High altitude winter trekking in Atlas mountains, Morocco

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At the Tizi’n Ouanaoumss mountain pass.

In the end of January 2017 we travelled to Morocco – our second trip to this endlessly surprising country. During our first trip to Morocco we had spent most of our time in Marrakech – we had indeed planned a MTB tour in the foothills of the High Atlas but due to bad weather conditions it was cancelled. Therefore we had sworn to come back to see the mountains up close – and what a right decision that was!

Our main idea this time was to spend most of the time away from cities and really see the nature, especially the mountains and gain some mountaineering experience. We planned a 4-day stay in the mountains during which we wanted to do a winter ascent of the highest mountain of North Africa, Jbel Toubkal (4167m) and it turned out that the end of January is a great time for that. After the mountains we planned to go through Marrakech to Agadir, where we would be do some diving, but life had some other plans.

Arrival, day 1

We flew Norwegian from Copenhagen to Marrakesh – a direct four and a half hour flight. However, an unexpected delay occurred in the Moroccan airport: call it simply silliness or bad luck, but if you don’t have your own pen with, you will have to wait until you can borrow or get one from someone. Imagine a scene where two hundred people are filling in an immigration form while sharing a couple of pens. Of course not the worst thing that can happen, but lesson learned: bring a pen even if you don’t plan on writing anything.

As this was our first experience going up to over four thousand meters, we didn’t want it to be our last and therefore pre-booked a mountain guide via Toubkal Voyages (who also runs the website of one of the mountain lodges on Toubkal). Even though we showed up with a couple of hours of delay, our guide, Husain, was patiently waiting for us at the airport arrivals area. We loaded our backpacks in the taxi that Husain had arranged for us and headed straight for the High Atlas. After a little over one hour drive, we reached the starting point – Imlil (1800m). There we had a quick Moroccan lunch: vegetarian Tagine with salad and bread. We also got our crampons and ice axes that we had rented from the same agency. Now we were ready to head up higher into the mountains.

The goal was to reach the Refuge du Toubkal (3200m) before dark and so finally it was time to burn some calories and see what we had been training for. Even though initially we planned to carry all our gear by ourselves, due to our delay and therefore late arrival at Imlil, Hussain assured us that the mule has to carry our gear up to reach the Refuge before the dark. This, however, did not come at an extra cost as it normally would. A mule carrying gear is a very common practice at the Toubkal area and it felt a bit exotic, especially if you would imagine that the mule is a yak and the mountain range is actually Himalayan. 🙂

Our guide

The first impression of Husain was: “Can this guy really climb a mountain?” but as the saying goes: “Never judge a man by his hat.” Indeed he could: once we started the ascent, even with the light packs we could not keep up with the man!

We started the ascent in a slower pace, weaving our way through the small streets of Imlil. As we walked, we could see that Husain is truly a local celebrity. He was greeted by every single person we met on the way and without a surprise – he is local, but from a smaller village, called Around, located approximately forty minutes walk up the valley from Imlil. Husain was approximately 40 years old, strong looking, but not exactly with a body shape you would consider the most efficient for negotiating the climb up and down the four-thousander on a daily basis. However, it was all just a bunch of false stereotypes that our brain had come up with and were proven opposite by the man’s actions. As we all hiked up and got to know each other a little bit more personally, Husain gave a really good impression: he was helpful, calm, smart, a family man and spoke perfect English. He had been working as a guide for many yeas and was therefore very experienced.

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The climb up the mountain is definitely not easy and not for the faint-hearted. At around 2500m most people can start to feel the effect of altitude, especially when carrying a pack. Hiking poles are a must. When we neared the mountain lodges (located at 3200m), the snow started and most hikers used crampons. We were in good hiking boots with good grip soles and therefore did not choose to put on the crampons. Reaching the mountain lodge was great but the pleasure was short-lived once we realised that the building was not that warm on the inside.

Refuge du Toubkal

The lodge is an older stone-walled building and thus does not keep heat in very well during the winter. Only the two dining halls and a lounge area have a stove and are heated during the day – the bedrooms on the second floor and the showers/toilets downstairs receive no heating. The bedrooms were therefore around 16 degrees C (I’m guessing here, but it was chilly) during daytime and even less at night. The walls were moist from the condensation, so supporting a pillow on the wall was not an option. Only one of the showers downstairs had heated water (well, warm). Of course we expected that the conditions would not be fancy and this information is just to give an overview of the rifugio.

The main floor has a small shop for necessities (water, toilet paper, chips, cookies, shampoo) right at the entrance; two dining halls with fireplaces, one lounge area with small tables and a fireplace; a large kitchen. All the meals were included in our tour price and would be prepared when we wished or, on following days, arrived back from our day’s hike. All meals were very fresh, delicious and well-made. Us being vegetarians at the time was no problem at all – all the meals were made separately for us. And of course, lots of mint tea!

