Mt. Toubkal, Again

I first climbed Mt. Toubkal in September 2018, the penultimate stop on a two week campaign around Morocco with my girlfriend, the Quail. We had catapulted ourselves in a grand boomerang across the country which began in the coastal calm of Rabat, where we ate fried fish platters by the sea, and ended in the metropolis Marrakech.


On the way we saw the leather tanneries in Fes and the donkeys that carried dripping hides through the steep alleyways of the Medina. We hurtled East to Mezourga in a shared SUV across the black Sahara and spent a night in the desert looking up at the stars. From the sandy nothingness we inflected back West in an arc to the Todra Gorge where it stormed biblically each afternoon and cleared the air. Then we spent one night at Ait Behhadou to see the ruins before a nauseating bus ride through the Atlas Mountains. Once in Marrakech we wandered around palaces and haggled for homeware in the souks. And finally, as if all that wasn’t enough, we went to the mountains with much enthusiasm and insufficient gear to climb the 4,167 metre Mt. Toubkal.


One year later I was back, this time with the mother, travelling the same straight highway towards the bank of snow-capped mountains called the Atlas. We had spent three nights at Riad Amina in Marrakech seeing the sights and sampling the fine market food at Jemma el-Fna. After these days of gluttony and sunning ourselves by the rooftop pool, we were ready to exert some energy in the mountains.


In the morning a car picked us up early from our riad in Marrakech. The sun rises late in the winter so we had eaten our breakfast in the semi-dark of the courtyard and kept our down jackets on against the cold. Half-asleep but visibly excited we shook hands with the driver and loaded our luggage into his car.


We left the old town and the roads got wider, straighter and smoother. We passed the empty giants of new build condos that huddled around gold courses. The browned, dying grass advertised previous prosperity. There had been a boom at some point, developers piling in to capitalise on cheap labour and lax planning. But the demand hadn’t materialised no matter how hard the pale-skinned models on the billboards sold the idea of luxury.


We were driving to Imlil, the mountain village that serves as the gateway to The Parc National du Toubkal. Dusty flat highways gave way to hills and hairpin bends as the traffic thinned. We followed a river up the wide valley that leads all the way to the refuge at the base of the mountain. At this time of year the flow was gentle, but in the spring and summer with storms and melting snow it could rise and wash away whole houses.


Mother and I chatted about what passed outside the windows. Once in a while we felt the g-force as the driver executed perilous overtakes of, for example, two mopeds and one provincial school bus. She was nervous, Mother. Although a strong walker in her native homeland of Yorkshire – every weekend claiming patches of moorland with muddy boots and ruddy cheeks or scaling the ups and downs of the coastline – Toubkal was a serious mountain, especially in winter.


Once in Imlil, we stepped from the car and met Ibrahim, our guide. He was short. Shorter than me and my mother, but well built. His skin was of the shade only achievable from years of alpine sun and his sunglass marks showed. After some idle chat in his not-so-good English, we ascertained that he had expected us to bring our own food and scrambled to make calls to put together provisions.


This is one of the joys of Imlil and Morocco at large. You can arrive in the mountain in shorts and flip flops – with an overpriced hard suitcase and fitness gained only from lugging said suitcase about – and summit Mt. Toubkal the next day. Everything can be rented in the village and the guides are welcoming of all, even strapping inappropriate luggage to a donkey for you to take up to the refuge which, I tell you now, is not a good look. Consider the donkey.


Ibrahim at first did not instil confidence in us. After making it clear we probably would want to eat something over the next 48hrs he made some calls and I consoled my mother that this is Morocco, things always work out. Which they do. The people are trustworthy, the intentions good. So with provisions finally organised and our luggage stowed, we slung our light backpacks over our shoulders and began what is effectively a straight line of ascent from Imlil to the refuge at the base of Toubkal.


***


The climbing started immediately as we walked out of Imlil. A short, steep twenty minutes of ascent and you have sweeping views back over the village. That’s the worst part I told my mother in an attempt at consolation, at least for today.


