6 days independent trekking across High Atlas, ascending the highest peak in North Africa- Jebel Toubkal in winter.
Souks, Sahara Dunes, Beaches and hot Sun - those are the words that come to one's mind when planning their holiday to Morocco. Well for me it's more like snow, ice, Alpine peaks and high passes.
The plan was to spend 7 days in High Atlas doing something like Himalayan tea house trekking that you experience in Nepal. The dates 17-25th of March 2017.
The planned route was: Imlil-Refuge Toubkal-Jebel Toubkal-Azib Tamsoult-Tizi Mizik-Imlil-Oukaimden-Imsker-Asni.
The funny bit was from Refuge Toubkal to Azib Tamsoult via Aguelzim Mountain pass at 3,560m. It was after I booked my tickets I realized that March was a bit of a funny month to trek High Atlas, it's too early for the snow to melt while it's late enough to accumulate all the snow that fell during the winter. If that was not enough in itself just as was getting on a plane a forecast showed 45 cm of snow fall over two days including the day of summiting.
It also might be worth mentioning that it was my first time wielding an ice axe and the second time wearing crampons. Well there is nothing like learning by doing!
London - Imlil
After landing at Minara Airport I took an airport bus straight to Jama el Fna, with a plan to take a bus to Imlil via Asni from Sidi Mimoun Garden. Firstly the buses leave from a slightly different place than marked on a map. I guess it must have moved, as I remember buses leaving from a different spot 5 years ago.
After hanging out at Sidi Mimoun for about 15 minutes and asking around for Asni some boy turned up and took me to a place a few blocks away. The guy by the bus quickly quoted my 50 dihram to Imlil and asked to pay before I got on the bus, which did sound dodgy but I was way to weak and bargain after having to wake up at 2 am in London, so I just accepted and payed up.
After getting on the bus I had to wait for about half an hour for it to fill up like a can of sardines and off we were.
Upon arriving at Asni I was wondering if I had to pay again to transfer to Imlilm, but the bus man got me on a grand taxi (shared taxi) and slipped 10 dihram coin to the driver. in abot 1,5 hour I was in Imlil, right at the foot of High Atlas!
I stayed at a place called Dar Atlas, a small guesthouse across a stream from Imlil that I booked on Booking.com. Room with breakfast was only 75 dihram and I was the only one staying there.
As soon as I dropped out of a taxi I was surrounded by a bunch of scruffy-looking locals all claiming to be guides as well as being able to help with everything else. I quickly brushed them off and proceeded to my guesthouse.
On a way there are a few places renting equipment. I was going to trek for 4 days before coming back to Imlil and than onward to Asni, hence I decided to rent Ice Axe and crampons for 4 days - 300 dihram, and buy one walking pole for 100 dihram. With that I was all set for summit.
Imlil to Refuge Toubkal - 11km; from 1800m - 3200m. 6 hours.
This may seem like an easy day as it's only 11km. However, 1400m of altitude gain is no joke.
I left Imlil heading in direction of Arnoud which is the next village south and in the direction of Toubkal. It might be difficult to figure out the pass due to a bunch of local trails leading in all sorts of directions. I used Maps.ME app, but anyone will point you in the right direction.
It takes about 2 hours to reach Sidi Chamharouch which is an isolated market village that lives of the trekkers. It's a great place to break up and have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice - 15 dihram.
After Sidi Chamharouch it is another 6km and 900m of altitude gain. This is where it starts getting tough and I found myself moving slower and taking close to 4 hours to reach the refuge.
At about 3000m I hit snow line, the snow was fresh and powdery. I didn't need to put my crampons on and just followed the trail broken by a bunch of guys caring skies on their backs.
There are two refuges I have picked the further one, which was managed by French Alpine Club, and I heard it was better than the other.
I checked-in by about 2 pm. Unsurprisingly enough they didn't have my booking, but that wasn't a problem I got a bed in dormitory and a full board for about 300 dihram. Dormitory is the only option in winter, in summer it might be a better and cheaper idea to pitch a tent.
