“Hey Allison, what do you know about Jbel Toubkal?”
She whipped out her notebook of bucket list outdoor ventures in Morocco. “It’s the second most prominent mountain in Africa and the most prominent in North Africa. Are you thinking about doing it?”
“I kinda am.”
Fast forward a month and I’m sitting down having serious conversations with my roommates about who wanted to come and what they need to prepare for the hike. It was going to require two days of hiking with almost guaranteed altitude sickness, hiring a guide and gear, staying in a refuge for the night, and personal challenges we hadn’t even thought of yet. For some of the girls, this would be their first or second big hike. After talking, many trips to Decathalon were made to acquire backpacks and hiking boots.
Early April 2019, my roommates Allison, Mia, Ronnie, Olivia, and I hiked Jbel Toubkal in the Middle Atlas range. The journey to get there, however, was not as we expected. We scoured blogs and forums to find out what the weather was supposed to be, what gear to bring, what food would be offered at the refuge, and if we would need a guide.
About having a guide: In winter 2017, two Scandinavian girls were victims of an ISIS attack in the Middle Atlas Range at their campsite. After this tragedy, Morocco tightened up their security as a way to A) protect their tourists and B) protect their tourism economy. So we were some of the first tourist hikers required to bring a guide with us up the mountain, which we were unsure about in our initial research.
Our itinerary looked like:
- April 4: take a 6-hour train from Meknés to Marrakech, the closest city to where we needed to be. That night we planned to sleep in a hostel in the Marrakech medina.
- April 5: We planned to catch a bus from Marrakech to Imlil, the town at the base of Jbel Toubkal. We planned to begin hiking that day and reach Refuge Toubkal Les Mouflons before dark.
- April 6: Summit Toubkal and descend the mountain in one day, take a bus back to Marrakech, sleep deeply.
- April 7: Take the train home to Meknés and celebrate my birthday with more deep sleep (and cake).
So, that was the plan. And we stuck to the plan as well as you can without having anything booked ahead of time, or a guide, or any of the snow gear we were going to need. But c’est la vie, we went anyways.
Everything was going to plan until April 5th when we woke up at 3 am in Marrakech and realized we didn’t know which bus to take to Imlil or where the bus depot was. The hostel owner on duty pointed us in the right direction with only semi-confusing directions. We hopped on the bus, munched our breakfasts of oranges and peanut butter crackers, and asked the bus driver if they would take us to Imlil. “No!” and directed us off the bus a few stops later.
We waited on the side of the road for the next bus…for two hours. Eventually, a 12 passenger van pulled up and told us they would take us there. We shrugged. We had no other options and no trustworthy cell-service. So we hopped in, backpacks were thrown in the back. We watched the city turn into windy mountains as we approached the Atlas Range. And oh boy, all we saw was fresh snow. We were in for a treat that we already knew we weren’t properly prepared for.
When people go to stay in Morocco, often they do not pack for snow. Usually, sundresses and linen suffice, but not when trekking in the mountains! So our hiking boots and leggings were layered with every baggy pair of pants we owned along with all of our warm top layers.
Once we parked in Imlil at around 9 am, our driver ushered us down the road. “This man, Hassan, is your guide,” he told us retracing his route.
We paid Hassan the standard fee and he showed us around the main street of gear vendors. Shirts waved in the wind toting victorious messages of “I hiked Jbel Toubkal” or “I heart Morocco” as light snowflakes fell around us. My stomach was queasy with anticipation.
He made sure we each had a trekking pole and crampons for when the path grew caked with ice. We stopped in a cafe for a bathroom break and filled our thermoses with mint tea, and then we were off. I believe it must have been every few meters we stopped to adjust layers and sunscreen as we passed through the low-hanging cloud layer. He waited patiently for us at first and then gave up. Hassan bounded ahead of us with the spry energy of a teenager in the body of a man who must have been in his late 50s.
