The refuge, however, was humble and cold. With only one room with a fire, we huddled together with the handful of other hardy souls who’d decided to take on Mount Toubkal in winter. Even an EPIC sunset couldn’t lighten the mood, and that night we slept fitfully in our cold dormitory, anxious about the climb ahead.
Morning came, and it was time to make our final ascent to the peak of Mount Toubkal. Toubkal is the tallest peak in North Africa, and the third highest in Africa, towering over the continent at 4,167m (13,671ft). It is now the highest peak we have conquered in our travels, and it’s fair to say it was also the toughest and most dangerous, especially given the amount of injuries and, sadly, deaths on the mountain.
Only a few months prior, a girl had fallen from the summit and lost her life, information we found out AFTER our climb. We were under no illusions as to the challenge that lay ahead of us, especially given this was a winter ascent, through the snow and ice. The route ahead reminded us of our snow and ice covered ascent of Volcan Villarrica in Chile, another incredibly tough climb that we’ve taken on.
On went every layer of clothing we had, we slipped into our walking boots and trudged out to the entrance where we clamped on our crampons, grabbed our walking sticks and ice axes, and trudged outside into the burgeoning morning mountain light. To our left, the scale of our challenge was clear to us, and we could make out a group which had set off 45 minutes earlier, mere black specks on the white canvas of Toubkal. Can you spot them?
It was awe inspiring. And daunting.
Quite obviously, climbing Mount Toubkal in February is far harder than when it is warmer. The ascent, coupled with snow, ice, winds and freezing temperatures makes it all the more difficult. It is not a decision to be taken lightly.
We began by climbing up the valley above our refuge, zigzagging left and right which made progress slow and demoralising. After an hour into our climb, a howling gale would sweep down the valley every couple of minutes, whipping up snow and ice and pummelling us with glee. On many occasions our only option was to crumple down onto our knees, turn our backs to the wind and snow, and wait it out.
What had we let ourselves in for? As it turns out, this was nothing compared to what lay ahead.
The next couple of hours were monotonous and arduous, as we slowly made our way up through the valley. The routine was always the same, trudge upwards and left a few steps, turn and climb upwards and right for a few more steps, huddle down as the wind whipped up. Repeat again and again. Sounds great doesn’t it?
Our guide suggested it was some of the worst he had seen when the mountain hadn’t been closed to climb. Again, we should not have been on that mountain on that day. But look how calm it appeared!
After a couple of hours, we reached the top of the valley, stopping for a couple of minutes to eat a banana and some chocolate. Ahead of us, however, lay the real challenge, a steep 30 minute climb up to the ridge above us, and then an hour long trek along the ridge to the summit. If we were to turn back, it would be now. Sensible Laura and Barry would have turned back, but whilst it had been tough going, we were unaware of the hazardous conditions at the top of the ridge. We would find out soon enough, and by that point it would be too late to turn back.
And so onwards we went, climbing the steep side of the ridge. As we reached the top, we got our first glimpse of the summit, and our first hit of winds upwards of 100 km/h. It was at this point that I (Barry) began to really struggle with the altitude, constantly unable to catch my breath. I struggled on for 20 minutes before collapsing down behind a boulder on the ridge, desperate just to catch my breath and take a break from the incessant winds.
It’s in these moments that your mind finds absolute clarity. Up on that ridge, as the 100 km/h winds howled around us and the temperature plummeted to -28°C with wind chill, a million things ran through my head. I was dizzy, cold and there was no real options for me to back out now. We were now on the ridge, ahead of us were both the summit and our route back down the mountain.
There was literally no turning back, we had committed to the summit. Despite the conditions and the fear, in our minds it was clear that these were the adventures we lived for, these were the great challenges and moments that make us travel to far flung places. These were the experiences that shaped us. On that ridge, with Laura huddled with me, we were together. We were experiencing a real adventure, something we would never forget. Something we could tell people about and be proud to say we achieved. In spite of everything, these moments were why we travel the world.
