Trekking Toubkal (1/2)
Originally posted August 25, 2017 on my tumblr.
On a Friday evening in June, my friend Charlotte and I hopped on the train to Marrakesh, but our eventual destination was the highest point in North Africa. The summit of Jbel (Mount) Toubkal is 4167 meters or 13,671 feet above sea level, nearly double the size of the highest mountain I had ever hiked before. It’s a popular trekking destination among Moroccans and foreigners alike, but since it was Ramadan, we didn’t anticipate much of a crowd.
We spent Friday night in a hotel near the train station in Marrakesh, and at 8am, we met our shuttle driver. It’s a little over an hour to the village of Imlil, at 1800m in the Atlas Mountains. When we arrived, we were ushered up to a rooftop terrace where we self-consciously drank mint tea while our guide, who was fasting, explained the route to us. Many hikers complete the trek in two days, out and back on the same trail up the valley. However, we had three days, which meant we could make the journey in a loop that would let us see more of Atlas Mountains and acclimate more gradually to the elevation. That day, we would scale a pass at about 2500m and then descend into a valley to sleep in a refuge. Sunday, we would scale a pass at 3600m and then descend to sleep at the Toubkal base camp refuge. And Monday morning, we would summit and then return all the way to Imlil via the more direct trail.
We set out mid-morning, four people and one mule. It was me, Charlotte, our English-speaking guide Hamid, and another guide with less English, also named Hamid, who drove the gray-whiskered mule piled high with our provisions for the next three days. The weather was hot at first, but as we approached the first pass, dark clouds gathered and it began to rain. At first, the cool drizzle was pleasant, but the rumbling thunder had me on edge as we ascended the increasingly exposed mountainside. For a few minutes, it hailed. But just as our teeth began to chatter with cold, we reached the pass and took shelter in the little mountain hut there.
Then conditions improved just as quickly as they had deteriorated, and Hamid and Hamid prepared us a tasty tajine lunch over the hearth in the hut while Charlotte and I spread out our wet things to dry in the sun. The view from the pass was breathtaking.
After lunch, we followed a narrow trail carved into the steep mountainside. It wound down from the pass through fields of purple-tinged boulders and mint-green shrubs and twisting prickly trees. Herds of goats and sheep crossed our path, but not a single human. Eventually we reached a valley with a tiny seasonal village on a vibrant green terraced hillside. We were the only guests at the refuge that night. The clouds and thunder returned and the temperature plummeted, but bundled up in layers and cocooned in our sleeping bags, we spent a pleasant night in the lonely valley.
The next morning we woke up early. After breakfast, we started uphill. The mountains that loomed over us looked impassable, but Hamid assured us that after a 1300m climb, we would find ourselves in a pass overlooking the neighboring valley. There, we would glimpse Jebel Toubkal itself for the first time. For the first part of the morning, we walked alongside a rushing creek. Upstream we found two different waterfalls. As the sun gradually crested the peaks to the east, we left the stream behind and began a series of switchbacks, occasionally interspersed with a flat stretch cutting across a steep scree slope.
For the first time I began to feel the effects of the elevation, finding myself winded after just a few minutes of walking. We took frequent breaks over the next few hours as one switchback blended into the next. Eventually we reached a ridgeline that gave us beautiful views back in the direction we had come, and shortly after that we made it to the pass. Far below us, there was a green valley, and directly opposite loomed Toubkal, still decorated with scattered patches of snow.
We ate our lunch and took naps in the sun before we eventually threaded our way down from the pass on a narrow trail that clung precariously to the mountainside. Clouds floated up the valley like parade balloons, level with us or below us. Exhausted, we reached the refuge after about 8 hours of hiking. I was expecting a small stone structure like the previous night, but this refuge looked more like Winterfell. It filled up gradually throughout the evening, all foreign hikers, some with Moroccan guides. We wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags early and set our alarms for 3:30am. The next morning would be summit day.
[to be continued]