Toubkal: A Climb to the Roof of North Africa

Saturday, October 24, 2009 | Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

Victory! A triumphal shot from the top of Jebel Toubkal, with Chris at left, Susannah in the middle, and me at right.
The mountain had been on my list since we first arrived in Morocco. Jebel Toubkal (جبل تبقال), at 4,167 meters (13,671 feet), is the highest peak in the Atlas range and in all of North Africa.

By a stroke of luck, I managed to get last Friday off work, just as my friends Chris and Susannah were planning an ascent of the peak. I packed and provisioned, and made the 3:15am train to Marrakech with them. After a few hours of lousy midnight train sleeping, we took a winding grand taxi ride from Marrakech to the town of Imlil, at the foot of the Atlas.

It was late in the morning when, stocked up on water, Chris, Susannah, and I shouldered our packs and began to shuffle up the trail, tired but energized by the challenge ahead. Susannah had reached the summit a few months earlier, but Chris hadn't quite made it on his own trip. Many hikers used mules to carry their gear; we were going it alone.

A couple of dusty British hikers passed us on their way down, wishing us well. We soon reached the little Berber village of Armèd, nestled among apple orchards and—I looked hard—a few stands of quince trees. Encouraged by their owners' whips, sullen mules trudged past us, loaded with crates of the crisp Gala apples that were being picked in the trees all around us.

We traversed a wide field of boulders—the washout that carried the snowmelt rains and autumn flash floods. Further on, the terrain grew less verdant, more rocky. Soon, we were climbing the trail through territory that looked increasingly like the media images of Afghanistan. This must be why the US army likes using drone strikes so much, Chris and I mused, as we huffed and puffed along the craggy hillsides, zigzagging ever upward.

* * *

At the little village of Sidi Chamharouch, wedged in a crook in the cliffs two or three hours from Armèd, we stopped for lunch. Though this was Friday, the villagers claimed to have no customary couscous to serve. They also had no vegetables or meat (we asked), and took quite some time even finding bread. Perhaps by virtue of their remote location, the town's residents have learned to survive by ripping off every hiker who passes through (we were no exception). Worse yet, they have set up a shrine to the local saint, and so lure superstitious Moroccan women, who make their way on donkeyback to pay homage (and, more importantly, dirhams) to the saint.

After a lunch of bread and plain omelettes, we wound upward further, following the path from one valley to the next, ever higher. Walking the rocky path without stumbling required vigilant attention, so we picked our way along single-file, chatting with our heads down.

Shortly before dusk, after almost six hours of steady climbing (covering 10km horizontally and 1.5km vertically), we finally reached the Refuge des Mouflons, where we slurped down a dinner and promptly collapsed onto a bank of bunkbeds. By 7:30pm, we were dead to the world.

* * *

As agreed the night before, we woke Saturday at 5:00am. The refuge, lit sparsely by a few gas lanterns, hummed with excited activity as groups of hikers prepared their gear for the ascent. Chris, Susannah, and I were out the door within an hour, at first following the larger, guided groups, then later passing them as we climbed. Frost dusted the rocks. As we climbed above the last vegetation, our hats, hoods, and gloves fully deployed to stave off the cold, we noticed a few isolated patches of snow, lingering from last winter.

The aches in our legs faded as we finally caught sight of the summit, marked by an iron pyramid and ringed with triumphant hikers. We reached it by 10:00am, spent a few minutes snacking on GORP and taking pictures, then headed back for the long, steep descent to the refuge, a kilometer west and a kilometer below.

* * *

Our new blisters bandaged and our stomachs stuffed with snacks, at 2:00pm we hefted our packs and prepared to head out for the final descent—the long road to Imlil. Just as we did, the clouds opened up and began pelting the valley with hail stones.

We waited until the hail turned to rain, then trudged into the storm, hoping to make Imlil by dusk. The showers had activated something in the mule dung strewn along the path, producing a tangy stench. But the rain also lent the hillsides a vibrant, freshly washed look. We slipped and squelched our way back all afternoon, mostly silent, or whining about our aching feet.

Wobbling unsteadily on their mounts, a few Moroccan women passed, on the pilgrimage to Sidi Chamharouch. A team of muleteers sprinted by, chasing their lost pack animals. Sheep bleated in the distance.

At Armèd, a 4WD vehicle rumbled into view, and we hopped a ride with a car full of bearded, robed Berber men, who enthusiastically made space for us, then proceeded to quiz us on our knowledge of Chleuh (the local Berber dialect). Our practiced Moroccan Arabic earned us little respect down here. We didn't fare so well on the test, but we made it to Imlil in time to catch a taxi back to Marrakech.

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