Here is my simple but nutritious lunch.
I spend the evening chatting with fellow trekkers, one of whom was a crazy English guy leaving in Austria, who once skied cross-country from Lake D'ifni and approached Toubkal from the other side where there is no trail. He also bivouacked on the ridge. He had his skies and was planning to ski right down the summit...
Refuge to Summit and back down to Imlil.
19km-1000m of altitude gain and 2400m of descent. You may a change of route here. I was planning to return to Imlil via a loop crossing Aguelzim pass at 3,560m and staying at Azib Tamsoult. But the guardians at the refuge said that that pass was no longer open due to recent snow, and frankly I was relieved as it looked scary on the map and I had no idea of what was on the other side of the pass.
As we were sitting in the common room and chatting with fellow trekkers from around the world a few expressed surprise when heard that I was on my own. I don't think you really need a guide on Toubkal. Firstly the trail to refuge is like a highway, secondly from refuge to the summit is kind of obvious, and you are starting with about 30 other people who are heading the same way, and there is always a GPS (I use Maps.Me on my mobile-free). I kind of felt some negative vibe from the guides as I was casually blabbing about their jobs being pretty much redundant. No harm was intended.
I woke up to have breakfast at 5am. As forecaster it snowed as hell all night. After breakfast we all cramponed-up and went for the summit.
The snow was knee-deep, but it was dry and powdery snow so didn't cause much trouble and wasn't snowballing my crampons.
15 minutes in I met an american guy with his guide descending, apparently he was struck down by altitude sickness, his sight went dark and he decided do descent. That was quite surprising as we were only at about 3300 or so, but my position always was - don't mess with altitude, it gets bad before it gets terrible, so don't let it get to that.
As you leave the refuge you have to cross a small gully and head straight up. I guess when the snow is off there is a trail, in winter you have to break your own trail every time fresh snow falls. I let a few people ahead for the glorious task of breaking the trail and humbly followed them on. In about an hour I noticed that I was letting more and more people through. Clearly I wasn't in my best shape or maybe just rusty and altitude didn't help either. A half way up a crazy British guy on skies taken me over, oh man that guy was like a machine.
I used layering system for closes. 1 woolly t-shirt, 2-synthetics, 1-soft shell and waterproof windbreaker. It was cold, but luckily for the most of the climb you are shielded from the wind. Couple of times I sat down to break up and took my gloves off, the fingers would freeze in a matter of minutes.
about 3,5 hours later I arrived at this coll which from below looks like a summit.
You get a brilliant view towards Anti Atlas and Sahara, and it's amazing to see where the desert ends and the snow begins.
The real summit is just over an hour away, here you are looking at it. It is much closer than it looks.
It'a steep ascent from the call to the summit and there is one point where you traverse along a narrow ledge that could be a bit hairy if it's iced and the trail is not broken. Luckily a lot of people walked before me and shredded the ice with their crampons. You do start feeling the altitude on that stretch, it didn't cause altitude sickness, but you feel yourself getting weaker and slower, having to break every 5 minutes or so.
From the top it only took me 2 hours to come down. The sun was high, the snow was getting soft and you just slid through the snow, sometimes following somebody else's trail and sometimes just making my own.
In hindsight I should have taken the crampons off. They are no good on soft snow, tent to get clogged up and actually make it far more dangerous since you loose all the grip.
I summited at 11 and was back down by 1pm.
After grabbing a quick lunch at the refuge I set off for the 11km descent back to Imlil.
It is a very pleasant walk down, the weather was perfect and without uphill struggle you really enjoy the views.
I managed to get back to Imlil just before 6pm. I gave back my crampons and ice axe two days earlier. Than grabbed an egg sandwich and went to my guesthouse, I was so exhausted that I couldn't even eat.