Looking back at it, and reading people’s experiences of the summit climb, it seems like we had some of the very worst conditions imaginable. Even our guide (the coolest, laid back man in the world) was beginning to get agitated and worried about the conditions. If there is one thing we’ve learnt from our travels, it’s that guides NEVER get worried. Or at least never let you know. And yet, here we were, alone on the ridge, huddled behind a boulder, without any other trekkers, freezing and windy, as I waited to catch my breath.
After a couple of minutes, my head cleared, and my breathing returned to normal. I grabbed a (frozen) snickers bar, sucked some water from my now frozen water bottle, and we set off again, this time for the peak.
As the ridge was still covered in snow, we had to take a detour along the edge of the ridge, a 1 foot wide ledge with the rocky side of the ridge to one side, and a sheer drop the valley below. At this point we were both scared, no shame in admitting that. If we had known that we would have had to take this part of the mountain on, we would not have gone up. It was a case of putting one foot in front of the other, and slowly but surely work our way along the ridge.
It was at this point that something completely unexpected occurred, but that’s another story for another time. For now, we were focused on reaching the peak, a mere 100m in front of us.
Reaching the peak was an emotional moment for us. The sky was a deep blue, and the horizon was punctured by sharp, jagged forays into the sky from the deep orange and white mountains below and all around us. It was an epic scene, and to look at it you would think the most serene moment. We crumpled down onto the summit, our guide telling us not to get up unless he was next us, his fear of us falling off clear to us.
We huddled in together for 30 seconds, taking in the view as much as we could. But it was time to go. It was too cold and too windy to stay there any longer than that, with temperatures as low as -28°C and wind speeds of 100 km/h, staying there any longer and the cold and fatigue would have set in. We needed to go.
As we left the peak, we felt relief to be making our way back down. We had conquered North Africa’s highest peak in some of the worst conditions, and we lived to tell the tale. As we sat in the refuge a few hours later, we watched the doctor work on the man with the broken leg, it was at this moment we felt truly drained, physically and emotionally. As the doctor energetically asked him a series of questions, first about his condition and then about his insurance situation, it became clear the options were either call a helicopter to the refuge (the insurance option) or, somehow, get this guy to the nearest village of Imlil on a stretcher which was a four hour trek at the best of times, nevermind having to carry someone down. The options looked bleak.
Our guide looked on quizzically, before turning to us:
“At least he is alive, a few months ago a girl fell off the top of the mountain.”
We later verified this and found the story of this poor girl who fell in the October prior to our ascent. Trekking Mount Toubkal in winter is not a decision to be taken lightly, and our advice would be to monitor the weather conditions carefully before beginning the trek.
Reflecting back on the climb now, it’s a shame the weather was so bad that we weren’t able to fully enjoy the views. But what we lacked in views we make up in memories of an epic challenge that we’re proud to say we achieved. We’d attempted, and succeeded, a winter ascent of Mount Toubkal, easily one of the biggest physical challenges we’ve faced, and certainly the most proud to say we achieved.
The Hike Details & How To Arrange A Trip
SUMMARY: The starting point for the trek, Imlil village, is only a 2 hour drive from Marrakech (and Marrakech airport) therefore you could skip Marrakech altogether by arranging to be picked up from the airport and taken directly to Imlil village. You could even do all of this over a long weekend from the UK or Europe if you don’t have a lot of time!
LOCATION: Atlas Mountains, Morocco
TOUR COMPANY: Atlas Trek Shop
Day 1: Pick up from Marrakech medina and transfer to Imlil village – overnight in Dar Adrar Hotel
Day 2: Trek to base camp of Mt Toubkal – overnight in Toubkal Base Camp Refuge
Day 3: Ascent of Mt Toubkal – overnight in a Toubkal Base Camp Refuge
Day 4: Trek back down to Imlil and overnight in Dar Adrar Hotel
Day 5: Trek around local area/villages then transfer back to Marrakesh
ESTIMATED COST: £260 GBP (approx $390) USD for full tour including accommodation, meals, guide and transport to/from Marrakesh, but check tour company website for latest prices.