A Moroccan Adventure - Mt Toubkal

Standing at 4,167 meters Mt Toubkal is the highest mountain in the Atlas Mountains, and in North Africa, and was to be the focus of our attention for 5 days and nights that we spent in Morocco at the beginning of March 2013.

We flew out from Gatwick on a grey, miserable, day not really knowing what to expect or how we'd fair in a country that neither of us had really even contemplated going to.

Donna arranged the whole trip through Trekking Morocco (the people and service from this company were amazing and I would highly recommend using them, as we will hopefully be again), the plan was as follows;

Day 1 - Thursday pm - arrive in Morocco and transfer to Marrakesh for 1 night stay in Riad Andalla

Day 2 - Early transfer to Imlil and the start of our 3 day trek to Mt Toubkal. 
Walking from Imlil - Tizi M'zzik - Lipeney around 6 hours in total to Lipeney refuge (300m) via Tizi M'zzik (2450m) and the beautiful Azib n'Tamsoult and Ighouliden waterfalls. 
Day 3 -  Lipeney - Aguelzim - Neltner; approximately 5 hours. It will include walking up the 82 step zig-zag path and via Aguelzim Pass (3560m) to get to Neltner Refuge
Day 3 -  Neltner - Mount Toubkal - Imlil; may take up to 9 hours to trek and complete 
Day 4 - Camel trekking!!
Day 5 - home :(
Morning view from the rooftop of Riad Andalla
After an uneventful flight we arrived at Riad Andalla to be met by Christoph, the owner, who was very welcoming and a great host - we ate there and the food was amazing, as was the breakfast on the roof top overlooking the main square of Marrakesh.
It's a lovely Oasis of calm in a very hectic city that, to be honest, is not really my bag!

Breakfast on the rooftop of Riad Andalla
The next morning we were picked up and driven to Imlil where we met Mohamed from "Trekking Morocco" who explained the itinerary and introduced us to out guide Ibrahim and our cook/porter Hassan (sorry guys if I've spelt your names wrong!) - there was a slight change to the plan as the pass we were hoping to use for the 2nd days walking was not passable due to heavy snow a few days before so we were going to climb up to the Neltner Refuge at 3200m on day 1 and then summit Mt Toubkal on day 2 and return to the refuge for the night or drop all the way back to Imlil with another walk planned for day 3.

Once we'd packed up the mule and bought some water for the first day (it's not advisable to drink the tap water so bottled water (at about 60p per 1.5l bottle) is the safe option and readily available) we headed off on the well trodden path towards our lunch spot which was a small settlement with a local shrine and mosque.

It was strange to be heading out on a 3 day trip with nothing more than a day pack but with the comfort of knowing that everything we would need was plodding along behind us on the back of the mule!
Shrine and Mosque in Sidi Chamharouch - on the Toubkal main path
Our guide, Ibrahim  was really nice and happy to answer questions on all aspects of the trek, food, culture and even the head scarves - but more about that in a bit!

We reached the lunch stop (a small settlement of Sidi Chamharouch which houses a shrine and mosque) where Hassan prepared a great, fresh, lunch for us while we drank the heavily sugared tea that Moroccans are so famed for - to start with it's a bit much but after a few hours of walking in the heat it becomes a must rather than a matter of polite acceptance.

It was was on the walk up to the village, in the baking heat, that I asked Ibrahim to tell me about the head scarf that he (and most other Berber's) wore and he suggested that I should purchase one to keep the sun (and later cold) off my delicate(!) shaved bonce.. Conveniently he knew of just the place where I could buy one while we had lunch and told me that should pay no more than 100 Dirham for it (a price that he confirmed with the vendor so no haggling was required!).

As you can see I looked very fetching in my new, blue, scarf but all joking aside it was great and I wore it for the remainder of the trip - in the sun, wind, cold and rain!  I did need Ibrahim to tie it for me to start with and to show me the 3 different ways that he tied it depending on the conditions - whether I'll be using this in Wales and Scotland remains to be seen but I can't see why not!
My new "Berber" head scarf - looks daft on me but is bloody brilliant!
On the path up to the refuge
We reached the Neltner Refuge at about 3pm and went inside to find out bunks for the night and to drink sugared tea and wait while Hassan prepared the food for the evening.
There were a fair few other people in the refuge, mostly from Germany, Spain, Nordics, who didn't seem to be too intent on chatting so we just found a spot in the lounge area where we could relax in our down jackets while the wood burning stove tried, unsuccessfully, to stave off some of the cold.