I tried to Strava the hike, which was a fool’s mission. Every time I looked at our distance covered, I cringed. For how badly my body was starting to hurt, and for only being about a sixth through the day’s hiking, it was not encouraging. I live in Colorado normally, so the idea of altitude sickness didn’t worry me. But oh baby, it should have.
The sun came out and we could all feel sunburns threatening us even through our layers. But when we stopped for lunch at about the halfway point, the clouds rolled it. Snowy slush began to fall from above, launched into our faces by an unrelenting wind.
Upwards we pushed. Every kilometer or so, we would reach checkpoints where we had to present our passports and stretch while Hassan chatted with his buddies. We all needed the break.
After 7 hours of hiking, a structure appeared through the snow flurries, one that we all knew meant warmth. The refuge! This put a pep in our steps as we waded through almost knee levels of snow. Clumsily, we made our way into the warmth and began to thaw. We paid our night’s dues and were shown our beds, where we would be sharing a room with approximately twenty other people. It was almost cozy!
So finally it was dinner time, something I’d been imagining for the last hour of my hike. But when the perfectly cooked chicken and the vegetable plate was set in front of me, I only managed to put down one or two carrots and a piece of bread. “Man, I’m stuffed.”
I look back and want to scream “LIES! SEE THE ALTITUDE SICKNESS SIGNS AND EAT!” But alas, I cannot time travel. So that night I went to bed sandwiched between two snorers and wished for five more blankets.
During our hike, Allison kept a detailed vlog. Here’s her recap of day 1:
When the 4 am wake up call came, I was more than ready…and nauseous. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it, crew,” I told my friends. I was feeling weak and shaky and seriously under-nourished. I put down a few pieces of toast and some tea for breakfast and decided to proceed. By 5 am, everyone in the refuge was out in the snow gearing up with crampons and their heavy snow gear.
The groups began up the mountainside in a straight line marked by headlamps. We switchbacked against the mountain face for hours, sometimes being blown to the ground by the wind. My roommates and I became separated in the end, but there was no fear of getting lost, the only place we could go was up.
Once I reached the saddle, I sat down and cried. The wind was blowing shards of ice through my clothes and I couldn’t feel any of my body. One guide came up to me and gave me his gloves and sunglasses, which proved to me angels exist. I asked if he would need them and he responded by looking at me like I was demented. “No! I do this every week.”
So I proceeded. At one point, I came across Hassan laying in the snow at with Mia, but knowing if I stopped I would be done for, I continued hiking. When I asked later, Mia told me their snack break turned into an accidental nap. We all laughed harder than we should have at that one.
So we reached the peak, because of the determination of our feet to surprise us as they moved under us, one after another. The celebration at the top was short-lived, as Allison had already been there for ten minutes and had become nauseous. So we did what all sane people do and slid/fake skid down the mountain as fast as we could. We reached the refuge again around noon, ate lunch, and began our final descent.
From here it was straightforward, or downward, and sometimes side-ward. At one point we are pretty sure we were led on an extra few kilometers because of a side adventure Hassan wanted to explore, but when we reached a van waiting for us, it was knock out time. We paid extra for our driver to take us to our hostel with no extra stops, a few bucks is a small price to pay to not be stuck on the side of the road again.
And damn, we walked into the hostel like feeling like queens. That same day we had summited the highest mountain in Morocco. Some people looked up as we entered, most continued checking updates on their phones. The two men running the hostel gave us a nod and a “welcome back.”
We headed straight to the showers and bed.
Allison’s day 2 recap:
I woke up the next morning hungry for the first time in days. I rolled out of bed a little teary-eyed from the kind birthday messages and the emotional exhaustion of the adventure.
“Please, do you have any breakfast in the kitchen?” I sheepishly asked the hostel manager. He knew it was my 21st birthday and began to tease me. “Oh, a little hungover are we? I’ll give you breakfast for a positive Yelp review.”
“Okay fine but please…food.” And just as my luck would have it, breakfast that morning was tea and cake.
Jbel Toubkal is 4,167 meters (13,671 ft), and hikers begin in Imlil, which sits 1,800 meters (5,900 ft) above sea level.