When planning my trip to Morocco, I thought it might be nice to get out of the cities for a while; though the medinas and souqs of the country are reputed to be among its most interesting attributes, I had a hunch that after a while they would all begin to look the same. I also knew that my appetite for adventure and Ryan's somewhat reckless nature wouldn't allow us to remain on the tourist track for too long. At the encouragement of a friend who had already spent some time in Morocco, we decided to go on a hiking trip outside of Marrakech: to the summit of Jbel Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak. The best information I could find on the internet said that it was a relatively straightforward hike, clearly marked and well-travelled. At this time of year, it was very popular and could be done in two days if the weather was good (given the absence of snow at higher altitudes). I did find a few websites that cautioned beginning hikers against attempting the trek in two days, warning of extreme temperature, altitude sickness, and steep, slippery slopes. However, these were so outnumbered by the good-natured, encouraging accounts that I dismissed them out of hand.
In retrospect, this may have been a poor decision.
We began the day bright and early with breakfast at the Hotel Belleville, where I was again thankful for finally having received my bag; it contained my hiking boots, mountain-appropriate clothing, and some other handy things without which a trek into the Atlas would have been inadvisable at best. We packed only our backpacks, trying to travel as lightly as possible. By 10am we had taken a petit taxi to the edge of Marrakech, where minibuses and grands taxis regularly departed for Imlil (the traditional starting point for the climb up Toubkal). 10:30 saw us sharing a car with a witty, bantering driver and what looked like a police officer, who traveled part of the way with us to Imlil. As we drove further from the city, the landscape started to change: flat plains and dusty roads to winding narrow mountain lanes; a virtual absence of vegetation to a generous (if not terribly plentiful) serving of scrub trees and bushes; the heat and dryness of the city to the more temperate setting of rocky streams. Here it was much cooler, as we had already ascended about 1000m above sea level. Imlil was a fairly peaceful town, although clearly it had profited greatly from its popularity with the backpacking crowd-- rather than hawkers offering trinkets or hotels, we encountered purveyors of maps, mules, wide-brimmed berber hats, and of course many young men offering their guidance up the mountain. Declining all of this aid, we purchased a good deal of bread, cheese, water, and fruit and struck out on the first part of the hike.
Day 1 was supposed to be a generally easy 4-6 hour hike, a picturesque journey through another village (called Aroumd) and some nice valleys. Our guidebook mentioned that the main difficulty lay first in the fact that there was no shade after the first hour, and second in the fact that it was constantly uphill. I felt this second part immediately, panting a bit with the combination of scorching sun and Ryan's steady pace (which seemed, no matter what its speed, always to be just slightly too fast for me). The trail was rocky and steep, and it was difficult for me to talk and hike at the same time. However, we didn't have too much trouble with the first part of the track, save the occasional mule traffic jam as heavily laden pack animals picked their way around boulders and backpackers.
The trail got a bit harder after Aroumd, climbing along the edge of the valley wall. We stopped every so often to refuel from our mountaineer's stock of bread and cheese, but it was still a long hard slog towards an imposing and seemingly insurmountable peak. Highlights of day 1's hike included:
-Fresh squeezed orange juice at one or two waypoints on the way up (outrageously priced, of course)
-A small settlement at Sidi Chamrouch, a saint's mausoleum that is the target of many Muslim pilgrimages
-Sitting by and swimming in a nice pool with a small waterfall
-Views of the broad valleys of the High Atlas
The '4 to 6 hour hike' took us six hours on the dot. We arrived at the Refuge du Toubkal, a dorm-style mountain refuge, at about 6 or 6:30pm. At 70Dh per person per night, it was a pretty good bargain, and it also offered hot food and a pretty well-stocked supply shop. We ate dinner with a wide variety of people: a bunch of Moroccans, a young guy from France, and three couples from Europe (Spain, Czech Republic, and Austria). After a long day of hiking essentially alone, it was good to laugh and talk with others, even if nobody's English was perfect. We ended up sleeping in a room with a bunch of British people, so having English there was pretty refreshing. At this altitude (about 3000m) it was very cold at night, and we were thankful for the heavy blankets we found.
