Summiting Mount Toubkal…Almost

The more you travel, the more you get the feeling that all cities are kind of…the same. Food, language, and culture may change but there is a finite amount of space to cram in all of the museums, markets, shops, and restaurants. Things get repetitive quickly, and repetition is not the basis of adventure.

Conversely, in nature, your surroundings can change vastly by region, or even within the same region. There also usually exists a huge variety of activities to engage in which don’t involve any similarities to the mundane things you do at home, like shopping. The point is that when you leave the city, you can really leave your everyday life behind. What the hippies of yesteryear called, “connecting with nature,” and, paradoxically, what the corporate drones of today refer to as, “disconnecting.”

With all of this squarely on our minds, my husband, my friend, and I endeavored to plan a extraordinary journey into the unknown. I don’t know what made us choose Morocco, all I do know is that a five minute Google search for Marrakech quickly led us down a serious rabbit hole, which culminated in the most breathless and sweaty experience of our lives: summiting Mount Toubkal.

Snake Charmers & Stereotypes

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The Simpsons, Season 14 Episode 15
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From Absolutely Fabulous, Season 2 Episode 3

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk about preconceptions. In my imagination, thanks to pop culture, Marrakech was a city stuck in time, specifically in the 1970s. I anticipated dark and seedy alleys winding through a drug infested city; exclusive parties behind ornate walls of splendid riads, where fabulous French women smoked long skinny cigarettes by the pool; where mystical men draped in vibrant fabrics charmed snakes in the main square at dusk.

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Riad Aya, Marrakech

Okay, so the riads ARE pretty damn splendid and while the snake charmers certainly do exist, the rest of Marrakech is considerably more tame than what many people may think. Thankfully, before departing for Morocco, I had read that, as a Muslim country, conservative attire was appreciated. Being that we we were visiting in late July, ultralight and quick drying clothing would be our only hope.

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In the main square of Marrakech, Jamaa el Fna

When we arrived in Marrakech, I must admit I was taken aback by just how conservative a city it really was. Straight out of the gate, peering out of the airport taxi’s window, I saw a few women who were fully covered from head to toe in black abayas and face obscuring niqabs. Some women wore colorful or muted kaftan style dresses with coordinating scarves over their hair. Others wore more western style clothes, along with a hijab. As we made our way around the country, it became obvious that in Morocco, women with uncovered hair and restaurants which served alcohol were infrequent exceptions to the cultural rule. None of this is meant to trash talk Morocco, or its wonderful people, but rather to express how my preconceptions were dashed to bits upon gaining first hand experience in the country. Dispelling preconceptions and stereotypes really is my favorite thing about travelling.

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Outside of the beautiful Marrakech Manara Airport

Vroom, Vroom, OMFGWTF!!!

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Driving past Jamaa el Fna in uncharacteristically calm traffic

Driving in Morocco is not for the faint of heart. Gazing out of that taxi window, watching people meandering along the road side was about 20% true interest in observing a society different than my own and 80% attempted anxiety diversion from what was happening in front of me. Traffic flow in Marrakech doesn’t follow the typical rules you may be used to and, in turn, drivers must aggressively make their intentions clear.

Changing lanes? A blinker alone simply will not suffice. A blinker, a preemptive honk, hand signals, driving into oncoming traffic, and swerving close enough to a moped to nearly knock its rider off may just do though. But not to worry, the moped driver is used to this and doesn’t even flinch, nor does the elderly gentleman pedestrian that our taxi strikes in the arm with our side-view mirror. Somehow it all just works, like some violent chaotic orchestra (that you wish would stop coming back for encores).

The driving situation intensified as we made our way to the quiet mountain village of Imlil. Flying around blind corners and shockingly narrow hairpin turns, I had to close my eyes and repeat to myself,

“The driver does this everyday; he knows these roads; I’m sure he wants to make it out of this alive too.”

To Imlil & Beyond

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Imlil, a quaint village of dirt roads and mules

After 90 minutes of terror, we arrived in the rustic village of Imlil and met our guide Abdul, a very tall and slender guy with a contagious smile and a friendly disposition. We sat at a cafe, sipping the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea, while going over the plan for our two day trek to the 4,167m (that’s 13,671ft for my fellow non-climber Americans) summit of Mount Toubkal. None of us has hiked at high altitudes before and, to be honest, none of us were particularly athletic. Research conducted online and on social media, however, made us unrealistically confident that we could conquer this beast of a mountain (the tallest in Northern Africa) with minimal physical preparation.

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A sign posted inside the office of our trekking company
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Very happy to report that our mule was indeed treated very well. Every time we stopped for a break the mule also got a break, having its pack fully removed and being given a bounty of food.

Woes & Waterfalls

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Look at these cocky mofos, looking like they’re ready to take on the world

As we made our way from the town and out toward the trail, it quickly became apparent that we were in for some strenuous times ahead. Stopping at a waterfall, just on the edge of town, already red faced and sweaty in the 90 degree heat, our shared despair was palpable when Abdul pointed across a wide dry riverbed and proclaimed, “the trail starts just over there.”