As if my day wasn't hard enough I decided to take short cut on a way to the guest house and got lost ended up scaling up a hill while burning my last fumes.
Imlil - Tizi Mizik - Tizi Oussen Gite - 8,8km. 750 m of altitude gain and loss.
The plan was to get over the Mizik pass and descent to a village in a valley that runs parallel to Imlil valley.
I was tired in the morning so I decided to have a lay in and start to trek at about 10:30. It was going to be a relatively quick and easy day.
There a few trails marked on a map leading to the Mizik pass. They all start at the end of Mizik village which is a village adjacent to Imlil. I picked the one that runs along the stream. In a hindsight it would probably be better to take the pass that traverses the mountain on the right hand-side.
The pass that runs along the stream wasn't as obvious and would appear and disappear on both sides of the stream. In short it made it a difficult task to navigate as I had to keep being on a lookout. Still it's kind of impossible to get lost as you see Tizi Mizik right in front of you.
One our into a hike I realized that I forgot to bring sunscreen with me. I saw some tourists ahead of me, I thought I would catch up with them once they take a break on the top and ask for some sunscreen for damage control.
It's a very steep climb over a short distance to Tizi Mizik, I believe it took me 3 hours to reach the pass.
Here is the view towards Imlil
and here towards Tizi Oussen
I savored the views, had a glass of freshly squeezed Orange Juice sold by entrepreneurial locals and seeded downhill totally forgetting about the sunscreen.
On my way down I was taken over by a group of Dutch trail runners...
In just under an hour I was down in the valley. I was fairly certain that there was a Gite (basic guesthouse) as there was market on the map and also the presence of other tourists looked reassuring.
Once I was down I could see the other side of Aguelzim pass, and it was clear while crossing it, as in my original plan, was a bad idea, it was steep and covered in heavy snow. Taking into account my limited experience with ice axe it was definetly not a place for "learning by doing".
Upon entering the village I have asked around for a Gite and was quickly approached by a man called Hasan, who was running a Gite on the left handside of the village. If I carried on walking along the main street I would have bumped into a more developed Gite just pass the "hole in a wall" shop. But I guess that Gite gets all the business anyway.
Hasan spoke only French, using my limited extent of the language we have quickly agreed on 200 dihram for bed, dinner and breakfast. After having an obligatory welcome tea I have gone to the other Gite where I have found the Dutch guys to ask for some sunscreen as the skin on my face started to really shrink...
Here is the best I had in Morocco
Tizi Oussen - Aguersional back to Imlil (not via Tizi Mizik), 15,5 km. 600 m of altitude gain and loss.
This was going to be an easy day. The only thing I had to do is to get over a semi-steep pass, descend into Imlil valley and come back to Imlil along the asphalt road.
I have woken up at about 7 am had a quick breakfast, payed my bill and was about to get on my way, when Hasan volunteered to take me to the start of the pass. Sure as hell, and well expected, before saying goodbye Hasan asked me for baksheesh. I thought it was uncalled for, but I decided that it's best to start my day with positive emotions and gave Hasan 20 dihram which made him really happy.
I descended from the village to a dirt track and headed north (towards Marrakesh) about 2,7 km until next village.
From this village (which also has a Gite) I turned right and started to climb up. The pass might not be as obvious but GPS and friendly locals will point you in the right direction.
At this point the sun rose high and my sun burn reminded about itself. Below is my before and after...
This was a bullet-proof solution!
I was just thinking how reckless and stupid I was yesterday when I didn't simply cover up my face.
I riched the top of the pass following a quite well walked pass at about 10 am (2 hours after the start).
From there it was all the way down. Very pleasant walk for about an hour until I riched this village.
This is where trail stops and a jeep track starts. I followed the jeep track in scorching heat and with hardly any cover for about 4 km until I riched the
asphalt road. I was gonna stop and grab a drink, but I really wanted to get home (or rather to a pharmacy) so decided to brave another 3 km to Imlil.