From there we began walking into the flood plain that sits just above the village and is surrounded by stone-walled apple orchards, barren at this time of year. Here was our first checkpoint, some forty-five minutes in. Following two tragic murders of tourists in 2019, the Parc National du Toubkal now requires all visitors to have a guide and keeps a strict log of those who enter and leave.


The guard in this hut, dressed like a small town sheriff and sporting a rather snazzy white leather pistol holster, scanned our passports and gave us a nod. Just after passing the checkpoint we reached a cluster of houses, one of which Ibrahim ran briefly into to get us crampons. Past the refuge where we would stay that night was the snowline and slopes you did not want to scramble up without 12-points of sharpened steel strapped to your boots.


We walked up the valley and crossed the flood plain. The air was noticeably thin, but the sensation of its freshness outweighed the lack of oxygen. Marrakech isn’t a dirty city. But it rumbles along under a smog of turmeric-yellow which emanates from the savoury charcoal smoke of street food vendors and sweet smelling petrol from mopeds. The air in the Atlas Mountains was not better or worse, just different.


As we climbed it got crisper and was infused with the scent of juniper trees that dotted the valleys. The sun rose steadily as we walked and it got high enough to warrant a layer of sunscreen and the removal of jackets. A few hot hours later we arrived at Sidi Chamharouch which is a tiny village tucked into a sharp stretch of valley. A loud waterfall divides the few houses and cafes. Donkeys perch on roofs and seemingly inaccessible parapets munching hay.


We dumped our bags and sat on the roof a modest house-cum-restaurants and soaked up the sun which made my skin tingle and my mother’s cheeks redden. Soon she would burn, so I lent her my cap and worked on my tan. It having felt like years since breakfast we feasted when the food arrived. A simple Berbere omelette (eggs, onion and spice) with side plates of salad, sardines and pasta.


Five nights ago we had been in cold, rainy England eating whatever was left in the fridge for dinner and worrying whether we had posted all our Christmas cards. That afternoon we were aeons away watching the odd group of hikers – nowhere near the numbers that climb in summer – arrive at Sidi Chamharouch and tuck into mountain food washed down by mint tea.


Just wow. This is like nowhere I’ve been before, said my Mother as we slumped in our chairs. I was glad I could make that happen. For the first fifteen years of my life I was shown the world by my parents. The trip to Morocco and the Atlas was start of me paying back that favour.


After lunch we lifted our heavy bodies vertical and re-tightened our boots. Three more hours and we would be at our stop for the night. Things got tougher however as the shaded sides of the valley were still caked in ice. The path we followed wound up the valley like a great snake and each time you dipped back into shade the ground became a hazard. Alpine streams running off from melting snow would flow onto the paths in the afternoon and overnight become a two inch thick ice rink. The thinner stuff melted off by lunch or was brushed away by passing mules, but we still found plenty to slide about on.


This was a reminder, like the barren apple orchards in the valley below, that this would be different to last summer. The ease at which I climbed the mountain last time would be amplified in difficulty by the presence of ice, snow and cold. Little things that can drain one’s will and energy over thousands of steps.


But we made it, eventually, to the refuge and were both exhausted. Lucky for us – accustomed to our creature comforts – the fire was roaring and mint tea pouring. Mother and I sat side by side for some hours before dinner and warmed our feet. I wrote in my diary, she listened to audiobooks. We both watched the groups of climbers arrive and place themselves around us.


Near the fire a tall and athletic Spanish couple – my guess was ski instructors – canoodled and showed to everyone how in love they were. He surprised her with a snickers he had been hiding in his jacket and they ate it gleefully by the fire, like children.


