“Did anyone bring a torch?” I heard Kristina saying, although I could barely make out her features in the surrounding dusk. It was around 8pm, and the sun had well and truly set by this point, so we were trudging along in the dark. We had almost got to the end of the rocky mountain path, but we still needed to trek across the plateau at the foot of the path leading to the village, and we could barely see a few feet in front of our noses. It turned out that between seven of us, we only had two torches that were strong enough to make any difference…
This was of course not the only rookie error we made on the two day trek up and down Mount Toubkal – at 4,167 metres the highest peak in the Moroccan Atlas mountains, and all of North Africa, for that matter.
We also didn’t bring a map, apart from a printout of a blog post I found online (which I thought gave pretty clear directions to the top!). And we didn’t even consider hiring a guide with a mule to carry our stuff or lead the way. I don’t think anyone had a compass, either.
I got the idea for the trip in my head after hearing of various charity hikes up the mountain, and in October 2014 a group of nine of us flew to Marrakesh with the aim to conquer the peak. We were a group of mixed abilities and trekking experience, but we were all super keen to get out there and see what the Atlas mountains could throw at us. Quite a lot, it turned out…
I took on much of the planning for the hike itself, but I also relied heavily on Alex, a friend who probably had more hiking and camping experience than the rest of us, and who I therefore trusted to tell me if my ideas were mental or just a little on the edge.
The first decision we made was to do away with the guide…”We can totally do it on our own, it’s just a hike!” we decided. Then we read a few articles online and concluded there would be no need for crampons or any other kind of winter equipment in October, as it is still pretty warm that time of year.
And then I found the blog…and this blog seemed so wonderfully detailed, with pictures and all, that we thought…”We don’t really need a map, it’s all in there!” [I cannot for the life of me find the link to this blog now!]
I am convinced the trip would have taken a rather different shape had someone else been in charge of this crucial bit of preparation, but it would have been far less memorable and exciting. Loads of people trek up Mount Toubkal! Not very many do so armed with just a printout of a blog and no one guiding them…
The route itself is a gruelling slog up from a small village called Imlil, up at 1,740m above sea level, to the overnight refuge at 3,300m, and then up to the summit and back all the way down to Imlil on day two. It’s not technically hard, with only a little bit of scrambling on loose scree towards the top, but it is damn hard work if you haven’t done a huge amount of preparation beforehand. And of course, none of us had specifically trained for this. That would have just taken the fun out of the whole thing, right?
It is no wonder really that with our comical lack of preparation we managed to botch the timing spectacularly enough to end up in the middle of the Atlas mountains in the dark, with just two head torches between seven.
The worst part was that one person in our group had fallen ill the previous day, so she had to hire a Berber with a mule to take her down. Another friend volunteered to go with her, being one of the faster walkers in our group, and therefore able to keep pace with the local mountain-dweller. This meant that an overnight camp in the middle of the route was completely out of the question, as our friends waited for us in the village, all alone and worried out of their minds. Besides, the temperatures drop rapidly at night in the Moroccan mountains, and it was beginning to get chilly…
The hike up to the refuge on the first day took us a good 7 hours over steep rocky terrain, and by the time we finally arrived we were exhausted. The refuge sits at the foot of the ascent up to the summit, with a communal eating area downstairs and hostel-style dorms upstairs.
The nine of us all stayed in one room with maybe 10 other people. The double-decker beds are formed of two planks of wood stretching across the whole length of the wall with a wide mattress on top. They can comfortably fit five or six people on each level in a row. I slept on the upper deck, in my sleeping bag liner and hat, and covered in a thick woolen blanket provided by the refuge, to insulate from the cold. It wasn’t the most comfortable night of my life, but the place is cheap – just over 200 dirham (around £15) for a night with dinner and breakfast included.
I guess most of my discomfort was down to the dull headache, which had started that evening and stayed with me for most of the following day: 3,300m and above is simply not an altitude at which I normally spend a lot of my time (sadly!). In hindsight, it would have probably been a good idea to acclimatise a bit more slowly, but we were keen to get to the summit, so the next morning off we went…(unfortunately, we had to leave my ill friend behind, as she was too unwell to hike!)
The trek up to the summit was when we got really confused with the blog. Crucially, I realised I hadn’t really read it. I just looked at the pictures and the arrows drawn on them to point the right directions and thought that was mega-clear! It turns out when you’re up at nearly 4km above sea level, directions such as “Follow the obvious path” are not so clear any more…
…so we wasted a bit of time getting lost and confused. And then we nearly got swept off the mountain by the aggressive wind, which we later found out was so strong that day that some guides had cancelled their ascents! But we powered on, and eventually made it up to the summit around 11.30am, which was one of the happiest moments of my life.
But the hardest thing about mountain ascents is coming back down…By this point we were exhausted from the altitude, a bad night’s sleep and the effort of fighting our way up against the wind. So when we finally returned to the refuge, around 1.30pm, all we wanted was to relax and have some food. Preferably a LOT of food. When the staff at the refuge offered us a tagine, of course we couldn’t refuse!
…We should have done. Instead of the 20 mins they promised us, it took a whole hour (Moroccan time runs slightly differently!), and it was tasteless, even for a group of hungry hikers! The refuges does not cook meat, so it was just vegetables, and it was overprices (around 300 dirhams for the whole thing, from memory). The food the night before was pretty disappointing too, for that matter – spaghetti with a tiny bit of tomato sauce, and not even any cheese or spices. But that is by the by.
The main issue was that when we eventually started the hike down, it was around 2.30pm. We hoped it would take a short 4 hours on the way down, but exhaustion, coupled with my recently twisted ankle which was giving me grief, had slowed us down. And this is how we ended up in the middle of the Atlas mountains in the dark, with no way of communicating our predicament to our friends down at Imlil.
It was a very tense couple of hours as we tried to find our way back. Nothing looks the same in the dark! The turns that would have been obvious if it were light looked entirely unfamiliar, and we couldn’t find the route off the main road to the village. The blog was useless at this point. At one point, we stopped a car driving towards us and asked for directions, but we had no clue what the driver actually said to us.
I don’t know how, but we managed to find the way back in the end, all of the time worried sick that something might have happened to the girls down at the village. It’s the middle of the night, in a quiet place, in a foreign country, after all. But they were fine, thank Goodness! Just worried, and doing everything they could to keep our pre-booked taxis from leaving – we had booked them for 8pm, and it was far later than that by this stage!
The two-hour drive back to Marrakesh was quiet and a little subdued. Our adventure had taken all our mental and physical strength. When we eventually got out of the taxis, our legs barely carried us.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and it was totally awesome to share it with such a cool group of people! You know who you are 🙂 Here’s to more hazardous adventures together.
I would highly recommend this to anyone going to Morocco! For some other suggestions of things to do and to avoid, read my blog with some useful tips for first-time travellers to the country. And if you are into climbing – here is my account of a recent climbing trip to Morocco’s Todra Gorge.