A Summit in Morocco?
Were you aware that Africa’s second highest summit after Mt. Kilimanjaro is located in the Atlas Mountain Range in Morocco? Mount Toubkal boasts a 4,167 m summit and is absolutely incredible to ascend… when the weather is on your side. The best part is that the trail is not technical while the scenery on the way up is simply spectacular. Moreover, you don’t need to dedicate a big chunk of your travel plans for this trek because the entire adventure can be completed in 2 days!
I’m kinda ashamed to admit it but I wasn’t aware of any of this information, I didn’t even know the Atlas Mountain Range was in Morocco, let alone that it is home to the second highest summit in Africa. However, when my wife, our friends and I decided to visit Morocco in March 2019, they all made me promise that I would prepare a well-balanced itinerary which did not revolve around hiking, specifically, a limit of 1-2 hikes during our 9 day trip. So I understood that if I were to stick to my promise whilst also fulfilling my craving for an adventure, I’d have to choose these treks very carefully. That is how I stumbled upon Mt. Toubkal and the chance to summit it. I booked the two day trek with High Atlas Hiking and found that they were very responsive to my emails and Whatsapp messages; their prices were also reasonable.
So after a couple of days in Chefchaouen, an absolute gem known as the Blue Pearl, we took a cab back to Tangier and then the fast train to Marrakech, the entire journey took us around 3 hours. When I come to think about it now, the weather actually gave us a little bit of a warning when we got to Marrakech. We got to the city at around 11 AM, it was very warm and sunny so we decided to take a stroll down the street looking for somewhere to brunch. It was only moments after we received the menus that all hell seemed to break loose. The sun disappeared almost as quick as the beggars in Marrakech’s souk when they realized we were Arabs too and in a matter of minutes, it was full on hailing outside… hailing! I remember sitting there looking at each other like ‘hmmm are we meant to hike through this?’ but before I could even pull out my phone to call our guide, the rain had stopped, the clouds disappeared and the sun was back almost as if it was never really gone. ‘Now that is a good sign!’ I remember saying… oh how little did I know.
That little weather scare did have an effect on us though so we took a trip down to Decathlon in Marrakech to do some last minute shopping, we nearly bought out the entire store! #NoSelfControl
After an entire day of gear shopping and wandering around, the guide finally picked us up at 8 pm. The idea was to spend the night before the trek in a small town called Imlil which is situated at an altitude of 1800 m. That will help us acclimatize. After a dinner feast of beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes, you name it! (Inside joke here) it was a mixture of gluttony and exhaustion that pushed us into a state of complete deliria. We stayed up late that night, making jokes and laughing at each others’ ridiculousness; I still remember sitting on the roof, wrapped up in my jacket while my friend attempted his ‘break dance’ moves. There is just something special about the nights before summiting a mountain, a mixture of excitement and anxiety that create the most positive vibes. It is nights like this that keep my hunger for travel and adventure strong.
The Hike to Base Camp
After breakfast, we were introduced to our awesome guide, Hassan. We then handed our duffles over to the porters, packed our daypacks and set off on our two day adventure. The first portion of the hike is pretty boring as you walk through the streets of Imlil. At one point, we had to help this guy start his car after having a dead battery. So we would slowly push the car up this small incline; then we would all line up behind it like a football team and then boom sprint all the way down to help it gain momentum… it took a couple of tries but we were successful eventually (it’s the small victories in life guys). It didn’t take us long to get out of the town and into the Atlas Mountains though, and oh was it beautiful!
At 1 PM, we stopped at a little rest area and discovered that our porters were also our cooks. Look honestly, I like Moroccan food, but it is hard to have the same thing everyday! We found out during our trip that there really wasn’t that much variety to the food, so by this point, we were really dreading couscous and tagine… which is exactly what they made us (bastilla is an exception, its so different and delicious but not exactly something they would make you on a mountain). We really took our time on this day because the weather was beautiful and the views were stunning. The sun was shining but not beating down on us, instead there was a light, cold breeze that just kept us feeling fresh during the trek. What I found special though was the way the terrain completely transformed as we got closer to the base camp. We were trekking in a green, rocky environment and before we knew it, we were ankles deep in snow. There is something about snow covered mountains that just give them that element of respect, it doesn’t make sense but its something I’ve always felt. Like as soon as you step from green to white, you’re actually summiting a mountain here. The hike up took us between 6-7 hours at a slow, chilled out pace; the point was to really take in the scenery and enjoy the trek.
