By Andrew Mines
By Andrew Mines
Rabat – We set out Thursday afternoon at 16:00 from Gare Rabat Ville on a train bound for Marrakech. We each carried a backpack, a small duffle bag, and the shared vision to climb the best North Africa had to offer- Mt. Toubkal. At 4167 meters, Toubkal stands a king among kings in the Atlas Mountains, commanding the respect and admiration of the viewer below.
Our train compartment was full, trapping the heat of many bodies inside until someone thought to open a window. My friend, Jacob, and I were separated in order to obtain our own seats, so for four and a half hours I read, slept, and observed the other passengers in silence. A child sat diagonally from me, fascinated by the large strangers sitting next to her. Eventually she turned towards me, so I puffed my cheeks and stretched my ears into my best monkey impression- apparently it was enough. She giggled loudly until being hushed by her mother. There is no better language for communicating with a child than the morphing of one’s face.
Around 20:00 we disembarked at Marrakech, joining the other travelers pushing their way on the platform to ensure a taxi outside the station. Nimble as we were, weaving through the crowd proved an easy task, and in no time we had negotiated a ride to Djemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in the old medina. For those on their first visit to Marrakech, be prepared to bargain a taxi before your ride. MAD 20 can get you most anywhere…
Having already experienced the overwhelming flood of colors, sounds, and smells of Djemaa el-Fnaa at night prior to this visit, we did our best to cut straight to our hostel. Without a purpose in your step, you may soon find a monkey on your shoulder, a snake wrapped around your neck, a date in your mouth, and many dirhams out of your pocket. Such is the way of Marrakech.
By 21:00 we arrived at Rainbow Marrakech, a hostel a few turns out of the main square, nestled in a side-alley. The interior décor was charming, as were our hosts, who made our comfort their first priority. We had tea after unloading our bags, half preparing mentally for the next day, half listening to the other travelers lounging about telling stories. Hearing their experiences across a vast array of countries added a sense of humility to our own journey. No matter the length you go, the strange things you see, the isolation you feel, someone else has gone farther, seen stranger, felt lonelier. In no time I was asleep, dreaming only of the mountain far off in the distance.
We left the hostel early Friday morning after breakfast, carrying only what we thought we would need for the mountain. A short ride in a petit taxi left us at the grand taxi station to catch a ride out of town. MAD 50 later we were riding south with five others under the mild winter morning sun. Outside my window the outskirts of Marrakech turned gradually to open lands that stretched flat for miles, broken abruptly by the towering scars in the Earth’s face on the near horizon. Within an hour we had reached the foot of the Atlas, and the road turned from straight highway to a meandering path cut into the face of the mountains. Our driver was clearly experienced in this route, knowing precisely when to slow down, when to move over, and when to swerve violently to avoid the occasional tour bus, all at the fastest speed possible. We endured just under half an hour like this, but to his credit I was well awake by the time we ran out of road in Imlil, our final stop.
The village of Imlil lies 1740 meters above sea level, and serves as the official starting point for those trying to climb Toubkal. Its people have built their homes amongst the hills and narrowed flat lands along the river. Their walnut, apple, and cherry trees were stripped bare by the winter days, but their irrigated fields were still the greenest natural grass I have every seen, made more vibrant by the cold, gray stone walls and rock fields that surround them. Many chickens, goats, and mules occupy the village alongside its people, their noises offering the majority of sound coming from Imlil. Having lived in Rabat for some time, I was pleasantly reminded of how durable the human race is, equally able to inhabit villages locked high in the mountains as we are great cities by the sea.
Before setting out we stocked up on snacks: nuts, dried fruit, extra water, and as many Snickers bars as we could fit in our bags. A local guide told us most hikers completed the journey up to the refuge in six hours. Of course, our goal then became to finish in as far under six hours as possible, as is the American way.