On our left, the token Englishman had arrived. Exuberant, triumphant and undeniably red of face and wearing a ratty buff around the neck. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when an Englishman ascends into the mountains – be it on the slopes of Verbier or the paths of Kilimanjaro – he must accessorise with a tattered merino buff. Ruddy English man was perfectly pleasant however and his deep laugh was entertaining. I found out the next day England was ten years behind him; Malaga had become home and was to be for the foreseeable future.


The guides sat together straight ahead of us, mostly playing on their phones but occasionally huddling to confer in quick Arabic about some pressing matter, like a conclave of mountain popes. I looked at their faces – their mountaineer’s tans – and wanted to speak to them more but was glued to my bottom by fatigue. After a few years of grinding away in The City I was confusing relaxation with tired, so I let it be and drifted along in my head in the warmth. I pulled up my hood and shut my eyes, nudging my mother once in a while to let her know that I was there and that hey – this is cool.


Dinner came soon and we sat at tables reminiscent of school canteens. People spoke little but we made friends with a group of young English schoolteachers next to us. Two, a couple, lived and worked in Cornwall. The other two, also a couple, just left London to resettle in the Lake District, an enviable life.


We ate bowl after bowl of harrira soup followed by a grand platter of chicken and pasta. Simple and easy on the stomach; much needed given the effect altitude has on appetites. My mother at this point was suffering herself from the height. The refuge is at 3200m which is no small hill. Her nose and throat had blocked up and it felt like she had a cold.


As exhaustion set in she said she couldn’t make it up the next day. Having been there before and lacking sympathy generally as a person I said wait until tomorrow and see. All you can do is sleep. You may have a cold, it may be altitude. At breakfast in the AM you will find out where you stand. In hindsight this wasn’t the consolation I should have offered, but it was my view and is my style. Control for the controllable and don’t worry about the rest as important issues float to the top and all else can sink.


With that we said goodbye to our brief friends and wished them luck. In the dorm room fit for twenty upstairs we stowed our gear and snuggled into our sleeping bags. I put my earplugs in and pulled my hat over my eyes. Perhaps an hour of tossing and turning and then I was out cold. I was asleep at 8PM with the expectation to rise at 4AM. In a strange turn of events, that 20-person dorm room and me fully-dressed and cocooned in a down sleeping back, produced the best night’s sleep in recent memory.


***


We woke up at four in a warm dorm room and bustled out of bed. Leaving our gear, we stretched our legs down the stairs and sat for a quick cup of tea and bread with sugary jam. The mother was feeling much better, I could see it in her face, and she was excited to go.

It was hard to tell what time it was. The whole refuge was lit up, but the night was black outside. Ibrahim greeted us and got us moving. He had said little throughout the trip. A few words in English, a few in French. That was the way it was and there were no complaints from us. The mother and I were happy to walk or sit in silence and if need be chatter idly amongst ourselves.


We grabbed our packs from upstairs and headed outside. The cold didn’t hit us immediately as we were warmed with excitement. But as I took my hands out of my gloves to affix my crampons I felt them going numb.


And then we were off. With no fanfare we left the refuge and immediately started climbing a steep, rocky hill that goes straight up to a ridgeline in two to three hours. Peeking over this ridgeline you see the sun emerging from the Sahara far away and you traverse left another hour to reach the summit.


My mother was a natural with the crampons and we crunched away from the refuge. The snow was crisp and the cold air bit the back of my throat. It was that beautiful calm I’ve only experienced in mountaineering mornings where the meditative steps of one foot then the other is all you focus on. The brain isn’t awake enough yet to think about inane things: what’s for lunch, my left heel hurts. Or more serious things: if I slipped now and rolled down the slope would I die or merely be seriously injured? Would they call an air ambulance?


In those mornings on mountains I’ve experienced complete calm. The light huffing of people’s breath and the occasional scrape of a walking pole catching a rock punctuate what is otherwise silence. The sun rises too slowly to notice a change and you just keep walking and walking as time flows and you become higher on the mountain.


