My wife Heidi wanted a trip south before Christmas, she preferred
a place with sun and warm weather. Easier said than done, unless you
travel very far, December is a month with somewhat unpredictable
weather even in Southern Europe.
We decided to try Marrakech in Morocco, and I immediately started
planning a trip to the Atlas and North Africa highpoint, Jebel Toubkal
at 4165 meter.
Our first day, December 2. was spent exploring the city and, in particular, the famous Souk market next to the unique and fascinating Djemaa el Fna, a city square second to none. I also made arrangement for my trip to start the next morning.
I started out from our hotel at 0900 with a taxi that had been booked the day before. A very friendly taxi driver with a somewhat limited English vocabulary. Immediately after leaving Marrakech, the snowcapped Atlas mountains became visible. The first part of the drive is across very dry and very flat terrain. Gradually, we get into the foothills passing a charming old village (I think the name is Moulay Brahim) on the opposite side of the river. Next, the road enters a pretty wild canyon in order to reach a more fertile and greener mountain valley higher up. The road through this canyon runs high above the canyon floor. Every curve is carefully marked by red and white barrier blocks and the road is wide enough that most oncoming traffic can pass without trouble.
Asni is the main village above the canyon, from here the views of the Atlas is certainly more impressive than the more distant views from Marrakech. In Asni, we leave the main highway as we turn left onto the smaller road that runs up the Mizane valley to the village of Imlil. We arrive there around 1030 and I immediately set out to buy a topographic map of the area. I looked for a map the day before in Marrakech, however, people I asked there all said that the place to get this map was in Imlil. After some initial confusion, a man with only one leg produces a map in scale 1:50.000 that covered the area I need. Unfortunately, he asks 150 Dirham, a horrible price for such a poor quality map. I do not really have time for a long session with bargaining and let him have the money knowing that his hotel "Etoile Toubkal" shall not receive any recommendations from this web-page.
The taxi driver wanted my return business quite badly, however I told him that I had little idea on a realistic pickup time and that I therefore preferred to take a local taxi back to Marrakech. He understood the logic, but refused to accept the situation. Finally, he came up with a suggestion that his uncle (also a taxi driver) would be waiting for me from 1400 the following day. The "one leg man" interrupted and said that I could not possibly be back before 1800. I agreed that a precise return time was difficult to estimate, but the taxi driver assured that his uncle would be perfectly happy to wait 6 hours. Such statements remind you that this is not Europe, that peoples time cost less here than most everywhere else.
The "one leg" wanted more business and claimed that it would be absolutely impossible to buy any food/meals at the refuge. My response was certainly a disappointment, as I walked across to the nearest store and bought two bread (relatively small, circular shaped, Morocco style bread). Again, a reminder of where I was, this store did not sell bread, however, the boy immediately ran across, secured himself two breads and could then profitable sell them to me for 3 Dirhams. I now had one liter of water, 4 chocolate bars (from Norway) and 2 breads, certainly enough to sustain a two day expedition.
I started hiking up the main street around 1045, quite a few onlookers, I guess there are few hikers at this time of year. First, several shops lining the street and the normal attempts from the locals to help out with a mule or a guide or provisions etc. Higher up, the road made a 180 degree right turn in order to ascend the hill while a clear trail continued straight ahead. The map was already hard to read, but I assumed rightly that this would be a good direction. The trail quickly started climbing and eventually connected back to the road that now connects Imlil with the village named Aroumd. This road traverses high above the gorge of the Mizane river and what certainly used to be a mule trail can now be used by cars (careful driving required).
I emerged onto the end of a flat valley floor entirely covered by rocks. The village called Aroumd (also sometimes Around) nicely on a moraine up to the left. The Atlas mountains draped in white snow seemingly blocking further access, rising steeply from the valley. I continued across the wasteland and decided to make a GPS waypoint as I took a few pictures before continuing. The trail was pretty obvious as it crossed the flat area diagonally and started climbing the hillside on the left hand side of the valley. This all made sense since the valley itself was making an arc left, thus this route would likely cut some distance as well as gaining elevation in a more gradual fashion.
