Toubkal for the weekend? That's crazy!
‘’Let’s go to Morocco for the weekend and climb Toubkal’’….I was with two friends in Amsterdam having beers, while discussing our future plans. ‘’That’s crazy’’, I said; we are living below sea level here in the Netherlands, how the hell can we climb a mountain 4167 meters high and on another continent in just a weekend’s time. ‘’There’s no way we can acclimatize that fast… Let’s think of something else’’ I said, while ordering some more beers.
But we didn’t think of something else, on the contrary: 6 or 7 beers later climbing Toubkal for the weekend sounded like the best idea I ever heard! The idea didn’t leave us ever since, so we put up a plan and several months later we were on a Plane from Amsterdam to Marrakech to climb a 4000+ meter peak; Toubkal for the weekend!
Every year me, Maarten and Werner travel to a country we never visited before, explore the country for a weekend and return home. We always try to do this as cheap as possible. For instance, in 2011 we went to Riga, the capital of Latvia for 2 days. It’s fun to see countries most people never visit and with a budget of less than 200 euros. After Riga, we went to Northern Ireland in 2013, again with a budget of under 200 euros. In Northern Ireland our plans already changed a bit, since we wanted to climb the highest peak of the country we went to. In Northern Ireland we visited the Mourne Mountains and climbed Slieve Donard, its highest peak. After visiting Northern Ireland, our future plans always included climbing the highest peak in the country. Various options came around: Bulgaria with climbing Musala, Canary Islands with climbing Teide and many more.
Eventually, one night we were having beers in Amsterdam. We were debating about our next trip until Maarten said: What about Jbel Toubkal? This is a major peak in Morocco and lies in the vicinity of Marrakech, which can be reached by plane from Amsterdam rather cheap. Toubkal has always been on my to do list, but I always thought I needed at least a week to climb it. The Dutch climbing association (NKBV), as well as some well-known travel agencies offer an expedition to Toubkal, which costs around 700 euros (flights excluded) and takes you up and down the summit of Toubkal in a week. Especially the word ‘’expedition’’ always made me think of this mountain as ‘’something difficult’’. After our night drinking beers I decided to look further into it. I soon found out Toubkal was not that hard to climb as I thought and I also realized we were experienced enough to go up there ourselves without the use of a guide. When I finally found cheap plane tickets as well, we booked the trip. We were going to climb Toubkal in the weekend from Friday July 11th until Sunday July 13th.
The weeks preceding the trip I had some slight worries. The main concern was acclimatization. Do we have enough time to acclimatize? Furthermore it was the climate. Most people climb Toubkal in Spring, since temperatures are not that high at that time of year. We were going in summer because of the cheap plane tickets. I read some warnings here on SP that it could get extraordinary hot in the area, even in the mountains. Temperatures of 40 degrees Centigrade are common. My last worry was the World Cup; I found out we were still in Morocco at the time of the World Cup final. (how the hell did I forgot when booking the tickets…) I have got to see the Final, even if the Netherlands are not playing in it (which wasn’t likely at the time). When the weeks passed, my worries left and I started looking forward to the moment we would leave! Some more weeks went by and at last we were ready to go, we were going to Africa!
Arriving in Morocco & Imlil
When we arrived in Marrakech our Taxi driver was already waiting for us. He had a big sign with my name on it, well not entirely, but something that looked similar. He was happy seeing us and we went out of the airport to his car. The first thing I noticed when walking out of the airport was the heat. It must have been about 35 degrees Centigrade, although it was already 8PM and getting dark. We arranged that Abdul would take us from the airport to Imlil, which is located at the base of Jbel Toubkal. Imlil is situated in the Atlas mountains at an altitude of 1900 meters. It was important for our acclimatization to go to Imlil directly to spend our first night at a higher altitude, especially since we had to sleep at 3200meters the upcoming night. When the sun had set, all mosques started to come alive. The imam started his prayers who we could hear through all the speakers surrounding the mosques. This was a sign for the people; they could finally eat. What I forgot to mention is that it was Ramadan in Morocco at the time of our visit.
