The snowy slopes of Mount Toubkal
21 April 2013
Posted from Imlil, Marrakesh-Tensift-Al Haouz, Morocco.
We spent a few days driving around southern Morocco along the coast towards Agadir. We then turned inland to take a road that would lead us straight to the Atlas Mountains. The views from the narrow, windy road were stunning with mountains all around us, often one after the other in different shades of grey, and the sun setting behind them in a deep orange glow. Some of the peaks were even covered in snow. This is the roof of North-Africa with many peaks above 3,000 and 4,000 metres. After our accomplishment conquering Mount Cameroon (4095 metres) a few weeks ago, we felt like taking it one step further and attempting Mount Toubkal (with an altitude of 4167 metres above sea level), the highest peak in the Atlas and thus all of North-Africa,. We read about it in our travel guides and it seemed feasible, in particular because we were in the right season; according to the Lonely Planet it is not “unbearably hot” yet in these months. And it certainly was not!
When we arrived in the village of Imlil, the usual starting point for climbing Toubkal, it turned out that there was still a lot of snow on the mountain due to recent heavy snowfall, meaning that we needed some serious alpine equipment: thick jackets, insulated hiking boots, crampons to walk on ice, walking sticks and even ice-axes. We started having doubts about whether we would be able to reach the summit, particularly given our lack of alpine experience. Stories of a Spanish hiker who died on the mountain a few months ago increased our anxiety, but luckily did not deter us.
We met our guide Saïd and immediately started our ascent to the refuge hut where we would spend the night. The route started off easy enough through the last villages and up the mountain pass to the ‘shrine’. There were a few shops where we could eat and drink, and a large white rock that is regarded as holy to Muslims; the sick are taken there by mule to be healed. It seems that every mountain invokes spiritual feelings in the local people. From there the hike got somewhat tougher and the first snow was visible around us. I struggled with my rented boots, which gave me huge blisters on my heels, before I finally switched shoes with Saïd. Eventually, after hiking for about five hours, we reached the refuge at 3200 metres. It was a much bigger building than we expected with dormitories, private rooms, heated sitting areas and even hot showers. Our meals were included, so that night we dined with our fellow alpinists, all of whom seemed to be more experienced than we were.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up early to get our equipment in order, eat a hearty breakfast and start our ascent to the summit. The refuge was at snow-level, so we immediately walked out into the white landscape on crampons, which are metal spikes attached to your boots that enable you to get a grip on snow and ice. The equipment was a bit old and worn out though, so the crampons kept coming loose, forcing Saïd to re-attach them about a dozen times per person. To deal with the lack of oxygen in the air, we adopted a ‘slow & steady’ pace again, but still seemed to be going faster than the other teams. Meanwhile, Saïd nearly doubled his estimated time of arrival at the summit, saying we were “slow”. Twan struggled with the altitude during the final ascent, but got through. Eventually it took us less than four hours to reach the summit. There we found stunning views all around, and could see Toubkal’s neighbouring peaks, some above 4,000 metres. We also found a group of Dutch police-officers who made it just before we did.
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We walked down fast to the refuge where we rested, had lunch and re-arranged our baggage. Soon we were ready to descend back to the shrine and then Imlil. We kept a fast pace the whole way and arrived back at the car at just after six o’clock, tired but proud of our achievement.