Long weekend in Morocco
In August 2017 I flew down to Morocco for a long weekend of trekking in the Atlas Mountains. My goal was to summit Mount Toubkal, at 4,167m it’s the highest mountain in Morocco and North Africa.
I started in the city of Marrakesh and then we drove early the next morning the 70km towards Imlil where the paved road ends. It’s possible to get a 4×4 a little further but beyond that – on foot or mules are the only way to travel.
We only had a few days here so it would be a straight trek though the Imlil valley. With more time it’s possible to take a more scenic route or summit the slightly smaller Ouanoukrim.
The two nights I had in the Atlas meant there was only time for one summit attempt of Toubkal. If conditions proved unfavourable on summit day I’d get no higher than base camp.
Ascent to base camp
The plan for the day was to start at the village of Imlil (1740m) and walk up to base camp – the mountain refuges at 3206m.
09:00 – The ascent out of Imlil started early, before the day got too hot. The luggage and gear was left in Imlil with the support crew, they’d carry it up on mules and overtake us en-route.
The aim was to reach base camp around mid-afternoon, hopefully the support crew would have got there first and set up camp.
09:30 – After leaving Imlil we passed the Berber village of Armoud, at 1900m above sea level it’s the highest village in the valley. We’d stay in a guest house here the following night on our way back down the mountain.
10:00 – Taking a break, looking back down the valley across a floodplain.
11:00 – At 2,300m we passed the shrine at Sidi Chamharouch, it attracts pilgrims from around Morocco. I wasn’t allowed to visit the shrine itself because only Muslims are allowed to cross the stone bridge.
13:41 – Stopping for lunch at one of the small mountain shops, there are several on the trail to the refuges selling water and fresh orange juice. The green pipes carry fresh water from a mountain stream to cool the drinks.
14:10 – First view of the refuges! Still about 30 minutes away from camp, the support crew with the mules overtook us about an hour back.
14:45 – Approaching base camp. Since August is one of the hottest parts of the year in Morocco we were camping in tents rather than staying in one of the refuges.
15:45 – The two mountain refuges. The closer one is the Refuge Toubkal Les Mouflons (Neltner Hut) which was built in the 1930’s. At the back is the newer Refuge du Toubkal.
Many of the people camping near the refuges were local Moroccans. The international groups like ourselves and the French team (camped next to us in the red tents) were further away where it was quieter and we had room for our entire crew.
05:00 – The next day we started in the dark to attempt the summit. With clear skies and an almost full moon we turned off our torches shortly after leaving camp. It also meant we didn’t have to see how much further we had to climb 😛
07:40 – At the top of the ridge I finally got my first glimpse of the Toubkal summit, the pyramid marker is visible just right of centre.
08:06 – Made it! About an hour after sunrise we got to the summit pyramid.
08:09 – Looking south east off the summit. The air is full of sand being blown in from the Sahara desert, on clear days you can see it from here.
08:10 – We made really good time to the summit, most of the other climbers out of base camp are still behind us and won’t arrive for another hour or so.
08:35 – The northern edge of the summit.
I spent about half an hour at the summit before it was time to start descent. We’d climbed the usual South route but took a quick poll and elected to come down via the North Col. It’s a little trickier but a lot more dramatic, and a lot more fun as it turned out!
08:42 – Starting descent from the summit. It’ll take us about 2 and a half hours to get back to base camp.
09:00 – Looking back up the mountain. Glad we didn’t have to ascend this way, there’s a lot more scree and loose rock than on the other route. Although it makes the walk down a lot of fun with plenty of sliding 😀
09:20 – On the way down we discovered scraps of metal. The guide said that a plane came down here in the 1960’s and scattered wreckage around the whole area. Much of it is still there, engine parts glinting in the sunlight on the higher ridges.
10:53 – Almost back at base camp. I’m glad we started early, even up here in the mountains the mercury was in the mid 20’s now. In the lower parts of Morocco like Marrakesh it was pushing 40 celsius.
The light scar on the left is the trail back to Imlil.
descent to aroumd
Quick stop at base camp for lunch, the support crew were starting to break down camp. This afternoon we were to walk back down to Aroumd for the night before heading back to Marrakesh tomorrow.
12:50 – Mules heading up the mountain. The trail is so steep and narrow that the standard practice when you see mules is to get on the inside of the track, if necessary scrambling up the valley sides. If one of the animals bolted it can easily knock you into a ravine.
13:17 – Looking up the valley sides. It’s pretty awesome to realise a few hours before I’d climbed higher than anything I could see from the trail.
14:49 – Taking 5 in Sidi Chamharouch. Fresh orange juice is exactly what I need right now, and luckily there’s yet another stall here selling it.
15:21 – Almost back in Armoud. The clouds mean the walk down has been a lot cooler than yesterdays climb.
16:31 – The view of the Imlil valley from the terrace of our guest house, we made it here at last. Looking forward to sleeping on something flat, last night I kept waking up at the bottom of the tent.
We said goodbye to the porters who carried all our gear and tents up, they mostly live here in Aroumd or in Imlil. Our two guides and cook will stay with us overnight.
back to Imlil
Reasonably ‘easy’ morning planned today, a 210m descent into Imlil. Followed by an hour long drive back to Marrakesh and the heat and smells of the city.
The overnight halt – Gite Tourtatine in Armoud. Not entirely sure why there’s a whole door laying on the terrace.
08:37 – Walking back towards Imlil.
the red city
The rest of my final full day in Morocco was spent in Marrakesh. One of the former Imperial cities, it’s home to over 950,000 people.
I spent most of the afternoon running around the city centre with my camera, and then bargaining in the souks.
A row of caleches wait for customers near the Koutoubia Mosque.
Jemaa el-Fnaa square. The main square in Marrakesh, it’s one of the busiest in Africa. There was a national holiday (Throne Day) in Morocco shortly before I visited so the whole of Marrakesh was covered in these flags.
Exploring the souks of Marrakesh is the first time I’ve got lost and genuinely enjoyed the experience. I spent a few hours walking through the honeycomb of alleyways and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.
It also turns out I’m quite good at haggling, I bought way too much and then had to fit it in my kitbag for the flight home (ideally without breaking anything).
Koutoubia Mosque is the largest in Marrakesh, it was built in the 12 century and stands at 70m tall.
Leaving the square I came across one of the towers in the Medina wall, at 20km long it surrounds the old parts of Marrakesh.
When I went back later in the evening the dynamic of the square had changed. It had taken on more of a carnival atmosphere with the snake charmers being replaced by entertainers and performers.
I later found the evenings are the busiest time of day in Jemaa el-Fnaa.
Even at 10pm the souks were as busy as they had been during the day, selling everything from pots to spices to clothes. As it was getting late the storeholders were a lot more agreeable to haggling.