Abdul parked the car, opened up his bag with food and drinks and asked if it was okay to eat and drink something. He did not eat and drink since 4 or 5 AM this morning. Of course it was… At the same time I wondered how he did it: It was in the middle of summer and temperatures tend reach to over 40 degrees C. during the day. The heat here is intense, how does he cope without drinking a single drop of water all day? While wondering about this, we got back in the car and drove off. It is a 60 mile drive from Marrakech to Imlil. In past days, this trip would cost you a day, but in recent years the road has been improved, shortening the travel time to an hour and a half. It was entirely dark soon after we left and Abdou was
driving crazy fast, but I guess that’s normal here. Anyway, one hour and 15 minutes later we arrived in Imlil. Abdou dropped us off at our Riad (more or less a hotel). The hotel owner, also named Abdou, welcomed us and showed us to our room. It was like walking into the fairytale of ‘’1001 nights’’: Flying carpets on the floors, large curtains in all colors dressing up each room and so on. We felt at home immediately. Abdou prepared dinner and shortly afterwards we went to sleep …tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Day 1: To the Refuges
We woke up at 8AM. Abdou served breakfast, which was great: Boiled eggs, fresh Coffee & Tea, bread, yoghurt.. It was fun to realize a night in this Riad, including breakfast and dinner only costed us 20 euros each. After breakfast we went to the Terrace on the roof of the Riad where we had our first view of the Atlas in daylight. It was simply breathtaking. The Atlas Mountains were stretched out before us with the Toubkal Massif clearly visible in the distance. On the other side we looked into the valley, where we could see the rest of Imlil. This is also the direction we came from yesterday evening. We were surrounded by peaks of 2500+ meters. After gazing at all those great mountains for 30 minutes or so it was time to leave. We had to climb up to the Toubkal Refuges, a vertical gain of 1500 meters covering a distance of 10-15 kilometers. We packed up our stuff and left the Riad. By the time we left is was already 11PM. Abdou told us the other climbers had left 2 to 3 hours before us. For a moment I thought about why we left so late, but I soon realized we had all day to get up to the Refuges.
Passing through Imlil was great. There were Roosters crowing, women cleaning clothes on the river banks and local men trying to sell all sorts of things on the streets. I remember thinking ‘’ this is the closest place to home I’ve been where the world is so completely different compared to ours.’’ After buying a large typical Moroccan scarf to protect us from the sun and gathering directions we arrived at the starting point of the trail towards Toubkal. After crossing a forest we entered the tree line quite fast. At this point, we had some amazing views towards the idyllic village called Aremd. Aremd lies at almost 2000meters and is built on the steep hillslopes of the valley. At this point on the trail we met the first local salesmen selling all kinds of stuff from a small shop he owned along the trail. I told him I already bought a scarf back in Imlil and was waiting for him to convince me into buying some other stuff from his shop. I was quite amazed when he didn’t. He just said, ‘’no worries my friend, how are you and where are you from?’’ I told him about coming from the Netherlands and soon we were debating about Dutch Football players like Robben, van Persie and his idol from his youth: van Basten. After a nice chat we left again. While proceeding on the trail I was thinking about how nice and respectful the local people are. I expected the people to more like I experienced in for example Turkey, were they were almost dragging me into their store trying to sell stuff. I hated that, so this was a nice, unexpected experience.
After passing Aremd we arrived on a big flooding plane. It was at least a mile long and half a mile wide. It was completely covered with loose stones and debris. A local guy we passed told us about an event in the 90’s: It rained so much in the area creating very large flash floods throughout the region. This flooding plain was completely covered with fast flowing water. Lower down in the valley the flash floods destroyed many houses and killed about 50 people. It was hard to imagine an event like that occurring on this sunny July day, with temperatures above 30 degrees C. After passing the flooding plane, the trail started to gain in elevation. We ascended pretty fast, and after an hour or so we passed another shop. ‘’Michael Jackson!’’ shouted the shop
owner. My friend Maarten has curly hair reminding the guy of Michael Jackson, and he was laughing about that for minutes. We decided to take a break here and drink a bottle of coca cola. The shop owner was again very nice. Besides drinks and some clothing he also sold all kinds of crystals and other minerals. They looked fantastic, almost too good to be true. Since me and my friend Maarten both have a degree in Earth sciences we looked a little closer at the gemstones he was selling: They were all made of glass and therefore as fake as it gets, but they looked awesome nonetheless. After finishing our cola we left. The shop owner said ‘’Goodbye Michael Jackson’’ and again couldn’t stop laughing about it.
After hiking for another hour, we entered Sidi Chamharouch, a small village at 2350 meters a.s.l. famous for its large builder. This boulder is painted white and below it is a mausoleum with a so-called tomb of the Kings of Jinns (translated Chamharouch). After chatting with some local people we continued. Many people stop here for some drinks, but since we already drank something we decided not to stay here. After Chamharouch, the amount vegetation on the flanks of the mountains is rapidly decreasing . There are some mosses and small plants present, but the area is now dominated by the typical brown/reddish rock. Large peaks rise up from the valley floor, many over the magical 4000 meter barrier. The area is so different compared to the European Alps, but yet so beautiful. We continued walking for another hour when we spotted the Toubkal Refuges for the first time. We were now at almost 3000 meters and it was cloudy. This was perfect weather for the day. It was about 20 degrees at this altitude and without the burning sun it was easy going for us on the trail. Somewhere late in the afternoon we arrived at the Toubkal Refuges at 3200 meters of altitude. We booked an overnight stay in the newer one of the 2 Refuges: The Refuge des Mouflons. This hut is owned by the French Alpine Club.