Many groups opt to leave Imlil a little later so we were actually some of the first ones at the refugee. We picked out a room and set up our sleeping bags on the bunk beds. It was cold that night, like really cold. I remember walking out after dinner to look over at the mountains around us, I was trying to spot Toubkal but it was no where to be seen. Instead, in the darkness, I could see countless false summits that would play with my emotions the very next day. Some of the guides were outside with me, trying to light their cigarettes against the winds with no success. Most of them have summited this mountain over 400 times so while I glanced around in excitement, it was just another day at the office for them. We sat up that night playing cards with Hassan and the other guides, by playing, I mean trying hopelessly to learn the rules of the game. I could tell my friends and I were tired and sleepy by the point, but I think we were all just really dreading having to wash up with the freezing cold water in the bathroom downstairs. Procrastination was defeated eventually, and the next thing you know, we were all tucked in in our sleeping bags, dreaming of the sunrise to come.
The Summit Push
My alarm was set for 4 AM but we were all up by 3:30, I guess it was the fear and excitement. Once again, the real battle was that ice cold water; although when it comes to washing the sleep away, it got the job done. Next it was time for breakfast… and some bad news. Keep in mind that it was still really dark outside, and the refugee is well insulated so while you’re inside, you really have no idea what is happening on the mountain. As we ate our bread and eggs, we watched all the guides round up in a corner, discussing something with great concern; I could tell straight away that something was wrong. I waited for Hassan to look back at me and then gave him that ‘unsure thumbs up’, asking if everything was going as planned. To my dread, his reply was a hand shaking from side to side, the universal sign for ‘so-so’.
There was a full on blizzard going on outside, the wind speed was at 50 km/hr and we weren’t even sure of how severe it was at the summit, or whether it was going to get worse. Nevertheless, Hassan told us we would attempt to push through anyway, keeping in mind that there is a chance we’d be forced to turn back at some point. We did not have any summit reserve days planned, so it was a make it or break it kinda deal. My friends and I looked over at each other, smiled, brushed off that uneasy feeling and agreed to grasp the adventure.
It was pitch dark when we left the refugee. I struggled to secure my headlamp over my winter hat and was forced to take off my gloves to get it done. Next, it was time to put on my crampons. I put down my backpack and sat on the ground, fighting with all the straps and metal clamps until it was properly fitted onto my boot. When I got back up though, my backpack was nowhere to be found. That backpack had all our money, our passports and most importantly our snacks for the hike (you cannot leave valuables in the refugee)! I panicked, like proper panicked, started running around asking my friends if they had picked it up, then started looking at everyone else thinking they may have taken it by accident in the dark, thinking it was theirs. Search came up empty and the despair came rushing in, that was it, that was the end of this trip and the beginning of a 100 visits to the Egyptian Embassy to get myself a new passport; oh and one visit to the British Embassy to get my wife hers too. As I turned to walk back into the refugee though, I spotted something grey around 10 meters from the ledge that the base camp stood on… and there it was, my backpack. So in case you didn’t think 50 km/hr wind is not that bad… guys, it picked up my backpack and carried it at least 10 meters. A backpack that was full of water, food, jackets and a couple other things! That ordeal got my adrenaline rushing and blood pumping so I was ready to do some hiking. In a single file, we pushed onwards into the mountains, nothing in sight but the thin line of light our headlamps formed.
About an hour into the hike, the first light began to shine through the Atlas Mountains and oh was it magnificent. Our pace was slow, like real slow; despite our trip to Decathlon, we were very ill prepared for this blizzard. The snow blew painstakingly into our eyes and faces yet none of us had masks or goggles to put on. I did not even have my waterproof, hiking boots on so they were soaked the moment they sank into the deep snow. Maddie thought she was suffering from frost bite in her toes at one point, I had to take off her shoes and wrap her feet in my emergency blanket; of course that meant taking off my gloves… was not enjoyable. Despite that, we pressed onwards, soaking up the beautiful views of the snow covered mountains.
