About an hour and a half outside of Marrakech is a little village nestled in the Atlas Mountains called Imlil. The trip from Marrakech is relatively easy by Moroccan standards, the hardest part is squishing into the normal sized taxi with 6 other full grown adults. The price is 50 dirhams per seat, if you want a bit of extra comfort you can pay for extra seats, but the ride is an adventure in itself, just maybe not a comfortable one. Four people across the back seat, two in the passenger seat, plus the driver. Don’t bring your personal bubble along for the ride.
Imlil itself has been transformed by tourism into a mini mountainside Marrakech, with people trying to sell you accommodation and mountain climbing equipment. I stayed at a lodge called Dar Atlas in a tiny, peaceful village just outside Imlil and for 75 dirhams I got a private room and breakfast.
Many people go to Imlil just to walk around in the surrounding villages, there are many walks to do in the area. But many people also go there as a base from which to start the trek up to Mount Toubkal. At almost 4,200m above sea level it is the highest mountain in Morocco and also the highest in North Africa. There was no way I could come to Morocco and not go to Toubkal.
At the base of Toubkal, about a five hour walk from Imlil, there are two mountain refuges (3,100m) where people stay before going to the summit. Sometimes they can book out, especially on the weekends, so it can be useful to book in advance. You also have the option to camp if you bring your tent, but it’s very cold up there. I think you’re not likely to get much sleep either way. The room I stayed in had 28 people all packed in like sardines.
You can also pay for dinner (plain spaghetti, weird chicken chunks and fries the night I was there) and breakfast (bread, surprise surprise), and hire crampons there, but it’s better to hire them in Imlil because it’s cheaper. I didn’t hire crampons in either place. I should have hired crampons.
People start setting off at 4.30am to go to the summit. This is the time you need to leave if you want to catch the sunrise from the peak. I opted for more time in bed and left at 6.30 instead when it was light enough to see without a head torch. Unfortunately, besides my hiking poles my head torch was the only other piece of appropriate equipment I had with me and I didn’t even need it.
Everyone else had their crampons, their snow pants, snow gloves, beanies, proper hiking boots… And there I was in my runners with a pair of socks on my hands. Half way up the mountain I developed this hacking cough, I thought I was getting frostbite in my lungs. But it went away after a few days.
Now most people say you need a guide to get to Toubkal. This might be true to get from the refuge to the summit in winter when there is more snow but when I went in mid-May you definitely didn’t need one. You especially don’t need one to get from Imlil to the refuge. There are heaps of resources online that describe the path, many people walking the path that you can follow, and if you download the most useful app ever, maps.me – an offline map that works almost anywhere and uses your GPS to show your location, it has the path on it and the GPS signal works until the refuges are in sight. It’s impossible to get lost. The path from the refuge to the summit is basically dug into the snow from all the people who walk it every day, and there are so many people leaving at the same time each day it’s really easy to just follow a group that does have a guide if you want to. Having said this, however, I would not recommend going alone.
I learnt a lot climbing Toubkal. I learnt that if you fall in the snow and are sliding down the mountain it’s important to “up the feet, but best to don’t fall”. I learnt that you should check weather conditions before climbing a mountain. I learnt that if some people say you need crampons and some people say you don’t then that means you should take crampons. I learnt that even in extreme conditions people are inherently kind, perhaps even more so than in normal conditions because everyone is experiencing the same difficulties. And I think most importantly I learnt that there is a BIG difference between hiking to a base camp of 5,400m and climbing a peak of 4,200m. I found the limit to my adventurous spirit on Toubkal. It came in at about 4,100m with a wind speed of 100km/h and a wind chill factor of -11 degrees, with no one there to encourage me. There were plenty of people, yes, the path was easy to follow, and some people even fed me. Three Moroccan women gave me chocolate and dates, a lovely man from Argentina gave me a Mars bar, saying “if I save one life today I’ll be very happy” while his friend put my crampons on for me. Because yes I did end up with crampons.
The best gift anyone could give me, from the kindest person on the mountain that day, were the crampons from the French guy. I’m so disappointed I didn’t even find out his name. He was in my room at the refuge the night before the climb, and he left at 4.30 because he wanted to make it to the top for sunrise. I passed him coming down when I was about a third of the way up and he made me stop and sit down in the snow. “You will not make it if you don’t have these” he said, sitting down himself and taking off his crampons. He strapped them to my shoes and then gave me his gloves as well before heading down towards the refuge where he was planning to have a shower and wait for me.
I made it almost to the top. I was exhausted and frozen and lonely and 100m down from the summit the wind was so strong it took all of my energy just to not be blown off the edge. And the view was good from there, I could see really far. I didn’t take any photos because my hands weren’t working and I thought if I took a glove off to use my phone the glove would blow away, my phone would probably blow away, and I’d get frostbite on my fingers.
Coming down I ended up trudging along through the snow with four Spanish guys that I’d spoken to a few times during the previous day. They showed me the best path to take, and when we had to take the crampons off and walk the last part of the path through very loose tiny stones and slippery snow they tried to make easy places for me to out my feet. This didn’t stop me from falling over continuously and I descended the last part of the mountain predominantly by sliding on my bum. It took six hours for me to almost reach the top and make it back to the refuge. Then, because I desperately just wanted to go to bed, I headed straight on down to Imlil, which took me four and a half hours. It shouldn’t have taken so long but my legs were so tired and my knees were so painful that by the time I got close to Imlil I don’t think you could really describe my movements as ‘walking’ anymore. More like shuffling. I made it back to my 75 dirham private room and collapsed at 5.30pm after a full ten and a half hours of pain and exhaustion. That was Thursday night, it was Wednesday before I could walk without being in an incredible amount of pain again.
I’d like to conquer Toubkal one day, I’ll take a friend next time. And my own crampons. And gloves. Like I said, I didn’t make it to the summit but I certainly learned a lot.