One of the people working there showed us to our sleeping place for the night. A big room with 30 sleeping places next to each other. It can best be compared to the large sleeping rooms in huts in the European Alps, not bad to say the least. After relaxing for an hour or so, we decided to walk around for a bit. At this point I was feeling the elevation for the first time. The headache was not too bad though. My two friends were OK as well. At 7 PM dinner was ready. We didn’t expect much being so far away from civilization, but we were pleasantly surprised with a Tajine consisting of chicken, potatoes and vegetables. It was like dining in a 4star restaurant. We also got some soup for starters and a desert. It was simply great. After dinner we walked around outside the refuge and sat down by the river. The sun was setting and the sky was getting yellow. We were just chilling, enjoying the views and enjoying the fact we were 3200m up a mountain in Northern Africa. It was getting darker and colder really fast. At this point we really needed our sweaters and warm jackets. Temperatures tend to drop here from 30 degrees during the day to below freezing point at night. After talking to some French guys who offered us some wine (much appreciated, especially since you can’t get any alcohol here, and even more since it was Ramadan at the time), we went to bed. The next day was going to be summit day!
Day 2: Summit(s) Day!
The next morning we woke up at 6AM. After a, once again, great breakfast we left the Refuge at 7AM. For the second time in 2 days, all other groups had already left hours before us. The weather was perfect, the sky was dark blue and the upcoming sun was lighting up the surrounding 4000m peaks. It was a fantastic sight. We left immediately, since we knew it would be a long day and we had to be back in Imlil before dark. I felt great, my headache was gone and was ascending the trail crazy fast. I soon realized my two friends couldn’t keep up, so I decided to take back a little and take more time to make some photos and movies. We headed straight for the saddle, from where we should be able to see our goal, Toubkal at 4167 meters, for the first time. Werner was experiencing a severe headache, he was struggling with the elevation today, although he was fine yesterday. It ones again shows how different people react to high altitudes. Maarten, as always, had no problems at all.
Heading up the saddle we lost the trail, but soon found it again. An hour later we arrived at the saddle at 3500m a.s.l. and saw the immense West Face of Toubkal for the first time. We were stoked, and continued on the trail up the mountain. At this point we were already coming across some groups that had already summited. Once again we realized we should have left earlier, but still, we didn’t really care for long. After another 45 minutes we reached the saddle (tizi ’N Toubkal) connecting Toubkal with its smaller brother Toubkal West (4030m). At the saddle you have the first view towards the south and it’s just awesome. You look down into the deep towards the immense Sahara Desert. All you can see is sand and nothing but sand, until the haze consisting of sand in the air blocks the eye from viewing any further. I gazed into the deep for some time when Maarten and Werner also arrived at the saddle. We only had 200 more vertical meters to go to the summit. We left again and decided to meet again on the summit.
The last part was beautiful. The higher I got, the better the views. After another 30 minutes I saw a Pyramid-shaped construction sticking out of the rocks; the summit! I started hiking faster and faster and soon I realized I was only meters away from the summit of Jbel Toubkal. I was now at 4167 meters above sea level, a new height record for me. A have climbed several 4000meter peaks in the Alps, but all of them lower compared to Toubkal. I greeted a group of Italians and their local guide on the summit and sat down to enjoy the amazing views. Soon Maarten and Werner arrived and we celebrated our summit with some summit shots and a Snickers bar. After spending almost an hour on the summit it was time to get going again. The Italians went down the South Cwm route, which is the main and easiest route to the summit from the Toubkal Refuges. Most people use this route up and down the mountain. We did not go back the same way but traversed to the North Cwm route. This route is
slightly more difficult, but more quiet. Besides that, the North Cwm routes allows you to ascend another 4000 meter peak: Imouzzer and a high 3000m peak: Tibherine (3885m). While descending the North Cwm route it immediately became clear this trail is more difficult. The trail is very well visible, but steep and covered by loose debris. We had to descend very carefully. One slip and you are screwed, since any kind of help is far away here. After descending carefully we arrived at the saddle connecting Toubkal with Imouzzer. Maarten and Werner decided to stay there and wait for me while I ascended Imouzzer.
It was a fun hike to the base of Imouzzer. The summit block involved some fun scrambling in the UIAA I grade. I enjoyed the views for a moment, took some photos (I needed some material to create a SP page for Imouzzer) and descended back to the saddle. We headed further down the North Cwm route. But only a few minutes after we left I recognized the twin summit of Tibherine and without hesitating I took off to climb this peak as well. The reward was big: I found a complete engine of a crashed plane on the summit of Tibherine. It was really awesome, sad and weird at the same time to encounter an engine atop a mountain like this. I took some photos again and left back down to catch up with my friends. Along the North Cwm route all kinds of parts of the same Plane, a Lockheed L749A, were scattered along the trail.
