Day 1: Marrakech
It had already been a tentative start for me that morning without having even left the UK. We were in the grasps of some bad winter weather and four inches of snow had fallen over night with even worse conditions in mainland Europe. This had forced Heathrow to cancel a third of all flights from the airport. All that morning and the night before I had been checking the live flight information; fortunately for me my flight was one of the few to not be cancelled.
I was over the moon, my trip would not be cancelled without even starting. The flight over was very comfortable with the plane being pretty empty, I had no one else next to me and unusually for me I managed to get an hours or so sleep.
We arrived in Marrakech about mid-afternoon. I was greeted by one of our guides, Abdullah, who would remain with us throughout our trip. We all introduced ourselves to the group (8 of us in total) and made our way to an awaiting mini-bus.
I was fortunate that the rest of the group were also experienced climbers, mountaineers, trekkers and general travellers with other peaks accomplished in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopa, Nepal, France and many other places between us. As we got to know each other throughout the week we also all found out how small the world is with many links between us. The best of all that one of the women of the group works for the same company that I do and it was a pure coincidence that we met here. I love this kind of travelling where strangers become good friends through their experiences on their trip and I find common ground is always quickly found.
Our base hotel was the Hotel Marian just off Mohammed V Avennue. I would reccomend this hotel to anyone as a place to stay before tackling Toubkal. Although basic it was clean and the staff were very friendly. We had the remainder of the day and until tomorrow afternoon free. That gave us plenty of time to experience the best of Marrakech - The Djeema El Fna and the Souks!
It was crazy! The noises, smells and sounds were incredible. Crossing the roads was pretty interesting too. We had a classic mint tea on one of the many roof-top cafes until we headed into the souks to find somewhere to eat. Our thoughts were to find somewhere with other westerners and we managed to find a decent little restaurant where we had plenty of tagine and cous cous.
The Marrakech skyline
If you have never been to anywhere like this then be prepared, you'll need to have a strong stomach! There isn't any hygeine, you can find sheeps heads to eat, strange different animal products including skins and live creatures, regular prostitues offering their services ("no money, no honey") and if you are are really desperate a dentist with a table set out with all of his previous customers' teeth. You will get harrassed by shopkeepers and beggers but you get used to that. However that is in the Medina. Outside of the traditional city walls and in the new French town there is a McDonalds and large hotels and modern restaurants. But why would you want to do that?! You can't come to Marrakech and not experience the hustle and bustle of the Medina, Djeema El Fna and Souks. I would say that it is an experience not to miss! Be careful when taking photographs though as you are most likely to get harrased by someone wanting money which I found when I suddenly had three snakes thrown on my shoulders by a snake charmer who thought we were taking pictures of him.
In the Souks Djeema El Fna
Day 2: Marrakech - Armed
This morning we met our second guide, Mohammed, who is our proper qualified mountain guide. He spoke little English but fluent French and luckily a lot of us in the group were capable when it came to speaking French as well. We piled into a mini-bus that afternoon for a two and half hour drive to Imlil and then a short trek to Armed and our Gite for the night. The trail gradually became less and less urbanized and we soon found ourselves driving up in the mountains and a far-cry away from the streets of Marrakech; we stopped in Asni on the way to pick up our cook. Asni is a small village set against the High Atlas range and is the half way point between Marrakech and Imlil. On Saturdays there is a large market here where traders come from all around to sell their produce, mostly fruit and vegetables here.
We arrived in Imlil but didn't stay long as we commenced our short 45 minute walk to Armed. Armed is the second to last village before reaching the Toubkal Refuges and it is still very traditional. I didn't catch the name of the Gite we stayed at but it was right on the edge of Armed and was very comfortable with a lounge with open fire and bedrooms sleeping 3-4 also with hot showers. It is an alternative and quiter village to start your trek to Toubkal than Imlil where the majority of treks begin.
Before settling down to our giant Tagine some of us went for a walk through the village. It was nice to interact with some of the locals and also the cheeky kids who we had a short game of football with!
Day 3: Armed - Neltner Refuge
Our first real section of the trek would take around 6 hours. We left Armed at around 8.30am after a breakfast of bread, honey and jam along with helpings of the global expedition staple of porridge. Our muleteer and his two mules were left with our bags at the Gite.