Imlil’s houses and plots of land line both sides of the path, and it was not until half an hour of walking had past that we felt truly on our way up, the village features well behind us. Thankfully, the hike to the refuge is mostly a gradual ascent interspersed with some flat sections and a few more vertical bits. There are a few huts along the climb and, more notably, the small settlement of Sidi Chamharouch in which the tired climber can stop for a drink or meal. Content with our snacks, we pushed on.
I must stop here to note a more negative aspect to an otherwise happy adventure. I could not help but notice the excessive amounts of graffiti and trash along the path and on the rocks of the mountain. Accustomed to the pristinely clean National Parks of the U.S., the level of disrespect shown this national treasure of Morocco came as a surprise. The littering and defacement of Toubkal detracts from the overall climbing experience. Whatever measure that can be taken to discourage or penalize these actions should be taken, and whatever cleanup of the mountain that can be done should be done.
Having reached Sidi Chamharouch in quick timing, our pace held fast through to the refuge. Several times we passed mules carrying a bizarre assortment of goods; one carried a box of Bose speakers, another hauled propane tanks, and yet another had a sac draped over its back in which a full-sized sheep was getting a free ride down. Never judge a mule by its cargo.
We crossed a number of different peoples during our ascent. Many were Moroccans with whom we exchanged a “Salem.” Those coming down offered us a cheery reply, while those we passed going up exchanged a grudging nod at being overtaken. Other hikers included a trio of Scotsmen, four Germans, a Finnish couple, what I thought to be a group of Russians, and a few Americans like ourselves.
The mountain itself was mostly rocky terrain. The river below was more of a stream due to the severe lack of rain and snowfall this season, but we could still hear it trickling down towards Imlil. Many of the plants had either withered or died in the unusually dry winter, while a resilient few managed to survive and give parts of the mountain a pleasing green shade. During our water-breaks, I took the time to appreciate this rugged beauty, grateful that the temperature hovered around 13°C. My boots, light pants, long-sleeve shirt, and shades were plenty of protection, but I had as my comparison the harsh Chicago winter where temperatures often drop below -10°C. Other climbers my not have felt the same way…
At around 14:00, less than four hours after leaving Imlil, we arrived at the refuge. A simple stone structure, Réfuge de Toubkal provides the only protection from the night’s sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds. With the sun still up to offer us some warmth, we had tea on the terrace and a make-shift lunch of nuts and dried fruit. I had brought my copy of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, which I read until the fading sunlight forced us inside the warmer walls of the refuge.
One of the rooms was heated to a glorious 20°C by a wood fire, the rest of the rooms left to similar conditions as the outside (without the wind), so we had dinner there. We were served a traditional Moroccan tagine with chicken by the refuge keepers, an exceptional meal to recover our strength for the second leg. Also eating with us were four Brits who had been climbing during the last two days, some local guides, and two Canadians who had summited earlier that afternoon. To pass the time we read under LED lamps scattered about the room, exchanged a few stories, and even played chess on a makeshift board provided by our hosts. After a couple of hours, I reluctantly retired to the bitter cold dorms upstairs, much in need of sleep. I wore my pants, socks, shirt, thin jacket, and scarf to bed underneath two thick wool blankets. Jacob also packed on some layers with the addition of his hat, for which I envied him. We were in for a cold night.
On the plus side, getting up early the next morning was no trouble at all. By 6:30 we were dressed and eating breakfast, which consisted of breads, jams, and packet coffee. Since the sun was not yet up, we had to wait until 7:30 before it was light enough to see the path. I wore two layers of pants and socks, my boots, the same long-sleeve tee and jacket I had slept in, a wind-resistant outer shell, scarf, and gloves. Jacob dressed similarly, and we rented some cramp-ons from our hosts for the snow and ice. Our bags emptied except for water, snacks, and our spikes, we began the climb to the summit.
The stark cold coupled with the complete silence made for an eerie and unearthly setting- it felt as though we had been dipped into another world. The crunch of our boots and deepening of our breaths became the only sound to break the morning silence.
