Climbing Mount Toubkal

On a whim last month a couple of days before I set out for my solo travel adventure to Marrakech, I decided to attempt to summit Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains and of North Africa.  Mount Toubkal is located 63 km south of Marrakesh, in the Toubkal National Park, and sits at 4,167 meters (or 13,671 ft.).

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With limited time and a tight schedule (I was due to arrive in Marrakech on Saturday afternoon, and depart for Geneva on Tuesday afternoon), I came across Active Treks Morocco whilst researching things to do in Marrakech. They were ranked in the top ten list of activities in the area by trusty Tripadvisor, so I reached out to Mohammed without hesitation.

Mohammed was super responsive and helpful in preparing me for my 2-day ascent of Toubkal, and emailed me a gear list I should have ready-to-hand for my mountaineering adventure.  These included:

  • Good walking boots and socks
  • 3 to 4 season sleeping bag
  • Comfortable shoes/slippers for camp/guesthouse
  • Walking stick
  • Trekking pants
  • Day sack/backpack
  • Lightweight waterproof over-trousers / rain-pants
  • Headtorch / headlamp
  • Basic First Aid Kit
  • Long johns
  • Ice axe and crampons (winter)
  • Water bottle or camel back (recommended)
  • Fleece jacket or warm jumper

amongst other things.  The list was particularly handy, as I had less than 48 hours to pack for my trip.

Mohammed greeted me warmly on a Monday morning and showed me to my private car and driver, which transported me from Marrakech to Imlil.  He’d taken care of all the details, including a private mountain guide (Omar), a beautiful white mule to transport all my gear (Thalj), a porter (Hussein), delicious meals of tagine, omlettes, tuna salad, hearty soup, and clementines, and one night’s lodging in Refuge du Toubkal.

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But despite all the preparations, I knew that it’d be a challenge for me to summit Toubkal in the winter months.  Aside from the jetlag and exhaustion of just having landed in Marrakech from New York a mere 36 hours before, I’d hardly undertaken any mountaineering training since my mixed climbing adventure in Chamonix (Arete des Cosmique) two summers ago with Mark.  And although I’d been doing a fair amount of high-intensity cardio at Crossfit, it simply did not suffice to help me acclimatize in time for the climb.

Day 1 went well, and we’d reached the hut (Refuge de Toubkal) just before sunset.  My legs had already felt like jelly, crunching through scree and snow.  We started hiking mid-morning, and had climbed about 1,500 meters (~4500 ft) over 16 kilometers (9 miles), passing through the Mizane Valley to the pilgrimage site of Sidi Chamarouch, followed by the Refuge.  Hot tea and cookies awaited me at the Refuge, as I swapped stories with other travelers about our international mountaineering adventures by the warm, inviting fire.

We kicked off our second day with a big breakfast prepared by Hussein, consisting of bread, cheese, jam, and omlettes.  The ascent began just before sunrise, and I’d started off slow, still acclimatizing to the higher altitudes and steep terrain.  In spite of my best efforts, I knew that my current pace would not be efficient enough to ascend to the summit and descend the mountain before dark.  Immediately after passing the crux in crampons, Omar and I agreed to turn around to the Refuge for lunch before heading down to Imlil. 

The descent to the Refuge was very efficient, and it’d taken me only a fraction of the time to arrive as it did for me to ascend.  I bid goodbye to the new friends I’d made at the refuge, including a father and his 11-year old son, who had successfully summited earlier that day. 

On the way down the mountain, I was glad that I’d made the right decision to turn back before the summit bid, as my knees and ankles had started to ache and my pace had started to slow down.  Omar made for good company, encouraging me during the descent and affirming my decision to turn around early.  We arrived in Imlil just as the sun was setting, and a car that Mohammed had arranged was patiently awaiting to transport me back to Marrakech for the night. 

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Although I didn’t bag a peak during this particular visit to Morocco, I was happy that I’d tried to summit Toubkal with Mohammed and his trusty crew at Active Treks Morocco.  They had prepared me thoroughly, from what gear to bring to what expectations to set for the adventure. 

My biggest beta for would-be adventurers attempting a winter ascent of Toubkal: bring your gusto for the mountains and passion for the climb, and don’t forget your Stanley Thermos at home (it came in extra handy for me after hitting the crux).  And then let Active Treks Morocco take care of the rest.  

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