I hiked by a small hut that probabely serves hikers in the season, as well as a water channel serving the village of Aroumd. No other hikers or local people on the trail today. I spotted a man with goats further downslope, and a bit later I observed some local people with a horse all the way down by the river. The trail cut nicely along the slope. The terrain is clearly very dry, but a few trees still dotted the landscape. In front the Atlas rise abruptly and the trees vanish. From a short distance I notice the last village, Sidi Chamharouch, hardly more than a bunch of primitive huts all built together among rocks and boulders.
Besides people climbing and trekking in the Atlas, there are also pilgrims coming here to Sidi Chamharouch and its marabout shrine, most likely with its origin dating back to before Islam.
Obviously, there were people asking if I needed help of any kind, perhaps a cup of tea? Politely, I told that these were all nice offers, however, I was just fine and really should continue my hike. People are friendly, they try hard to earn a few more Dirhams, but one cannot say that they are annoying. A few friendly words back and a smile showing that you appreciate their offer seems to do the trick. I thought about how two very different worlds more quickly than before meet and mix. These native Berber people are poor and until recently lived their lifes quite isolated. Now, I observed that several owned a cell phone. The rapid increase of tourism attracted by Jebel Toubkal will increasingly serve as a base for the local economy in this valley that serves the main trail. What with Berber villages that are located in a less attractive valley?
An unpleasant surprise, as I wanted to waypoint Sidi Chamharouch, I discovered that I had lost my GPS. It seems like I just left it behind down on the rocky, flat valley floor just beyond the village of Aroumd. Pretty stupid and costly, hopefully this will teach me a long lasting lesson about how to keep track of my GPS.
I continued my hike as the trail made its way up a broad ridge above the village before contouring left into the valley higher up. Somewhat to my surprise, I realized that this valley continued as a pretty big valley much higher than I had imagined. Slippery patches of ice started already down in Sidi Chamharouch, but the snow did not increase much as the trail curved around to the right and therefore faced more south. I noticed a small shelter built along the trail and the changing scenery as the trail climbed higher.
Looking back, I realized that the trail steady gained more elevation. Gradually, more snow but not a lot. It was fairly clear that the snow shoes I carried on my pack would not be needed. I had not seen or met a single hiker since I left Imlil. I wondered how many people would be at the refuge, only me? Most likley not, there were footprints in the snow that seemed pretty new. The trail (and valley) made a new bend left and the amount of snow increased somewhat. From here and higher the snow covered the landscape in a more continuous way. I noticed a structure higher up, either some very large boulders or the refuge. As I closed in, I saw more details of the Toubkal Refuge. Quite impressive, two large buildings, the last one less than 10 years old. The construction of this refuge must have provided a local boom in employment. How many hundreds of mule loads have been carried up?
I checked in and talked briefly to a couple of Berbers that seemed to serve as guardians of the hut. They showed me a bed upstairs, typical French refuge style. The hut was cold, I needed more clothing indoors than what had been required while walking. There were two other climbers, from Scotland, that just came down from a successful ascent. We chatted briefly and their report was encouraging. Good snow and crampon conditions all the way.
Later in the evening another 3 English climbers came down from the summit having spent a full day on the ascent, lack of acclimatization seemed to have been an issue. Then later, some 20 more people from Spain came up the trail in order to attempt the summit the following morning. A small fireplace in one corner of the room provided a slight feeling of being indoors. The rooms had white, cold walls with no decorations except for a board with cards from climbers and visitors. The local staff was more than happy to cook and serve me dinner, Berber soup plus a dish consisting of lamb, potato and vegetables, not unlike the Norwegian dish "Fårikål".
