Our adventure loving friend Ross Taylor swapped his skis for climbing gear to tackle Morocco’s beautiful High Atlas Mountains…
To me the winter months usually mean skiing season, but I decided this was the year I was going to try something a little different. The opportunity arose to climb the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco and with my passion for both hillwalking and exotic places I jumped at it.
Getting to the High Atlas Mountains from the UK is arguably easier than getting to a French ski resort. Marrakech is a three and a half hour flight from Gatwick and Imlil (the village base for trekkers and mountaineers) is a ninety minute taxi ride from Marrakech. Porters and mules can be hired locally, but the mules won’t go above the snow line so you’ll need to plan your route carefully if you’re not going on an organised trip.
Day 1 – Imlil to Azib Tamsoult
After spending the night at the Hotel Soleil a friendly, basic but comfortable place (although the plumbing did make some interesting noises during the night!), we started our ascent towards the Azib Tamsoult refuge (2250m) and I was amazed by how changeable the landscape was – sandstone, granite, lush terraced pastures and scree slopes all fighting for space in the valley. After a steady day’s hike and taking in the gorgeous Moroccan scenery we reached the spacious refuge which was Islamic in décor with the tiling on the floor and columns making it look more like a mosque than any mountain hut I’d seen before.
Day 2 – Azib Tamsoult to Lepiny Refuge (via Aguelzim)
The next day started well and we climbed through scrub and stunted trees, and eventually left the vegetation behind as we hit the snow line. It got steeper and icier so we donned our helmets and crampons, and I tried to remember how to use an ice axe. As we climbed, the altitude started to become more of an issue and by lunchtime one member of our group actually started to suffer pretty badly.
The heat and the altitude slowed us down. By the time we got to the col (the lowest point on a mountain ridge) at around 3600m, we were two hours behind schedule. We had planned for the peak of Aguelzim itself but sadly time was against us. The view the other side of the col was spectacular, the High Atlas Mountains revealed in all their intimidating glory for the first time.
The descent was exhilarating, the slope south facing so the heat of the sun had melted most of the snow away leaving scree followed by dusty dry mud, which mercifully, we practically flew through.
Day 3 – Lepiny to Toubkal refuges (via Tizi n Tadat)
This was the day we were heading to the two refuges at the base of Toubkal (via Tizi n Tadat, 3800m). It was a much more technical trek so we donned helmets, crampons and harnesses from the outset, a ski pole in one hand and my axe in the other and set out for steep icy (and physically exhausting) climb. After a slightly scary ascent through an avalanche risk area we reached the top of Tizi n Tadat, where Nepal-style Buddhist prayer flags beautifully decorated the summit cairn.
Day 4 – Downtime
As a blizzard slowly started to creep in, the next day was dedicated to some much needed downtime – we used it to practice our winter skills rope work and ice axe arrest drills, all in 50mph gales and wind blown ice that nipped and stung any exposed skin.
Day 5 – The final destination Jbel Toubkal
This was the big day; the storm had passed and we started out early at 5.30am with crampons, a helmet and trusty ice axe in hand. The first 200m up the ridge was steep and hard going but when we’d climbed about 500m the slope opened out into a big bowl, with a sheer rock headwall rising in front of us – the first view of the summit.
After yet another steep climb (and dodging gusts of wind so strong we had to crouch to avoid toppling over) the steel pyramid structure marking the summit became clearer. I broke into a run, there was nobody there, I had the mountain to myself! After five steps I reverted to my plod, struggling for breath again. A few minutes later, I made it, grinning as widely as the panorama opened up in front of me. All the exercise I had done in the previous few weeks was worth it just for the final view – the Sahara to the south, Marrakech to the north and beautiful Moroccan mountain landscapes all around.
All words and photos by our friend Ross Taylor. Ross travelled with Pure Outdoor. Guy Wilson (the group leader) wrote a great article on the trip for Trek & Mountain magazine, which can be downloaded.