I reached Imlil at 1:30 pm
This day wasn't technically difficult and 9 out of 15 km where on a track/road, but I still felt very tired and I think sun burn played its part. I went to a pharmacy and bought all they had for "before" and "after".
Ilil to Oukaimden, 19 km, 1200 meters of vertical altitude gain.
I was quite looking forward to this day as this trek would take me away from Imlil and hopefully show the other side of Toubkal massif.
I left the house at 8:30 and started a steep climb to towards a cafe which I marked as a waypoint located on the motorable road to Tacheddirt.
It was only 3,3 km but involved 440 m of altitude gain. The trail ran across pine forest and crossed asphalt road several times, it got me to the cafe at about 10 am.
This the view looking back at Imlil.
The cafe was open, I grabbed a coke and sat down to rest and savor the views. I so one couple with a guide who appeared to be on a day trip and another guy roaming the mountains on his own. From the cafe I could see the range I had to cross to get to Oukaimden and it looked a bit intimidating...
I could have technically descended into the valley in front and ascent to Tamguist as I could clearly see the trail. However, I didn't have this trail on the map, also it seemed mode demanding than my original plan which was to follow asphalt road down to Ouanesekra and than switchback to Tamguist.
Cafe to Ouanesekra stretch is about 5,5 km and descend of 200 meters. I am not a big fan of asphalt roads of course, but I new that the most demanding climb was ahead. Luckily there were only 2 or 3 cars in the whole time. And the views of the other side of Toubkal were amazing!
I got to Ouanesekra no later than 11:30 and found a small shop. I was going to get myself a drink, but when the owner offered me Tajine I thought it was a good idea to break for lunch since I had enough time. I negotiated for 60 dihram and sat down on a terrace overlooking the village.
The owner told me that it was about 3-4 hours to Oukaimden which matched my expectations, my plan was to be there no later than 5 pm.
It took way over an hour for Tajine to arrive, which I didn't expect, but in hindsight it wasn't a restaurant and the lady of the house must have had to cook it from scratch.
I payed 90 dihram for the meal including Tajine, Coke and Tea which I didn't ask for, felt like was ripped of somewhere, but probably not by much. It was nice to have some hot food in belly.
From there I had about 1 km to Tamguist on a relatively flat path and than the fun would start. To reach the top of the pass I had to climb 700 vertical meters over 2,8 km, im my books anything which is more than 150m/1km is seriously steep.
On a way to Tamguist I met a local guy waking back from Imlil who was very surprised to hear I was on my own and of course offered me his services as a guide. To which I replied that I have GPS for a guide and added Je ne suis pas un turist, je suis voyageur to make my point!
The pass is not immediately obvious, but with a few fingers pointed by locals and GPS it's quite easy to find. More over this is the only marked trail in Atlas mountains! At least the only one I found. See this pink marking? Not the obvious choice of color. They probably marked the trail by walking from Oukaimden, you could see it as the markings were all on the same side of the rocks. In fact the only way I could spot any of these markings was by looking back :-). Still beggars can't be choosers.
The climb itself wasn't as hard as I expected. I guess I must have shaped up over the last 6 days and was moving up the hill like a machine.
2,5 hours later I have finally reached this pass at 3,000 meters above sea level.
Once I was over the pass I knew it was a job done. Mostly because from there it was all the way down and because there was motorable road leading from the pass down. My guess they are building that road to connect to Tamguist and other villages on that side.
I choose to take a shortcut following this time blue markings!
It took slightly longer than an hour to get to Oukaimden, probably could make it faster if I did follow the road.
A few words about Oukaimden. This place is located at an altitude of 2700 m and is Africa's the highest and most famous ski resort!
When I entered it looked really weird. One hand you could see abandoned ancient villages and shepherds' huts on the other newly build hotels and ski lifts. It was made even weirder by the fact that the season was just over and the place was abandoned. Well at least it will be easy to get a room, right?