The plane crash:
The crashed airplane was on its way to the Republic of Biafra. Biafra was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). On November 28- 1969, the crew was performing a cargo flight from Faro to Uli with an intermediate stop in Sao Tomé with ammunition on board. While overflying Morocco by night, the crew encountered engine problems and informed ATC they want to divert to the nearest airport. The aircraft, a Lockheed 749A, hit Mt Tibherine.
All SAR operations were suspended after a few days as no trace of the aircraft nor the crew was found. The plane was discovered two years later on July 18, 1970 by mountaineers climbing in the Toubkal region. The debris were found on the slope of the mountain, at an altitude of 3,800 meters. All eight occupants were killed and the aircraft was totally destroyed. According to the Biafran government 3 of the 4 engines of the plane stopped working resulting in the crash.
After another hour of descending we were approaching the valley floor were the Toubkal Refuges are situated at the very end of the valley. We did not want to go back there, but reach the valley floor on a point lower in elevation. This would save us time. We descended further along the trail, or at least what we thought was the trail. Soon we realized we weren’t on a trail anymore, but simply on a steep hillslope consisting of loose debris. Turning back was not an option, so we decided to carefully go down to reach the valley floor and the trail back down to Imlil. I remember starting to slip several times, but fortunately I was able to stop sliding every time. After 30 minutes filled with adrenaline we arrived safely at the valley floor and reached the upper part of (at 3100m) the trail of the Normal route down to Imlil. Whether we wanted or not, it was decision time: It was already 3PM and we had to descend another 1400 vertical meters and 10-15 km to get back to Imlil. It was also possible to ascend 100 meters back to the Toubkal Refuges and stay there for another night. Soon we decided we did not want to stay another night in the Refuge, so we started the long journey back to Imlil.
There were some people coming up the route asking how long it was until the Refuges. ‘’30 Minutes’’, we said. You could see them thinking: ‘’Why on earth are you getting down the mountain this late…’’ Descent along the trail went fine, we were starting to feel tired though, but just went on and on. Eventually we reached Chamharouch again at 2350 meters. The sun was already behind the mountains at this point, but still we decided to go through. It would still be another 2 hours back to Imlil. We were exhausted at this point. It was already 14 hours after we started walking in the morning. It felt like the trail was never ending, it just kept going and going. I could see that Maarten and Werner were at the end of their strengths as well, but they too, just kept walking and walking. When we finally arrived back in Imlil, it was already getting dark, we arrived just in time. We knocked on the door of the Riad were we stayed the night 2 days ago hoping Abdou would have a room for us. Fortunately he did, he gave us the biggest suite he had for the price of a normal room. Once again we paid only 20 euros each, including dinner and breakfast. Dinner was once again very good, especially after such a long day. Afterwards, on the Roof balcony, we drank a bottle of beer that Werner brought with him to Morocco, to celebrate our success. Not much later I laid down on my bed and fell asleep almost instantly. What an awesome day it was!
Day 3: Marrakech
The next morning after breakfast we were picked up by a Taxi that drove us back fromImlil tot Marrakech. We had booked a nice Riad in the city center for our last day in Morocco. We enjoyed the views during the 1,5 hour drive to Marrakech. Especially since the last time on this road (towards Imlil) it was already late in the evening and we couldn’t see a thing. The driver dropped us off in the city center in the vicinity of our Riad. Actually, he didn’t have a clue where he was, but convinced us we were close. Although we knew he wasn’t telling the truth entirely, we thanked him and left on foot. The city center is filled with small streets, chaotic traffic and many, many people. How different compared to the peacefulness of the Atlas Mountains we came from.
Soon some local boys saw us trying to locate our Riad. They offered to help us get there. Although I was already warned for this: If you let them take you to your Riad they want to see money.. But hey, we didn’t have a clue where we were, so we followed the 3 guys to our Riad. After we got to the entrance things started to get a little out of hand. We gave all three guys some euros each, quite a lot for 5 minutes work, but they became angry and wanted more. We said we didn’t have more, we gave them some Snickers bars and thought it would be OK. Instead of taking the bars we gave they grabbed the whole package away from Maarten. I was starting to get angry now myself. ‘’Those respectless F*^*^* A^*^*’’, I thought. But after
taking the Snickers bars they left and we decided to leave it at that. The Riad was beautiful and it even had small pool. We relaxed there for a couple of hours and later on went out to see the city with the famous Jemaa el Fna square. In the evening we watched the World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany. The next morning we left to the airport very early and before noon we were back in Amsterdam again. ‘’We did it!’’, I thought by myself: Climbing Toubkal for the weekend! Looking back it was one of the best experiences I have had and that in just a few days. What’s going to be next, maybe Elbrus? Who knows :-)