Trekking the Toubkal and living to tell the tale
By Mike Trickey
In our circle of friends, it has been a point of discussion for some – an article of faith for others – that the primary motivation behind my wife Lena’s newfound love of adventure travel is her desire to bump me off. Take the insurance and ride off into the future with a handsome pool boy.
Certainly there is evidence. The trek in 40-degree heat along Portugal’s Rota Vicentina. The lung-depleting ascent of Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park. The clambering over Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier (there’s even a photo of her menacing me with an ice pick on that one). So, when Morocco was proposed as a destination, I was mildly surprised. My knowledge of Morocco began and ended with visions of the thousand-year-old cities of Fes and Marrakech and sleeping on carpets in the Sahara Desert looking up at the millions of stars on crystalline nights. It sounded fantastic. Almost relaxing. Of course, I had never heard of Jebl Toubkal, the tallest peak in the High Atlas Mountains – the Roof of Northern Africa.
Stretching 2,500 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, across Morocco and through Algeria and Tunis, the Atlas range separates the Sahara from the temperate Mediterranean climate of northern Africa. In the heart of the High Atlas is Toubkal National Park, home to eight mountains over 3,600 metres (12,000 feet) high, including Jbel Toubkal at 4,167 metres (13,671 feet) – higher than any peak in the Canadian Rockies. This, apparently, was to be my latest Waterloo.
Our hike began in the village of Imlil, which has emerged as the hub of the High Atlas trekking industry after a disastrous flood in 1995 that killed 150 people and washed away much of its agricultural land. Unfortunately, our son Andrei had caught a bug from something he had eaten the day before and was feeling somewhat the worse for wear as we met our guide. Hassan’s eyes filled with doubt as he looked at our family – shaky young man, petite woman, old guy – and told us for the first of many times that it was not necessary to go to the top of the mountain, that a hike to the hostel at the base camp – or perhaps just a walk around the village – would be fine. However, we were determined, and after our mule skinner loaded the donkey with gear, we were on our way.
The trek from Imlil to the Toubkal summit and back is about 30 kilometres with an elevation of about 2,300 metres. It is generally recommended that it be done in three days, but we had a full agenda so had decided to do it in two. Day one is a gentle enough affair, following a path ever upwards for 12 kilometres through Berber villages, accompanied by a soundtrack of bleating goats and sheep, to the Refuge Les Mouflons at the base of Toubkal and its sisters. A good night’s sleep was not an option, as we shared a room with 15 snoring hikers crammed into bunk beds. A late-night visit to the hole-in-the-floor bathroom resulted in socks soaked with what I tried to convince myself was water.
At 4 a.m., we were off, with the objective of conquering the remaining 900 metres of elevation in time to see the sunrise. We began climbing through volcanic rock and loose scree, with light provided only by our headlamps. Fortunately, Hassan had climbed the mountain about 100 times and knew every inch, pointing out where to step as we made our way up. After a couple of hours of climbing through rock, we reached an ice field and had to put on crampons. At one point, anxious to save a few steps, I cut a corner, which resulted in Hassan securing himself to me by rope, much to Andrei’s relief. “I thought I was going to be an orphan,” he told me later. It was not an unreasonable fear. Hassan told us that a Swiss woman had fallen to her death three weeks earlier from that very spot.
As the sky began to lighten, we reached the end of the ice field and could remove the crampons for the final portion of rock to the pinnacle, where we watched the sun rising above the clouds below us. Spectacular, but we couldn’t stay long. The wind was howling, our water bottles had frozen, and we still had to make our way back down the mountain and on to Imlil.
Seven hours later we were back, hamstrings burning, and in a car to exotic Marrakech.
Mission accomplished – mine anyway. Lena is planning my next test.
Mike Trickey is a former journalist in Ottawa and Moscow with a newfound respect for adventure travel.