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Day 2

When we arrived, Husain told us that due to the weather forecast (it promised lots of fresh snow to arrive during our first night at the lodge) it might be better if we did not ascend Toubkal on our second day in the mountains but, instead, climbed Mt Ouanouikrim instead. And, of course, when we started our hike the following morning, the fresh snow was up to our knees, there were no tracks to follow and the wind was blowing hard. We spent the best part of the day ploughing through the snow, laying out tracks for the 10 or so people who had set out to follow our tracks from the rifugio. Often we’d fall waist deep into the snow.

There was a moment where Kristians had taken the lead in making the track and suddenly heard a “whoosh” – the upper snowpack falling on the lower, releasing the air that was stuck in the middle (I was in the back and did not hear anything). We were traversing a side of the hill at this point, the slope was maybe around 30 degrees. Kristians and Husain immediately stopped and we spread out – I walked around 25m back. Husain went in front and started to slowly walk ahead, testing the snow as he went. Luckily, that happened only once and we did not release an avalanche.

From where we were walking, we could see only a handful of climbers attempting to climb up Mt Toubkal that day.

After a long slow ascent started a decent uphill where we would zig-zag towards a mountain pass. I really felt the altitude getting to me – not that I felt bad but I just felt very tired. Kristians was at this time a bit behind me, sitting down to warm up his feet every now and then – but came now rushing past me as if it was a casual Sunday stroll. He helped me to push on until the mountain pass (around 3735m).

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View from the mountain pass

At the mountain pass I joined our guide, Kristians and the large German group who had passed me on the way up. We all had some snacks and then split up – the ones who still had energy left or were better acclimatized would continue up to the Ouanouikrim peak (4089m). Kristians, of course, went up with two guides and one of the German climbers. I headed back down with the rest of the group, the weather was just amazing – the wind had died down and the sun was warm.

Day 3 – Toubkal ascent

The weather forecast was perfect for our second day and even though there had only been a few climbers up the previous day, the tracks were made and easy to be found. I think we started the hike at around 7 in the morning, putting on the crampons, preparing the ice axes and making sure we had enough water, snacks and the ski goggles with us.

Me and Husain hiked together from the start – because I had had a slight headache the previous day due to the altitude our plan was to go slow but steady. This worked out perfectly – not once did I run out of breath or feel weak. Kristians went in his own tempo – most often hiking a couple of hundred meters (in altitude) higher than us and then sitting down to warm up his frozen toes. Even though we had essentially the same boots, I never had any problems with cold toes – it must’ve been the socks. The climb took a long time but the whole time I was so captivated by the views and the sheer effort of the climb itself that I did not worry about not making it.

Just before the top plateau we reached this ridge, which was a bit sketchy (sheer drop to one side) but nevertheless doable if you didn’t have to pass anyone who was going in the other direction. Here I met the guy we had had dinner with the previous night – as this was his first full day at altitude, I could see him being totally wrecked (looking dizzy, confused, unbalanced) – I think he had made it to the peak but it must’ve not been fully enjoyable. This is how most tourists do this ascent – they arrive the evening before, do the ascent the next morning and leave in the evening.

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Kristians at the summit of Jbel Toubkal

I reached the summit right after Kristians – the view was insane! It got pretty cold pretty fast – with the cold wind and the sweat on our bodies we really needed to keep moving. So we quickly took some photos, enjoyed the surroundings and then started heading back down. At this point, Husain decided we should take a whole other route down the mountain – just for the fun of it.

So right from the top plateau we took a right turn and started to trail blaze through waist-deep snow, once again. Initially I was totally out of my comfort zone – not knowing where my foot would land or if it had anything to land on at all made me slow and cautious. Husain and Kristians at the same time found a rhythm and nearly slid down the steep slope. Husain then helped me to learn how to essentially “run” down powder snow so we could keep up the tempo. Once I got the hang of it it was actually pretty fun.

This way, instead of zig-zagging slowly down the slopes, we could basically run straight down and make good time. By the time we reached the rifugio, I was totally done. A well-earned dinner was in order.

Day 4

We started the day 4 hike together with the German group from the first day – the plan was to hike up to the Tizi’n Ouanaoumss mountain pass (3684m). The morning was ideal – no wind, full sunshine. The trail from previous days was visible – but only the part up to where the climb would start. We would zig-zag up the steep side of the mountain, slowly making our way up towards the pass. Some sections were especially steep. Just before reaching the pass, there was a sketchy traverse over a 45-degree slope. The guides went first to make sure the snow could hold. The group then followed, keeping around 15-20m of distance in between. The climb was then rewarded by a nice picnic.

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On the way up.