The facilities in the Neltner Refuge are basic but adequate (flushing toilets and showers) and we were lucky to have one of the dorm rooms to ourselves for the night which was nice.
I'd definitely recommend taking baby wipes (or similar), loo roll and hand sanitiser.

We chatted with Ibrahim and he suggested that we only spend 1 night in the refuge rather than 2 and that we descended back down to his village of Aremd (just above Imlil) after reaching the summit of Mt Toubkal where he'd arrange a Riad for us to stay in and then would take us on another mountain trek on the 3rd day finishing in Mohamed's village near Imlil for the final 2 nights.

So after dinner we headed up to bed in readiness for our 6:30am departure the next morning for the Toubkal summit attempt and then descent back down to the Berber village of Aremd near Imlil where Ibrahim had arranged accommodation for the night.

Day 2 - Summit day
6:30am - After a great breakfast we kitted up and headed out with Ibrahim into the cold wind and on to the icy/rocky path that snakes up through the valley towards the summit of Mt Toubkal.

The pace that Ibrahim set was steady, a fair bit slower than I'd normally walk, but continuous - both of us agreed that we made far fewer stops than we normally would have had we been walking on our own despite the large altitude gain and terrain that we were walking over.  It really helps to have someone in front to pace you!

Look, no crampons!
We were pretty much straight into hard packed snow and some ice but, although fairly large, these patches were interspersed with patches of rock and scree so Ibrahim decided that we wouldn't need to use crampons for the ascent.  He was steadily plodding along over ice, rock, snow and scree hardly seeming to notice the change in terrain underfoot but we both stopped on one large snow field to get Ice Axes off our bags - mainly as a confidence/stability aid as I had visions of sliding uncontrollably down the 40-50 degree slope!

After about a hour and a half we'd passed a group of 4 English walkers that had left about an hour before us - they were walking fairly slowly across one of the larger snow fields, with crampons, but without crampons we were able to walk up the side of this on the lose rock which proved to be much faster and easier.

The summit ridge came into view after about 2 hours of walking and once up onto the ridge itself the wind picked up and the temperature dropped suddenly resulting in extra gloves and hoods being pulled up.

Neither of us were sure if we'd be affected by altitude sickness (this can hit you at anything over 2800m) and the only sure way to find out is to wait and see!  We'd not really done any kind of acclimatisation on the trip, having walked high and slept high and not dropping back down to sleep, but by the refuge at 3200m we both seemed ok so we had our fingers crossed that we'd both be find for the remainder of the walk.

Unfortunately although I didn't feel any effects throughout the ascent by about 3800-4000m Donna was feeling pretty grim and it was a case of gritting teeth and walking through it, knowing that losing altitude is the best way of undoing the horrible feeling of altitude sickness.

From the ridge the walking was slightly easier as the gradient had reduced slightly and you get a tantalising view of the summit across a large gully that you have to dog-leg around before reaching the summit plateau - around 20-30 minutes more walking.

"Finally" the summit was in sight and only 100 or so meters away, we'd made it and in really good time having taken 2.5 hours to walk up from the refuge.  Once on the summit itself we stopped for 15 minutes or so to take pictures, eat and take in the stunning views all the way across to the Sahara dessert;

Garmin (GPSmap 62) info from Mt Toubkal summit

Toubkal summit @ 4,167m

Summit view from Mt Toubkal
The Descent!
Coming down from the summit Ibrahim decided not to take us on the same route that we'd walked up on saying that it was easier to follow the scree slopes thus by-passing the summit ridge and 2 of the harder snow fields that we'd slogged across on the way up - this proved correct as the only other group on the mountain above us we're leaving the summit just as we arrived and they re-traced their steps which led to them arriving back at the refuge about 20 minutes after us.

We both wondered how Ibrahim expected us to only take 90 minutes to descend back to the refuge seeing as we'd taken an hour longer than that to get up but we were soon to find out!

Glissading is the term used for what is essentially a controlled fall/slide down the side of a scree or snow field on a mountain - it's faster than walking or running, a great way to get your adrenalin going but fairly disastrous if you get it wrong - especially on the side of a 4000m+ mountain!

Ibrahim and I were both wooping and grinning like kids as we slide, jumped and ski'd down the big scree banks, kicking up huge dusty clouds in our wakes and the parties of other climbers ascending on the snow banks must have been looking across in a mix of horror and confusion - but it was definitely quicker than the traditional slow, measured, careful walking pace!