A few hours later we were almost two thirds of the way through and things were not getting any easier. The wind grew stronger and the snow deeper; by this point, we were knees deep in it which made the hike significantly more difficult. Have you ever tried jogging in soft sand? If so, then you can imagine what it would be like if you sunk in to your knees with every step. The plan was to reach the summit, head back down to base camp for lunch then trek all the way back to Imlil; for safety reasons, we needed to be back before dark. It was not looking good, noon struck and we were still at an elevation of around 3800 m (base camp is at 3200 m). 367 meters of altitude gain may not sound like much, but with the weather and exhaustion, it could take us hours. It was time to make some tough decisions.
We needed to increase our pace but our friend Aya Shiraz (AKA Shushu) was facing some altitude sickness symptoms. Our guide, Hassan, tried to help her through the steep, snow slope but after dropping from exhaustion a couple of times, we feared that even if she made it all the way up, she may not have the energy to come back down. It wasn’t easy for her to make this decision, but it was time for her to turn back. Hassan took me aside and asked me to join the next group we see, we would just tell the guide his name and our situation and he’e combine us with his own group. He then warned me that the coming bit was dangerous, that we’d be approaching a ridge and the heavy wind could very much blow us over the edge. He made me promise I would turn the group around if things got worse. “Toubkal is not going anywhere, your lives are more important, you can always come back and do it next year.” I remember him saying before helping a teary-eyed Shushu descend, retracing our deep footprints before disappearing into the blizzard.
There we were, alone in the mountains with extremely poor visibility, trying to make our way up an extremely steep slope, down to our knees in snow. What really worried me was that this wasn’t a single standing mountain, it’s a range, so the way back to the refugee wasn’t very clear. I kept thinking about the possibility of not finding our way back if we do decide to abort; after all, I wasn’t looking at my surroundings too much since the snow was blowing into my eyes and the snow covered our tracks. The way forward was simple enough though, up this slope to the ridge and then turn left, walk along the ridge to the end of it and then turn right. I kept repeating that to myself over and over again. It sounded easy enough, but proved to be far from it.
Motassem was next to break, the altitude hit him hard and his head was throbbing with pain, he wanted to turn back. The only problem was, that was not an option; heading back on our own could cost us our lives. One wrong turn and we’d venture deeper into the mountains, away from the refugee and we were already very unprepared for this weather, we didn’t even have insulated canteens so all our water was already frozen by this point. We made a decision to stick together, be it to the summit or back to base camp, whatever we decide to do, we do as one group. Soon after, we found a group heading back down, we waved and yelled until their guide saw us, he explained to us that the situation was not safe at the ridge, so he aborted the summit attempt for his group. That was more than enough to convince Motassem, Khayyat and I were indifferent but Maddie was a whole different story. She didn’t stop to speak to the guide when we did so she was ahead at the time, I had to catch up to her and explain the situation, break it to her that we all needed to turn back. If you know Maddie, then you probably already know that I was not able to convince her, and while we were discussing it, the guide and his group continued onwards until they were out of sight. Motassem was furious, we still joke about it until this day. At first, he wanted to leave us and head back down on his own, that was out of the question. Next, he suggested to just leave us and wait for another group to join; also too risky since we can’t guarantee that weather conditions won’t force guides to take a different route down, or how long he’d have to wait for another group. Instead, we gave him some dates, a granola bar and one hell of a pep talk; believe it or not, it worked miraculously. We caught up to another group with a guide named Sultan and joined them for the rest of the trek to summit. Apparently, it was their second time on Toubkal. On their previous attempt, they all made it except for one, so they vouched to come back together again and conquer it… they really did not want to come back a third time.
