Atlas Adventure | We Went To Morocco In A Bid To Climb The Highest Mountain In North Africa
From the madness of Marrakech to the magnificence of Mount Toubkal, this journey had it all.
“Did you see that?" I say to Mike and Georgie, two people I’ve literally just met.
“See what?" asks Georgie.
“The man. The man on a scooter. The man on a scooter with a massive great big rug balanced across his lap," I reply.
Welcome to Marrakech, Morocco: a place where The Highway Code has yet to make much of an impact, a place where simply crossing a road is a nerve-shredding battle for survival, a place where drivers and motorcyclists seemingly do whatever the hell they want. Ride a scooter with three plastic chairs strapped to the front of it? Sure, no problem. This furniture won’t deliver itself.
"Two thumbs is nothing, you think."
I’ve only been here a few hours but already the sheer intensity of this mad city has left me emotionally and physically drained. Well the intensity, and the fact my extremely early flight has resulted in me barely scraping together about 23 seconds of sleep. If it wasn’t for this mouthwatering vegetarian tagine I’m currently enjoying, and my burning desire to make the most of my brief time here, I’d be back at the Riad having the power nap to end all power naps.
What am I doing in Morocco? Well, primarily, I’ve come to climb to the top of the Atlas Mountains and, with a little help from Much Better Adventures, explore a part of the planet I’ve never been to before. Established by Alex Narracott and Sam Bruce in 2012, Much Better Adventures pride themselves on “uncovering the best outdoor experiences in the world’s most inspiring places, and working with amazing local guides to turn them into easy-to-book adventures."
Today, we’re in Marrakech. Tomorrow, we’ll be heading to the Atlas Mountains for a summiting attempt on Mount Toubkal. Standing at 4,167 metres tall, Toubkal is the highest peak in North Africa and one of the biggest walking challenges I’ve ever taken on. It’s a trek to the top rather than a roped ascent, but it’s still a heck of a long way when you consider that Snowdon, the last hill I conquered and the highest mountain in Wales, has an elevation of just 1,085 metres
“Ah, yeah. So we did Kili [Kilimanjaro - 5,895 metres] last year," says Jim, who’s come here with friends Paul and Debs.
“Went up to Everest BC [Everest Base Camp - 5,364 metres] recently," says Claire, an Australian Civil Engineer.
Going round the group, it soon becomes clear that there’s a number of pretty experienced trekkers amongst us; trekkers who are hooked on conquering mountains and smashing various other outdoor challenges. That said, it’s obvious these people are down to earth and up for a laugh just as much as they’re up for a challenge. Any lingering fears I had that this long weekend would play out like some sort of military bootcamp dissipates quickly.
Hopping into the minibus first thing Saturday morning, it’s not long before we’re leaving the chaos of Marrakech behind and heading up into the hills. The group chats excitedly as the Atlas Mountains become an increasingly real presence through the windows. This is it. We’re going to climb Toubkal.
After about an hour and a half of driving, we reach the small mountain village of Imlil. Imlil is situated approximately 1,800 metres above sea level, and will be the starting point of our Toubkal ascent. The sedate, life in the slow lane, nature of this place is in stark contrast to the frenetic city we were in only a few hours ago; a city which suddenly feels an entire world and half a lifetime away.
"I’m so hungry that I’d eat my own hiking socks if you drizzled oil on them..."
Once we’re done drinking a fresh pot of mint tea, and making some final adjustments to our packs, Ibrahim from Aztat Treks, a team working in partnership with Much Better Adventures here in the Atlas Mountains, unfolds a map and shows us the route we’ll be taking over the next two days. When the distance you’re walking, on the map at least, is the length of two thumbs pressed together it’s easy to underestimate things. Two thumbs is nothing, you think. Turns out, though, that two thumbs really can go a long way.
We leave Imlil with bags of energy, and a tangible air of anticipation floating amongst us. Weaving our way through a nearby wood, we ascend quickly without breaking a sweat. Exchanging back stories and cracking jokes, while keeping one eye on the epic scenery as it unfurls itself in front of us, it’s only matter of a time before the inevitable squad selfie gets taken (which, of course, it does). After crossing a dried out riverbed, we pass a sign that tells us we’re entering Toubkal National Park. The first hour, it transpires, was just a warm up and we haven’t even properly got going yet.
To make matters worse, my rookie error in failing to properly wear in my new Aku hiking boots before the trip is coming back to bite me in the early warning signs for heel blisters. Of all the crap things that can befall you in the first few hours of a trek in the Atlas Mountains, let me just say that the potential development of heel blisters is definitely right up there. In fact, I’d say it’s probably third behind a broken ankle and literally death.
“Here, stick one of these on there," says Claire, handing me a padded blister plaster while I examine my foot’s redness at the trek’s first resting point.
“Blister tape will sort you out," says Jim, handing me a roll of what is presumably blister tape.
I quickly, and without precision, shroud my feet in both like it’s Christmas Eve and I’ve left it to the last minute before wrapping the presents again. Then I pop my socks and boots back on. The difference is immediately noticeable, and genuinely remarkable. I’m sold on the benefits of blister tape straight away. Blister tape = absolute game changer.
