Big money wins again: heli-skiing in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains

It was bound to happen sooner or later. While the Atlas Mountains had settled down to unlimited trekking throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fringe sports like sky-diving, base-jumping, white-water rafting and extreme ski quietly flourished in out-of-the-way places without attracting overmuch attention from the general public or the authorities. Up till then, probably for environmental and/or security reasons, Morocco’s hills had been spared the ultimate desecration of heli-skiing.

But, at the turn of the century, with the tourism-based, real-estate boom gradually converting Marrakesh into a rich man’s holiday destination, some resourceful businessmen decided to up the ante and devise new, ingenuous ways of turning a fast buck. Leaving staid Marrakshi activities like golf and croquet, carpet-buying or riding in a horse-drawn carriage to old-age pensioners and package tourists, these enterprising entrepreneurs decided there was a market out there for visitors with money to spend and a taste for novelty. Next step: invent the multi-acre, multi-activity compound.

You know the kind of place. It caters for zip-wire, monkey-bridge, donkey polo, camel-racing, quad-bike or off-road vehicle racing, and suchlike antics; the kind of venue that will please couples with children, just as much as predatory bachelors of both sexes.  Several similar centres have been recently set up between Marrakesh and the Atlas foothills, the most typical being that so-called “Agafay Desert” which provides time-pressed tourists with a surrogate Sahara experience all crammed into one weekend, and accessible by helicopter in 15 minutes from downtown Marrakesh. Nor does it come cheap. No, sir!

But heli-skiing; what about that? That would really be going one better – sort of reaching out to the top of the up-market category! Never mind that way back in 1985 ski de dépose, as it was called in those days, had been officially banned in the French Alps. Never mind that President Giscard d’Estaing in person had had himself dropped off by whirlybird for a spot of fun in Savoy, only to be stigmatized for it by the French press! The point was that, ever since the ban, French ski instructors on the Alpine frontier had had itchy feet, yearning as they did to take a handful of their customers up in a chopper, then ski down some valley in neighbouring Switzerland and Italy, where controversial ski de dépose was still authorized.

And here in the Moroccan Atlas was a potential “helidorado” just waiting to happen! In fact, with the pressure building up over the past twenty years this writer had been wondering: “When will they finally go for heli-skiing?” Though hoping against hope that they wouldn’t; that wiser counsels would prevail.

It was not to be. Despite, or possibly due to, the economic down-turn, the powers that be decided to open up Atlas skies to civil aviation, including choppers, thus enabling TOs to up the ante a wee bit more and access yet another segment of the big-money market. That certain influential ski enthusiasts had been contemplating such a move, even working hard to swing the decision for quite some time, there is little doubt. That they would be French rather than Swiss or Italian was probably also inevitable. Strangely, Marrakesh, or “arnaquech” (“Ripoff-ville”) as the French affectionately call it, has become very much like an extension of Paris, with chatter in “Frogspeak” to be heard in most hotels and restaurants. That the protagonists would come from the upper-crust ski-area of Tignes/Val d’Isère was also to be expected. Anyway, as from 2010, these gentlemen began taking a close look at the Toubkal area; even carried out a little recce.

Spear-heading this reconnaissance trip was a certain Gino Pleingaz-Dumont from Savoy. Of course, he had the best of credentials. An astute businessman with a distinguished track record through the pick of Grenoble business schools and institutions; he was a born skier to boot. Also a fully qualified ski instructor and tour leader, who knew the Alps around Val d’Isère and Courmayeur like his own back-garden, not to mention a thing or two about the Moroccan Atlas. This writer had no doubt unwittingly brushed shoulders with Pleingaz-Dumont on a couple of occasions: 1) while skiing down the Grande Motte at Tignes in the summer of 1985; 2) as we drove up from Afourer to Azilal in July 1989, we passed a convoy of off-road vehicles with “Le privilège du Hors-Piste” offensively written on them in bold letters! No doubt about which top-notch resort those blokes had come from! Who hasn’t heard of “Espace Privilège Hors-Piste ESF Val d’Isère”?!

The 2010 reconnaissance (plus another one the following year) by the Savoy-based skiers first took in the Neltner Hut. In fact, rather tamely, that was how it started, with a first heli-flight into the secluded valley of Isougane Wagouns below Morocco’s tallest peak; sort of see how things were going up there, or “test the product” in business jargon. The very place where, a short while before, the first Bearded Vulture in years had been spotted. Then, oblivious of rare birds or similar environmental considerations,  Pleingaz-Dumont and his merry men revealed their true colours with drop-offs on Iguenouane summit, above Tacheddirt; finally, on the very top of Toubkal. Repérage, they call it in French, just checking the place out. The very kind of stunt calculated to have environmentalists up in arms for miles around! Which, according to unconfirmed reports, is eventually what happened…

Meanwhile, Pleingaz-Dumont had a few big-name skiers along to sample  the local snow, then published the interviews he got out of them in one of the big Parisian dailies, made a few heli-ski videos and put it all on an elaborately compiled website with some alluring music. Naturally, he harped on the theme of combining a ski-run with après-ski in Marrakesh (including a dip in the pool), or Agafay desert activities, or sitting on a beach; all in one day (stretching the facts just a little bit, mind you!); announcing that for €2350/weekend starting mid-January 2013, Atlas Mountain heli-skiing was up for grabs. All added up to a highly convincing package; a classic exercise in advertising.

Who’s anxious not to be missing out on this? Well, however immoral such lavish spending may sound in these penny-pinched times of great distress, the rich simply go on being rich. An unavoidable fact of life! So the right sort of customer is in anything but short supply, from the aristocratically-minded lazybones to well-heeled, Canary-Wharf whizz-kids suffering from the “go-pro-be-a-hero” syndrome.

All of which studiously ignores a basic fact: the Toubkal area is a national park, with efforts over the past half a dozen years concentrating on protecting the Bearded Vulture. Accepting heli-skiing would be to make nonsense of the environmentalist rationale. Of course, one knows what the pro-helo brigade will say: dropping off skiers on mountain tops is good practice for helicopter rescue pilots (my foot!). But that rather begs the question, doesn’t it? Isn’t the Toubkal area supposed to a protected area? Of course it is, with its Barbary Sheep now doing quite well (thank you very much!), occasional Bearded Vulture or Golden Eagle, and more frequently sighted Moussier’s Redstart, Crimson-Winged Finch, Rock Sparrow and countless lesser upland denizens. In the circumstances it is difficult to see how heli-skiing is going to improve matters.

No, it would be better by far to leave snow-bound Toubkal to winter climbers and ski-tourers, whose environmental footprints are far more discreet. Respect Morocco’s Atlas Mountains; they don’t deserve such thoughtless desecration!

Lone Backpacker (alias michael.peyron@voila.fr)