Laura and I huddled ourselves in front of the only fire in the refuge, leaving behind the raging winds and freezing temperatures outside on the mountain. It was a moment of tranquility after our epic and eventful experience climbing Mount Toubkal.
Moments later, the peace and tranquility of the refuge was shattered. From outside the refuge, the doors to our right crashed open with a fellow climber laid out on a stretcher. They were hurriedly brought into the warmth of the refuge, and we recognised him immediately.
A couple of hours earlier, as we had made our final descent to the refuge from Jebel Toubkal peak, we had encountered him in the valley. He was perched in the middle of the valley, a small black dot on a crisp white canvas.
It was quite the anomaly in the epic scene in front of us. As we got closer, our guide approached him to query why he was sitting in the valley all alone. A minute later we had our answer:
“Broken leg – wait there.”
Laura and I let out another sigh after a long two days, it didn’t really surprise us.
The fact that someone had broken their leg climbing Mount Toubkal in winter wasn’t shocking. With strong winds and plunging temperatures, it was inevitable that there would be casualties that day.
The weather was so bad, that climbing Mt Toubkal was paused for a few days after our climb. This was enable the bad weather to pass. Like all good stories, it had begun in far calmer conditions.
The Beginnings Of Our Mount Toubkal Climb
We’d arrived in Imlil two days previously, a popular starting point for climbing Mount Toubkal. It’s a small village with very little to do or see, not that that bothered us! We took a wander around the village, enjoying the mountain air and soaking up the atmosphere.
After exploring Imlil, we decided to head back to our accommodation to rest up and get an early night. We wanted to be ready for our Mount Toubkal climb over the coming 2 days.
Climbing Mount Toubkal Day 1
The next morning we began our Mount Toubkal climb. Our guide estimated this was a 4 – 5 hour trek to the refuge where we would spend the night before our summit day.
The journey began in the dusty orange hills surrounding Imlil, where the path was well worn and clear. We left Imlil behind, and walked towards the snow covered mountains in the distance.
It was a far cry from our sapa trekking experience in Vietnam, or our volcanic Rinjani trekking adventure in Indonesia. The lush, warm climates of Asia swapped for cold and epic landscape of Morocco. Every now and then, a lush green tree would punctuate the landscape. They were a welcome contrast to the orange and brown boulders!
As we trekked, we would encounter mountain goats scaling the almost vertical cliffs with ease. Any crack or fault in the rock was exploited by these nimble creatures!
The first day was simple enough and very enjoyable. There isn’t much to say except that the views, especially in winter, are outstanding. This day felt like a nice stroll through some beautiful scenery. We even had time to stop at a makeshift ‘cafe’ and sip a cold Fanta and take in the views.
It was an absolute delight, and a world away from what was to hit us on day two of our Mount Toubkal climb. This was also the day we broke through the snow line, from then on our journey would be snow covered!
We arrived at the refuge. There was only one room with a fire, so we huddled together with the handful of other hardy souls who’d decided to go trekking Morocco in winter. Even an EPIC sunset couldn’t lighten the feelings of trepidation. That night, we slept fitfully in our cold dormitory, anxious about the climb ahead.
Mount Toubkal Climb Day 2
Morning came, and it was time to make our ascent to Mount Toubkal summit.
Mt 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. This is especially true given the amount of injuries and, sadly, deaths on the mountain.
Only a few months prior, a woman had fallen from the summit and lost her life, information we only 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 of the refuge. Our crampons were clamped to our boots, and with walking sticks and ice axes in hand, we trudged outside into the burgeoning morning mountain light.
To our left, the scale of the challenge was clear to us. As we stood there, we could make out another group which had already begun climbing Mount Toubkal. They 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, any attempt to climb Mount Toubkal in February is far harder than a summer attempt. 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.
Scaling The Snow Covered Valley
We began by climbing up the valley above our refuge, zigzagging left and right which made progress slow and demoralising. 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? This certainly was a unique Atlas mountains trekking experience, but 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 said it was some of the worst he had seen when the mountain hadn’t been closed to climb. This news, as you can imagine, didn’t fill us with confidence!
Mount Toubkal Ridge Traverse
After a couple of hours, we reached the top of the valley. We stopped 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.
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 scaled the ridge, the group that had set off before us had turned back. They didn’t want to summit given the conditions. We huddled for a few moments before deciding to continue.
As we reached the top, we got our first glimpse of Mount Toubkal summit, and the strong winds at the summit. 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.
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. This was a great challenge, and exactly the moments that make us travel to far flung places. These were the experiences that shape us.
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.
Mount Toubkal Summit
After a couple of minutes resting, 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, our Toubkal trek was made even harder. We had to take a detour along the edge of the ridge. This was 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.
After we passed this tricky section, it was a simple 5 minute trek to the summit. We pushed through the driving winds and cold and made it to the summit!
You can’t really get a sense of how cold and windy it was up there, but in the photo above I am literally holding onto the summit to stop being blown over.
Looking back, and reading other people’s experiences climbing Mount Toubkal, 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 summit, without any other trekkers. It was freezing and windy, and we tried to take in as much of the view as possible.
Conquering Mount Toubkal
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.
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. He was worried we would be blown over the edge.
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.
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.
The journey back to the refuge took us a slightly different route, but we ended up back in the valley we began in for our final descent. It was this valley we encountered the man with the broken leg.
Reflections On Our Adventure
As we sat in the refuge a few hours later, warming ourselves by the fire, we watched the doctor work on the man with the broken leg
We were completely drained, physically and emotionally. As the doctor energetically asked him a series of questions about his condition, it became clear there were only two options. Option 1 was rescue helicopter, or option 2 was somehow to get this man to the nearest village of Imlil on a stretcher. This would be a four hour trek at the best of times, never mind 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 woman who fell in the October prior to our ascent. Since our trek, there have been numerous other deaths on the mountain. Climbing Mount Toubkal in winter is not a decision to be taken lightly, and should be taken with a guide. 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, climbing Mount Toubkal. It had 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