Learn to wield an ice axe on Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa and goal of every trekker to Morocco
'English? I have too much English!' snorted Abdul, as he threw me and my luggage onto a striped-saddled mule. Although just 60km from Marrakech, mules rather than cars have right of way at the Kasbah du Toubkal. Perched 1,800m above the tiny village of Imlil, it was once the stronghold of a ruthless chieftain, but is now a haven for trekkers. The view from its rooftop is one of peaceful Berber villages, the dramatic snowy peaks of the High Atlas rising behind them. Looking a lot like the Indian Himalaya, the kasbah posed as a Tibetan monastery in Martin Scorcese’s film, Kundun.
'That path goes to Mount Toubkal,' Abdul told me as we lolloped to the kasbah through the walnut groves. 'Are you going to be my guide?' I asked. 'Maybe,' he shrugged nonchalantly, sizing me up. Never entirely conquered by occupying forces, the Berbers are Morocco’s indigenous people. They don’t pay taxes and live according to a mixture of ancient tribal law and Islam. At the famous marriage market in Imilchil each September, women choose a husband from ranks of men lined up like cattle at a market.
Sitting on the rooftop sipping mint tea, my mind was on the mountains. ‘Climb Toubkal in two days?!’ People had said it wasn’t a good idea, but it was all I had. The Rough Guide to Morocco had cautioned against flash floods, summer storms and altitude sickness and advised ‘competence in winter trekking’ until mid-June. It was now May, and the most winter trekking I’d ever done was a five-minute walk across a glacier.
At 4,167m, Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa. The first Brit reached the summit in 1926. Having decided I was OK – or useless without his help – Abdul beckoned me to follow him the next morning. Arranging my head scarf Bedouin-style, to protect against the burning sun, we set off on the five-hour trek to base camp. Dusky pink village houses sat camouflaged in the neopolitan geology of the mountains. The valleys were lush with date palms, fruit trees, barley and walnut – its root used by villagers to clean their teeth. Partridges pottered about and we passed mules carrying everything from vegetables to calor gas.
The orchards and slopes were cultivated by unveiled Berber women in brightly coloured costumes – such as lurid pink tights under emerald green dresses. Zig-zagging up on a mule track, I drank in lungfuls of sweet-smelling juniper as Abdul entertained me with haunting Berber songs about life in the mountains, and love.
Rounding a corner at 2,320m, I was surprised to find a shop selling tea and biscuits. The huge white-painted rock nearby was the ‘saint man’ shrine of Sidi Chamharouch, said to cure ‘those possessed by the devil’. I was glad we weren’t staying the night.
The ground was scattered with snow as we reached our bed – the Toubkal Refuge at 3,200m. Climber Louis Neltner described the High Atlas sniffily as ‘neither more nor less beautiful than the Alps, but something different’. Pliny the Roman geographer had been more effusive, declaring them ‘the most fabulous mountains in all of Africa’.
Looking up at the snow-covered Mount Toubkal, from the rooftop balcony, I tried to shake chilling thoughts. Toubkal’s large screes were notorious and the clouds rolled threateningly up the valley towards the pass we’d be climbing tomorrow. Not for the first time, I wondered if I was up to the challenge. 'Has anyone died here?' I asked Abdul, casually. Oblivious to my fear, he cheerily gave details of a Dane and an American who’d slipped to their deaths. As we stepped into the hut we found a man bent double over a table in the dining room with severe altitude sickness, the pallor of his face matching the grey of his hair.
Although the rebuilt refuge had room for 120, as sardines on the dorm floor, there were 15 of us staying, confirming my suspicion that Toubkal was a challenge at this time of year. Abdul handed me an ice axe, packed crampons into his rucksack ‘in case’, smiled a cheery ‘see you at six’, and was gone.
Confiding I’d never used either to Eric, from Aspen, Colorado, he reassured me: the first bit of Toubkal, climbing steep snow, could be tough, but when you get to the pass and turn right, well that’s a bit tough too, and then, well, you are faced with the peak which is, er, a sheer triangle. I wished I hadn’t asked and lay awake listening to the trickle of icy water from the mountain.
My waking thoughts were about the aspects of snow I didn’t understand. Eric had mentioned ‘coulois’, which could be dangerous. I was glad to have Abdul by my side. Wrapped up in down jacket and trousers, with snow glasses, I crossed the stream behind the refuge, held my breath and began the 1,000m ascent, concentrating on just putting one foot slowly in front of the other.
The snow was soft, which Eric had said was good, as frozen over, it’s easy to slide. As we reached the big boulders about a third of the way up, the sun peeked shyly from behind the mountain and I started to breathe easier. Before I knew it, I was pulling myself up a small, steep gulley using the ice axe.
The scree was a struggle - one step forward, two slides back, and the sun dazzling, even with snow glasses. But once the top was in sight, my competitive spirit kicked in. We’d already shaken the Coloradans – only Abdul stood between me and the top. Using the last of my energy, I clambered past him, clutching the tripod that marked the summit for support.
A mountain raven circled the snowy peaks below as we gazed across layered Saharan plateaux stretching into the distance, opening a packet of celebratory chocolate biscuits with wind-frozen fingers. Cold and nauseous, I was nevertheless on a high from merely having survived. I skidded on the scree, laughing with Abdul, and slid the rest of the way down the mountain in his tracks. The five-hour trek back to the kasbah meant a very long day, but I didn’t care. I had just climbed the highest mountain in North Africa.
Airline: Royal Air Maroc flies from the UK to Marrakech
Hotel: Kasbah du Toubkal, winner of the Green Globe Award for sustainable tourism.
Guidebook: Rough Guide to Morocco