A journey up Morocco’s highest peak, Toubkal mountain.
We fled Marrakesh less than 24 hours after we arrived. The Grand Taxi’s station wasn’t very difficult to find : a Petit Taxi led us there for less than 1$. From there we wanted to reach Imlil, the small village which is the departure point for the hike which leads up to the highest summit of Morocco, the Toubkal.
The station was at the border between Marrakesh and the countryside: that was a kind of waste ground where some people were selling fruits and vegetables. The smell of gasoline was filled the air. A dozen of old sand-colored Mercedes cars were parked in the lot. Their drivers were chitchatting together in the shadow of the fruit stall. Before my foot hit the ground, they literally teleported themselves next to us, asking “Where are you going ?” After a small bargain we were driving east, in the direction of the mountains lost in the mist.
The counter of the antique Mercedes displayed 962,421km, but didn’t move anymore. The hand of Fatima was hanging from the rear-view mirror, dancing to the rhythm of the bends in the road. The desert-like landscape of Marrakesh’s surroundings quickly became mountainous, and the road tapered thinner as it again and again moved through the switchbacks. Sometimes, we could see mules and their drivers on the side of the road and some old mopeds, but they all disappeared in a blink of an eye. The closer we got to Imlil the worst the road became, and it soon turned into a dusty track covered with potholes.
Watch the film from the climb
Imlil is a small village which is perched 5,500 feet above the sea. New buildings stand next to traditional ones. The chain of the High-Atlas where the second highest peak of Africa rises -the Toubkal- stretches away from north to south in the east part of Morocco, running parallel with the Atlantic coastline. We met Luis there, the Spanish guy who would walk with us during a part of the trek.
The dawn was close and the air fresh when we woke up. The village seemed like a ghost city in the surrounding fog. We met up with Luis, and drank tea in order to wake and warm us up before starting our hike. Then, it was only a matter of following the track that was winding through the mountain. The fog was covering everything: it was impossible to see something further than 50 feet away. We could hear the noise of a river roaring down the mountain but its bed was lost in the mist.
After some time we crossed hundreds of meters along the bottom of a valley, dug by a glacier long ago. The stones were rolling under our shoes, and the mist began to clear, allowing the landscape to appear. We could finally catch a glimpse of the peaks which surrounded us: high and torn summits covered by snow here and there. Then, we took the small path near a sign that said “You are now entering in the Natural Park of the Toubkal.”
At this moment a Moroccan perched on a mule and its muleteer overtook us: “You should ride a mule like me, it’s easier !” laughed the man on the mule. We hadn’t wanted take a guide or mules to carry our stuffs: it was too expensive for something we could do ourselves. Though it was true that we would be able to enjoy the landscape better if we just had a small backpack to carry, but the rewards at the end would not be the same. It would have been like doing something half way: hiking is not just about walking, carrying your gear is part of the equation.
The more we were walking, the more the landscape became harsh and steep. The green from Imlil and its surroundings slowly gave way to a land of rocks. The sky was bright blue and only some swift summer clouds were passing by as a small breeze was blew.
Natalia, Luis and I took a short break, but sat most of the time without any words. While we were trying to get our breath back we stared into the mountains around us: we could see some flocks of sheep on the other side of the valley, some green tufts here and there.
During one of theses breaks, the muleteer and the guy perched on the mule appeared. How the hell did we overtake them!?! When they passed for the second time in front of us, the man on the mule searched in one of the bags hanging down on the side of the mule, dug out an orange, and threw it to me with a big smile on his face.
After three or four hours walking, a small village came up from nowhere at the end of a small cirque. The small constructions had the same color as the stones which surrounded it, and blended into the landscape. Only the red mosque conspicuously rose out the rocks. Before reaching it we had to cross a little bridge that straddled a bubbling icy-blue river. Some people seemed to live there, three hours walking from the closest village.
While we stopped to drink some water, one of the villagers approached us. It was surreal talking in the middle of the mountains of Morocco about the French presidential elections that occurred few days before. As the conversation went well, he asked us if we had something to barter with him.
We didn’t know it but we only were at the half way point. As we were moving forward, we were meeting more and more hikers who were going back to Imlil : each meeting was a good excuse to stop and exchange few words. Theses exchanges always had the same themes: “Is the refuge still far from here?” or “Did you make it until the summit?”
The answer about the summit never changed: “Too cold, too windy. It wasn’t possible…”
One thing is really surprising but delighting about hiking: it’s like the people who are walking on the same path seem to all be part of the same small village. Everybody is saying hello to the people coming by, they may exchange a few words and smile to each other. It’s very possible –well, it’s the truth- that if they were bumping into each other in a street in a city they would neither talk to each other nor even smile. Maybe it’s the feeling of sharing something in common that bring hikers together, maybe it’s a deep need to speak when lost in nature… The thing is, it’s really enjoyable to share a little time with complete strangers, and it is never easier than when you’ll walking on a hiking path.
Occidental people lost this ability not so long ago, when the majority of people moved to bigger cities, when the means of communication began becoming more developed and more accessible. We started being taught to fear strangers and to create our own little world separate from the rest of society — but perhaps this isn’t deliberate…
Luis and Natalia, who were a bit ahead of me on the path, stopped to talk with two people who were about 50 years old. They were Danish. The man was sitting on a rock, his hair was long and shaggy and he seemed to be a little groggy. I quickly understood why when he showed us his hands.
“He made it alone until the summit without gloves, without any adequate gear. This is frostbite. He has some on his legs too,” explained his wife who hadn’t joined him in his adventure and had waited for him in the refuge.
