Climbing Toubkal and Exploring Morocco

Who goes to Morocco to climb a mountain? When most people think of Morocco, they think of the desert. And to be honest, after reading about mountaineering for the first time, I definitely considered doing a camel tour instead… But climbing the highest point in the Atlas Mountains was way too intriguing.

The Atlas Mountains separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert and spans over three African countries: Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The highest point is called Toubkal at 4,167m above sea-level, located in southern Morocco.

Amina, who grew up in Casablanca took charge and planned the whole thing, which was amazing. We knew we wanted a guide, a night or two at the refuge and that we’d want to relax afterwards to recover and enjoy the warm weather. We were in Morocco for 5 full days (28-Apr to 3-May) with an epic itinerary: 2 days in the mountains with Toubkal Voyages and then 3 days by a lake to relax and recover.

Reading about Toubkal, it sounded like we had to be prepared for any and all weather. In April/May, snow is almost a guarantee at 3,000m+.

Two day’s before flying out, we checked the weather and it was not looking good. Snow and showers every day. It was looking like our nice hike up a mountain could become pretty grim, pretty quick.

With forecasted temperatures ranging from 28 degrees in Marrakesh to -6 degrees at the peak of Toubkal, we packed as best as we could do. Also keeping in mind we had to lug everything we packed up the mountain. The fact that I was able to fit everything I needed in one bag was a success of its own (thanks Tayl for lending me your backpack and Brain/Jodie for lending your sleeping bag!).

Day 1 – Arrive in Marrakesh

­Ash, Dan and I flew into Marrakesh on Friday evening. We landed around 8:30PM and grabbed a taxi to the nearest road where our Riad was located. After navigating through some dark alleyways, we approached Riad Chalymar. What seemed modest and underwhelming from the outside was absolutely stunning inside. I had done ZERO research in preparation for this trip (which is really unlike me) but in doing so I had zero expectations. The contrast of walking down these dark alleyways to ending up in what seemed like a hidden gem of Marrakesh was a pretty cool experience.

We stayed about a block away from Jamaa el Fna (Old Town Square and Market). After checking in, we went for a walk to explore the old town and eat our first Tagine. It would have been around 9:30/10PM when we walked down to the square – it was buzzing! Loads of people out, everywhere. Locals and tourists alike. Everything was open and kids who looked as young as 5 years old were out and about until after midnight.

We wandered around together… Dan holding my hand like I was a child who is about to be lost in the crowds. Me trying not to take too many photos so I “don’t look like a tourist”. Who was I kidding though? I’m a 5’10” blonde western girl wandering around Marrakesh wearing pink sandals… I didn’t need to take photos to look like a tourist (Ash kindly pointed out haha). So I snapped a few!

Jamaa el Fna, Marrakesh

Marrakesh Souk

This was more or less the extent of our Marrakesh adventures. Wandering around the old square and the souk was definitely a culture shock and a great experience. I wasn’t rushing to leave Marrakesh by any means but I don’t feel like I missed out by leaving the next morning either.

Day 2 – bye marrakesh, time to meet the mountains!

We had breakfast at Riad Chalymar and then made our way to the train station where we planned to meet Amina and catch our ride to Imlil. About 5 minutes after leaving, one of the staff at Riad Chalymar cycled up to us frantically. We weren’t sure what was going on until he handed us a passport… Thank-you Riad Chalymar for returning Ash’s passport so promptly. That would have been a rude awakening otherwise…

Today flew by. One second we’re enjoying a nice breakfast and the next, we’re “loading a mule” and getting ready to climb a mountain.

Hamid from Toubkal Voyages drove us from Marrakesh to Imlil where we started the hike. We were welcomed to the village with traditional Moroccan mint tea and we promptly started our hike as it was getting late in the day. I think we started walking around 1PM.

Mohamed was our guide up the mountain. He arranged for the mule to be loaded with all of our gear (those poor mules!!), and helped Dan secure some hiking boots.

Loading the Mule!

We missed lunch today so at about an hour into our hike, we were ready for some grub… need to avoid “Hangry” Allison and “Murdery” Amina from appearing.

We stopped off about 2hrs into the hike for a delicious meal in one of the very few villages on the mountain. It was after lunch that we started to see views like this.

Lunch in the mountains

From here we had another 4 hours of hiking a head of us. At almost every peak we could see in the distance we’d ask Mohamed, “is that Toubkal!?” The answer was always “No, it’s behind those mountains”. Mohamed had a lot of patience for us and our “Are we there yet?!” moments. You can’t see Toubkal until you’re basically at the Refuge, and even then I’m not even sure you can see it actually…

You could feel the temperature drop as we got higher and higher. At one point we were walking through clouds and got wet from all the moisture in the air. Once you got through it through, you could turn back and see how low the clouds were… and all of the sudden you’re above them.