I hate false summits. Every hiker that has attempted one will relate to this statement. You see the end, your body is already begging you to give up but you somehow convince it to push a little longer, just this last incline, we made it this far and I see it, I see the summit. You’re two steps away, already preparing to drop down in the snow, one step and you start to remove your backpack, but then you look up and realize that this is not it. In the distance, you see the actual peak, and it is not even close; this mental game is what pushes your body to the brink of collapse.
It’s very strange but you seem to get this surge of energy when you see the summit sign, like you weren’t nearly dying 5 minutes ago. It’s exhilarating and worth every second of struggling. Unfortunately, the visibility from the top was terrible due to the storm so we did not enjoy the panoramic view that you’d get from Toubkal on a better day; we did not care though. We took our summit photos and then collapsed on the ground. Our water froze hours ago so we had nothing to drink. We also thought we ran out of food until I reached into my backpack and found a box of Pringles. If you bring up Toubkal to any of us today, I guarantee that the Pringles box will come up within 3 minutes of the topic. I have never enjoyed crisps so much in my life. Maddie took control of the box, handing us bundles at a time that we’d stuff straight into our mouths. It didn’t even matter to us that they were the salted ones and would make us even more thirsty, right then, we merely needed the calories. We spent about 10 to 15 minutes at the summit before leaving, remembering that we still need to get to Imlil by tonight, our day was far from over.
Encouraged by our success, we rushed down the first segment of the mountain until we got to the ridge. The wind pushed harder here since were exposed from both sides, one a gradual slope and the other a sheer edge. A gust of wind hit me so strongly it nearly knocked me off my feet. I quickly recovered my balance and looked up to check on Maddie… there she was, lying face-down in the snow! If we had been walking in the opposite direction and the wind was pushing towards the edge instead of the slope, this would’ve ended in a real tragedy; luckily, it’s just a funny story.
The storm began to give in a little while later; the sun cut through the clouds and we could finally see the complete beauty and glory of the Atlas Mountains. We removed our jackets and put on our Moroccan jalabeyas instead. It was finally time for a photoshoot! We tried different ways of tackling the snowy slope, Khayyat pretty much perfected the butt sliding technique while I personally preferred the deep lunges through. It was all good fun until one of the group we joined fell and started rolling down the slope. He was heading straight into a cluster of rocks so Sultan was sprinting over from the side trying to stop him, fortunately, he managed to reach him right in time. Thankfully, he was safe but he did hurt his knee in the fall so his friends had to help him the rest of the way.
Now this is the part where things get a little emotional. When the refugee was finally in sight and our phones got the first hint of network since the night before, Sultan excused us and ran off to speak on the phone. I was a little confused, why leave his group during the last 15 minutes or so of the trek, seemed a little unprofessional. He was gone for a while and then reappeared right at the end of the trail with a huge smile on his face. His group asked him if ‘her and the baby were fine’ and he nodded, then they all proceeded to congratulate him. I asked one of them what was going and he informed me that Sultan’s wife had gone into labour the night before…
Each person gets so absorbed in their own struggles that we completely forget to think about what’s going on in everyone else’s minds. I just assumed that like me, everyone was worried about making it to the summit, in addition, Sultan would be worried about getting us there and back safely. Little did I know that this man was carrying our lives on his shoulder all while worrying about his wife and the birth of their baby. In an ideal world, he would’ve been there by her side to hold his baby and ensure their wellbeing. Instead, he was on the mountain working to get paid and secure their lives the best way he could. It was very humbling and a powerful reminder of how fortunate some of us are; we must never forget that.
Shushu and Hassan were extremely relieved to reunite with us at the refugee since several groups returned earlier after aborting the summit attempt and we were not among them. Matter of fact, Hassan was actually getting ready to head out and look for us when we returned. Below Shushu’s relief was sadness and disappointment; however, she pushed herself to the maximum and at the end of the day, that is the strength that truly counts.
Hours later we were back where it all began, our hotel in Imlil, laughing at ourselves for not being able to go down a flight of stairs. What seemed like an endless adventure was now just another cherished memory. What seemed like the struggle of a lifetime was now just the benchmark for the next time we’re facing something that may either break or strengthen us. We all faced the same mountain but each of us was fighting their own challenges… one day, we’ll come back again as an even bigger group and all summit together.