“I need another break,” I spluttered as I dropped down onto an uncomfortable piece of rock. It was 6am. We’d only been climbing for an hour that day, but the sun was just starting to shine over the valley and all I could see, when I looked up, was another incredibly steep hill.
One more obstacle between me and Toubkal on a day where it seemed I would never reach it. The peak wouldn’t be visible until the last hour or so of the climb, thus no hope for the sight of it to be an early journey motivator.
As I stood up, the thought crossed my mind for the millionth time that morning, why had I signed up for such an extreme adventure?
Well, the idea for this 2-day adventure dates back to early February. Looking through the Lonely Planet guide for Morocco, Mt. Toubkal was a popular outdoor destination. No gear is needed, and you can climb the highest peak in North Africa. So, we thought, why not? It was too cold to go in February when we’d first come down to Marrakesh, so we decided that we would return in June.
At first, we were determined to go without a guide. Glancing over a few blogs there seemed to be a general consensus that it could be done. However, after talking to some of our Moroccan friends, the seeds of doubt were planted. Ultimately, we ended up going with a guide, spending 1200 DH per person (approx. $126 USD).
Looking back, no regrets on hiring a guide. Marwan was great. He was 21, and he had been hiking this mountain since he was 12, alongside his Father, until he became a guide in his own right. The benefits of having a guide became increasingly apparent on day two as the hike progressed. I’ll just state them now:
Benefits: 1) climbing when it was dark, 2) climbing when there wasn’t a clear path and 3) a steady pacesetter for motivation when you just wanted to collapse in tears and exhaustion.
For those interested in hiking the mountain, a word of caution, the second day you rise at 5am, which means that when you ascend the rocky hill of gravel death YOU WANT A HEADLAMP so that your hands are free to help your grasp at mini pebbles of doom. (Too dramatic? I think not.)
I would not recommend our climb with “iPhone in hand” to anyone. Thus, here is the tale of our climb.
The first day we rose at 8am and were driven an hour outside of Marrakesh to the starting point in the village of Imlil. There we met our guide and at 11am began our climb. It was a solid 3 hours of uphill, lunch, and then three more hours of steeper uphill hiking.
We took frequent breaks as we were climbing at midday and none of us were “seasoned hikers”. I was glad that I’d brought my small purple day pack as it weighed next to nothing. I pretty much wore the same clothes on both days, only bringing along additional warm layers for the evening and morning climb. (I did end up wishing that I’d have brought more than two pairs of socks.)
Mule droppings were scattered all along the path (in some places worse than others). When the path met with mountain creeks, the road became an obstacle course of muddy mule poop. So, between moving to the side of the road for the constant stream of mules, dodging mule droppings and taking in the beautiful mountain scenery, the first 4 ½ hours passed quickly.
The last 1 ½ on the first day was the most difficult. My legs were burning, the air was thinning and all I wanted to do was lie down.
Seeing the refuge was the most glorious sight! We stayed at the second one, closest to the mountain path we would hike the next morning at 5am.
The sleeping situation was a room with 10 bunk beds. Basically, just mattresses on two levels laying right next to each other. Dinner was delicious Harira followed by pasta, chicken, and fries. (I have attached a picture to demonstrate that it was literally: pasta, chicken, and fries.) We ate quickly, chugged water, and after brushing our teeth with freezing mountain water, dove under our covers and passed out.
The LOUD and OBNOXIOUS snoring of a “sir”, as Mary would say, caused me to have a regrettable sleepless night. So, when my alarm went off at 4:30am, it had only been 45 minutes after having fallen back asleep. I leaped out of bed like a cannon, surprised to see that so many people had already left without a sound (the snoring sir was gone too).
I have to say that mountain trekking people are pushy in the morning. Everyone seemed to be in the biggest hurry, pushing one another without an “excuse me” or “good morning”. Even with different cultures and languages, compared to the friendliness of the day before, people were moving about with an agenda.
I am sorry to report that breakfast was a sorry affair. It was slices of bread, with various jam options and tea. I was hoping for something a bit more substantial (i.e. eggs or cereal) before a mountain climb, but maybe that would have been a mistake.
Only two of us joined our guide for that morning’s journey. Our third friend stayed at the refuge due to altitude sickness. I wasn’t feeling too either.
As we walked outside, I immediately looked up at the sky. There I beheld hundreds or maybe even thousands of stars. It had been such a long time since I’d been that cut off from the lights of civilization. I was mesmerized.
Unfortunately, as we trekked up the mountain, I wouldn’t get another stellar glimpse of the stars as I was too focused on not falling to my death (a slight exaggeration, but in the darkness, the slope of the hill was unknowable).
The friend that climbed with me was tough. I felt like a whiney baby in comparison. I had to stop our progress so many times. The cold wind whipped at our faces and my hands were the most exposed. My fingers felt frozen and blubbery. (They would thaw out in an uncomfortable fashion on the climb down.)
I had a head cold and felt as though my heart would burst. Poor Molly. Without her, I most likely wouldn’t have had the courage for the final climb that morning.
This is also where a guide came in handy. In the darkness, he knew the way. Even in the daylight, the hill’s composition of varying shapes and sizes of rocks meant a tough journey ahead, but he knew the best way over them. Saving us time and frustration.
Other people joined our small procession as we climbed up the mountain, and at various points, we would pass others and then they would pass us, and so in this manner, we all climbed to the peak.
2 hours and 45 minutes later we could see it. Across the gorge, we would have to take the path on the left and wind our way up to the highest peak of Toubkal. I hadn’t thought that I would make it, and yet here we were. The wind was something fierce so, I’d put back on my warmer layers that I had taken off on the climb up. Looking out we could see the Sahara Desert, and just beyond, Merzouga.
40 minutes later we were at the peak. We’d done it. We’d climbed Toubkal.
Sitting at the top, we could even see back to where we had started our journey the day before; a green patch in the distance. We’d climbed over 13,500 ft in two days.
We sat at the top for 30 minutes, taking in the sights and of course taking photos for the ‘gram. I cannot lie. That second morning, one of my major motivations for getting through those final four hours was the thought of “doing it for the ‘gram”.
That final climb was so intense and so steep, I thought that nothing could be worse. I was wrong.
Our decent was 8 hours that day. We did it all in one day, as is customary, and boy did my knees not like it one bit. For one thing, climbing down what we had climbed that morning was incredibly challenging as my knees were bent nearly the entire time in an effort not to slip on the gravel. Two and half hours later we were back at the refuge, and my legs could not stop shaking.
I also finally had a chance to look at what we had climbed in the dark. No way. No way would I have thought it was possible if I’d looked the day before at the path we were to take the next day. No way.
We joined up with our other friend who was feeling better, and after a brief stop, we continued. Five hours later we were back at our van pick up spot and on our way back to Marrakech.
On the first day, we’d seen weary people passing us as we stopped for lunch and I wondered just what I was in for. That second day, I too was someone who walked with a weary dirt caked step.
Summary of my body post-Toubkal: sunburned, a few blisters on my feet, dirt caked on so thick it resembled a second skin and muscles so sore that it would take the next four days until I stopped walking like an awkward zombie.
But I’m glad I did it. For just f-ing doing it.
Just remember, if you too are interested in the climb, bring a HEADLAMP for the morning of day two. Just do it. It will save your hands, erase the potentials for extreme panic and will honestly be a lifesaver.