We had lunch at the refuge, cooked again by Hassan, and then packed all of our kit bags back onto the mule before heading back down the main path to the small village above Imlil (at around 1900m) where we'd be spending the night before our final day's walking the next day.

Day 3 - mountain walk to Berber village
We stayed in "Gite d'etape" in the village of Aremd which, while fairly basic, had wonderful hot showers which we both took advantage of after a much needed cup of sugared tea.
We were the only people staying in the "Gite" which was a bit odd but with Hassan's cooking and a decent fire going in the lounge room we had no complaints - even the 5:30am "muezzin" (call to prayer) echoing out from the mosque's didn't wake us in the morning!

In the morning, after another good breakfast, we headed off with Ibrahim into the mountains for a 4-5 hour walk over one of the nearby peaks (where we'd have a picnic lunch) before descending to the village above Imlil where Mohamed had arranged our last 2 nights' accommodation.

The walk was lovely, passing through the Berber village to start before heading up to a small sheep herder's hut and then rising steeply to a fairly wide ride that led us to the summit (around 2500m) where we stopped for lunch and a relaxing nap in the sunshine!

Panorama of the Atlas Mountains
Lunch on an un-named summit @ 2500m

Me with our guide, Ibrahim
After lunch we headed down the spine of the mountain, through thorny shrubs and stunted trees with great views either side of us as we descended towards the small village and Riad where we'd be staying for our last 2 nights.

As with all the other places we stayed during our trip there were no issues and the food was great and the fire in our room that we had lit both nights was great for keeping the chill out of the air.

Day 4 - Camel trekking!

After a night of strong winds and heavy rain we awoke to find the weather had settled a bit but was still looking fairly ominous and as we headed down the single track road back towards Marrakesh we were both wondering exactly how much fun riding on camels would be!

We met up with the camels and our guide (Ibrahim was with us again for this!) on the side of the road and after a quick "hello" we mounted up and headed off across the river bed towards the open countryside.

It was certainly a different experience and one that I'd never really thought about doing before coming to Morocco but it was good fun and a great way to see the countryside and the villages.

Yes, I'm riding a camel!

Camel trekking
We had an amazing time in Morocco and will, hopefully  be going back to do some more trekking and climbing in the Atlas Mountains - Ibrahim has given us some good suggestions for longer and more challenging routes that take in more peaks as well as a great 5 day ridge route in the summer where you can camp overnight rather than rely on the refuges for accommodation.

Kit notes
Due to the luxury of not having to carry everything on the walking days (thanks to the mules) we probably took slightly more kit than was necessary but the main items that we both took and used were;

  • Paramo Aspira smock - for the summit day mainly but this coat excels in wet, cold and windy weather and its sheer versatility makes up for the fact that it doesn't pack down particularly well!
  • Scarpa Charmox GTX boots - B2 rated with gore-tex liner but light enough to wear on the trek in as well as the summit day.  The boots were great and I'm really glad that I took just these rather than both my Meindl and La Sportiva's that I was originally planning on taking
  • Ice axe & crampons - even though we didn't use the crampons I'm glad I had them "just in case"
  • Rab Vapour Rise guide trousers - great for the summit day and the venting was useful on the "warmer" sections!
  • Montane Terra trousers - these were great for the general trekking days as they're wind-proof and warm enough for me while allowing me to vent them fully if needed
  • PHD Yukon down jacket - I didn't think I'd need this and almost didn't bring it with me but thank god I did - the refuge's are cold at night and this was great for keeping warm while sitting around in the evenings

A few things we learnt from the trip and that may prove useful to anyone thinking of a similar trek;
  • Hand sanitiser & baby wipes - don't forget them!
  • Water - definitely buy it in bottles and buy more than you think you'll need
  • The refuges are cold at night/evening so make sure you have enough warm clothes and a decent sleeping bag (we took Rab Alpine 700 down bags with Rab silk liners and they were great)
  • Local currency - we didn't get enough changed at the airport (only £50) and although, in the end, we didn't need all of it we would have been more comfortable had we changed more to be on the safe side
  • Paracetamol or Nurofen for the summit days - if you get bad headaches from the altitude then you'll be glad you took them with you!
  • Approach shoes - good for the trekking days when mountain boots aren't really needed

I hope that you've enjoyed reading this and that it might even inspire you to go to the Atlas Mountains.  If you've got any comments on this (or any other) post then please let me know!


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