On the way down, Husain again suggested to take the “fast way” and started running down the waist-deep snow. The whole group then decided to follow our trail down.

Once we reached an area with more packed snow, we decided to practice the self-arrest technique. So we took the ice axes, lied down, turned on our sides and started to slide down while keeping constant speed by pressing the axe into the snow with our shoulders. This was incredibly fun and a great practice!

As usual, we had great dinner after getting back to the rifugio – it was sad that this part of our trip was about to come to an end.

Descent

The next morning we met our helper and hiked down to where the mule was “parked” (the mules cannot go above the snowline). Then we slowly hiked down, enjoying the views and taking lots of photos. These mountains had been so much more than what we had expected. We reached Around at around 17 and were then taken to a private house owned by the owner of Toubkal Voyages. Here we spent our last night in the mountains, and, as usual in the most inconvenient time, I had decided to fall ill. This was not good news regarding our diving plans – it can be utterly dangerous with a stuck nose.

The next morning Husain decided we should hike back to Imlil by taking a different route than on the first day when we went up the mountain. We walked all the way through Around and up towards some higher ground. We hiked through an amazing young forest, parts of the trail still being covered by snow and ice, and enjoyed the birdsongs while Husain would sing. We could not have wished for a better end to this part of the trip.

Day 5

In the morning we met up with Husain again, with whom we took a small roundabout to hike back to Imlil again. There we had the taxi waiting for us to take us back to Marrakesh. It was strange to return back to the “civilization” but in a way relieving. We were dropped off at the hotel we had booked – but we then received a message that it had been overbooked and that we’d need to go to another nearby hotel owned by them. But we took it cool and the other hotel turned out to be really nice as well. After settling in, we rewarded ourselves with Moroccoan hamam (steam sauna with massage and body scrub) – it wasn’t as great as the previous trip but still very relaxing for our tired bodies. The evening ended with a nice dinner at the hotel just for the two of us.

I had to also cancel our diving in Agadir due to my illness so we were replanning to entire second part of our trip.

Day 6

On the previous day we had been informed by the hotel receptionist that if we want to catch a bus to Agadir at around 11 then it shouldn’t be a problem if we just show up about an hour before. In trusting him, we did exactly that – and found out that the next free spots on a bus were only after two o’clock. So we bought the tickets and waited….long. While sitting in the bus station waiting room, we happened to meet a lovely American couple with similar dreams to ours – becoming some sort of travel guides and working outdoors. That’s also why they were scouting out Morocco. Initially they thought we were Swedish because of our Fjällraven pants. Sadly, they took another bus in another direction but we shared contacts as we were planning to go to the States soon anyway.

When the clock was nearing 13, we randomly decided to ask the driver of another Agadir bus whether there was maybe any empty seats (if someone hadn’t shown up) – when it was nearly time to leave, he finally announced that there are indeed two free spots. We were so happy! But first, of course – little Moroccan hassle – we needed to purchase an EXTRA ticket for our luggage (maybe 10 dhs?). It’s the little things. Anyway – on we went to Agadir. It was a comfortable bus trip, being surrounded by desert landscapes with the Atlas mountains with their white peaks in the background. Nearing Agadir greeted us with especially beautiful landscapes of the sands and sea meeting.

When we exited the bus in Agadir – it was an endless parade of taxi drivers offering their services for incredible prices to the gullible European tourists. We wanted none of that. We were still not sure about what to do in the Agadir area – we only had the hotel booked. We were thinking to perhaps rent a car so we could drive around along the coast but we weren’t sure. To avoid all the taxi drivers, we decided to walk to the downtown ourselves – a pretty short distance but you can imagine suspicious streets with not a single other tourist in site. However, we made it without problems.

Once downtown, we tried to find a car rental but as we found out later – we were in the wrong end of downtown. So we kept walking around and looking and getting desperate. We even tried to catch a bus in the direction of our hotel. In the end, we hitched a taxi which happened to have a lovely driver. We didn’t get a better price but at least good service – he even switched his lousy taxi car to his personal car so we would get there better. So finally, after all this hustling we got to our hotel – The Surf Hotel in Tamraght.

This was a great new hotel filled with young people and owned by young people. Once we got in, we instantly signed up for the collective dinner in the evening and a yoga class for the next day. During the dinner we met most of the other guests and the employees – there was a barbecue (with veggies!) and we discussed plans for the next day. We all decided to take a day trip to the Paradise Valley together.

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View from the balcony of The Surf Hotel

Day 7

In the morning we first had a delicious breakfast with everyone – we met up with two Norwegian girls, a Dutch couple and our lovely driver/the surf teacher Youssef. After the breakfast we got ready for our outing and got going in the 4×4. On the way we stopped at a local ecological farm where they make plant-based make-up, creams, perfumes and oils. Their main ingredient, of course – the Argan oil. We got a thorough overview of their production methods, all the different plants they grow and got a chance to purchase some spices and honeys.

