Trekking Toubkal (2/2)
Originally posted on August 31st 2017 on my tumblr.
The following morning, our alarm woke us at 3:30am to dress and eat breakfast. When I crept downstairs, I found the Moroccans huddled around a table, eating Suhoor, the only food or drink they would consume before undertaking more than 30 kilometers of hiking that day. Charlotte and I ate our own breakfast, and then we began the steep climb to the summit in utter darkness. The first hour passed as if in a dream, scrambling up and up and up over rocks and occasional swaths of snow, illuminated only by the small circle of light from our phones. We could only see a couple meters in any direction, but as the glowing lights of the refuge shrank behind us and below us, I had an eerie awareness of the invisible yawning space in one direction. I suspected with my fear of heights, I would find this stretch of trail more intimidating on the way down when I could see it.
As dawn approached, the darkness paled to gray and then the summits of the peaks opposite us gradually materialized. Then as the sun hit them, they were painted with a warm pink light.
We had reached a series of switchbacks now, and at each turn I would pause to breathe and to marvel at the progress of the sunrise. We climbed and climbed and climbed. Periodically we had to scramble over loose scree that threatened to slip out from beneath your boot and cascade down the slope like water. We crossed patches of hard-packed snow and scrambled among boulders the size of cars. Then more switchbacks.
Eventually we reached the ridge line, and the views opened up around us. However, the summit itself was still some distance off to our left. We continued until I thought we had reached our goal, but instead we had only reached our first glimpse of the summit itself, up until now obscured by the nearer face of rock. We could see the pyramid summit sign, but that peak seemed to be on the other side of empty space. But Hamid pointed out the trail to our left that dipped below the ridgeline and followed its crescent-shaped path around to the summit.
At this point, my nerves were shot. The path looked so steep and narrow that I sat down, momentarily panicked, unable to imagine myself covering the last few hundred meters. I mumbled that I would wait for Hamid and Charlotte here, but luckily they both dismissed my nonsense and talked me to my feet. “Don’t look down,” said Hamid. “And don’t stop.” Pretending that I could still only see as far as the light of my cell phone, I kept my eyes resolutely on the trail immediately in front of me. Ten minutes later the path opened up, and we had made it.
The summit of Toubkal is wide and nearly flat, but the sheer distance that you can see in every direction, including down, almost hurts your eyes. I was struck by the difference between here and Casablanca, where buildings obstruct the view anywhere you look, and your brain never has to process input from more than a few blocks away. It was dizzying. It was amazing.
We took photos from every conceivable angle and then sat and rested for a while, taking it all in. Hamid clambered atop the summit sign and posed, arms outstretched, for one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken.
It had been cold on the shady trail, but here at the top, the sun kept us warm despite the thin air. After the challenge of the ascent, the twenty minutes we spent alone at the summit of Toubkal were some of the most gratifying of my life. I could have spent all day up there, but Charlotte and I had a train to catch that evening, and we still needed to descend to the refuge and walk another ten miles back to Imlil.
We followed Hamid back down the mountain. We exchanged greetings and encouraging words with several groups of hikers on their way up. Once the sun rose above Toubkal’s ridge line, the temperature increased dramatically, and I was glad we had completed the full ascent in the shade. As I expected, some stretches of the trail were harrowing by the light of day.
It was about 11am when we reached the refuge. We rested, ate lunch, and gathered up our belongings. It would be a long walk back through the valley to Imlil, but generally downhill. The weather was beautiful. The warm sun seemed incongruous as we walked past heaps of leftover snow on the creek bed, like spring and summer had haphazardly overtaken the valley and forgotten them there.
This trail was the more popular route between Imlil and Toubkal, and we passed several creek-side juice stands and souvenir shops. The juice was welcome and delicious, but the t-shirts, pottery, and nick knacks struck me as odd, because anything we bought we would have to carry. Throughout the afternoon we also crossed paths with lots of hikers on their way up to the refuge. It still never felt crowded, but I could imagine that outside the month of Ramadan, the relaxing trail might feel more like a busy thoroughfare.
After a long afternoon of hiking on tired feet, we crossed a rocky riverbed and found ourselves among the small villages of the Imlil valley. In another forty-five minutes, we made it back to Imlil proper, where a shuttle was waiting to take us back to Marrakesh. We bid goodbye to Hamid and Hamid and thanked them for making our trek such an incredible experience, an impressive feat that they had accomplished while fasting all day long. Exhausted, we napped in the van and then settled in at the McDonalds at the train station for a few hours. Due to Ramadan, the trains were infrequent and all the other restaurants were closed, so we ate McFlurries and used the wifi to reconnect with friends and family and share pictures from the journey.
After three and half hours on the train, we finally arrived in Casablanca around 11pm, almost 20 hours after waking up that morning. Collapsing onto my bed in my apartment, it was hard to believe that earlier that day I had stood on the tallest mountain in North Africa, over two miles higher in the Earth’s atmosphere than where I was now. It was a challenging and triumphant experience, and I am so, so grateful for the opportunity.
Thanks for the adventure, Jbel Toubkal.