On the rooftop of North Africa
The highest peak in North Africa appears to be a well-kept secret amongst trekking enthusiasts, making it all the more enticing for those who are willing to walk through the breathtaking scenery of the Ait Mizan Valley to reach Mt Toubkal Base Camp.
Intrepid’s James Ingham tackled the climb in winter, when it’s a more icy and dicey affair, but even the frosty conditions didn’t detract from his Morocco adventure…
“I’ve witnessed my fair share of stunning mountain vistas, but standing at the summit of Mount Toubkal was a surreal experience.
It was December, the air was bitterly cold and the Atlas Mountains were capped with snow, but to the east I had superb views of the Sahara, the world’s largest hot desert. Looking to the west, I could make out the hazy outline of the Atlantic Coast and the ocean beyond. It felt like I was surveying all of Africa.
This was my first trip to Morocco, and I was here for two reasons: winter sun and peak bagging. Although just a 3-hour flight from the UK, Marrakech enjoys balmy daytime temperatures which average above 20°C in winter and at 4,167m, Mount Toubkal in the nearby Atlas Mountain range is the highest peak in North Africa. I’d already summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and trekked to Everest and Annapurna base camps, and I liked the idea of adding another one to the list. Joining a guided tour meant that I could experience the capital and conquer the mountain within a week.
After a day exploring Marrakech, with its sprawling souks, exotic smells and calls to prayer blaring out across the city, my group set off on a drive across the plains towards the mountains. From the village of Imlil it was a short walk to our base for the night, a simple gite d’étape furnished in the traditional Berber style with little more than mattresses on the floor. The next morning, after loading our baggage and provisions on the mules that would accompany us on our journey, we began our 5-hour trek to the Toubkal base camp at Neltner.
The trail zigzagged steeply and we hit the snowline before we reached Base Camp, making it necessary to don our crampons. On arrival, we were briefed on the snow survival skills that we might need for the journey ahead – involving our ice axes and rope ladders. There was plenty of time to acclimatise and practice using the equipment the following day, when we had the chance to summit Toubkal’s sister peak, Ouanoukrim. Sitting at over 4,088m, the ascent was certainly no stroll in the park, but there were incredible views of Toubkal and other snow-capped peaks to enjoy when we reached the top.
After another night at our stone refuge, where we huddled around a single, small fireplace in an effort to keep warm (the temperature dropped to a chilly sub-zero overnight), we began our ascent of Toubkal. This is the goal of many walkers who visit the High Atlas and although not a technically difficult climb, the final section of the 5-hour ascent is steep and involves some scrambling. While winter conditions certainly made the challenge greater, it also added a sense of adventure and made it that much more rewarding: the air was crisp and clear, and upon summiting the peak the views of the snow-capped Mid-Atlas range and the desert beyond were absolutely breathtaking.
Peak bagging complete, we spent the next day enjoying one last foray into the snow as we headed into the tight gorge of the Tizi Ouanoums Pass. Far from being an anti-climax, it was an enjoyable walk – about 5 hours there and back – and offered a superb view down the southern side of the mountain to the shimmering, emerald green glacial Lac D’Ifni below. It was a perfect finale to a demanding, but exhilarating trek to the rooftop of North Africa.”
Ready to tour Morocco and tackle Mt Toubkal? Check out Intrepid’s exciting new Mt Toubkal Trek, 8 days from Marrakech commencing in May 2014.
Photo: James Ingham at Mt Toubkal, Morocco