At some point my mother began to struggle a bit, perhaps around 3400m. It was a pattern I was all too familiar with. The stops become a bit more frequent, the gap between them getting shorter. She was losing confidence and her legs were getting tired. I lack sympathy at the best of times, but when in situations like this my only response is to tell someone to push on. That is what I would like to be told: Don’t even think about entertaining the doubt until you can’t stand up anymore or you are on the verge of passing out. That’s just me though and rowing at university and running trail races since graduating have taught me a stoic resolve which has probably done more physical injury than good.


My encouragement and cajoling worked up until about 3,600m. My mother was going strong but her legs gave in. She was coping amazingly with the altitude given it’s the highest she’s ever been, but the legs were not saying yes. Shut up legs, I told her, that’s what you’ve got to say. But they were cooked. I’m going back down. I told myself I would turn around if I reached my limit, and this is it.


And that was it. She told Ibrahim it was time to go down and he nodded. He said to me you can go up on your own, straight up and then left. I gave my mother a hug and I told her where she had gotten to was amazing. 3,700m up a mountain in the winter, in snow and wearing crampons. She is 56 – not many 56 year olds do stuff like this – and I couldn’t be prouder. She was proud of herself as well, but when you turn around on something like this you just want to get home and you just got to let that person be. So I saw her start descending and I charged upwards.


All the constrained energy I had been reserving was unleashed and I thought to myself, I’ve taken in the scenery before when I did this in summer, so let’s push for speed. Shortly I was at the ridgeline and ditched my crampons. The little loop up and down to the summit was relatively snow free so I could go light and fast. I had an energy bar and some water and ploughed on. I built up a good sweat and could feel the altitude a bit more when I pushed myself but I was pleased with how strong I was going.


Perhaps it was all relative. The last mountain I had been on was Elbrus, in the Russian Caucuses. That was 5,642m and we slept at around 4,200m for two nights before the summit. I knew Toubkal would feel like a dawdle in comparison, but this was a piece of cake and made the view at the top even more enjoyable when I reached it just before dawn.


No huffing and puffing, just morning calm as I stood at the familiar metal triangle that looks out over a sheer drop and the Sahara beyond. The sky burned pink and then orange and then yellow. I chatted with a few guides on the top, but there were only 4 other climbers there who I had caught up to in my charge. We stood there in silence. Fat little sparrows flitted around on the ground looking for scraps and people took photos of the view. I snapped a couple, but my hands were cold and I was just happy to be there. Happy to be there standing, sad my mother wasn’t next to me, but proud for what she had done.


At that point I wanted to get back down to her and make sure everything was okay. I said goodbye to the guides at the summit, lengthened my poles and started ascending. All the trail running has given me fast feet and I practically ran back to the refuge, a fun and challenging things to do in crampons strapped to inappropriate boots (normally one requires a harder sole). I was met by all the different faces of determination, exhaustion and defeat as I passed climbers themselves heading up. A parade of nationalities and abilities who for all their different reasons had decided to summit a mountain on Christmas morning.


It’s nice once you’re up in the sun I told the people I passed.


It would have been nicer if I felt the first glow of the sunrise arm in arm with my mother but it wasn’t to be that day. I descended fast and was the second summiter back to the refuge that morning. Mother was tucked up in bed under layers of blankets, spent but happy.


What lay in front of us was a long slog back to Imlil on icy paths not yet melted. Crampons were required nearly all the way back to Sidi Chamharouch where we had lunch the day before. On the way down, we took it slow with our wobbly legs. We once again sat in the sun in the halfway village to eat lunch and spoke little. We were both tired and reflecting on the morning.


We would descend further and further, the air getting warmer and us ditching our layers. Soon we would be at the flood plain and the barren apple orchards and then back in Imlil. Time would come to say goodbye to Ibrahim and thank him for the journey before checking into a Riad for a hot shower and early dinner.


What began so clearly a few days before when we left Marrakech on a cold morning ended in a blur of accomplishment and fatigue as we sat in our Imlil riad waiting for dinner.


We had come far.