The path took us across the flood plain behind our Gite and then to a winding mountain path on the left side of the valley. A short way into the one of the guides and a couple of the other guys could see a fox on a distant hillside. I still say now that they were already hallucinating as I couldn't see a thing! Along the path there are a few tea shacks where you can get refreshments.
The route was pretty gradual along a dusty track until we reached the site of Sidi Chamharouch where there is a large white boulder that is a muslim shrine and is often frequented by people on a pilgrimage from Marrakech as the waters springing from it are said to have healing powers especially for the legs. The route crossess a stream and then continues to the right of the settlement. This is when we began to hit some snow but it was not serious enough yet to put our crampons on. From here the path goes straight up the valley following the river to the Neltner Refuge. We saw evidence of past avalanches. The sun was really hot and bright on this section of the path, obviously from the glare of the snow.
The Neltner Refuge
I really enjoyed this part of the trek but some of the others felt the altitude gain and heat and were suffering a bit. I read in a Lonely Planet book recently one of the best quotes that I know of: "Morocco is a cold country, with a hot sun". Anyone who has been to Morocco will vouch for this. Later on in the week it was an air temperature of around -7c during the day but we were all sunbathing under the sun on the roof of the Neltner Refuge.
Where did I put my crampons?
We sat down for lunch and then after we had a briefing for the rest of our week. Due to the weather forecast the decision was made to have a go at Toubkal the following day instead of an acclimatisation peak. This proved to be a very good call.
In the afternoon we practised ice axe arrest on the slopes adjacent to the Refuge for those who were not as used to the techniques as others. In the proccess I managed to fall on to and break my Cat. 4 glasses, I wasn't happy!
Day 4: Neltner Refuge (3207m) - Jebel Toubkal Summit (4167m)
We were out on the hill by 7am and we were expecting our ascent of Toubkal to take no more than 7 hours maximum. The route is very straighforward: you follow the river bed about 200m upstream before dipping down and coming up the other side of the banks (they are steep so a little scrambling may be involved). Then you proceed along a path below a large crag until you get to the first col. This path in summer is made up of loose scree. When in the col you proceed on a relatively easy gradient until you get to the back wall where it steepens to the Tizi'n Toubkal Pass. From here you get amazing views across to the anti-Atlas before you start to move left on to the final ridge (you actually dip just below the top of the ridge) where it is about 40 miuntes if I remember correctly to the summit.
Unfortunately one of our members had to turn back early on into the trek as he was suffering quite a bit because of the altitude. I noticed myself feeling more tired than normal as well due to the height gain which over the past few days had been a lot.
Finally 8 out of 9 of us made it to the highest summit in North Africa! We stayed for about 20 minutes by the metal tripod structure on the summit admiring the views across to the Anti-atlas, Marrakech and all the way over to the Sahara. We were lucky as there was very little haze and no cloud. It wasn't too cold today (above -10c) but the windchill was strong. One of the team reveald a hip flask full of whiskey on the summit which to my horror I had to decline in fear of throwing it back up as I was starting to feel the altitude more, mind you I think the vile mint tea that Mohammed had with him would have been worse!
The route to Toubkal A colleague and I on the summit
After the obligatory summit shots we descended back down to the Neltner Refuge. We passed another group of Brits on the way done and it was nice to have a quick chat with them relaying timings and a rough direction to the summit. We came down at quite a quick pace and the round trip took roughly 6 1/2 hours.
Once we were down back to the Refuge myself and another two of the guys had a kip in the dorm room and I must say that has got to be the best sleep I've ever had, I felt so refreshed afterwards! Later on we had tea and biscuits and pancakes and others went for a walk around the area and found a cave behind a waterfall.
We were all really pleased to have another 4,000m peak under our belts.
Day 5: Neltner Refuge (3207m) - Jebel Ouanoukrim (4089m)
It was colder today and windier also. We were going to attempt Ouanoukrim, a peak near Toubkal with a final ridge with 300m of scrambling. We were on the hill slightly earlier than yesterday as we had done all of our 'faffing*' the night before. Nobody was feeling any symptons of AMS today and we were all feeling fit and strong. The path in was very enjoyable as it was actually quite flat and a more interesting approach than to Toubkal.
