March 2017: Moroccan Mountaineering

“Wouldn’t it be funny if this guy was our mountain guide” I said quietly to Nick, looking over at the man who was greeting our driver as we pulled into Imlil. He was dressed in an oversized moleskin blazer, a sizeable belly hanging over his white chinos and tatty formal shoes on his feet. He had a kind face but looked entirely unprepared for the high mountain environment we were heading to. “Hello” he said, walking over to help us retrieve our bags, “I am Ibrahim and I will be your mountain guide”.

As is always the case in Morocco, we should have been prepared for the unexpected and, as it turned out, my initial ill-founded opinion couldn’t have been further from the truth. Ibrahim’s knowledge and experience of the mountains was invaluable and in retrospect, we wouldn’t have traded him for any other guide on the mountain. It just goes to prove the age old saying – “you should never judge a guide by his blazer”.

"Some people dont have good energy, but you... you have good equiptment." - Ibarahim

We spent our first night in Aroumd, the last village in the Imlil valley before the 8km approach hike we would be taking in the morning. As we sat on the roof terrace, knocking back glass after glass of sweet mint tea, we both looked up in admiration of the impossibly huge peaks of the High Atlas, reaching up into the clouds… It was hard to imagine from down here in the heat of the valley floor that we could be on top of the highest point, in just two days.

Neither of us could wait to get into the snowy mountains and use some of the winter mountaineering gear we had been stockpiling over the last few months. For now, we had to settle for exploring the foothills just behind our hotel. Feeling adventurous as we scrambled up steep rock gullies and explored exposed rocky ledges, we were soon knocked back down to earth as we were greeted by a 12 year old shepherd, effortlessly herding his flock of 100 goats down to Imlil from his town on the other side of the mountain.

The next morning, after an hour’s wait for Ibrahim, who had accidentally slept in and missed his alarm, we headed off on the steady uphill approach to the Toubkal refuge. The refuge is a large mountain hut built by the French Alpine Club and sitting well into the snowline at 3207 meters, perfectly situated for letting our bodies acclimatise to the altitude. It was crowded and surprisingly well stocked by mules ferrying huge loads up and down the thin tracks of the approach from Imlil. Our room was a cramped 30 bed dorm, which we shared with a large group of middle-aged Russians who were preparing for an early ski ascent of Toubkal the next morning. Rather than settle down to the 3pm nap that it seemed a surprising number of people were taking, we decided to head out into the snow to get used to walking with crampons and stopping falls with our ice axes. It wasn’t long before the afternoon clouds rolled in and visibility was reduced to a few inches. We headed back in for a dinner of spaghetti, chips and bread (it’s not always easy being vegetarian in Morocco, sorry Nick!) and with a lack of anything else to do, and exhausted from our hike in, settled down for a respectable 6:30pm bed time.

After possibly the worst night’s sleep of our lives due to a combination of the altitude, the condensation dripping from the walls of the crowded dorm and 28 particularly flatulent Russians, we dragged ourselves from our sleeping bags ready for our 7am assault on Toubkal. After a breakfast of jam and yet more bread we headed out into the cold, strapped our crampons onto our boots and shouldered our packs ready to head up the mountain. We started up the south face of Toubkal – the standard route for people tackling the mountain from the refuge, a steep and non-technical plod up some steep snow slopes. Nick and I took it in turns speeding up the first 35° slope, running ahead to get photos and video while Ibrahim kept a steady pace, which felt slow at times but was undoubtedly the more sensible way to tackle the long climbs.

After a couple of hours, we had reached the South Col and were greeted by stunning views all the way into the Sahara Desert and the rest of the High Atlas range stretching off to our East. At 4000 meters, there was only the narrow rocky ridge left to reach the summit; this final 167 meters was the most difficult part of the climb. Both Nick and I started to get steadily worsening headaches from the altitude and trying to navigate the loose rocks with our crampons was slow going and exhausting. It was a great relief to finally top out at the summit at around 10am, at a formidable 4167 m we were at the highest point in North Africa. It was a particularly calm day and we stayed on the top for around an hour, snapping celebratory photos and regaining some energy with handfuls of nuts and dates.

Instead of heading back down to the South, we descended via the slightly longer and more serious North Col route. This took us past the wreckage of a plane that had crashed into the mountains in 1972, as well as a small makeshift cemetery where four of the casualties were buried under a pile of rocks. Despite the wreckage being over 40 years old, there was still a surprising amount of twisted metal debris visible over the side of the mountain, even with the deep snow. We steadily picked our way down the steeper Northern slopes, until we came to a slightly more mellow angled slope heading to the base. Here, we convinced Ibrahim to let us glissade down the rest of the slope, sliding down on our bums using our ice axes as brakes. This was a welcome break from the slow trudge down and, before long, we were back on the valley floor nursing our headaches and with only a kilometer of flat-ish trail to reach the refuge. We arrived back at 2pm with blistered feet and pounding heads, beginning to see the appeal of the 3pm nap. We resisted however, choosing instead to read our Kindles and play endless rounds of Soccer Physics on Nick’s phone.

The next morning after an only marginally better night’s sleep, we set off in the dark at 5:30am aiming to climb the two peaks of Ouanoukrim. Timesguidia (4089m) and Ras (4083m), which are the second and third highest peaks in the area respectively and are a little more technical than Toubkal, thanks to some short sections of rock scrambling to get to the summit snowfield. From 3700m to the top, the slopes became more severe and incredible views appeared from every side, including the imposing Toubkal to the East. It started to feel a lot like a ‘proper’ alpine climb, with slopes steep enough for our ice axes to finally get some use. All of this made up for the breathless and seemingly endless slog on snow and rock up to the summit. Due to the early start and high winds we experienced temperatures of -10°, which meant our stay on the two summits was short lived. After a few obligatory summit selfies, we headed straight back down the slopes which were unfortunately too steep and the snow too soft to allow for any glissading.

The journey back to the refuge was broken up with a short section of ice climbing on a frozen waterfall, which we had missed in the dark on our way up. We took it in turns kicking our crampons into the thick ice and using our axes to pick out tiny holds to haul ourselves up the cliff. By the time we reached the refuge it was coming up to 11am, we took a short mint tea break and swapped our heavy mountaineering boots for trail shoes to head straight back out for the 8km hike back to Imlil. Our flight home was booked for the evening of the following day, giving us just enough time to have our sore legs and backs pummelled back to health in a traditional Hammam in Marrakesh and try our luck haggling for things we definitely didn’t need in the Souks.

Taking the first steps into something new is always daunting and it seems that wherever you go and whatever you are doing there is always someone doing something more difficult or impressive. It is easy to feel intimidated and belittled by the competitive undertones in climbing and mountaineering but it’s important to not let this put you off. If it’s something you would like to get into, go out and get started! It can be difficult not having the technical knowledge and experience but that’s what guides are for and remember everyone started in the same place. For the most part, everyone we have spoken to, no matter what level, has always been happy to offer help and advice. Guided trips like this one we took to Morocco are relatively inexpensive and you can hire most of the technical gear you need in Imlil, meaning they are perfect for testing the water to see if mountaineering is something you want to take further. We booked our trip with UK based Gorilla Mountaineering and couldn’t have been happier with the service we received. We left Morocco feeling much more confident for our upcoming assault of Mont Blanc and combined with the knowledge we picked up in Wales, ready to progress to some unguided climbs in Scotland and The Alps in the near future. ▲