This article is based on my winter climbing trips of the past five years in the Toubkal region of Morocco´s Western High Atlas. During these trips I have been primarily interested in climbing prominent steep gullies that lead to the main summits of the Toubkal group. This includes a horseshoe of peaks: Biguinnousene, Afella, Akioud, Ras, Timesguida, Ouagane, Ouanoums and Toubkal.
These mountains have a number of common characteristics-- but most importantly size and access. Summits are around 4000m elevation and all are accessible from the Toubkal mountain huts (Mouflon and Nelter) as day-trips or overnight climbs for the more committing lines.
In winter, still few climbers venture into the Atlas for the purpose of steep ice and mixed climbing, which is a shame because the quality, variety and potential is magnificent. As literature on the subject expands from general mountaineering towards more technical outings, it is likely that this region will gain popularity for the winter season.
In the meantime there is still an abundance of new mixed climbs and ice lines waiting to see first ascents. While many climbers lament the absence of virgin terrain in the Alps, by comparison the Atlas, under winter conditions is still largely unexplored. The character of the climbing ranges from moderate neve to grade VII mixed and multi-pitch pillars of water ice, often in major alpine positions.
For specific climbs please see my mountain-route articles and the corresponding photos.
Weather, Conditions and Season
The season for reliable winter climbing conditions in the Western High Atlas is late December to mid-March. Moroccans are known to say it is a cold country with a hot sun. The high Atlas has extreme temperature swings between day and night, and also between periods of stable and unstable weather.
Owing to the infrequency of storms in this region, the Atlas may be bone-dry in December, even when temperatures have dropped significantly below the freezing point. For this reason a solid storm can be viewed as a good thing by climbers in search of well formed ice lines. A plastering of snow or freezing rain on the upper mountain will typically result in several weeks of prime climbing conditions until the next storm comes in.
Daytime temperatures often rise well above 0c however north aspects and before sunrise, the temperatures will frequently drop to -12c, thereabouts. A good source of weather information for the Western High Atlas is snow-forecast.com
In the winter months visitors to the high Atlas should expect permanent snow above 2800m. This may necessitate the use of snowshoes or skis above 2800m, although it is often the case that the pronounced melt-freeze cycles make bare boots feasible once, not long after new snowfall has settled.
The snowline is also significant for its effect on mule support with your gear and supplies. With the Toubkal huts sitting at 3100m, it is rare for mules to reach the huts in winter, though they will certainly get close. In extreme cases the snow level will drop down to 2400m, making mule and porter support extremely difficult.
Due to the intensity of the sun, aspect is a crucial element of the weather and conditions in this range. During stable weather, a south aspect climb may easily allow for daytime climbing in bare hands, and it is normal for south aspect features to melt out and offer warm rock by daylight hours, even mid-winter. By contrast, the north aspect features (faces and gullies), especially those extending over the 4000m level will feel bitterly cold regardless the daytime sunshine.
Accordinly, some of the best formed gullies and ice features are those that have partial sun exposure. Either by having a few hours of sun exposure each day, or an exposed section that creates a source of snow melt, these partially exposed lines are the climbers best choice.
With regards to equipment, it is wise to bring a range of gear including stubby screws and snow stakes. Rock protection is generally good but sometimes the rock is quite compact and lacking in cracks. For this reason I have found thin pitons to be essential.
Logistics of a winter climbing trip to Toubkal
I recommend arranging your logistical needs in separate parts: supplies, transfers, portering, accommodation, guiding (if necessary). No permits are required to enter the National Park. Moroccans love to claim expertise in all manner of tourism service, but you may find that your guide-cook turns out to be more cook than guide, or vice-versa. Vet your help one step at a time and you will do much better than getting swept along by the driver-come hotelier, come-guide-cook-carpetmaker.
If you intend to source all of your own food and supplies, I recommend shopping at the Gueliz ACIMA shop in Marrakech, where you will find all trip food under one roof. Alternatively, for the experience, it can be a days adventure to wander the old Medina in search of your needs. Items that you may have difficulty sourcing in country are gas cans, cereals, dry meats and climbing gear. Savvy guides and porters will buy fatty bread for a much longer shelf life. On my last Atlas expedition we brought 120 loaves of bread. Once you reach the trail head villages of Imlil and Aremd, you should not expect any meaningful shopping to happen. Sparse produce and bread.
High quality white gas (coleman fuel) is sold in recycled wine bottles at hardware stores in Marrakech. Gas cans are also available, however the specific type will vary depending on the vendor.
One of the most common scams in Morocco is with taxi fares. A bus from the airport to Marrakech centre is 30 dirhams, 10 minutes. A grand taxi to Imlil village should cost 100-200 dirhams per person (two hours). It is always advisable to arrange a driver in advance through a trusted source, such as your hotel, guide etc. A price will therefore be agreed. The drive from Marrakech to the trailhead village (Imlil, Aremd) is approx. two hours on a road that is presently being surfaced (2012). The only advantage of a 4x4 vehicle is if your trailhead accommodation (gite) is located high in the Imlil village, and this may save you the complication of portering your gear to the gite.
The most comfortable way of reaching the Toubkal mountain huts is to make a morning start from Imlil or Aremd villages, and depending on the support of mules or porters, the hike in will take between 5-8 hours. With snow cover, expect the final kilometers to be the most difficult. It is possible, albeit ambitious, to reach the mountain huts on the same day you leave Marrakech.
Rest assured that almost all transfer needs can be arranged with just a few hours notice, provided you know exactly what your needs are (i.e. mules, porters, cars, destination etc).
Marrakech offers a plethora of accommodation options, ranging from cheap-and-cheerful to exotic luxury. Book in advance and be wary of street invitations. I use Central Palace for its location, value and practical simplicity. At Central Palace you can request courtyard rooms with space for sorting your equipment and food.
The trailhead town is Imlil, however Aremd village (up valley from Imlil) is your final bit of civilisation before heading into the mountains. Where Imlil offers a scattering of ragged shops and cafes, Aremd by comparison is an authentic Berber community with narrow lanes and ancient houses clustered across the sun-bathed hillside.
Local resident Hassan Ait El Kadi runs a 40 bed gite with dorms and private rooms, overlooking the Toubkal access path and Toubkal itself. The gite has three large terraces and a mule loading area, which all add up to make for a convenient staging area for climbing parties heading up to Toubkal.
Two mountain huts are located side by side at approx. 3100m on the normal route up Toubkal. In winter it is unlikely for these huts to be full, however a reservation email is advisable. email@example.com. The huts offer breakfast and dinner if required, and there is both bottled water and potable tap water available. The huts are cold and do not have blankets. Electrical outlets and showers are available, and on the coldest of days the guardians will surely light a welcome fire in the hearth.
Camping is possible both near the huts and above them in flat sections of the valley. While this practice is generally accepted, visitors choosing to camp should be cautious about expecting free hospitality from the huts.
El Kadi Crag
Five minutes walk directly south of the Toubkal Nelter hut a wall of ice formations occurs during the cold winter period. Depending on snow accumulation and temperature, these pillars and ice-walls offer a good training ground and bad weather diversion for climbing parties.
For lack of a better name climbers have taken to calling it El Kadi crag, after the original Toubkal mountain guide (Ait El Kadi) who helped establish the first mountain hut in that location.
In an emergency the police should be contacted, however a multitude of considerations should be taken into account:
Mobile phone reception in the Atlas is intermittent and can never be relied on for communication.
Emergency services personnel will speak French and Arabic.
There are few if any suitable helicopters capable of assisting a mountain rescue.