As we approached the pass where we change direction towards the summit the wind speed picked up and lots of powder snow was being blown around so those of us who had them got goggles out. I was really happy I had mine! We took shelter behind a huge boulder while Mohammed and Abdullah went to check the condition of the ridge. They returned and ruled the wind was too strong to continue, a sensible and right decision. So we turned around back down the valley and head into the wind.
On the way down we saw a group of skiiers coming down a gully near to Ouanoukrim, it looked amazing and so graceful. When we got back to the Refuge some of the group went off to do another nearby climb and others set off to do a little bit of ice climbing on waterfall ice. The High Atlas are so beautiful in Winter. There is so much to do in the immediate area of the Neltner Refuge.
The following pictures are with thanks to Rob Foyle:
The obligatory card games began tonight whilst we all sat down to have mint tea and doughnuts.
Day 6: Neltner Refuge - Armed
Today we would descend back down to Armed after a short trek up to the Tizi n'Ounomous Pass so that we could look down to Lac D'Ifini. It was noticeably colder today combined with a strong wind. Goggles were worn all round and some people opted for down jackets. I lost the feeling of my toes for around four hours which I am still suffering from today. Some of the more experienced of the group, myself included, were slightly concerned about the avalanche risk today. The snow pack just didn't seem right, it was very hollow and slabs were falling away on each step. Our guide insisted it was safe and accepting his local knowledge we continued without any problems. Today saw the steepest climb with slopes of a high angle for most of the trek. However it didn't take long to reach the pass. We had some great views down towards the lake and we were sheltered from the wind.
After a good helping of honeyed dates and nuts we came back down to the Refuge for lunch and to pack our remaining equipment for the trek down. We had all forgot that the trek took so long and were expecting to it to be no more than 3 hours. It was in fact a shocking six hours. Everyone was quite weary by the time we had got back down to the Gite in Armed and an even bigger tagine than the last we had here was presented to us. I went to my sleeping bag quite early as I had picked up some form of poisoning from the Neltner Refuge. Conditions there were basic with a lot of people in a small area. The toilet rooms were bad if I were to be honest and the five dorm rooms were damp and cramped. However if you consider our location then you can understand these circumstances.
Day 7: Armed - Marrakech
We left early morning from Armed so were back in time to Marrakech for lunch. It was nice passing through the village so early when there were few people about, it was a little eary. Shortly we got back to Imlil and this time had a little more time to explore here. We were taken into a women's cooperative where they made and sold almond oil products. It was nice to support an honest local trade instead of getting harrassed in the Souks although we did pay a bit of a premium price here.
A nice air-conditioned mini-bus awaited us for the drive to Marrakech. Again we stopped in Asni to drop our cook off, who received a lot of love from the group. We got back to Marrakech mid-morning time. After a well earned shower and clean clothes we headed back out into Marrakech to grab some lunch.
That night we had a final farewell meal. We met Mohammed outside a night club and we followed him to a rather unconvincing restaurant. It was well out of the way of the Medina and down a dark alley with not a lot else around. Inside was another story, it looked upmarket and the staff spoke good English. On a further plus the food was also very good (apart from some of the meat was a little dodgy). Fruit salad with cinnamon was divine and I had been craving some fresh fruit for a while!
We headed off to soak up a little more of the night life of the Djeema El Fna and then we all headed back to the hotel.
Day 8: Final Day and Conclusion
After a nice lay in until late morning we headed for one last time into Marrakech, this time for some last minute souvenier shopping and presents for loved ones back home. Instead of going back into the Souks we went to a nice 'shopping centre' on Mohammed V. To my annoyance I cannot remember what it is called but it is all local people selling their goods at a fixed price, we managed to actually get some really nice stuff at decent prices.
Our flight left late in the afternoon and we touched down later that night in the UK.
Morocco is a truly amazing experience. After the nasty bit of food poisoning I had I vouched to never go back there! I am already planning my next trip with a group of friends for next year. That shows just how great the experiences I had and how attractive the culture is. I would reccommend to everyone that they have to experience Marrakech at least once.
The High Atlas mountains are beautifully scenic. For the experienced mountaineer or trekker there is no need to hire a guide as the route up is well trodden and easy to navigate.
All I can conclude in saying is that Morocco and Toubkal.... I'll be back!
Here's the link to my pictures: http://www.summitpost.org/toubkal-and-marrakech/788419