Not all of my adventures are spent just running around Marrakech or running in other big cities around Morocco. Living here (or this would also be true if I were just visiting here) has given me the opportunity to get outside of my comfort zone in so many ways. One of those ways has been to go climb mountains. I am from a place in America that is very similar in a lot ways to Marrakech, it's weather is hot and the ground is flat. Growing up I just didn't spend a lot of time on mountain trails, it just wasn't an option.
So, a few years ago when a mountain guiding friend of mine invited me to tag along on a trip up Mount Toubkal near Marrakech I was like, "Sure, why not? I'm in decent shape I won't have any issues doing a two day hike up a mountain." It wasn't until he started telling me the gear I would need for the trip that I started to get a little nervous. Such as, many multiple layers, a bottle that will keep your water from freezing, crampons, and an ice ax. Being the smart guy I am with zero experience with snow and ice and despite my internal Jimmy Cricket screaming "no!" I said I was game. Lets just say while I made it close to the summit that trip I didn't go all the way. Snow, cold, and ice that November kept me from Toubkal's summit.
That failure learning experience has stayed with me for the last few years and I've been waiting for the right time to try again. Well, that right time came this past summer, right in the middle of the summer, the hottest part of Morocco's year. Yes, my thought was if I'm going to summit this mountain I need to do it when there is the least likely chance of there being snow or ice up there. That is why a friend of mine and I set out from Marrakech early one morning with temps already closing in on 100 degrees at sun up for the start of the trail in Imlil.
For most people climbing Toubkal takes 2-3 days round trip, one day to the refuge at 10,000 feet and another day or two to summit and return to the trail head in Imlil. We were aiming for two. We parked the car, strapped on or packs and headed out. Typically along the trail up to the refuge there are little stores that are occasionally open where you can buy water or a soda, but since we were doing this hike during Ramadan (a month of fasting for Muslims worldwide) we weren't sure if we'd get that opportunity so we were carrying a little extra.
The trail up to the Toubkal refuge is not necessarily well marked but it is very well worn from the thousands of hikers that use it every year and from the donkeys and porters that travel it daily as well. Meaning that when you leave Imlil it would be hard to get lost, you just follow the trail up. At the start there are several small farms you walk past and a dry river bed and even a small town called Sidi Chamharouch. After this the only buildings you pass until the refuge are the shacks that are for the men selling water.
From Imlil to the refuge it took us about 4-5 hours to hike the 6ish miles there. Since we left early in the morning, we made it to where we'd spend the night mid afternoon, with plenty of time to check into the refuge, take a nap, and explore the start of the summit trail a little of the way up. For me the nicest thing about the refuge we stayed at is that included in the price is dinner and breakfast and it was a big dinner. By the time I hit the bed that night I was very full and very tired, but excited to finally conquer the summit.
Because of the time of year we chose to climb Toubkal there were very few people spending the night at the refuge. In fact at dinner there was only one other group, they were experienced climbers from Germany.
We decided to leave before dawn the next morning to give us plenty of time to make it to the top and all the way back down to the trail head in Imlil. Since they don't really run the lights in the refuge for very long after dark (I think they use a generator) we went to bed early enough that an early wake up time didn't really matter.
What did matter was the huge rain and lightning storm that rolled through the valley that night. It was crazy loud with heavy amounts of rain pounding the mountain. Thankfully we had opted to bunk in the main stone building of the refuge rather than camp out in the tent area they have set aside. Off to sleep I went just hoping that the storm didn't drop any snow overnight near the summit.
The trail leaving the refuge to the summit immediately lets you know that while you're still on a well worn path it's not going to be anywhere as near as easy hiking as the previous day. Within the first half an hour we crossed a small river, did switch backs on a steep gravel slope, and walked across a decently inclined scree field. It's as if the mountain is reminding us to stay attentive and watch our steps.
After reaching the top of a small ridge that sits just above the refuge area there are really only two more challenges to reaching the main ridge line; a bolder field and then an impressively high (for me at least) scree covered portion of trail. As you paying attention to both your footing and the spray painted rocks that serve as unofficial trail markings the boulder section is really quite easy to navigate through. Once we passed through it we got a nice section of relatively easy hiking as a reward.
Then we came to the section of trail that when I had come to on my last attempt is what worm me out.
Thankfully this time there was not a lot of snow where we had to climb the switchbacks other than a small layer that had been dropped by the massive rain storm the previous night. And by this time of the morning the sun was already about to crest the ridge line above us and was starting to melt it all away. There are actually two trails that lead up this steep scree field, one on each side of the valley. The one on the right takes a gentler approach making the ascent easier and the one on the left is not as nice. I didn't know this until the way down so we ended up on the left side.
After two hours of climbing up from the refuge we finally made the ridge line and were greeted with a wonderful view and also our first sight of the summit. Now this is where on my last attempt I stopped. While the trail ahead isn't the most difficult portion of trail it can be some of the most treacherous. The trail is narrow and next to a ledge and while during the summer this was easy enough for me to navigate carefully it still freaked me out when it was just a snowy incline next to a drop.
From there its only took us about half an hour of following the ridge line until we were at the summit. It was an awesome feeling for me to summit the 35th highest mountain never really having done anything like this before. We took a lot of pictures/video and just rested there at the second highest point in Africa taking it all in.
The descent was equally challenging and in many ways it was more challenging than the ascent. Once we reached the refuge, changed out of our jackets and gloves, we power hiked the trail almost all the way down stopping only twice for breaks. From the time we left our car at the trail head until we got back to it the round trip took us 29 and a half hours. Not bad.
We really enjoyed our trip up Toubkal and are already planning another trip for 2016, it's just that kind of experience. If you're into this kind...... We did it this time without a guide but I wouldn't recommend it if it is your first time visiting Toubkal or if you're not an expert mountain climber. There are just too many things that could go wrong. Just this past month I heard that a German climber was caught out on the mountain during a snow storm and ended up losing her life. Some might say that we went over prepared (over packed) but after being up at the refuge during that storm, knowing how remote you really are, and knowing that you could possibly get stranded, I was glad that we had packed a little more than we used.
Most importantly I recommend using caution. While Toubkal is pushed in Marrakech as a great and an easy tourist experience it is challenging and dangerous. Hire a guide, pack enough food and water, stay on the trail, and use common sense. Summiting Toubkal is very rewarding and will be something I will never forget but if there's something I've learned from trail running in the mountains recently is that the mountains always have a trick up their sleeve for the unprepared.