Oh. the. humanity.

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There were quite a few waterfalls like this along the trail

The idea was to hike two hours, stop for lunch, hike two more hours, stop for tea, and then hike two more hours to the refuge to sleep at 10,000 ft, and hopefully acclimatize ourselves, before attempting the final push to get to the summit the following morning.

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Nearing the riverbed, with Abdul’s village as our backdrop…aka, right before the S*** really hit the fan

Approximately one hour in, dizzy, out of breath, and with frighteningly swollen hands, we began to question our sanity in embarking on this journey; question if we would live to tell the tale; question if we would even make it as far as the lunch spot. I had read that a good number of people don’t make it to the summit, but I wondered if anyone had ever not even made it to the refuge. I didn’t ask Abdul; I didn’t actually want to know.

Annoying Vegans Abroad

In the early stages of planning this trip I’d been in contact with Mohamed, the owner of the trekking company we’d booked with. I scrutinized over every detail, concerned with weather, necessary gear, transportation, payment methods; I worried about pretty much everything other than actual nourishment. Two days prior to departing for Morocco, I sent Mohamed a panicked email, “Two in our group are vegan, will this be a problem for meals on the trek?”

Although Mohamed quickly replied, “We are very familiar with vegan hikers,” I was anxious. What if I was halfway through the most grueling activity of my life when finding out that the word “vegan” meant something very different to them than it did to me? What if lunch was prepared and not one bite was edible for me? I stuffed my already full backpack with vegan meal replacement bars and pounds of dried fruit, just in case. I am nothing, if not a worrier.

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Part of a large breakfast spread at Riad Aya in Marrakech

Almost as soon as we arrived, I realized I was definitely not going to starve in Morocco. Almost every breakfast included a whole piece of fruit, and every lunch and dinner started with a salad. This is not salad in the American sense, with anemic lettuce doused in salad dressing. Salad in Morocco is a giant platter of chopped peppers, onions, cucumbers, beets, olives, tomatoes, carrots, corn, and either plain macaroni noodles or white rice. So bountiful and elaborate, these salads could have easily stood in for a full meal should the main entree have turned out to be a chicken tagine with the chicken pieces picked out (which is allegedly a somewhat common practice).

Best Laid Plans

Back to the trek. For months I had obsessed about the weather, not just in the Mount Toubkal area in general but into the specifics of temperature variance among increasing altitudes from Imlil all the way up to the summit. We packed for hot, cold, and somewhere in between; a difficult task with limited backpack space. I knew from my research that during the months of July and August, Mount Toubkal only sees an average of two days of rain with minimal precipitation in each occurrence. Our trek would be a hot and dry one.

Except that it wasn’t. While we sat at the rest point, enjoying a lunch of mint tea, salad, bread, and Loubia (an outrageously delicious white bean and tomato stew), the skies grew dark and thunder clapped loudly in the distance.

Moments after getting back onto the trail, the heavens ripped open, drenching our unprepared selves and and our gear. We trudged on, damning ourselves for not packing rain gear, until we came to a huge overhanging boulder which made for a great shelter to wait out the worst of the rain. The area also provided a rare opportunity for relieving oneself with a small amount of privacy; one in our group jumped at the chance. Afterward, they said it was possibly the most satisfying pee of their life due to the amazing view of the mountains and the valley that presents itself there; just a pro-tip to keep in mind should you someday find yourself halfway up Toubkal and in need of a wee.

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Waiting on the rain and pondering the beauty of the valley

We soldiered on, my anxiety growing now that the trail was a bit slick with fresh mud and wet rocks, until we reached the second stop. Sitting in brightly colored, mismatched, plastic chairs, sipping tea and watching hundreds of bleating goats being ushered down the steep hillsides by honest to god shepherds, I had a moment of euphoria. With no roads to reach this place, it occurred to me that to be privy to this scene you have to be willing to go through an awful lot. At a minimum, you have to fly to Marrakech, endure a death defying 90 minute drive, and then walk uphill over scree and boulders for four hours; it all felt very special and hard earned. We were a million miles from everything and I couldn’t imagine that, back in the real world, my coworkers were toiling away in front of computer screens while I was here, experiencing this.

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We look real enthused, right?
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A view from above the rest stop

Just Over that Hill

mor1The realization of how lucky I was to be there at all made the final push to the refuge more bearable (mentally anyway, physically we were just beginning the hardest part). With fatigue setting in and the altitude rapidly increasing, we had to take more breaks to catch our breath and rest our overworked thigh muscles. I had nearly lost hope of ever reaching the refuge and was growing increasingly weary of Abdul’s repeated promises that it was, “just over that hill,” when it finally appeared in the distance.

It was almost worse to have a visual of the refuge because now we knew just how far away it was. In the span of spotting it, to actually reaching it, an hour or more had passed. I felt like I was in one of those nightmares where your running as fast as you can but not actually getting anywhere. I couldn’t breathe and my legs were jelly, but there was literally no option to simply give up. There was only one way to the finish line, and that way was up…and up…and up some more.

