By Scott Willoughby
Warren Miller's Snow World
Special to CNN.com
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Part 2: High Atlas range
From the traditional Berber village of Imlil, the team launched an eight-hour trek to the Nelter hut, part of a French Alpine Club hut system at the base of Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at nearly 14,000 feet. The plentiful snow and impressive terrain offered yet another surprising treat.
"We had seen some pictures and knew what the mountains were called, but really had no idea what to expect," says new school tele-skiing phenom Dolenc, 26. "Once we got in there, the mountains were pretty impressive. They looked like pictures I've seen of the Himalayas and definitely required more of a mountaineering style of skiing, climbing big peaks and getting some turns on the way down."
The team had been selected so that each member would play a specific role in the expedition. Dolenc and Clemenson, stars of the burgeoning telemark skiing scene, move through the mountains with the skill and grace of tango dancers. As a five-year veteran of the renowned Exum Mountain Guides in the Tetons, Santelices would make sure everyone got through the terrain safely before strapping on his snowboard and demonstrating another set of skills for the camera. And Ludden -- well, when it comes to mountaineering, the professional kayaker might best be described as "job security" for Santelices.
"I gained a whole new respect for these guys and their sport. They're crazy," says Ludden (who actually learned to ski in his native Montana at age 2). "I followed Christian up this really steep slope that was pretty exposed, and I was totally gripped. Maybe it wouldn't kill you if you fell, but I convinced myself it would. I kept thinking, 'What am I doing? I'm a kayaker.' But Christian taught me a lot about myself and about his sport. He helped me overcome a lot of my fears and got me through it safely."
Considering the lack of a 1-800-MOROCCO snow report, the crew's two days on snow exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, the ski line that Clemenson calls "the best in Morocco" won't actually be seen in "Journey," as foul weather and poor visibility conspired against Patterson's cameras. But for Clemenson, who hiked and skied during the entire trip with a blown-out knee, dropping into the pristine couloir after more than three hours of ascending straight up with crampons and ice axes made the trip worthwhile.
"It was the longest couloir I've ever seen, and it was supposed to be the line in the segment," she recalls. "Ben and I were going to ski it together. We waited forever for the weather to break, and it never did. So we just skied it anyway. Once we plunged in, it was incredible. The best line in Morocco didn't get filmed." In a more conventional Warren Miller segment, the athletes might have returned to the steep chute for a third day of filming. But this was Morocco. And the lure of adventure beckoned from the Middle Atlas mountains below. Besides, the crowded accommodations at the hut-variously nicknamed the "sweat lodge" or the "unsanitarium" by team members-had proven to be a universal low-light of the trip.
"There must have been 40 French people sleeping in bunks in the same room with the door shut. It was like a snoring orchestra," Clemenson says. "And there was no ventilation, so the walls were sweating and nothing dried out. It was pretty brutal."
No one was more eager to get back to the foothills than Ludden, who was ready to showcase his skills on the river. Though he was the ACG team's youngest member, Ludden is long established on Dagger kayaks' "Team-D," having paddled whitewater around the world. Finally, it was his turn at the helm in Morocco.
"I really appreciated getting back to my comfort zone," says Ludden. "But my biggest task wasn't so much kayaking as it was trying to help the group on the river, like they had done for me in the mountains."
From Imlil, Ludden led the team on a six-hour drive to the headwaters of Morocco's longest river, the Oum er-Riba, or "mother of spring."
The river's source is 40 springs that flow from within a 2,000-foot limestone cliff, then join together to form a tight, technical Class IV run. Along the banks are tea stands, where villagers congregate on elaborate rugs and wash down spicy chicken tajine (a stew) with mint tea as they watch the river flow past, as if they were at a sidewalk cafe. Perhaps it was just the contrast to the "sweat lodge," but the dreamlike setting seemed too ideal to be real.
"It looked like a movie set had been created for us," Patterson says. "The whitewater was cool and everything, but it was like, 'Holy cow, look at these beautiful rugs and these villagers dressed to a T in the most colorful attire you've ever seen.' It couldn't have been more perfect."
Each of the team members had been in a kayak before, although Santelices had some rust to scrape off and Clemenson's knee was a definite handicap. Dolenc proved to be the crew's ace in the hole, hiking his kayak up the well-worn goat-herding trail to join Ludden at the headwaters before revealing impressive skills on the river.
"One of my first loves is paddling," he says. "I started kayaking when I was 17, but I separated my shoulder two years ago and hadn't paddled since. I was a little nervous at first, but as soon as I hit the water it was like riding a bike." As they hiked back through a village between river runs, children scurried at their feet, helping carry helmets and paddles as Dolenc and Ludden made their way back to the put-in, which was on a local woman's rug. They offered to pay her for the service, and in return she asked them to stop and share some tea.
"There is so much more to a river than the water, and that really came out in this trip," Ludden recounts. "Here we are in this amazing setting, kids running around screaming, burning our mouths because we're trying to drink our tea in a hurry, and Ben just looks at me and goes, 'Dude, we're in Morocco.' I've never seen a river like that before in my life."
For more on the Moroccan adventure: Part 3 -- Atlantic coast