RAVINES AND TAGINES
Hiking up the beautiful beast that is Mount Toubkal. Highest peak in North Africa. 4,167metres. 13,671ft. Those of us from Adelaide who think Mount Lofty is hard work?? You really need to meet Mount Toubkal.
WHY I DID IT
Deciding to climb Mount Toubkal (Jbel Toubkal to the locals) was on my to do list well before I arrived in Morocco. Since summiting Mount Agung in Bali (3031m) I had discovered a newfound love of mountain hiking with my only previous experiences being little old Mount Lofty (727m) in the Adelaide Hills. Hiking up this mountain was one of my driving forces to choosing Morocco as my first solo travel destination and I’m so incredibly happy that I did it.
HOW I GOT THERE
Although I did research climbing this mountain before I got to Morocco I chose to organise the climb on arrival to Marrakech to support local business, save money and get a feel for the company in person before booking. I was joined for this part of my trip by my friend Tom, from the UK, an awesome travelling companion with typical English humour and a great collection of Frank Turner songs on his iPod. After haggling with a few local travel agencies we organised ourselves a local guide called Mohammed and transport to Imlil the next day. There was some concerns we wouldn’t be able to make the climb due to heavy snow on the summit and we did have to reschedule to a few days later, so it’s good to be flexible with your dates especially if travelling in winter.
WHAT I DID
We arrived in Imlil in the morning, a gorgeous quaint town nestled at the base of the High Atlas Mountains. Here we met our guide, Mohammed and visited a local hire store to get kitted up with hiking and snow gear for the ascent. Mohammed and every one else we met from here onwards spoke very minimal English so it was a fun time of charades, sign language and bits of broken Berber (local language), French and Arabic. We commenced our hike with great anticipation and started to take in the beautiful scenery.
Goats, mules and local men shared our path with us, occasionally bumping into other trekkers who were either also ascending the mountain or happily descending, full of encouragement and triumph. The weather started off warm and sunny, causing us to strip off our heavy layers and question our choices to hire that snow gear!
We soon were extremely thankful for our extra layers however, as clouds quickly came over and it started to rain. We felt the temperature dropping the higher we got and snow begin to appear nestled between the peaks and within the ravines.
We stopped for lunch, traditional Berber tagine from a tiny tin-shed-like structure built into the natural rock of the mountain. By now the rain was constant cold drizzle but didn’t dampen our spirits as Tom deafened poor Mohammed with his exuberant singing, which apparently helps him to hike quicker. Using the ‘bathroom’ a.k.a a ‘bucket in a rock cave with no lighting and an open doorway with a tiny frayed tea towel hanging up to cover not-very-much’ was all part of the fun. On the plus side, always one to find an excuse to shop, I found myself a lovely handmade Berber beanie and put it to good use 🙂
As it started to get darker we reached the refuge, our camp for the night. Snow was now surrounding the path making for picturesque views, however we still couldn’t make out the top of the summit through the clouds, we had now reached 3207m and the altitude was making me feel a little breathless and dizzy!
The refuge ‘Les Mouflons de Toubkal’ is a big dark building with a common area for hikers to warm up by the fire and share trekking stories before bedding down in the cramped dorms for a much needed rest before the early morning summit. Private rooms are available for booking. Traditional tagine is served by the tiny mountain men who man the refuge. You can’t avoid staying at the refuge; it’s basic, rooms are a bit mouldy and it’s not exceptionally clean but still very enjoyable to stay in and is everything needed in a mountain refuge. In summer camping outside is an option. In winter I spent the entire time in thermals plus about three more layers, as it was minus degrees Celsius. The electricity is only on from 7.00-9.30pm so a headlamp comes in handy to get downstairs to the toilets. BYO toilet paper and towels. We used our hired sleeping bags in the bunks sans pillows and slept in the room for the guides who all got early nights with us.
By 4am the refuge was a buzz of activity with everyone preparing for the summit. By this stage I was not feeling well at all from the altitude with a headache, dizziness, nausea and had barely slept. A lovely group of women trekking from the UK gave me some Diamox to take to help but I later discovered this is better taken as preventative. It would have been also good to know in advance that it can make your hands and feet feel super tingly!
Ascending into the darkness up to the summit was really cool. We trekked through paths of very slippery icy snow, which even with the aid of trekking poles was hilariously slippery and gave us a good giggle despite the -12deg temperatures. The wind chill was crazy, any part of bare skin was absolutely freezing and I’m pretty sure I looked like a little chubby Rudolph in my many layers.
Within a few hundred metres the snow became much fresher and deep enough to sink to my knees if I stepped in the wrong spot. Unfortunately I think our eagerness and exuberance the day before to quickly ascend the mountain was backfiring as I hadn’t acclimatised very well at all. I had the classic signs of mild altitude sickness; breathlessness, lightheaded and dizzy, splitting headache and nausea. I didn’t realise it at the time but my pace had become extremely slow and it was holding Tom and Mohammed back and many other trekkers continued to bypass us.
I was desperate to get to the summit but in the end I had to make the decision to go back down; Ill admit there were tears but I felt like absolute crap; really unsteady on my feet and just couldn’t catch my breath. Mohammed was great despite our language barrier and the wind making conversation barely audible and helped me back down. As soon as I descended I started to feel better and my head became so much clearer!
Tom was brilliant and went on alone to reach the summit, an awesome achievement, and he met us back down at the refuge for the final descent. This part was much more pleasurable for me as my headache resolved and I felt so much better! The scenery was just as gorgeous on the way back and the songs were still flowing, with Mohammed even joining in. I feel really happy and satisfied with my efforts as I knew I couldn’t have gone further, I gave it all my body had and it was an amazing experience. Maybe one day I’ll head back there to conquer Jbel Toubkal a little slower next time!
THE SHORT STORY
-the whole experience takes a full two days minimum with at least one night in the refuge at 3207m
-pack layers of warm clothes, gloves, water-resistant jacket, well worn-in trekking shoes and a head torch
-you can easily organise it all in Marrakech, bargain your price down and try to be flexible with dates due to the weather in winter
– you can hire sleeping bags, gloves, boots, snow pants, jacket, trekking poles, crampons and ice picks as needed in Imlil. No guarantee on sizes thought it’s more like a bunch random gear people have donated
-you can hire a mule to carry your stuff (or you) but I don’t think this is necessary, just take a light day backpack with comfy harness
– we very trustingly left our main backpacks with a guy in Imlil overnight with no problem
– ASCEND SLOWLY – I wish I did this. Don’t try and keep up with the guide, our dude was as quick and agile as a mountain goat despite being easily double my age and obviously well adapted to the altitude
– stay a night in Imlil to help acclimatise if needed
– actually read up about what altitude sickness is and the symptoms; I really should have researched better so I could have acted on it when I first started feeling it rather than pushing on just thinking “sheesh I must be really unfit!”
-a small amount of Dirham comes in handy for buying beverages/snacks/handmade hat or scarf
-take your camera, the scenery is amazing!
CAPTURED ON THE MOUNTAIN
PS. Are you thinking of going to Mt Toubkal? Have questions? Ask us in the comments section below.
Have you been to Mt Toubkal? We would love to hear your travel stories also!