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Climbing to the Roof of North Africa

Often, when you challenge yourself, there comes a moment of self-doubt. For Frances Buck, Business Development Manager at Go Ape, that moment came on the first day of her ascent of Mount Toubkal in Morocco. There was definitely a moment when I thought, “this is stupid,” Frances recalls. Quickly following that moment Frances' perseverance and determination kicked in, steam-rolling her negative thoughts as she pressed ahead on her journey to the roof of North Africa.

Go ape team member climbing a mountain

Frances, who’s 54, had joined a group of adventure-loving Go Ape staff, drawn from the company’s high ropes courses all over the UK. Their objective: to hike to the summit of Morocco’s highest peak in two days, starting from the village of Imlil. They’d hired mountain guides, and a team of mules to carry their equipment, and were led by the company’s experienced operations manager, Jo McLaren (who has led mountaineering expeditions all over the world). But right from the start, Frances was horrified by what she’d let herself in for.

“It was a good thing, really, because it took my mind off the precipitous drop on one side of the path.”

mountain range at sunset

“I’ve never been in the high mountains like that,” she points out, when we catch up with her on her return. “I’ve never even skied – and the environment was a shock. I genuinely thought that at the start we’d be walking through rolling green hills. But we were in something called a boulder field: and I spent the whole climb looking at my feet, worrying about where I was going to make the next step.

“It was a good thing, really, because it took my mind off the precipitous drop on one side of the path.”

Even more punishing was the effect of the altitude. Imlil, at the start of the climb is set at 1,800m. The summit is at 4,167m – and up there, lower air pressure means the amount of oxygen in every breath falls by more than a third, compared with sea level. “It was brutal,” Frances recalls.

Still, it was a miracle she was on the trek in the first place. In the last five years, Frances has been through dark times: escaping an abusive relationship, before losing four family members to terminal illness. Mentally and physically she was at a low ebb when news of the upcoming Toubkal expedition went round Go Ape’s head office in Suffolk. Part of a programme designed to support and nurture a spirit of adventure within the company, it was attracting interest from Go Ape’s younger workers. But when Frances heard about it, she too had a lightbulb moment .

“Suddenly I thought “You know what? I’m tired of feeling like this. I’m not ill. I want to climb that mountain too.”

“Suddenly I thought “You know what? I’m tired of feeling like this. I’m not ill. I want to climb that mountain too.” By way of preparation, she went back to the gym, three times a week. She even climbed Helvellyn in the Lake District on New Year’s Day – “on one of those days it makes you feel lucky to be alive,” she recalls.

Now, she realises she should have done more. “By the time I arrived at base camp after the first day’s walk I was all in,” she admits. “Worse, I was freezing cold as soon as I stopped walking. Lady Frances Five Coats was my name by the time the team had heaped their fleeces and jackets on me.”

In the end, she reached the summit by breaking the climb down into sections of just 30 steps – followed by a rest and some very deep breaths. “I wasn’t a climbing a mountain any more,” Frances recalls.  “I was simply getting to the next turn in the path, the next boulder, the next flat bit.”

snowy mountain range

The support of the rest of the team was vital too. “They were an incredible bunch. One had been to Everest Base Camp, another had climbed Kilimanjaro, one more had signed up for an Ironman triathlon. But they never once made me feel my pace was an issue. They just put me at the front, and said ‘We’re a team. We’ll go at your speed.’” So, eventually, after 2,367m of ascent, at midday on the second day, they made it. “The view was incredible,” says Frances. “It was like being in an aeroplane.” The feeling was amazing too. “There I was, 52 years old, with no mountaineering experience, on top of a 4,000m peak. That doesn’t happen every day, does it?”

Would she do it again? “Actually no,” she says. “But I will do other things. After all, if I can climb Toubkal, what else can I do?” The first item on Frances’ bucket list is a sailing trip. Then, she’s going to take her niece and nephew to Go Ape  Grizedale, in the Lake District. “We’ll do the Zip Trek, climb some trees, hire a canoe, whatever. "I'm sure they'll rise to the challenge," she says. "Just like I did."

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