was propped up against some cushions trying not to move but also not to come across as anti social. At this point in time I didn’t think I stood a chance of being able to head up into the mountains the next day.

After dinner I took some more pain relief and went to bed again propped up with pillows, closed my eyes and hoped for the best. I woke up when the painkillers wore off, took some more and tried to get some more sleep.

In the morning I felt a little less horrendous but still very rough, I was keeping the painkillers as constant as possible taking variations every 2hrs and trying to keep myself able to move at least a little…

We transferred to Imlil where we would begin our trek into the Atlas Mountains. I was feeling well enough to start but still not amazing. The pace was steady, and it was warm, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other hoping it would get easier.

We trekked up to 2250mtrs where we stayed at a refuge in the mountains. The team prepared a lovely meal for us and the refuge only had our group staying there so it was quite peaceful. After a while spent star gazing in the evening a few of us decided to sleep out on the terrace under the stars. This really was the most incredible experience and one I wish I could repeat daily.

I felt decidedly better when I woke up the next morning, despite quite a broken sleep I was coping, the pain has lessened loads and I hadn’t taken extra pain relief in the night. I could not have been more relieved. Maybe I’d be ok to continue.

Day 2 of trekking included 1500mtrs of ascent, up to 3600mtrs before heading down slightly to a refuge set at 3200mtrs which would be our resting point for the night. This day included more switchbacks than I could count, some interesting sections of snow and ice, but also some of the most incredible views I have ever seen! I was in my element! I love the mountains! Maybe I forgot this a little bit during the time I was ill. My pain was subsiding, I was enjoying the trekking, the views and everything that went with it.

We all stayed in the same dorm in the refuge, heading to bed for an early night, although I don’t think anyone slept more than an hour or 2. Alarms were set for 3.45am with breakfast at 4am. We were aiming to be on our trek to the summit by 5am…

Just before 5am, head torches on, we started our ascent to the summit of Jebel Toubkal…

I felt absolutely fine! Of all the days to feel better this was the one! I could not have been more relieved.

Slowly we headed up the snow covered mountain, it takes a lot of concentration to ascend in the dark by torchlight but what an adventure! We reached a ridge before the summit just as the sun rise and the views were absolutely incredible.

Then almost 4hrs after we started and over 1000mtrs of ascent we reached the summit of Mount Toubkal – 4167mtrs! With the most incredible views of both the mountains and the deserts… This was what we had been aiming for, and it was well worth the walk.

After plenty of photos at the summit we headed down, we took a different route to most other groups, descending down into the valley towards Imlil with over 2500mtrs of descent covered on this day, and 14hrs of walking in total, this day was definitely a challenge, but for all the right reasons. Chronic pain was nowhere to be seen and I could not have been more grateful.

However I have to say I find descending way tougher than ascending! More from a mental perspective than a physical one. I have a fear of falling and steep descents and uneven ground amplify this quite dramatically so I found the long descent very stressful and was super grateful to the group and our guides for their support as I shuffled my way down rather precariously. For me the descent was a real challenge! But one I am glad to have managed.

Back in Imlil I was very excited at the opportunity to shower and wear some of my lighter clothes after 3 days in trekking/mountain gear. We had a lovely meal together, then an early night and I can tell you everyone in the group said that nights sleep was a good one.

I can hand on heart say when I started this trip I didn’t think I would finish it. I was so convinced I’d have to stay behind on Day 1, not well enough to participate. I could not be more grateful that this occurrence of chronic pain didn’t not go on for a substantial number of days. But now it’s done I’m grateful I made it, and am not taking my recovery for granted. My body has had an incredibly tough time over the last 18months and I am just grateful of the opportunity to be able to recover a bit and get back to doing what makes me happy…