We plough onwards and upwards through the Atlas Range, dodging pack mules as we go. The sky - a perfect shade of blue, the air - clean and crisp, the mountains - big, and getting bigger. After a few hours of proper adventure walking, we cross a picture-perfect stream and arrive at our lunch spot. I’m so hungry that I’d eat my own hiking socks if you drizzled oil on them and fried them in a wok. Fortunately, my socks aren’t on the menu today as we have both a cook and ingredients with us. Curried beans, pasta, and a refreshing salad are just some aspects of the delicious feast we’re treated to. Naturally, I massively over indulge and give myself indigestion. No time to sleep it off though. We’ve got a mountain to climb.
It’s the start of Ramadan, which means our main man Ibrahim and his team are fasting. This means no food and no water between sunrise and sunset; something I’d struggle with if I was just sat at home in my pants watching Netflix, let alone if I was walking up the highest mountain in North Africa. Despite constant rehydration, the dusty nature of the terrain is making the inside of my mouth feel like a Ryvita cracker. I can’t imagine not being able to quench my thirst, or satisfy them hunger pangs.
“I’m used to it," says Ibrahim, “Although, this is the first time I’ve done Toubkal while fasting," he adds, like it’s no big deal.
Forward, we march; past elderly Moroccan men pressing oranges, wobbly tables displaying exotic rock collections, and one of the most basic toilets you could ever hope to see. Debs, it’s clear, is struggling with the combined effects of heat and altitude. As a result of this, the group splits. Paul, Jim, and Debs going in one group; the rest of us going slightly further ahead in another.
We’re closing in on the 3,000 metre mark when we start to become more and more aware of the unmelted snow and ice. It’s fair to say that before coming on this trip, thoughts of snow and ice in Morocco...in May...were not exactly at the front of my mind’s eye. The shift in temperature from the start of the trek is significant, and I’m relieved to see my lightweight winter jacket is still in my pack when we stop on some rocks for a break.
Rounding a corner, we see the Refuge du Toubkal up ahead. The Refuge sits in the shadow of Toubkal, and is in much better nick than I was perhaps expecting. With the sun going down behind the mountains, it’s a most welcome sight. Tossing our packs onto the supersized bunkbeds, we head to the communal area for popcorn, mint tea, and aching leg recuperation.
"...something I’d struggle with if I was just sat at home in my pants watching Netflix..."
During dinner, and especially after, it becomes obvious that a number of our party are really flagging. Painfully aware of the 3:30am start that awaits us the next morning, we decide that getting an early night is the wisest thing to do. It’s not the best sleep I’ve ever had, but I get just about enough when Ibrahim comes knocking pre-sunrise telling us all it’s time to get up, get breakfast and get climbing.
We leave the Refuge in darkness, with only the expert knowledge of our guides and the light of our headtorches illuminating the way for us. Located at 3,207 metres above sea level, the Refuge is still almost a full kilometre lower than the summit so there’s still a fair old way to go before we reach the top of Toubkal; especially when you factor in the noticeably steeper and more challenging gradient on show here.
At times, we’re scrambling. At others, we’re simply putting one foot in front of the other in a slow but steady ascent. After a couple of hours the summit enters that “so close yet so far" zone, known to get under the skin of even the most experienced mountaineers. The altitude is having less of an effect than I thought it would, before I came on the trip, but the potential for it to strike at any moment isn’t far from my thoughts.
Deb’s condition from yesterday has got a lot worse and it’s with regret that she has to turn back and make for the Refuge with a guide. She’s climbed the considerably higher Kilimanjaro before, so it just goes to show that altitude can affect anyone at any time. Inevitably, our group gets a little spaced apart with only Ibrahim left guiding us but with sunrise well under way, the weather conditions as clear as can be, and a number of other guided groups on the trail there’s minimal chance that anyone’s going to get lost.
“That," says Jim pointing at a particularly impressive view, “...is why I climb mountains."
We’re nearly there now and, because of this decreasing distance between myself and the final destination, the temptation to break into a celebratory sprint is tantalising. Sensibly, though, I decide to take it easy; hiking purposefully towards the finishing line with a widening smile upon my face. Looking down on the world from such a vantaged high point is a real pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moment. It’s breathtaking, jaw-dropping, truly life-affirming stuff.
And then, before it even has time to properly sink in, I’m standing on the summit of Mount Toubkal; pulling some celebratory poses for the camera and high fiving everybody in our group who’s come up behind us. We get a team photo done, congratulate each other for a job well done, and engage in some light-hearted mountain banter with a pair of wise-talking South Africans.
“OK. We get a helicopter down now," jokes Ibrahim, who’s been climbing up and down this mountain for eight years and is understandably a bit less excited about all this than we are.
I check the sky for a helicopter, just in case Ibrahim’s telling the truth, but alas it looks like we’re descending this thing on foot. Taking a few more photos quickly, and enjoying the mother of all Moroccan views one last time, we begin the long trek back to Imlil.
My journey to the roof of the Atlas Mountains has been a truly unforgettable experience. In the space of just two days, with the help of Ibrahim and Much Better Adventures, I’ve conquered my first 4,000 metre peak and fallen in love with a new corner of the world. It really has been the kind of epic, activity-packed, journey that can make a person reassess what’s possible in the course of a weekend.
Do It Yourself:
We flew between London Stansted and Marrakech with Ryanair.