Discipline: Mountaineering / Hiking
Area: Expedition Abroad: Toubkal National Park, Morocco (57km from Marakesch)
Type: MicroAdventure / Mini Expedition
Highest point: 4167m
Duration: 2 or 3 days
Route: Grid refs and location google maps
Significance: Country High point and Highest in Range
Red tape: No permit required
Standing at over 4000m and covered in snow and ice for half the year, Toubkal is a peak not to be underestimated. However, it is the absolute perfect introduction to Alpinism. The non-technical peak can be climbed with very basic equipment and provides a unique cultural experience along the way.
Context: Toubkal is the highest in the Atlas mountains, spanning the width of the North African continent and is relatively accessible, just 57km from Marakesch. The first known ascent was in 1923 by a group of French scientist explorers soon followed by British man B. Beetham three years later. It has since become a relatively popular choice for tourists but doesn’t feel too crowded compared with the popular peaks in the Alps (with an estimated 500 ascents per year).
Time of year: This is a serious mountain that can present extremely treacherous conditions. Can be climbed any time of year however will require full mountaineering equipment in winter. For those without serious equipment, June-September will provide the best chance of good weather, however climbing possible March-April and October but precipitation is at its highest.
BAC kudos: 2/5 stars The ideal taster for relatively high altitude and refuge life with a Arabic twist.
Guidebook recommendations: Trekking in the Atlas Mountains: Toubkal, Mgoun Massif and Jebel Sahro (3rd Revised edition) by Karl Smith, 9781852844219
Logistical recommendations: Refuge du Toubkal (3207m) is a decent mountain hut with toilet facilities, warm meals and a small (overpriced) mountain tuckshop. With 86 places, the bunkbeds are good enough for a reasonable night’s sleep.
Contact: 00212 (0) 6 61 69 54 63 email@example.com
After taking our hire car as far as she’d go, we were ready to start our (already delayed) hike in. Seemingly maps were either hard to come by initially, or severely overpriced so we opted for following our noses, and the well trodden path (I recommend pre buying a map or book online). Starting just above Imlil meant our first day wasn’t insignificant from 1740m up aiming for the Refuge sitting over 3000m.
The mountain villages have a pleasant atmosphere and although rough around the edges, the dilapidated dwellings have a fantastically traditional Berber feel. As with much of Morocco, the local people are well versed to capitalizing on tourists, however the freshly prepared food and rich colours of various goods on sale enhance the arabic experience and give you plenty to look at on the approach.
Passing through the fairly green foot hills where subsistence agriculture is bustling, this was not the image I’d pictured from High Atlas but it was stunning!
Soon enough we were deep into the hot and dry hinterland where lush grass was replaced with strewn rock. The terrain steepened for the first slog up of uphill which required some hard work, however nothing dissimilar to the rock stepped paths I’d grown up with in The Lake District. As my first experience of altitudes associated with Alpine peaks, I found a strange comfort in the shortness of breath associated with your cardiovascular system working a little harder than it would do at sea level. Eager to get up to our mountain hut, I galloped up passing donkeys and fellow hikers without issue. With the gradient reducing, you soon find yourself on a slight plateau working your way up the valley to reveal a welcome sight, Refuge Toubkal.
With a strong French history, it’s not surprising that Toubkal’s refuge feels suitably Alpine. Originally built in the 50s but renovated in 1999, it sleeps over 80 and offers everything you could need from basic mountain accommodation. They offer hearty evening meals, dormitory accommodation and a refreshingly varied and international clientele. After just an hour or so of dinner, we’d expanded our climbing group size drastically, for tomorrow we would cement these relationships - ascending North Africa’s highest mountain.
After a predictably restless night, the first of which I’d ever spent over 3000m at the time, we woke feeling groggy but my excitement for the challenge ahead wouldn’t be easily dampened. With our new recruits, we don our head torches and set off an hour or so before first light hoping to get a glimpse of wonderful African sunrise. Lesson 1 learnt quickly – always route find where the path starts before the sun sets the night before. We end up taking in some additional and (unnecessary) ascent going the wrong way, a mistake I doubt I’ll make again. Once en route however, our group are making our way up the steep scree, and through a small gully crossing the occasional pocket of unmelted snow to remind us we were on a serious mountain.
As a fell runner and avid mountain biker, moving slowly and smoothly at altitude was an approach I’d yet to master. Chatting to a lovely and highly experienced Australian couple, we tempered my pace and settled into a rhythm. With rays of golden light shining on the deep reds of adjacent faces, we were fast approaching Tizi-n Toubkal pass. At this point, with a little added exposure and views opening up, the enormity of these peaks becomes apparent.
Heading North East from the pass, and eager to get over 4000m, we pick up the pace a little despite the available oxygen going down by around 40% at this height. As the morning sun warms, we take our last few steps to the highest peak in North Africa and the views don’t disappoint. With a fair few more peaks under my belt since, I now understand how rare basking in the sun on a perfectly still day on the summit of a 4000m peak really is – my advice, enjoy it! Proud of our impromptu but brilliant climbing team’s achievement, with a few mild headaches between us, we begin a long and tiring descent down to Imlil.
The descent to the refuge seems to fly by, with more breath to chat the time passes quickly and soon I find myself weighing up my options at the Refuge’s quaint little “tuck shop”. Refueled primarily from Pringles and another couple of litres of water, we continued descending acutely aware there is a significant 1000m+ more down to come. It’s worth noting that although Toubkal isn’t the most arduous of climbs in comparison to big Alpine peaks, the summit day requires a decent level of fitness, and well fitted boots. After a compulsory Moroccan tagine, we were relieved to get off our feet and back to our cosy Hotel. The stiff legs and raw blisters seemed trivial compared with the new sense of achievement from climbing a big peak, and the realisation that I was completely and utterly hooked – this would undoubtedly become my newest pursuit.
Other travel advice
I have to be honest about the Moroccans I met. From my few weeks there, half the locals seemed to be some of the most helpful and genuine people in the world, and the other half, something entirely different. For us at least, we couldn’t easily determine which, until you’d either been fleeced, or regretted not being warmer and more grateful of their incredibly kind nature. My advice would be to tread carefully and avoid any approaches on the street, however we came across some incredible people along our travels.
As well as the climb, Morocco is packed with amazing sites and fascinating culture. Book yourself into a riad and get used to drinking a lot of mint tea.
I personally found Marakesch to be unfriendly and highly commercialised compared to some of the more authentic cities such as the capital Rabat and world famous Casablanca.
Essaouira offers a perfect surf town retreat after the climb, as well as the lovely calming atmosphere, there’s loads to do.
Ozoud is easily one of the most impressive sites we saw in Morocco, and is fairly easily accessed by car from the High Atlas area.