The trip starts in Marrakech, famous for the beauty of its historic centre, delicious food and the many shopping opportunities offered in the narrow alleyways of its souks. With some free time before the first group meeting, some of us bonded with a walk in the heat of the day to Majorelle Gardens. This turned out to be an excellent choice as the colourful gardens once owned by Yves Saint Laurent were shady and had a café that served pancakes and ice cream – perfect for acclimatising. Later we formally met the rest of the group and Lhoucine who, ably assisted by Baubker would be our Tour Leader / Mountain Guide / motivator and confidante for the next week. Fully briefed and excited by the challenge ahead we then headed into the back streets of Marrakech for the first of many delicious Moroccan meals, this one on a roof terrace with a view to the distinctive tower of Koutoubia Mosque.
The next day, after an early breakfast, we headed out of the city and began the slow drive up into the mountains. We stopped at a café in the outskirts of the village of Aguersioual (1600m), where our provisions and luggage was strapped to mules - From now on we would be reliant on our own two feet and those of our new four-legged friends. The first day’s walking was a gentle introduction to the High Atlas Mountains, a steady ascent along a well-defined mule track through the red, rocky landscape and juniper trees to the pass Tizi Oudite (2200m). Here, under the welcome shade of a tree and enjoying the views down to the valleys we experienced our first Moroccan picnic lunch, a feast of fresh salad, warm pasta with tomato sauce, and fruit. We were also introduced to our trek team – the cook and the muleteers that we would be indebted to by the end of the week. The meal concluded with spontaneous games of rock Jenga and frisbee – the frisbee was to become a major feature of any downtime. Later we descended through similar terrain to the lush green Azaden Valley, before a final ascent up to the mountain village of Tizi Oussem (1850m) and the village guesthouse where we would spend the night. Here we split into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ rooms, each with three or four beds, and negotiated slots for the showers before enjoying dinner at the low tables in the communal room.
As we walked out of Tizi Oussem early the next morning we followed a well-defined path passed the village’s neatly farmed terraces. We continued through the dry, rocky landscape, dotted only by green juniper trees and small bushes, up through the mountains to the pass Tizi n’Mzik (2489m), meeting only a goatherd with his many charges on the way. As we arrived at the pass we were all delighted to discover a small stone shack /shop whose limited offering included bottles of cool cola and (squeezed in front of you) fresh orange juice. These were enjoyed under a tree along with the nuts regularly provided by our Tour Leader. The descent towards Imlil Valley was fairly steep with some scree – practise for what was to come later, and we were glad to stop for our picnic lunch, another feast, enjoyed next to a stream and shaded by trees. Later we followed a small road to Aremd (1950m) and then up to our guesthouse at the top of the village. Here again, we were split into small rooms along gender lines. The relative comfort of the guesthouse was appreciated - it was bigger than the night before with more sophisticated facilities, more communal areas and a large terrace with views to the mountains that was perfect for star-gazing after night fell.
Winding our way out of the village after breakfast the next day, we joined the path from Aremd to Sidi Chamharouch, a local shrine. This well-worn trail looks down over the river as it leads believers and trekkers up the valley, and crosses it at the small resort that has grown up around this pilgrimage site. Stopping at a café looking down over the shrine we enjoyed a short rest before continuing our ascent. As we climbed higher the paths got narrower, the landscape became more rocky and barren, and the skies clouded over for the first time. Some of the group began to experience some of the side effects of altitude such as headaches and breathlessness but our Tour Leaders guided us slowly and safely towards our destination for that night, the refuge at Nelter (3207m) that acts as a base camp for ascending Toubkal. The refuge is similar to a large youth hostel with communal eating areas, shared facilities, a small shop and dormitory rooms. Preferring their own set up to the shared kitchen our crew continued to produce amazingly satisfying high-carb meals from a tent set up just outside the refuge, and after a late lunch in the dining area, everyone acclimatised in their own way: sleeping, reading, exploring, playing with the local dog or chasing the frisbee. Later after dinner and some star gazing we all had an early night in preparation for our big day – the ascent of Toubkal. With so many adults in one room, it proved a noisy night but this was mainly taken in good spirits, providing much of the early morning banter the next day. Most of the blame (possibly unfairly) was apportioned to one of the two people in the room not in our group.
