Hike Morocco's Mount Toubkal

Taking on the Atlas Mountains' highest peak

“Yallah! Yallah!” Sabir calls out.

Breaktime is over, time to get a move on. We tighten our water bottles lids and sling our packs over our shoulders.

We’ve been hiking for 3 hours and we’re feeling good. All in we expect to hike for 5 to 6 hours today, covering 12.5km and ascending ~1500m to the refuge that sits at ~3200m at the base of Mount Toubkal.

As we start to climb again we’re still feeling uncertain about having a guide. 24 hours ago we were really excited to be doing the hike by ourselves, unguided. This excitement to self guide was actually a bit of a twist, because 48 hours prior we thought that we’d do the hike through a tour company that would arrange all the food, hire a mule to carry our bags and a guide to lead us up the mountain!

At the time, there were a number of factors at play that made us think we would do the hike through a tour company:

  1. From the blogs we read, the hike sounded like it would be really difficult
  2. We're climbing the mountain in March, which is still considered winter in the Atlas mountains and in turn increases the possibility of challenging weather
  3. Again from the blogs we read, the hike sounded remote
  4. We don’t speak the local language
  5. As we planned the trip we had a general nervousness and uncertainty about every aspect of Morocco, again highly influenced by nearly every blog post we read.
  6. There was a gruesome terrorist attack in December against two hikers on this trail.

When we arrived in Imlil, the starting point for the hike, nearly all of our fears and concerns disappeared. I’m not exactly sure why they all disappeared so quickly. Maybe it was the unexpected sun and warmth, maybe it was the Riad’s mint tea or maybe we were feeling confident as a result of actually getting a petit taxi to use the meter instead of gouging us with some absurd flat rate (props to Grace Osler, our travel partner on this trip!). Whatever it was, we had convinced ourselves that a guide would not be needed! Woohoo!

Is that so…

As we left the Riad to go rent crampons, Hussain, the owner of the Riad, upon hearing our plans to self guide, casually let us know that since the attack in December there were police control points along the trail and we would not be permitted to pass without a guide.

The sad reality for us travelling in Morocco is that we trust no one. This again was heavily influenced by the blog posts we had read in preparation for the trip and as well from a few experiences with Moroccan cab drivers. As a side note, after spending 2 weeks in Morocco, I think that feeling is only somewhat justified - we met many people here that were very nice to us and that we don’t think were trying to scam us in any way!

We decided that we needed to validate this new information because it sounded like a great way to try and sell a guide's services. The first person we checked this information with is Ibrahim, the man who rented us crampons. He re-confirmed the story, but we didn't really trust his account either because he subsequently tried to sell us guide services. We needed someone else to confirm the story. We recalled passing a police check point at the entrance of the town.

Who better to ask than the Police? They are the ones enforcing this new rule at their checkpoints. Fortunately for us, Grace speaks French very well and was able to ask the Police whether this was in fact a new law. The Police gave us the same story, with an extra detail - the guide just has to be a local person. The police officer then started to make an attempt to sell us a guide, but caught himself part way and simply bid us farewell.

We still didn’t trust that this “guide” requirement was real but we also didn’t like the idea of making it part way up the mountain only to get turned back by the police.

To the Refuge

This brings us back to Sabir, “Yallah”ing us up the mountain (Yallah = “come on/hurry up”). We hired a guide… skipped the mules, hence why we’re carrying our own packs and figured we could arrange our own food and shelter at the refuge.

on route to toubkal

Hiking to the refuge is not particularly challenging (technically speaking) as there is a clear trail that is very well marked and not at all remote. There are 4 - 5 huts dotting the path up to the refuge all selling drinks, food and souvenirs (I’m not sure who buys the souvenirs…)

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We make it to the refuge at 3pm. In Morocco they are very generous with their mint tea, whenever you arrive somewhere mint tea is served immediately and the refuge is no exception. As we sit outside the refuge sipping our tea we can't help but feel great as we take in the snow capped peaks, the sound of the brook nearby and feel the sun’s warmth on our backs.

arriving at the refuge

There is a fairly steady stream of hikers making their way to refuge as we overlook the valley. One set of hikers is a couple from France who encountered the requirement to hire a guide with even more skepticism than us, as they tried to climb without a guide. When they hit the first checkpoint the story was confirmed, they were turned back to find a guide.

To the Summit

We leave the refuge around 6am to ascend to the peak. It is dark and cold as we step outside to put our crampons on. The rest of the way up will involve climbing up a snow/ice covered slope.

With our headlights on we start our ascent. As we look up the mountain ahead of us we see the headlights of the groups of hikers that left before us. It is as though the trail is marked with lights showing us the way.

Lighting the way

Stars still fill the sky as we weave our way up but don’t quite give enough light to climb without our headlights on. The only sound is the crunch and squeak of snow and ice under our crampons and hiking poles. We are all thankful to have crampons - the ascent would have been really difficult without them.

Daylight breaks

As we near the peak, the wind picks up and the temperature drops. Our bags are feeling quite light as we are wearing all our layers. I am happy that I had packed long underwear, they had not seen much action on the trip previously but they earned their spot in my bag on this hike!

At the peak, the thin air becomes more noticeable. Our pace is feeling like a crawl but if we go any faster we would quickly be gasping for breath.

toubkal view

“Say tagine!” We all smile as we pose at the top of Toubkal for a group photo. We made it! The worst is behind us and gravity will be on our side.

Its cold at the top, but I'm enjoying the view!

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Who doesn’t enjoy the view from the top of a mountain. Toubkal is not the highest mountain in Africa, but at 4,167m it lays claim to “North Africa’s” tallest peak.

The descent back to Imlil was tougher than expected and we are all relieved and happy to be back at our Riad for a nice warm shower and to enjoy the customary mint tea.

almost home!