Nestled in the heart of Morocco lies the Atlas mountains and within them the highest mountain in North Africa, the well known Jbel Toubkal.
Many hikers climb the mountain every year and the town Imlil, which acts as the main hub for those wishing to summit, has benefited greatly from the large amounts of people who make the journey every year. There are a number of outfits who offer guided tours up the mountainside and a number of options for summiting. The trips can be as short as two days, but many offer longer routes, such as the one we opted for, which allow for greater acclimatisation and a beautiful tour of this very dramatic landscape. Its worth noting that our guide had also previously entered in a Toubkal race and undertaken our 3 day route in a little over five and a half hours – this is probably not recommended for those who require firmer acclimatisation.
Our trip started in the mountain town of Imlil, which has become a bustling and hustling trailhead camp catering to the scores of hikers about to set off on their journey. Its possible to get everything you need for the hike that awaits – including the renting of hiking boots should you be chronically unprepared : )
Our first day was relatively straightforward. We left our guesthouse for the night, the beautiful Dar Adra, and began the first section of our three day trip. (Incidentally, if you find yourself in Imlil I highly recommend Dar Adra. The service is impeccable and the roof terrace on which food is served offers a beautiful morning view over the town which, during the infancy of the day, oozes tranquility.)
We hiked for hours across winding trails and through tree-lined valleys which offered a cool respite from the mid-day July sun. We pressed on across dirt paths, our hiking group in serene isolation; the only trace of the human world for miles and miles dotted against the dry and dramatic rolling hills.
After 5 or so hours we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a refuge nestled in a valley at the foot of a tall imposing cliff face and within a small, local farming village. The village itself, we were told, was temporary and only exists during the summer months to farm livestock and crop for the local towns. The inhabitants would spend the summer months living in the mountainside huts, a number of which were built into the landscape itself. Come winter the villagers would retreat back into the towns further down the valley. We were lucky enough to have the refuge to ourselves this night, and very contentedly settled down to mint tea and a good nights sleep under a black sky with a liberal dusting of stars.
The night was short and day 2 came around quickly. We arose at 5am had a breakfast consisting of breads, jams and hard boiled eggs and began our hike. This day was set to be a relatively challenging day consisting of 1,600m ascent to the 3,600m Aguelzim followed by a 400m descent back to the “base-camp” refuge. The first part of the day we were lucky enough to be, mostly, walking in the shade of a number of large rock faces and consequently were sheltered from the sun and able to walk in relative cool. Initially we headed up the valley towards a waterfall before reaching a number of switchbacks which opened up to an expansive view of mountain range behind us.
We then reached one of the more challenging aspects of the day’s hike a steep, grey, intimidating scree slope, the route up which consisted of, I am reliably told, 95 switchbacks. Here, a couple of our group began to struggle. However, our earlier start paid dividends and, despite our relatively slow pace (no bad thing when hiking at altitude) the burning North African sun was still hidden by the mountains. At the end of the scree we had a short walk along the side of the mountain to the peak of Aguelzim where upon summiting we were rewarded with our first view of our ultimate destination, Toubkal.
Even from this, relatively high, point Toubkal still dominated the landscape and stood head and shoulders above its peers. At this point everyone was still in relatively good spirits, and the challenge was relished. Still, as the walk had been relatively arduous, we took some time to rest and recuperate and ate tinned tuna and bread and bought Fanta out of a bucket from the local who had followed us to the top.
After we had gained a much needed fizzy-drink fix and spent an appropriate amount of time taking selfies we pressed on to the final leg of our day’s hiking: the descent towards the Toubkal refuge. This consisted of more scree paths, however downhill is always more frustrating than up on this type of terrain and we probably took a little longer than we should have, arriving for a very late lunch at around 3.30pm.
It was at this point that fatigue in our group began to set in a little more strongly and as we discussed the challenge of our summit the following day, the undertaking began to dawn a little. Given we were heading up the mountain side in order to summit before sunrise, we had precious few hours to sleep.
A cacophony of six alarms all going off together is not pleasant. The fact that it was 11.45pm, even less so! We emerged, groggily, and head down stairs to eat our dinner / breakfast.
Our hike started at 1am and was benign enough to begin albeit, as you might expect for the middle of the night, cold . The moon was as large as I’d ever seen it and shone incredibly brightly. As we began ascending, the path became more challenging. We first encountered a loose boulder-field which, under the limited light arc of a head-torch, was not all that straight-forward. We pressed on slowly picking a route, testing each rock and eventually found ourselves back on the comfortable, familiar, ground of scree and switchbacks. As we climbed higher and higher the lack of landmarks became obvious and the wind began beating against us with ferocity, reducing the temperature significantly and aggravating my already considerable fatigue. I soon began to feel the all-too-familiar sensation of an altitude headache and the familiar dull pressure began to spread evenly around the top of my head, exerting considerable pain.
The altitude and the elements began to take a toll on some of the less experienced and the pace slowed to a weary trudge. As we continued to ascend and as our bodies became wracked with cold people were beginning to struggle. We struggled up the scree, up rocks, up small snow fields. We began taking breaks more frequently and without finding shelter, people began getting frustrated and alarmed. However after summoning that little bit extra energy, the summit (or what we could see of it in the dark) crept into view. We finally made it to the summit pyramid at around 5am, immediately found shelter and began to wait for the sunrise. Our whole groups eyes cast eastwards willing the Sun to peak over the mountain tops in the distance.
Eventually it did so.
Eventually we were rewarded.
Of course, this was only the halfway point of our summit attempt. After we had warmed ourselves in the Sun we began making our way back down the South Col passing many groups who were still making their way up. Our energy was low, our faces stinging from the cold wind, our steps uneasy on the already uneasy ground. The descent was just as challenging as the ascent.
As is always the case the exhilaration of our efforts ensured we found a second wind. We grabbed lunch at the refuge and began our trek back to Imlil. Tired but with a deep sense of accomplishment we arrived out our final destination. It was 5.30pm; some sixteen hours after we had begun our day’s hike. While it was a struggle for all, and more than that for some, it was an incredible bonding experience. Sometimes it is good to experience the hardship. Sometimes it is good to push your boundaries. Sometimes you learn more about yourself when you take yourself out of your comfort zone. This was very much the case here.
I highly recommend a hike up Jbel Toubkal, it is a fantastic landscape and a wonderful challenge. The company who guided us to the summit were exemplary. I am utterly utterly in awe at their efforts and the way in which they catered to our every need and differing requirements and abilities. The company was called Aztat treks – they also ran the Dar Adrar guest house mentioned at the beginning. If you consider an adventure in the Atlas mountains, do consider Aztat Treks. Both they and our guide Mohammed were incredible and I could not recommend them highly enough.