The route to the valley was a bit bumpy but nevertheless interesting. We drove into something like a canyon with desert landscape in all directions when all of a sudden there was a valley covered in greenery. We parked the car and started to hike along the canyon. Some pop-up cafes had been set up at the side of the stream and families with kids were having picnics. The flatter ground got hillier and the edges of the canyon started dropping off into the stream in a more dramatic way. All the kids were playing in the water and jumping off the cliffs into the stream. Everything was awesome except for one thing – Moroccans do not seem to care about leaving trash in their beautiful nature. Graffiti was part of this behaviour.

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Paradise Valley

Nevertheless, we went all the way to the end where there were multiple bigger “pools” of water right in the canyon. Kristians and one of the Norwegian girls went for a swim while we chilled out in the sun and laughed at them. After maybe an hour of resting, we decided to hike back by another way – instead of going up on the edge of the canyon (as we had come) we went from inside the canyon – this included some narrow edges and kneeling down to reach the next rock to step on. But it also meant awesome views of the orange rock and how the water had sculpted it over the centuries.

When we got closer to the parking lot, we stepped into one of the pop-up cafes where Youssef had ordered lunch for us. We got hot tagines – one vegetarian and one with meat. It was so good and the atmosphere was great. We were cracking jokes and then our host and Youssef decided it’s time to take out the guitar and start jamming. It couldn’t have been a better group of people to enjoy the day with. After the long lunch break it was time to get back to Agadir – but before that we went through this bakery/smoothie shop that Youssef had told us about and everyone tried a lot of sweets and we got the avocado smoothies he had been talking about.

Back at the hotel we had the yoga class just before dinner. The Dutch girl also took part in it with us and our teacher was a girl from Russia. The yoga room was right on the roof so the view was to the mosque tower and the sea and sunset. The class was really challenging and fun, especially because I didn’t even have proper clothes for this with me – I used my warm underwear (that I had for the cold in the mountains) as my yoga pants. But it all worked out fine.

Then we had dinner again with the same group and decided that tomorrow we would join the surf class (even though I was still a bit ill) together with the two Norwegian girls. It seemed like every meal in this hotel was specially prepared for us and so well thought through – always considering the vegetarians in the group.

Day 8

This morning started again with the breakfast where we planned what time to leave and after which Youssef found us the correct boards and wetsuits. After getting ready in our rooms, we helped to load up the car and then took the short ride to the beach nearby. We unloaded the car, got into our wetsuits and set up camp at the beach.

Kristians and I had both tried surfing once before – for two days in Gran Canaria. That time it had gone pretty okay but with surfing it is hard to say whether you’re developing or not. All I knew that it was really hard. So this time, I knew it was going to be hard and I was a bit sceptical of the cold water because of my cold. We started with a hard warm-up and went through the basics. For me the jumping up on the board as one steady motion was really hard – I could never get my feet to the right position at once, I’d always need to adjust them after the jump. So Youssef showed me how to do it with a step instead of a jump. Then we headed into the water to learn!

The water really WAS cold – being in the wetsuit was ok but the bare feet were initially so cold! After some fighting with the waves, however, it got much better. We had much more space at this beach than we had had in Gran Canaria and didn’t need to constantly worry about were other people were or the current moving us too far away. We were also only 4 students per instructor so we got much more attention. Kristians, as usual, was a natural at this and didn’t seem to have any problems getting up and staying up on the board – all he had to do was to catch the waves. And the waves were big.

I started out okay but as I got more tired my technique began to suffer and I just kept falling and falling, only getting a couple of long rides during the whole day. This just got me down emotionally and I felt like I lacked motivation because everyone else seemed to be doing much better than me. After the lunch break (which the hotel had packed for us) I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the water again but Youssef  convinced me and tried to give me more tips and help me get the good waves so I could practice the moves. I got some more good rides and more stable footing but then got too tired to keep surfing so I just went to the beach to wait for others to finish their training.

After everyone was done, we changed clothes, washed the boards and packed the car. But instead of heading back to the hotel we went to get some more avocado smoothies! So good. Before dinner we joined Youssef for a ride to town where we took Kristians to a real barbershop. He finally looked nice and smooth again 😛

At the hotel we had a community dinner again and we watched a disturbing horror movie (without sound) together. As this was our last evening in Morocco and we had really gotten close with Youssef, we had tea in the balcony together in the evening and talked about everything.

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We were so grateful to have made all these connections during this trip – to Husain, our guide in the Atlas mountains; to the American couple in the bus station; to the Dutch couple and Norwegian girls in the hotel and the owner of the hotel, Habib; and our surf teacher, Youssef. This trip would not have been the same without these people.