Moroccan Skiing, and Apes on Ice

Monday, January 26, 2009 | Michlifene, Morocco

Three things you never thought you'd see in the same photo: Arabic, snow, and an ape.
Some reports online (which definitely don't merit a link) tout Mischliffen—a ski resort south of Ifrane—as "the Moroccan Aspen". To be fair, on our visit last Saturday we did find Mischliffen nestled in a natural alpine wonderland, but one of considerably less dramatic heights than its Rocky Mountain counterpart.

Mischliffen's two ski trails—one modest and the other more so—empty into a large bowl at the hill's base, where hundreds of Moroccan kids and teens spent the day sledding on wooden fruit crates nailed to sawed-off ski halves. Often several of them would join together in a train at the bowl's lip and slide downward, screaming hysterically, until their formation suddenly dissolved into a mass of tumbling bodies, with sleds skittering away in every direction. (No, these are not the "apes on ice"—that comes later.)

The enterprising locals who rented out makeshift sleds from the parking lot also offered outdated ski equipment and a few snowboards. Jacqueline and I, and many of our friends who we joined on this North African skiing adventure, managed to fit into some clunky, 1970s-era ski boots, strap on the similarly outdated straight-edged skis and hit the slopes (all two of them).

A few Moroccans did join us on the ski trails, though unlike the sledders, these were no common folk. They reinforced the class distinction by wearing their finest European ski gear and pausing at the top of the hill for an excessive pre-game stretch session before their first run. (This on a slope no more than 200m long.)

Our crowd had no such patience or pretensions, and quickly set about barreling down the hill at top speed. Though the mountain has no artificial snowblowers, conditions weren't bad, thanks to this winter's plentiful snows. Our skis, heavy and straight-as-an-arrow, hadn't been sharpened for decades, but once we had re-learned the art of turning, we quickly grew bored with the bunny slope—and tired of paying $0.50 each time we took the rope tow to the top. (That's right, no lift tickets at Mischliffen—it's pay-as-you-go.)

The lift on the longer, more challenging trail wasn't running today, we were told. So, seven of us rode the bunny slope's lift once more, and then set out into the forest, lugging our skis further up the snowy mountainside toward the higher trail's summit. Nearly two hours—and several defections—later, I and two others reached the top. Heady with victory, we strapped in and pointed our skis downhill, realizing only too late that the mountainside, whose conditions had been ideal earlier in the day, was now covered in a mash of sun-warmed slush.

* * *

After our a long, cold, and humbling route to the bottom, we reconvened with the larger group for the drive home to Fes, making stops for food in Azrou and tea in the nearby Berber village of Bou Shehada. En route, we got more than my hoped-for glimpse of the region's elusive Barbary Apes.

At a crossroads in the forest, a few cars were pulled over, and their Moroccan occupants kneeling along the roadside with breads in hand, trying to coax a troupe of the apes closer. Something about those circumstances didn't seem right, but the opportunity to see the normally shy creatures up close was exciting.

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