As the sun rose the next day we headed out of the refuge and started the slow climb up through a boulder field and onto the path to Toubkal’s summit. We started off in our cold weather gear but were soon unzipping coats and removing layers. The Tour Leaders kept the pace slow, with regular water and snack stops and we steadily ascended up the rocky, uneven trail. The group naturally split into two and Lhoucine and Hussain (one of the trek crew walking with us) walked with the faster group, while Baubker encouraged the slightly slower members not to worry about keeping up and just walk at their own pace. Eventually, after another boulder field, we arrived at Tizi n’Toubkal (3975m) the pass just below the summit, where we rested. From here it was another 30-40 minutes slow ascent to the summit (4167m). We all made it and high on our success we celebrated with group photos under the summit’s distinctive triangular marker. We were extremely lucky with the weather – it was sunny not windy, and we sat in the sun with the summit to ourselves for our light picnic lunch, enjoying the views over the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains and down to Aremd. This achievement was even more remarkable as our Tour Leaders were fasting through this trip for Ramadan – meaning they did not eat or drink in daylight hours. Weighed down by at least a couple of litres of water each every day plus high energy snacks, we were all in awe of them, and of the trek team who still prepared our meals.
After the euphoria of the summit, the descent was long and hard. The boulder fields and the scree slowed progress and necessitated careful footing. Trekking poles were definitely a benefit and I was glad I had brought them. I was even more thankful when the refuge finally came into sight and we saw the trek crew waiting for us - and knew that tea and cake wasn’t very far away. Neither was a warm shower, dinner or bed. Not surprisingly there was much less ribbing about ‘night noises’ the next day – I think it would have taken something quite dramatic to stop us sleeping that night.
The next morning the group divided into three: Those that want to climb Jebel Ouanoukrim (4089m), those who wanted to climb to the pass Tizi Ounoums (3600m) with views to Lake Ifni, and those that wanted to relax at the refuge. I chose to go to the pass and thoroughly enjoyed the walk and the views. On returning to the refuge we met up with those that had chosen to rest and began the walk back down to Aremd. At the refuge we had found out the result of the Brexit referendum and I think it is fair to say that whichever way we had voted we were all stunned by the result – It provided much of the conversation over the next few hours as we retraced our steps back down the mountain, to Sidi Chamharouch for lunch and then on to Aremd. The others that had climbed Jebel Ouanoukrim soon joined us there and we all sat around the low tables of the guesthouse for our last dinner in the mountains – A special treat of chicken and chips.
After a relatively leisurely breakfast, we said goodbye to our trek crew the next morning and set off for the short walk to the nearby town of Imlil, where our minibuses waited for the journey back to Marrakech. The contrast between the city and the mountains was stark but after a relaxing free afternoon to explore (or watch the football World Cup) we all met for an enjoyable meal at a terraced restaurant near the main square Djemma el-fna and reminisced about our adventure. The restaurant overlooked Koutoubia Mosque and after dinner we watched the faithful coming there after their sunset Ramadan meal. Hundreds if not thousands of people arrived and sat inside and out to listen to the teachings, a really memorable sight. Then it was goodbyes – First to Baubker our wonderful assistant Tour Leader, and then the next day to Lhoucine our amazing Tour Leader, and as we went in our different directions, to each other.
Climbing Toubkal was an amazing experience, and we were well supported by Lhoucine and Baubker, and their great team. It was a privilege to get off the beaten track, to see another side of Morocco, and also to learn more about Moroccan culture including Islam and Ramadan. It was also a pleasure to be part of such a great group of people – I think we will all remember this week for a long time. Anyone for a game of frisbee?
If you’re interested in climbing, you can also summit Toubkal on these other trips – Toubkal Long Weekend, High Atlas Trek and Winter Toubkal.