The evocation of the possibility of frostbite and the hard blowing wind began to viciously dig its way in my head: if we aren’t very careful and try to reach the summit with our poor gear there was a chance…
We were following the valley that was going up to the refuge and at the end of each bend, at the bottom of each slope, I was hopping to see the little house that will mean the end of our first stage. We were close to 10,000ft high, and our 33lbs bags seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. The last hour of the ascent was the more intense. Eventually, after a final bend, the end of the valley appeared. A waterway was crossing a green meadow that was stretching in front of us as far as the two buildings of the refuge. They were encircled between the two huge mountains that were facing each other. It was like the final end of the world.
It was at the same time beautiful and frightening.
The whistling of some rare birds that were passing by and the rolling noise of the rocks under our shoes were the only things to break the silence. I was no longer feeling the pain in my legs, as we finally arrived at the end of our first stage, 10,521ft above the sea.
After an excellent shower, we sat in the common room of the refuge where we learned more about what happened on the mountain in the previous days. We heard stories of all the failed attempts to reach the summit of the Toubkal.
We empathized with a couple of young French hikers who had been trying for two days to make the summit. They tried twice today without success. The first time, they left around 6 or 7 in the morning with a man and his 6 years old son. The wind was blowing hard and was lifting the dust and the sand from the ground and blowing it in their eyes, ears, and in every fold of their clothes. Several times, they told us, they had had to catch hold of the 6 years old boy to keep him from being taken away by a gust of wind. They eventually decided to turn back and return to the refuge.
The more we continued hearing about failed summit attempts the more my will to climb the mountain waned Only one person made it this today: the Danish we met on the road with the frostbite. He eventually came staggering back into the refuge, groggy and half frozen.
When the dinner was over, I went outside to smoke a cigarette under the crepuscular orange sky. There wasn’t any wind, not even a cloud. “It’s time to go,” joked one of the guides who were outside with me. Another answered, “It’s a good omen for tomorrow.” I wasn’t sure I should be so happy about it.
When I woke up the following morning, the first thing I did was look out the window. It was sunny, not windy at all. We took our breakfast in the refuge, which was now empty as every hiker had already departed to go back to Imlil. We made our decision: today we will climb to the roof of Morocco!
We began the ascent following the advice given to us by the French guy we met the night before. The path was easy to see. My thoughts were focused on the summit, but sometimes a blink of fear encouraged me to go back down.
We only had one day to climb the 3,200ft that stood between the top of Toubkal and us. Soon enough, we began passing hikers going back to the refuge: their eyes were shining and they were smiling as they spoke about the summit. Once again, these numerous discussions allowed us to take additional breaks: the lack of oxygen stole our strength and we found ourselves constantly short of breath.
From the beginning we crossed little snow patches. The more we climbed the more numerous they became, reminding us that winter and cold weren’t so far away. Some of those patches were creating small waterfalls, little rivers winding and hiding under the ice. From time to time, some birds flew over us: they seemed to joke about our slowness, our tiredness, our determination as we made our attempt for the summit. A desert of stones, of steep cliffs, and far peaks encircled us. And, as always, a slope that seemed to go up the azure of the sky was standing before us.
Why am I doing this? Why do we try so hard to go up? Why do we torture ourselves to get to the top of a mountain?
The pleasure is found in the first answer that came into my mind: it’s more than the goal, it is the path that is satisfying, that building of experience.
What is true for this hike is also true too for most of events, journeys, or quests we face in life. Consecration sought over and over again is a snare. According to the legend, the Holy Grail has never been found. Nevertheless, the knights who searched decades for it covered a tremendous amount of area, both physical and spiritual. On the road, long and perilous, they enriched themselves, they met people, they grew up. They confronted trials they would never have thought about if they had stayed at the Round Table drinking barley beer. This quest was nothing but a pretext to occupy their passion, a chimera to chase, a pursuit for a legacy. In my case, this summit was also a chimera, and I knew unconsciously that another goal would pick me up and lead me forward after I made it there.
When we finally saw the sign that marked the top of this mountain, it was a great relief. We did it; I did it. The last half hour was the more exhausting, physically, and mentally than all the others. Like the day before, each slope shot right up into the sky, promising that a summit lied beyond. Several times I really thought I was really close, but it was in vain, as the slope kept rising upwards. I was walking at the speed of a disabled grandmother — curved under the effort — and I was breathing like I was running a marathon. Every five minutes, despite the mental effort I was making otherwise and the group effect that was carrying me on, I had to stop to catch my breath. But I was only looking in the direction of the summit. Nobody was talking anymore, only grimaces were exchanged, a kind of tensed smile between two breaths. The idea of giving up was fighting my will to finish, until we finally made it to the top.
After a bend the hideous steel pyramid that marked the highest point appeared. Despite my tiredness, burning muscles, and short breath, I sped up. After a scream of relief or joy we were at 13,671ft, in peace.
There was only a small breeze, and we sat down and ate. Some small birds wanted to steal our food. From one side we could see the Marrakesh plain and from the other the view was all mountains and valleys, running and rolling until a great expanse of desert. Few words were exchanged, but lots of exhausted smiles were passed between us. We relished the deafening silence that surrounded us.
After a dozen minutes of meditation and napping, we began the long hike down. In the last quarter we met some hikers who were walking up with huge bags on their shoulders. “Are you going to camp up there ?” I asked them stupidly. “No, we are going down by paragliding,” one of them answered. Finally, us humans could return the taunts of the birds.
*Translated from French by the author.