Days 10-11 Pushing through deep snow to Dades Gorge - All Around The Atlas - Morocco 2019 - CycleBlaze

December 21, 2019 to December 22, 2019

Days 10-11 Pushing through deep snow to Dades Gorge

Agoudal to Skoura

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Day 9 - Agoudal to wildcamp above Dades Gorge - 45 miles

When I woke up, I suddenly had a horrible thought that there might not be enough money in my wallet to pay for the hotel room. It's really rare to get somewhere that takes card outside of the cities, so that would have been a really awkward situation to go through. It turned out that I had 302 Dirhams left, which was thankfully just enough to pay the 300 fee. That was quite annoying though because I wanted to tip the guy a bit extra for the awesome meal and for being so friendly. I decided that giving no tip was less insulting than handing him my last 2 Dirham coin which is only the equivalent of 16p. Still, it meant that I was now completely out of money until I could find an ATM which was most likely in Boumalne Dades, 75 miles away. 

My route today was over the Tizi n'Ouano pass, which at 2910m meant it would be another bike elevation record for me. I'd done a bit of research about this infrequently travelled route and the next 40 miles from Agoudal would be on rocky piste tracks. Considering there hasn't been much opportunity for unsurfaced cycling so far, I was looking forward to it. The consensus online seems to be that the route isn't advisible for non-4x4 cars, but that's putting it a bit lightly! I have my doubts that a low-clearance 4x4 (like the Dacia Duster which is ubiquitous in Morocco) would make it up some of the rocky sections. 

Reaching the snow line. The last bit of actual cycling for hours.
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As I climbed higher, more and more snow drifts kept forcing me to dismount and walk. Considering the 2700m pass yesterday was completely snow-free, I hadn't been expecting any at all today. But of course I was sorely mistaken, and it wasn't long before the entire track was covered, and cycling became impossible. The Swiss couple from yesterday had told me it snowed a few weeks ago, and judging by the untouched surface, no one had gone over the pass on bike or vehicle since then. It felt very strange to be the first. Where the road had been worn into the mountain, snow had gathered in thick drifts, forcing me to tiptoe right on the outer edge or I'd sink in to my knees. This was really sketchy because there was often a steep drop on the other side and it would be all over if me or the bike took a slip off the edge. I've recently been researching cycle trips in Norway and came across some amazing photos/videos of people who set up the camera and captured themselves dragging their bike through deep snow. It really made me regret not getting the camera out for the deep sections (I've only got photos from the start and finish of the snowy bits), but I presume it never crossed my mind while fighting against the snow banks with soggy icy feet! One thing I did remember was that all my water bottles were empty so I packed a couple with clean snow and it somehow melted by the end of the day. 

A very dramatic landscape. I only saw a single shepherd this side of the pass.
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I was ok pushing if the snow stayed like this, but the snowdrifts started getting deeper and deeper.
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The last section was a straight 1 mile climb to the summit. I could see the abandoned stone hut at the top, it was oh so tantalisingly close, but progress was painfully slow. By now my back was killing me and every step sapped more energy. I debated with the thought that I might be feeling a hint of altitude sickness at this height, but I'd stayed fairly high up the night before so I doubt that was the case. The next 1.5 hours were a steady rhythm of pushing for 30 seconds and stopping to recover. Pushing for 30 seconds and stopping to recover, pushing for 30 seconds and stopping to recover... Yep, it took me 90 minutes to travel that last mile up the pass. 10 minutes before the summit, I saw a pair of figures appear in the distance and they made their way down towards me. It was 2 local Moroccans that had come up the snow-free South side on dirt bikes and were about to head back when they'd spotted me. They instantly offered to take my bike and push the remainder of the track, but I felt obliged to finish it myself now that I was so close. Masochistic or what! 

Descending back down from the snow line. I'm furious with myself that I didn't take any photos/videos of dragging my bike through the proper deep snow (or even one at the summit with the guys!)
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It was hard to communicate with the motorbikers but from what I gathered, this was the last of the deep snow. They were spot on, and 15 minutes after the summit, I was able to get back on the bike for the first time in almost 3 hours. With no money and dwindling supplies, I had aimed to get to Boumalne Dades by the end of today, but the downhill was much steeper and rockier than I was expecting and it was hard to pick up any sort of speed at all without getting shaken to the core. A slow pace wasn't the worst though, because it gave me longer to admire the incredible canyon that was running parallel to the road. It reminded me of America's Grand Canyon and the snow cover contrasted wonderfully with the fiery shades of rock. A Dacia Duster (surprise, surprise) approached me from the opposite direction and a European couple wound down the window to ask what the road conditions ahead were like. I didn't want to sugar coat it, so straight up told them it was impassable with an apologetic shake of the head. Even snow chains wouldn't have been much help with the sloping banks as deep as they were.

