The guides didn’t want to go and I couldn’t blame them: It was raining at the Toubkal Refugee (10,500 feet) in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains and even through North Africa’s highest peak was supposed to looming over us I couldn’t see it in the drizzle. It was late October and a week of storms had dropped fresh snow on the summit. You shouldn’t go without ice axes and crampons, the experienced mountaineers said. We went anyway.
Most of the year Jebel Toubkal (13,671 feet) is a fairly easy climb, actually more of a hike and you really don’t need a guide. You can see the snow-capped range from Marrakesh and a two-hour drive puts you in the hamlet of Imlil (5,700 feet), a good base for trekking through Berber villages, exploring the rugged hills or making the two-day ascent of Toubkal.
I stayed at the Kasbah du Toubkal, a traditional fortified hilltop dwelling converted into a bed and breakfast inn surrounding a lovely garden with stunning views of the mountain (Martin Scorcese used the kasbah as a stand-in for a Tibetan monastery in his film Kundun).
From there I followed a mule trail up a rocky, mist-filled valley for about three hours until I reached the refugee (bunk beds, simple meals, hot showers), where dozens of climbers were spending the night before hopefully setting off for the summit the next morning.
When the guides balked, my friend Dennis and I set off on our own. We had Gore-tex jackets, good boots but only lightweight cotton pants. I had gloves. He wore socks on his hands. We crossed a boulder field as snow began to fall. If there was a trail under the powder we couldn’t see it, so we just headed straight up the side of the mountain.
We were up to our knees in snow, clambering with our hands. Except for a fight with an ex-girlfriend, I have never wanted an ice axe more. It was a cold, hard, lung-busting climb. After an hour I was ready to turn around. One more ridge, I suggested, which led to yet another ridge and so on. An hour later we were at the top, the fabled view no where to be seen in near white-out conditions. Getting down was a bone-soaking ordeal and in retrospect attempting the summit in bad weather without the proper gear was a dumb idea. I wouldn’t tell anyone else to do it--but I’m glad I did.
The next morning back at the kasbah I looked up to Toubkal, blinding white against a deep blue sky. And not a cloud in sight.