I’d never hiked a mountain. I’d pranced around the English countryside of Epping Forest and run away from ponies on Dartmoor, but I’d never come close to hiking a mountain.
So it’s fair to say I was completely out of my comfort zone when I took on Mount Toubkal in Morocco.
Our local guide challenged me with the phrase: “Walk with your mind, not your muscles” which sounds biologically impossible (because it is) but the poetry of it starts to ring true once you embark on this epic climb.
It was quite the challenge, but here’s why you should consider it.
To the Atlas Mountains
Despite the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, most people would associate Morocco with wandering around the souks, camel rides through the desert and enjoying copious amounts of mint tea. While the latter is true, Mount Toubkal is a peak that isn’t so well known amongst non-mountaineers, but stands at an impressive 4,167 metres (13,671 ft) with incredible views of rural Morocco.
We ventured on a condensed version of Intrepid’s Mount Toubkal Trek trip, which took us just two days from Aroumd and back again, rather than the usual three. Why? Well, a group of staff members from the UK and Marrakech office were taking on the Toubkal challenge to raise money for The Intrepid Foundation project, Education For All – an organisation which provides girls from rural areas of Morocco with access to education by building and running boarding houses.
And so, with boundless trepidation and many packs of blister plasters, 12 of us headed out of the city to tackle the highest peak in North Africa.
On our first day we were dropped at the mountain village of Imlil, from there we took a short walk to Aroumd, where we settled in for the night at a traditional mountain gite. Getting to know each other over tagine, we talked as the sun set behind the mountains that surrounded us. We couldn’t quite see the peak, but we knew that the next few days would be challenging.
Our guide, Youssef, prepped us the day of the hike, advising us that this would be a long journey to the summit and not to take it lightly. Already a little apprehensive, I hoped that mistakenly pouring olive oil over my porridge instead of honey on the morning we set off wouldn’t be a bad omen, but I tried to cast that aside and concentrate on getting to base camp.
Zigzagging through the beautiful Ait Mizane Valley, we made our way on a six-hour hike, stopping every now and then to snap a picture and take in the beauty of it all. The paths leading us there were rocky and steep, but the high peaks and scattered waterfalls made it a breathtakingly scenic hike. We had to be mindful not to take too much time dawdling, as Youssef would yell “yallah yallah” as a polite way of telling us to hurry up, a phrase which we’ve since all adopted into everyday use.
Passing Berber families and mules along the way, I enjoyed every minute. It was so peaceful up in the hills and every time I looked around I couldn’t quite believe the scale of the mountains around me. “You’re climbing a mountain”, I kept reminding myself and for a cause that I felt truly passionate about.
As we got closer to the refuge we could just make out the peak of Mount Toubkal. What worried me most was the steep incline from the bottom. With no real path and just a mass of stones stacked on top of one another, I really doubted that I’d be able to make it. Taking things one step at time we arrived at the refuge and ate plenty of food to restore our energy. Acclimatising to the altitude, we blissfully spent the rest of the afternoon playing Uno, charades and attempting to resolve a number of riddles, temporarily forgetting about what the next day had in store.
All 12 of us shared a dorm the night before the hike to summit, sleeping in the base camp refuge. With just a few hours sleep to rely on, we woke up at 5am to start the climb. I was incredibly thankful for the early start as the first ascent isn’t quite as daunting when seen in total darkness! With the help of our walking poles we clambered over rocks and journeyed upwards.
I was a little nervous about altitude sickness so tried to keep my head down and concentrate on my pace. “One, two, one, two” I repeated in my head as we trekked that steep leg of the climb. When I looked around I was in complete awe of the views around us. I wasn’t sure how much longer we had to hike but the concentration occupied me as I followed my feet. Youssef had trekked the mountain many times before and could sense when the group were flagging, so we would take a little pit stop for a snack and some water.
Every time we stopped I felt more and more confident that we could do it. It was going well, and although a steep climb, it was completely doable and made worthwhile each time I stopped to look behind and see how far we’d come.
After some time we stopped again and Youssef announced that we were at 4,000 metres above sea level, just one last little push and we would be there! The adrenaline was kicking in and I felt I could almost run to the top. Walking past other trekkers smiling and reassuring us that we weren’t too far from the summit was incredibly encouraging and before we knew it, there we were, right at the top of Mount Toubkal.
Although a little cloudy, every time the clouds parted, we flocked to see the spectacular views of the Atlas Mountains. A huge sense of achievement washed over us and we stayed at the peak for a little while to take it all in.
A trek to remember
While the walk back down was as much of a challenge as the walk up, we were able to watch the mountains and think about what an incredible trip it had been.
A highlight for me was the sense of togetherness that comes with travelling as a group. That’s not just the sharing of tissues, hand sanitizer and bites of cereal bars, but how we helped each other when we had a little doubt. We kept reminding each other why we were doing this and the difference we were making for the girls at Education For All.
First mountain climbed maybe, but hopefully the first of many.
Want to experience the magic of Toubkal for yourself? Check out Intrepid Travel’s Morocco hiking trip.
Education For All was established to help girls from remote, poor villages in the High Atlas region of Morocco receive an education. Living in these rural areas, access to education, particularly for girls, is not a given. Donations will go towards covering the costs of daily meals, transportation home at weekends and for holidays, access to educational materials, books and computers, the running of the boarding house and other essential items. Intrepid Group will DOUBLE whatever you give, so together we’ll be making twice the impact. To donate, click here.
(Image credits: Lauren Ellis x4, Sam Briggs, Lauren Ellis.)