There was no question I’d fall in love with Morocco. The dusty, ochre earth; the warm, frothy mint tea poured from high into tiny glasses; the soulful call to prayer echoing over the medina; the Moorish architecture that creates texture so beautifully through light and shadow. But after days navigating labyrinthine passages and smoky souks in Marrakech, bartering for rugs and lamps among colourful mounds of spices, I needed some fresh air. Where better than North Africa’s highest mountain?
At 4,167m, Jebel Toubkal is the pinnacle of the High Atlas mountain range. It’s also generally considered more of a hike than a climb – a moderately difficult summit. In summer, when it’s all rock and scree, perhaps that’s true. But in the middle of winter, you may as well be on a different planet.
I choose a local company to guide me on a two-day ascent. Their driver picks me up from my riad in Marrakech at breakfast and waits patiently as I hastily fold and jam pancakes into my mouth, dipping them in a generous, sticky mountain of amlou (an intoxicating blend of argan oil, almond butter and honey).
We rumble out of the old city; a vibrant diorama of women selling sugared dates under bronzed archways, a small boy pole-vaulting over knots of cacti with a bamboo stick, scattered shavings of orange peel, bright against the russet dirt. Driving higher, through earth-coloured Berber villages, grubby little lambs graze among clusters of olive trees. Rocky valleys start to run with shallow rivers and bare mountains grow caps of snow, bunches of dry tussocks blooming across their surface.
I meet my guide, Hassan, in Imlil. Located around 90 minutes from Marrakech, Imlil is a small village that originally traded in apples, walnuts and cherries but, due to its position in the foothills of the Atlas, is now largely bolstered by the mountain tourism trade. I hire crampons and an ice-axe and, looking at the snowy peaks ahead, feel grateful I’ve got waterproof pants.
We set off through the terraced village, ducking under rugs hanging from low barren branches, skirting herds of bleating goats and leather-sandalled children straddling low cobblestone walls. Crossing the valley floor, over vast plains of river rock, we walk with local women saddled on mules who are headed up to the shrine of Sidi Chamharouch – to pray for a husband, I’m told.
At the snowline, vendors sell fresh orange juice and mint tea, bottles of Coke and Fanta shoved into mounds of snow under rocky outcrops, a makeshift Esky. The afternoon sun has made slush of the snow on the track, so we slip and slide, grinding crampon blade against exposed rock in an uncomfortable shriek until the snow gets deeper and the trail decidedly less at.
Base camp for the night is at 3,200m. There are two refugios built here, but the older one is favoured by guides in winter – it’s warmer. I thaw out next to the row of drying boots by the fire and chat with fellow hikers. A German couple describes tethering themselves together to keep from losing one another in the clouds, ice-axes swung in hard to avoid being blown off the mountain.
I temper my nerves and peek out the frost- framed window at the sky, before racing outside in my socks for a better look. The view into the valley is a layered trifle of colours – pale lavender, peach, watermelon pink, corn flower blue. It’s one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen.
After some restless sleep, and a 4am breakfast of black coffee and porridge, we step into the darkness. The incline is immediately steep and an assault on the legs from a deep dusting of fresh snow overnight. I see the occasional twinkle of a headlamp further up, but not much else. The lack of oxygen at this altitude makes breathing an effort, and I can feel the subtle press of a headache. But soon the slow burn of dawn illuminates the low ridges of the sky, and the snow takes on an iridescent, lilac glow. The effect is ethereal, otherworldly and I sink onto my knees, taking it in.
Hassan runs a tight ship, trailblazing the vertical path ahead of me into the sky. He knows the rising sun will melt the snow, making for a dangerous summit, so we go fast. Three hours in, legs screaming, we rest before an exposed ridgeline that’s barely a foot wide; hugged on one side by a wall of ice, and the other, a sheer drop. Huddled behind a shark-toothed boulder to escape the wind, I pathetically chew through a frozen granola bar. I’m terrified.
While I have climbed enough mountains to know it kind of comes with the territory, heights have never been my thing. Hassan intuitively grabs my hand (the sign of a very good guide) and we edge along the ridge until it widens and plateaus out.
From here, it’s a short journey to the wrought-iron pyramid ahead; a shining beacon that marks the highest and most visible peak in the Atlas. I indelicately plonk myself down, catch my breath and, overwhelmed with emotion, feel tears forming. The skies are glossy, bright and reveal views of Toubkal’s steely-blue sister peaks below, all the way to the burnt- orange dunes of the Sahara Desert in the distance. A quiet swell of wind kicks up fat, fluffy snow flakes, twirling, sparkling, then disappearing into the air. It’s so beautiful.
I am exhausted, in the best kind of way, but proud, accomplished, grateful.
My time in the High Atlas is a welcome change of pace; life is a little slower, a little quieter. But on the drive back to Marrakech, I see the walls of the medina rise before me and I feel a rush of adrenaline at the thought of going back into the fray. Besides, there’s a set of tea glasses in there with my name on them.