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The rest of the way from this picture up to the actual building was absolute torture.
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Popcorn and cookies; these folks really know how to live

Sitting in the common area within the rustic refuge, we greedily stuffed handful after handful of popcorn into our dry mouths and relished each sip of our fresh mint tea while also attempting to stretch our now rock hard calves as best we could without actually having to stand up. Scattered about the room fellow hikers, bleary eyed and exhausted, quietly conversed in German, French, and Arabic. With little to do between completing the day’s hiking and receiving the evening meal, and too tired to really do anything at all, we sat just staring at the walls, as if in purgatory. We were covered in dirt, salt, and semi-wet clothing and the adrenaline of the day’s adventure was quickly losing its grip on us all.

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Purgatory, thy name is Refuge du Toubkal

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After a spirited meal of salad, bread, and vegetable soup (which was the best vegetable soup we’d ever had, but likely only because it warmed us down to our very tired and worn out souls), Abdul took us outside to show us where our journey would take us in the morning. Craning our necks skyward, we saw the tiny and impossibly vertical trail in the distance. We would walk three hours to the top, stay for 30 minutes, and walk two hours back down, followed by five additional hours back to Imlil. Nerves began to set in. One of our group had injured their knee on the way up and was concerned about making it to the top but not being able to make it back down; concerned about the prospect of 10 full hours of hiking, mostly downhill, without trekking poles to help soften the blow to their knee. I myself was anxious about the gravel and scree, we had seen enough of it on the way up to make me ask Abdul what the trail would be like on the last leg; I have some deep seated anxiety about going down steep hills comprised of loose gravel. “So the last part is really steep, huh? What’s the trail like, scree, or gravel, or…?” I asked, knowing I already knew the very unfortunate answer. “Yes,” Abdul said, bluntly, “all of that.” Perfect.

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Goats all over the place, doing typical goat stuff

A Waking Nightmare

Attempts to sleep that night were futile. By 8:30 pm some hikers, intending to hit the trail at 3:30 am to reach the summit in time to watch the sun rise, had already turned the lights out in our shared room. Rooms in the refuge sleep 16 people each, in eight tightly packed bunk beds. Being as quiet as possible and using the light of our phones, we rolled out sleeping bags and gathered necessities from our packs (like headphones, don’t be caught without them in a room full of 15 potential snorers). I listened to Noah and the Whale’s dreamy 2008 album Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, in a attempt to quiet my brain and my nerves.

But it was hot. Although I’d been told that the refuge gets cold all year round, and had packed appropriately for that probability, no one told me that a fellow hiker might close the only window and turn the room into a 16 seat sauna. We laid on top of our sleeping bags, frustrated in the stagnant hot air, getting increasingly and irrationally angry as each moment passed. Around midnight, as I finally began to drift off, a large bug unexpectedly dive-bombed my face, leading me to a forced rendition of the classic forehead-slap dance. Now 50% more sweaty and 100% wide awake, I settled back into an attempt to sleep once more. A while later, someone opened the door, showering us in blinding light from the hallway. I wanted to cry.

Rise and Shine, Decision Time

3:00 am came far too soon and brought with it a wave of hikers, rising to pack up and head out. At 3:50 am our own alarm sounded, not that we needed it; we certainly weren’t sleeping. It was decision time; head uphill to the summit, or back downhill to Imlil. Stressed about making the right decision, after breakfast we headed outside to talk it over.

Opening the front door of the refuge revealed something akin to a black hole. The complete silence and absence of all light was shocking to the senses. Uneasily, we fumbled with our phones to use as a light source and stepped out into the void.

The Milky Way was on full display and, so breathtaking a scene it was, our worries about whether or not we would reach the summit melted away almost instantly. We played with an app that labels constellations in real-time and marveled at our surroundings for a while until the sun started rising behind a mountain far in the distance.We had gone far enough and would return to Imlil with nothing but good memories (and for one of us, a swollen but not permanently damaged knee). As we started down the trail, to the soundtrack of shrieking goats, we promised we’d be back one day (with trekking poles).

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A crack of dawn farewell to the refuge
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Our fearless leader Abdul leading the way down
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In real life, I swear this area doesn’t look quite so post-apocalyptic 
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The steep grade of a climb never quite comes across in pictures
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Though it looks like we were done, we still had another 2 hours to go at this point

From here we stayed over night in an amazing guesthouse own by Mohamed, our tour operator, and were on our way the next day on a road trip to the Sahara and all the bits in between. But that, my friends, is another story for another day.

A BIG thanks to Mohamed, Abdul, Hassan, Driss, and our muleteer (whose name very unfortunately escapes me) for making this a truly amazing trip. If you’re interesting in taking on Toubkal yourself, I can’t recommend booking with Mohamed’s company, Trekking in Morocco, highly enough!

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A final picture of the beauty of the Atlas Mountains to entice you to go see them for yourself!
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