Morocco, Snow and the Olympics — Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)

"La station de Ski de l'Oukaïmeden" Photo: Kheir Addine Azzaoui

“La station de Ski de l’Oukaïmeden” Photo: Kheir Addine Azzaoui

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
February 9, 2018

ED official photo - smallMorocco is faced with yet another massive snowfall this week, hitting the low lands as well as the peaks of the High Atlas Mountains.  This comes during the very week the Olympics open in South Korea and brings to mind my time as US Ambassador to Morocco when I skied a great mountain outside Marrakech in the shadow of the second highest peak in Africa, Oukaimeden, which the locals call “Luka”.

I’ve been skiing since I was 9 years old, when I used to hitch hike to our local hill on the weekends, in upstate New York. I eventually became an ‘extreme skier’ and had the good fortune of living and skiing on three continents, including the off-piste powder paradise of the Western United States, where I’ve skied with the 1982 Olympians Phil and Steve Mahre and many other great American skiing personalities.

This week, one of Morocco’s hopes, Adam Lamhamedi, qualified in the Alpine events of Men’s Slalom and Super G in South Korea, the second time for his country, which will also represent Morocco’s seventh appearance in the winter games.  In 2010 at the Winter Youth Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Adam was the gold medalist in the first ever boy’s super-G competition.  This made him the first person representing an African nation to win a medal at Winter Olympic Games of any type.  During the course of that year, he was ranked first in Canada for giant slalom and second in slalom, where he now lives with his Canadian mother and Moroccan father.  In addition to Adam, Morocco will field Adam’s brother Sami as an alternate in case his brother is injured, and Samir Azziman, also known as the Couscous Rocket, who will participate in Nordic events.

This week also reminds me of one spectacular day of skiing at Luka, after it received a three foot dump some 19 years ago. I’ve skied some of the great mountains of the world. Chamonix and Verbier were my local ski resorts when I lived in Switzerland and I’ve hucked my carcass (i.e. throwing one’s body off a cliff or rock outcropping) several times into Jackson Hole’s Corbets’ Couloir, known to be one of scariest runs inside any ski resort in the world.

I have to say that Luka compares with some of the greatest runs I’ve skied.  With the resort rising above tree line, it is very much situated on ridges and open spaces, reminding me of Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. Long black runs come off the mountain on the skiers right side, with plenty of opportunity to huck carcass and find powder lines with steep pitches.  With 2000 vertical feet straight down, it is as long as many runs in the US.  There is no grooming, so as the day went on, we went from deep waist powder shots, to the buildup of bumps and then found ourselves in a bright sunny blue sky day. Seven long vertical runs in deep powder and top to bottom bump runs produced one of my most memorable and challenging days of skiing.  I earned a much deserved hammam (Moroccan steam bath and message) that evening, followed by a traditional Moroccan meal at the famous Dar Yacout restaurant, not to mention a major sunburn the next day!

So when you hear that Adam Lamhamedi or his teammate Samir Azziman are in the starting gate for the slalom, Super-G or Nordic competition at this year’s Olympics, don’t laugh and wonder why Morocco, which is home to the largest desert in the world (the Sahara), is fielding a winter Olympian.  With more snow in the High Atlas than many New England resorts and ski runs that will make your legs shake, Morocco is producing strong, skilled and courageous skiers. Be sure to catch Adam and Samir during the Olympics.  They won’t be skiing to just represent their country, they’ll be racing to be on the podium.  Bring on the snow Morocco!

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