One foot in front of the other… Mohamed kept a modest pace and led us towards the refuge. It was a lot of up-hill walking which got the heart pumping but it didn’t require any hiking experience or crazy fitness.

Here we were a few kilometers away from the refuge and 3000 meters high. It was encouraging to see the refuge in sight but it was also deceiving… It took another 45 minutes to an hour before we got there.

You can see the refuge in the distance. Just over Dan’s right shoulder.

We were all pretty exhausted at this point and we started to feel the cold. The mule had our bags (not complaining about that!) but it also meant that our gloves were already at the refuge. I had one hand holding the walking stick and the other was in my pocket – I’d swap them every few minutes as we approached our destination. It got cold pretty quick.

Side note: walking sticks are amazing. They really do help out a lot – especially going downhill as they take some of the pressure off your knees. Also, I wouldn’t have wanted to do this hike without proper hiking boots hugging my weak ankles either.

I wish I got a good picture of the the refuge but it totally slipped my mind with everything else going on. The refuge was packed! Extremely busy. Mohamed sorted us out beautifully though. Upon arrival he found us four bunks together where we can drop of our bags, grabbed us a seat for dinner and proceeded to serve up a delicious feed that would no doubt fuel us to the Summit first thing the next morning. All of which was included in the price when we booked with Toubkal Voyages.

We ate and pretty much went straight to bed at around 8:30 / 9PM. The room we slept in probably had 25 people in it. It was basically a small room filled with bunkbeds. It was hot, and the air was thin. We all had broken sleep all night. I slept in and out, managed to get sleep paralysis at one point (that’s a whole other story!) and then I was pretty much wide awake from about 2AM onwards. We had our alarms set to wake us up at 4AM.

Altitude: 3207 m

Cous cous, chickpea and chicken feast

Day 3 – Conquer the Summit

It’s 4AM and people are starting to rumble around, getting ready for the finale lag of climbing Toubkal.

Breakfast is bread and jam served with a much appreciated cup of coffee. Mohamed got the crampon’s ready grabbed us a water and we were ready to go! We started climbing at 4:45AM and as you can imagine – it was pitch black.

For kit I wore two layers of tights, two base layers and a sweater. I had a puffer jacket and for a scarf I just used a tank top. I had mitts on as well and the only two things I wish I had was a head torch for the early hours and sun glasses for the rest.

My “shirt scarf” and red eyes from a mixture of high altitude and cold wind.

We set off on our hike and within 2 minutes, literally we just started, we had to cross what sounded like a raging river in absolute darkness. I was following Mohamed who had a head torch and Dan was behind me. We came up to the water and Mohamed casually starts walking across these rocks that lead to the other side.

I figured, if Mohamed is keeping his cool here that it’s probably fine to just follow. At this point I can see a little bit ahead of me as long as I’m near Mohamed but Dan would have been in complete darkness. I followed his lead and climbed up onto a large rock in the middle of the river. I climbed up and nearly slipped straight off it! It was icy. In the dark you can’t see the ice so it came as a surprise that I had to stabilise myself. This obviously slowed me down so Mohamed is further up ahead now with the torch and I am officially in complete darkness on an icy rock in the middle of a river. Dan has no idea what’s going on but I shout back to him to tell him it’s icy and to not move!

Mohamed comes back to grab my crampons and a water bottle, which at this point I’m trying to holding in my hands (along with my walking stick) as I balance on my knees and elbows on this icy rock. Oh ya, I looked totally hopeless. He instructs me to take out my phone and use the flash light on it.

Dan is still standing still on the first rock of the river crossing… in the dark… with no idea what’s going on.

I grab my phone and turn on the flash light and basically try to shine the light ahead of me for one step and then behind me for Dan. This was the hardest part of the whole hike… Absolutely terrifying. Mohamed kept calm the whole time which was the perfect offset to how I was feeling: OMFG I’M GOING TO DIE TODAY.

From here we secured our crampons on and started to hike up the snowy mountain. I’m holding my iPhone flashlight in one hand and my walking stick in another. Mohamed and Dan were ahead of me and set a steady pace. Amina and Ash decided to not climb up to the summit – sore knees and exhaustion.

It’s still totally pitch black. I could share a photo of this moment but you can imagine what it looks like… it’s pitch black… all we could see were the feet in front of us from the flash light and nothing else. The first hour of climbing felt steep and without a view of our surroundings we didn’t know if there was a sharp drop right next to us or a fluffy save snow bank.