I talked to Omar from Sidi Chamharouch, he had never gone to school, had 4 children that now went to school in the village of Aroumd. He spoke some English, all picked up from tourists to Toubkal (The locals skip the "Jebel" when making reference to the mountain). He took the opportunity to learn some more and we went through the words of "foot, leg, knee, ear, nose" etc. It was overall a nice and interesting evening. Most people went to bed around 2100 in order to get enough sleep before their summit bid the next morning.
I woke up at 0600, pitch dark and most everybody still sleeping. A couple of members from the Spanish group had just started getting organized using their flashlights. I quickly dressed and collected what I needed, then went downstairs. I had 3/4 of the bread and the excess water after filling my one liter bottle.
Crampons on outside the hut and then starting up the steep slope right across the stream. The snow was good, the sun already hit the top part of the peaks right across the valley. The slope was not quite as steep as it had looked from the hut last night. A nice morning view looking out the valley I had hiked yesterday, the refuge below still in deep shadows. I quickly gained elevation and entered the valley above where one cannot look back down at the hut anymore. I realized that almost the entire climb would be in the shaddow, still my jacket had ended up on the pack almost immediately.
The terrain was now quite easy, then a steeper slope in order to gain the final ridge. Finally, I had the first rays of sunshine striking me. I was about 15 minutes short of the summit which could be seen across an open void. The U-shaped ridge looked pretty rugged, but it turned out that one could traverse at the very upper end of some snow slopes facing north-west.
Precisely 2:15 after starting out I was standing on the highest point of North Africa. No other climbers to be seen, a slight breeze and blue, sunny skies. The Atlas mountains is a fairly narrow range with a clear linear shape. Thus, the views of lower, rolling terrain towards the Sahara and the view of the flat plains around Marrakech is broken by the Atlas, a barrier separating the true interior from the somewhat more accessible territory to the north-west. Looking south-west, there are a couple of other peaks that exceeds 4000 meter, they must also be accessible from the refuge. I had a snack, the rest of my bread and some water, then just sitting on a flat rock near the summit marker reflecting on what a good day this was.
I started down after 30 minutes, the descent was easy and quick. I wondered when I would meet the Spaniards, but did not see them before entering the lower part of the hanging valley, just above the initial steeper slope up from the refuge. I was back down at the refuge at 1030, only one hour.
Packing my sleepingbag and snowshoes, paying and bidding farewell to the friendly staff, then heading down the valley at 1100. I paused partway down and took some last pictures up and down the valley, then continued down to the south facing area free of snow. A young man riding his mule with some supplies for the refuge came uphill. Further down, a large group from Spain. This coming week is a week full of holidays in Spain and many take the opportunity to go on a somewhat longer vacation.
Sidi Chamharouch comes into view, first far below, then more up front as I am met by Omar. He offers me tea or coke (I welcome a coke), then shows me some jewlery that he has for sale. I buy a silver arm chain for my wife. His price could also certainly be bargained down substantially, I tell him what I can pay (still clearly generous) and that he should use the money to further encourage and support the education of his children. After a very pleasant 30 minute break I continue the hike back down to Imlil, arriving there at 1345, 2:15 walking time from the refuge. The Atlas has been left behind, standing guard behind Aroumd and the Mizane valley. I carry good memories of friendly people, nice trails and a good ascent with me back to Norway.
The taxi was already waiting for me, the "one leg man" reappeared and expressed that my "way too early" return was due to his lack of knowledge about my physical condition. He suggested that I have a meal (give him some business) before departing. I politely declined and headed for the taxi. He then asked if his brother could get a (free) ride to Marrakech. I told him that this was OK as long as the taxi driver would not object. It makes sense to use this form of transportation as efficiently as possible.
Shortly after 1500, I was again back at my hotel from where I could still see the Atlas for a last time, then later in the evening a genuine Moroccoan dinner with my wife, celebrating what had been a very good weekend for her (relax in the sun) and me (climb Jebel Toubkal).
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