My wheels and chainset would clog up so frequently, I had to use my anti-dog stick to keep trying to remove the snow & mud mixture.
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The road following the rim of a spectacular canyon.
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High up on the Dades Gorge. Barely any tourists come this way because of the one-way route across the piste, instead turning back much lower in the valley where the famous switchbacks are.
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A long while later and the dirt suddenly gave way to a narrow strip of potholed tarmac. That was all Iit took though, and I absolutely flew through the villages that were springing up on the valley floor. M'Semrir was the largest of the places I passed through (though that's not saying much) and there were loads of promising looking signs above doorways like 'Western Union', but infuriating, none of these had any ATMs so I would have to wait. There was still a shred of hope that I could manage 40 miles in 2 hours on the downhill, but it quickly became apparent this wouldn't be the case as the road reached the walls of the canyon and climbed sharply upwards again. Cycling energy was all but gone by this point and my legs were in protest as I dropped into the lowest gear and slowly winched the bike up along the horrendous road surface. With no money, the only option was to wildcamp and that was easier said than done on the edge of a canyon. Camping higher than the road is always preferable to camping lower and eventually I found a small perch of flat ground on top of the cliffs. The ground was a very 'comfortable' mix of sharp rocks and thistles, so I tried to use my clothes as extra padding in any way I could. It certainly wasn't the most relaxing spot after a backbreaking day, but the views more than made up for it. Looking out my tent to see the sun slowly set over the High Atlas was glorious.  

Golden light from the sunset illuminating the surroundings.
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Not a very hidden or comfortable spot, but the views were awesome. I probably could've tried asking to camp in a nearby village if I was a little braver.
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Day 10 - Dades Gorge wildcamp to Skoura Oasis - 80 miles

Considering I was pitched up at 2000m, the night hadn't been nearly as cold or windy as it could have been. Almost every night in any country I've camped before, the tent has been wet with condensation the next morning, yet somehow this barely seemed to happen in Morocco. I was really pleased to pack away a dry tent once again. The roads were completely traffic-free early on and it made for some thrilling cycling on the numerous tight switchbacks.

Another ridiculously narrow gorge in the Dades valley.
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The route continued to descend down and down past sleepy villages and I barely saw another soul for hours. After a while the road actually started to drag on a bit, and I was beginning to get tired of climbing sharply after every drop, especially now that I'd run out of water. More hints of tourism began to appear and soon I was at the famous Dades Gorge switchbacks that have been featured in a bunch of car adverts. There was an impressive hotel at the top, perched right over the cliff edge, but the view was ruined by the way they felt the need to spray-paint 'HOTEL' in huge uneven letters on the side of one of the walls. Descending this ribbon of perfectly smooth road was great fun, and I even caught up some vehicles on the way down with the smell of their old 1990's brakes burning in the air. 

The famous switchback section. It's a shame I was too early for the sun to have risen over the gorge yet.
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The whole of my route in Morocco had been characterised by weird rock formations. I've heard these are called the 'Monkey Fingers'.
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It was a relief to reach the town of Boumalne Dades to resupply. I almost chugged a whole 1.5L bottle of water in one go. There wasn't too much to see here apart from an abundance of cafes, so I headed West and decided to grind out a big day in the saddle. At Kalaat M'Gouna, I stopped for a drink on a bench in the town centre, and a lady from the family next to me got up to hand me bread, butter, and yoghurt. This was really unexpected and I had to chance to use a few more Arabic words in thanking her. I offered them some fruit back which seemed to go down really well. Once I'd managed to explain in Arabic that I was from England, the lady switched to a decent level of English and I chatted for a while with her and the older mother. This particular encounter left me in a great mood, not only because of the unhesitant generosity, but also because it was the first time a Moroccan lady had initiated conversation. When I came to the country, it was soon obvious that the women aren't at the forefront, while being a lot more reserved than the men, so it was nice to meet a family who seemed more relaxed from these societal norms.

This was a really cool sight, an ethereal blanket of mist on the foothills near Skoura.
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The next 35 miles of flat road was the easiest I've done all trip, and if the sun didn't set so early I would've happily cycled for hours more to smash that elusive 100 mile day. My spot of choice was a campsite just past the oasis town of Skoura which set me back 40 MAD (£3.20). For that price, I got modern showers/toilets, free WiFi, and a spot to charge my electrical gadgets while relaxing by the pool. Wild camping is great, but when the actual campsites are this cheap, it's an easy decision!

Another almost-deserted campsite. WiFi, electricity, spot to pitch the tent and a hot shower for £3.20!
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Today's ride: 125 miles (201 km)
Total: 597 miles (961 km)

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