Mohamed estimated that it would take 3 hours to climb up to the summit, and then 2 hours back down to the refuge. About an hour into the climb, the sun started to rise and we took a short break to grab water. We turned around and saw the most beautiful and unexpected view…

So close to the summit! Dan, Mohamed from Toubkal Voyages and me.

There weren’t too many people ahead of us so you could tell that we must have been keeping a solid pace.

We made it up to the summit in 2.5 hours which definitely warranted a snack at the top and the chance to soak in all the breath taking views from 4,167m above sea level.

The way back down from the summit was fun. With crampon’s on you really don’t have to worry too much about slipping so you can just leg gravity do its thing almost. Looking back, I probably would have descended slower to save my knees for the rest of the decent later that day. By the end of the day we descended the entire mountain Summit to Imlil and it took us collectively around 6 hours. It wasn’t hard, but it was hard on your joints so take it slow and use a walking stick.

Crampons

We got back to Imlil where we got put up in a traditional Moroccan house built quite recently. We were greeted with mint tea and enjoyed a Tagine for dinner. Here we had a hot shower and relaxed for the evening. Mohamed met us the next morning where we returned the walking sticks and Dan’s rented hiking boots and where Hamid waited to drive us back to Marrakesh.

Ash practicing his mint tea aerating skills

Day 4 – put the feet up and relax in lalla takerkoust

We arrived in Lalla Takerkoust at around noon on Monday. We checked in at Le Patio Du Lac and immediately got outside to enjoy the heat and explore the lake. All afternoon you could see paragliders in the sky so that made making plans for tomorrow easy!

Today though we enjoyed the sun and relaxed. Our legs where thankful for it. We ate at the Le Patio Du Lac that evening on the roof top and had one of our favourite Tagines of the whole trip.

Side note: In Marrakesh I didn’t feel comfortable walking around with shorts and a tank top. I choose to cover up my legs and shoulders despite the nearly 30 degree heat. In Lalla Takerkoust though, it is acceptable to wear shorts and not feel like you are attracting unwanted attention. I’d say a general rule of thumb is: if you are going “into town” cover up but otherwise no major need to.

Le Patio Du Lac

DAY 5 – the hunt for cash and paragliding

All the cash machines in Lalla Takerkoust were out of service during our stay. We called and made plans to go paragliding but we needed to get cash out first. The nearest ATM was 17km’s away at the next town… so we grabbed one of the few taxis around and made the 30 EUR trip into town to get cash out.

We got cash out no problem and started making our way towards the highest hill with the Paragliding experts.

Paragliding in Takerkoust ends at the end of April. The company we called (I forget their name) extended their season by one day to take us out, which was really nice. Originally they had planned to pack up and make their way back to France for paragliding in the summer there. Each year they travel back and forth seasonally.

Unfortunately, we got to the top of the hill and the wind was too unpredictable so we were unable to go after all. We did get a great view of the lake on one side of the hill and of the mountains we just climbed on the other. A perfect contrast in one view that summed up our trip – worth it.

They drove us back down to the lake and we spent the rest of today in the pool, reading, playing cards and playing Banagrams.

You can see the Toubkal Summit here – placed in the center of this picture (view looking left)

Lalla Takerkoust (view looking right)

Day 6 – Back to Marrakesh and back to London

Our last day! We didn’t do much today but I’m glad we had it as a travel day so that the previous two days could be spent relaxing completely. We had breakfast, packed up and made our way back to Marrakesh. Amina and Ash went to Casablanca on a 3PM train and Dan and I wandered around a garden until it was time to make our way to the airport and fly back to London. Our flight was at 8PM.

SUMMARY

This was such a unique trip. Culturally it was completely new to me… hiking in the Atlas Mountains and being surrounded by nature for 2 full days was such a nice way to shut off and explore… and then a few days to relax, regroup and enjoy the heat. I mean, in what trip do you experience temperatures that vary more than 30 degrees, involve mountains, deserts and lakes in less than a week?  You do need some general fitness to enjoy all the walking and not feel too gassed but overall if you enjoy walking and being outdoors, you’ll love this trip and I highly recommend it!

Here is a rough idea of costs per person…

  • £180 for flights (EasyJet London > Marrakesh return)
  • £20 for accommodation in Marrakesh at Riad Chaylmar (£60 for the comfort suite that fit three people).
  • ~ £150 for the guided hike up Toubkal which included the mule and food (we paid Toubkal Voyages 1600 MAD each in cash upon arrival and tipped around 600 MAD at the end. There was no up front deposit upon booking. Amina coordinated with Hamid via email to secure our booking.)
  • £85 for three nights’ accommodation in Lalla Takerkoust at Le Patio Du Lac (£170 total for two rooms).
  • And we probably spent around £50 each on food during those three days.

And a few final pictures…

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