The next day we rose at 5:30am, hoping to strike out for the summit (another 1000m and 3 hours away) by 6am. This way, we would avoid the cloud cover that descends on the valley at midmorning. We were one of the first pairs of hikers out the door, scrambling up the boulders with unmatched gusto. This did not last for long, as our bodies were still somewhat annoyed with us for the abuse they'd taken the previous day. We found a fairly scenic overlook on which to breakfast and watch the sun rise between the mountain peaks. From here, the going got tough (I suppose the tough also got going, but not being one of them I had to content myself with quietly and determinedly plodding along). The slopes were very steep and the trails were more often than not composed entirely of loose rock, or scree. This made climbing very difficult and dangerous, since if you didn't choose your path carefully you would slide and maybe fall, and there would be nothing to break your fall for a hundred meters.
This may be a good time to mention that I've never climbed a mountain before.
We struggled on up the slopes (and by we, I mean I; though Ryan insists the climb was hard for him, I never saw any sign of it), stopping frequently for water and shelter from the bitingly cold wind. It was no longer possible to hike without a warm fleece, though the workout was intense. At times we seemed to be walking up a cliff face, almost vertically extending above us, with only a few holds for hands and feet and the rest covered with treacherous scree. A seemingly close-by ridge above us, which other hikers had sworn was only 200m from the peak, remained tantalizingly distant. I could no longer really talk or have positive thoughts-- everything was replaced by a mindless determination to make it to the top.
And make it we did. I can proudly say that I, beginniner status not withstanding, have climbed the tallest peak in North Africa. At 4,167m, they say that you can see both the Atlantic and the Sahara from the top. The view was indeed incredible: a 360 degree panorama of all of Morocco, most notably the magnificent Atlas mountains. The wind was fierce, threatening to blow us off of the summit. However, our triumph made us giddy and we stayed, taking pictures and drinking in the view, for about half an hour. Hiding in the shelter of some large rocks, we bolted down some bread, cheese, fruit, and chocolate before beginning the descent.
As impossible as the ascent had been, this part was even harder. The steep scree slopes were intimidating to climb, but deadly dangerous to descend, as gravity was always waiting for you to make a wrong move. Close calls peppered our barely controlled slide down the cliff faces; I scraped up a leg and damaged a couple of toes, and Ryan sliced off the top of his thumb on a sharp rock. The latter, we bound with a makeshift bandage/tourniquet of tissues and a hair tie, hoping to find some proper antiseptic when we reached the refuge. This took us 2.5 hours--almost the length of time it had taken us to climb to the summit in the first place. However, the Austrian couple we had met the preceding night happened to be equipped with a full first aid kit, as the woman (Christa) was a nurse. We bound up Ryan's thumb until it resembled a mummy's, though it was still bleeding.
After replenishing our supplies and taking a brief rest at the refuge, we struck out for Imlil. Although the journey took less breath than the uphill climb, the payment came in the form of blisters on my poor abused and swollen feet. My hiking boots didn't quite fit properly, and the scree slopes had already taken a heavy toll. I stuffed my feet back into my boots and winced with every step, sighing with relief when we reached the pool we'd swum in the previous day (I think I saw steam rise from my feet as I lowered them into the water). This hike took us slightly longer than we'd anticipated, and we didn't make it back until after 6pm. However, the same Austrian couple was waiting at the bottom of the slope, figuring the four of us could share a taxi back to Marrakech. Their timing was perfect-- as we climbed into the taxi, now half the cost as before, the skies opened up in a respectable downpour.
The journey back to the city was uneventful, and as we strode into the Hotel Belleville one last time we were greeted by the friendly staff; our bags were already waiting for us in our room. We heaved our exhausted and abused bodies into the shower, managed to rustle up just enough energy to stumble to the nearest restaurant for dinner, and then collapsed into bed. High Atlas: consider yourself conquered.