As the light faded into darkness and the clouds rolled into the valley, we peered through the window with anticipation of the impending summit attempt. Through the fog I could see the lights of the dozen or so tents that sat amongst the mist at the base of the rocky steppe. Tomorrow we would summit the third highest mountain in Africa.
Arriving in Morocco eight months prior, I had been dreaming of one day making my way to Jebel Toubkal (4,167m), but a botched dental surgery had threatened to take that dream away. When someone tells you not to get dental surgery done in Morocco, take the advice. The Moroccan dental surgeon who removed my impacted wisdom teeth (without functioning anesthetic) suggested that I come in for a multi-day treatment to heal my dry socket. I told her that I had plans to climb Jebel Toubkal and that I couldn’t make it. She prescribed me antibiotics and advised against the climb, but wished me luck. I was noticeably thinner from months of teeth and jaw pain, but stubborn enough to pursue the adventure. A couple of friends and I made the plans and were soon off to the mountains on the May long weekend of 2011.
Driving in Morocco is an adventure in itself. We had rented a car through a friend in Casablanca and our drive to Marrakech was fairly uneventful. That is, aside from accidentally cutting off a driver, which resulted in some road rage, a middle finger, and a highway conversation that ended in friendship and smiles. While in Marrakech, we inevitably got lost, as one does while in a foreign place. As we drove around the city trying to find our route to the mountains, I sped pass a speed trap and was promptly pulled over. Now, in Morocco being pulled over legally requires them to issue a ticket, however most officers will simply ask you to pay them on the spot - a bribe, if you will. This is where my stubbornness came into play again - I refused to pay him. On principle, I demanded for a ticket repeatedly until he eventually left and came back with two more policemen. They took our passports and through a schmear of broken English, French, and Darija, the Moroccan dialect, we explained where we were headed. One of the officers then leaned to his superior and whispered something in his ear while staring into the back seat of our car. He moved to the back window and began to chat with my friend Sarah. This turned out to be the key to our release. After a 30-minute nerve-wracking standoff, the tension was released as he casually asked her for her number. Through some awkward laughing and a few friendly comments, Sarah managed to brush off his question and relax the entire situation. There was never a better time to ask for directions.
The officer in charge decided that we were good people, and obviously not tourists, so he drew us a map to Imlil. A word to the wise: I do not suggest that what I did is your best course of action in Morocco - pay the money and hope for the best. You could even try to barter it down. Lucky for us, we had Sarah in the car. Our adventure could continue.
Due to our delay in Marrakech, we had to drive the winding gravel roads at night, arriving in Imlil well after dark. We arrived at our guest house late but were welcomed with a warm smile and some tea. The rooms were simple and the light fixtures clung to the ceiling by dangling wires. After a short sleep, we awoke to the faint pleasant smell of wood smoke. On the table, our hosts had placed plates of freshly made beghrir, a traditional pancake-like pastry slathered in local honey. Steaming hot sweet mint tea was poured carefully into our cups. I had grown very fond of the Moroccan tradition of sweet mint tea and loved watching the smooth pour from what seemed like a metre or so above each glass. It had been a restless night in a foreign place and I was a little anxious. I had never led a group into mountains as big as these before and I was unsure of what lay ahead. I headed to the balcony to take in the view before we set off for the Toubkal Refuge.
The hike in took us seven hours and we passed several porters along the way. They walked in sandals and led overloaded donkeys down the path towards Imlil. Often hikers followed close behind, walking lightly with just daypacks. On the other side of the coin, we carried everything on our backs and the constant jingling of our crampons reminded us of what lie ahead. As we reached the five-hour mark, fatigue from the hike and the restless night before was setting in. A couple of the others were falling behind and weren't really prepared for hiking in the mountains. Their running shoes obviously weren't offering the ankle support needed. We let out a group sigh of relief as the Toubkal Refuge came into view. A creek of glacial melt water gurgled past us through the green alpine meadow. Mt. Toubkal rose sharply into the sky to our left, overshadowing most of the surrounding mountains and hills. The sight was breathtaking. This was where we would spend the night.
Rising early is simply part of climbing. If you want the best snow conditions for the ascent and descent, it is imperative that you push for the summit early. Toubkal is not a technical climb, but it is still a significant hike to reach the top and we wanted to get a head start on the others that were bidding that day. Unfortunately we awoke to near zero visibility. We heard rumours that a summit attempt might not be possible. We only had one day and one attempt. We were going regardless but it looked like we would have to delay our departure.
An hour passed and the mist began to clear so we made the call and left the refuge. We were one of the first groups to push for the summit. Toubkal was ours for the taking. Our first steps were filled with nerves but that soon gave way to excitement and laughter. While teaching in Casablanca, Laura, Amber, Sarah, and myself had been through a lot, but this had resulted in an amazing relationship. Ultimately, this adventure would be a test of this relationship and our ability to work as a team.
The sound of loose scree underfoot soon gave way to the crunching of snow. The path was well trodden and made for an easier climb than we expected. Our crampons remained clinking on my pack for the rest of the climb. After a few hours, we had made significant progress, but Laura seemed to be slowing down and was visibly having troubles with the altitude. In fact, we were all struggling to catch our breath. We stopped to refuel and a we offered each other a few words of encouragement. The peak was just out of sight and the clouds were starting to roll in again. We had to get moving. As we rounded the shoulder of the Toubkal ridge, the path narrowed and the mountain fell off steeply – I was regretting not wearing my crampons and I could feel the fear creeping in; one wrong step would be disastrous. Laura's headache and nausea was worsening but she was determined to see the summit so we pushed on. We passed the dangerous section without incident and the fear was replaced by excitement. The summit was only a short climb ahead.
As a team, we pushed on towards the metal-framed triangular structure that marks the summit of Toubkal. We had finally made it! The Atlas Mountains were a juxtaposition against the mostly arid and flat country and it was here that we could push ourselves out of the relatively comfortable life we had lived back in Casablanca. The best part of every climb is often the view from the top. On this day the clouds would strip us of that, but not of the emotional satisfaction of the journey or of reaching the top together.
Contributed by Tim Rollwagen @trollwag
Tim is a co-founder of PTBO Explores. Another post by Tim - Passing on my Passion
Further information about trekking in Morocco.
Morocco is an outdoors haven for adventure. From camel trekking in the Sahara, to the beautiful beaches of Essaouira and Dahkla, to the high peaks of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco offers pretty much everything. The people are mostly friendly and helpful. Toubkal is doable in 2 days but 3-4 days would give you more time to enjoy the scenery.
Check out the following websites for more information about trekking and exploring in Morocco:
- Trekking in Morocco
- Trek Morocco
- Staying in Imlil
- Bookings at the Toubkal Refuge
- A panorama from the top (on a clear day)
PTBO --> TOUBKAL
- 8 hours by air
- 5 hours by car
- 2 days trekking