There is a French Alpine Club refuge where I was planning to stay the night. To my surprise they told me they were full! Apparently they had a group from British army, Moroccan police and a school group. The hotel next door was closed for the off-season. This is just what I needed after 10 hours on the trail barely dragging my feet.
On the way to CAF refuge I saw a hotel called Chez JUJU that claimed to be open all year round, it looked like it was my only option.
It was open, but there was no one except for some very sleepy workers. It turned out that the cheapest, most basic room there was 900 dihram (€90), and of course cash only.
Before leaving Marrakesh I have withdrawn just enough money for my journey + an extra day. This was the end of my journey and by spending less than I expected I ended up with about 1000 dihram, just enough to pay for the night and get a bus ride back to Marrakesh. Breakfast was 200 dihram extra so that was out of the question.
Somehow I think the boys binned my registration form and split the money as soon as I left.
I don't have a picture of the room, but it was not Hilton I can tell you that much! There were 2 beds one single and one double, and the fun part is that there was no door for the toilet, i mean it had a curtain for door! I would get it if it was a single room, but it was made for 3 people: 1 shitting and 2 listening?
I ate my last nuts and the final Snickers and was off to bed.
Oukaimden-Imsker-Asni-Marrakesh. 19 km, 1500 meters of descent.
This was going to be a cake walk. 20 km all the way down...
Of course not having a dinner or breakfast didn't make me any stronger.
I had left at about 8 am, was beautiful day. The only disruption was the British army team, they left just before me and I have caught up with them really quickly.
The plan was to descent down to Imsker, have some lunch and be off to Asni.
At first I started steep ascent cutting the corners and crossing a jeep road several times. I was following GPS route, but soon found some markings, this time green and decided to give it a try.
Moving down was definitely much easier, but wasn't hell of a lot faster. Shortly I noticed that the markings were deviating me from the GPS trail, but I wasn't too worried as there wasn't anywhere I could go that would take me totally off track. It was the same valley after all.
I figured out where I had to go as I could see a village on my and worked out that if I get to a field it should connect to a village somehow. and Surely it did, I was down at the first village (halfway between Oukaimden and Imsker) just before the Brits, could see them up on the hill.
It's a much more demanding descent to Imsker that I imagined and definitely was not the cake walk. There are a few steep descents, villages and point where you have to walk along the mountain stream. It's amazing how quickly scenery changes; I left that morning in a freezing cold, and now I was walking under the scorching sun.
It took me 5 hours to descent 11 km to Imsker. Much slower than 3 hours I though it would take. I lost the British army team at Imsker where they were picked up. They had 3 guides, yes - there were 15 of them but still how come you need more than 1 guide to lead a group? Well I don't wanna take anyone's job away...
Getting a lunch in Imsker clearly wasn't gonna work. As soon as I entered the village all the local kids swarmed around me. I was a local celebrity! I got through Imsker without spotting a shop which meant the lunch was delayed till Marrakesh.
From Imsker to Asni it's about 7,6 km, where first 2,6 are on a trail and the rest is on a proper road. where the trail end the fun ends. I was happy to get make the road though, I just wanted the journey to be complete and I could see Asni stretching below.
Once IO got to the Asno bus stop, which was more like a bus stretch I was swarmed by a bunch of entrepreneurial bums who really wanted to help me to get on a bus. The advantage of departing a destination is that you can act as if you know it. they were delighted at my donation of a walking pole, and kept asking if there was anything else I wanted to trade. That included swapping my waterproof coat, softshell and even fake Oakley shades! I return I was offered a lot of "silver" junk. I did fell like an Indian being cheated by Columbus and his conquistadors back in 16th century.
The real cost for a bus was 15 dihram and 20 for a grand taxi. So I was ripped of by a factor of two which I rated as acceptable. In less than an hour I was in Marrakesh. All the buzz and hustle of the city, it was so different from serendipity of the mountains...