We had to stop often, every twenty minutes or so, for water and altitude adjustment. When climbing at greater heights, it is always smart to periodically rest and take in air to avoid altitude sickness. The water in my bottle was starting to freeze, so I moved it inside my bag hoping it would stay drinkable.
About a third of the way up the mountain became mostly ice and snow, and we paused to attach our cramp-ons. They dug well in to the slippery face, keeping us balanced when recurring gusts of wind surely would have knocked us backwards, potentially to our death. I cannot imagine having made that climb without them. It was here on the ice that the wind really picked up and the temperature dropped well below zero. The rising sun lay hidden behind the tall mountain peaks, and my hands, which to this point had remained reasonably warm, started to freeze. I breathed warm air into my gloves to salvage the mobility of my fingers, but the numbing cold always returned.
Along the way I was surprised to find two climbers passing us on their descent. Had they ascended with headlamps earlier in the dark to see the sunrise? Had they camped at the summit overnight? I was impressed either way, and nodded my head as they shuffled by. One of the two exchanged a quick glance with me, his eyes acknowledging the hard task ahead and spurring me onwards.
Once we completed the slippery slope we reached a ridgeline that would carry us to the top. The ice and snow lessened here, and we were able to continue without spikes. A few hundred feet below the summit, we found ourselves at a lesser peak touched by the sun. Upon reaching that small oasis of light we were instantly reprieved from the vicious cold. Even up here, the mountain granted us some amnesty from her more hostile nature. We did not linger there long, as the end was now in sight. Freezing, drained of energy, out of breath, we trudged the remaining few hundred meters to the summit.
At 4167 meters, 13,671 feet, we stood atop North Africa. I sat down to recover, and a small bird pecked at the ground next to my feet. Life manages to find a way in the most punishing of places. I smiled.
Usually, most writers will try to describe what they have seen in great detail, but I find words to be a feeble substitute for the view I witnessed on the summit of Toubkal. There are no words I can write, no pictures I can take, no stories I can tell to replace the feeling of being utterly exhausted and looking out upon the earth with no obstacle to prevent my eyes from seeing as far as they wished. That feeling is much better left a reward to be earned than an object to be captured in words or pictures. But we live in the 21st century, so I took pictures anyway.
We remained at the summit until the desire to get warm exceeded our appreciation for the mountaintop view. The descent to the refuge was rough on the joints, but certainly easier than the climb up. A group of Moroccans was resting less than one hundred feet up the icy slope as we passed them. They had no poles, no cramp-ons, little/no water, few layers, and were wearing Adidas® running shoes. A guide in Imlil told us that every winter people like this group tried to climb Toubkal and sometimes never returned. Alive, that is. I tried to warn them in Darija, then in Fusha, then in French, and finally in English, but they insisted on finishing their mission. I admired their foolish persistence, and hoped their journey would end down in Imlil and not here on the slopes.
After stopping at the refuge to collect the rest of our belongings, we made the final push down to Imlil. The gradual descent was easy and enjoyable compared to the journey up, and within three hours we were back in the main village. As we walked into the spot where we first disembarked the day before, a grand taxi was preparing to depart for Marrakech. It had two empty spots, just enough for Jacob and me, and soon we were asleep in the back as the taxi twisted along the familiar road. I woke up occasionally from the driver’s swerving, looking back at the mountain we had conquered as it grew smaller and smaller in the distance. It was bizarre to think that those snow-capped peaks were now trenched with our footprints. I was happy to be thousands of meters below, warmed by the setting sun.
That night we toasted our success on one of the many restaurant rooftops in Marrakech’s old medina. We exchanged a few words and laughs over dinner, but mostly we sat in the mutual silence of our weariness, made more potent by the sedative effects of having eaten a large meal. I lasted only a few minutes once we returned to the Rainbow Marrakech hostel before falling into a deep, well-earned sleep. I do not remember what I dreamt of, but I was warm while I dreamt it.
The morning was a pleasant mixture of good food, good tea, and good company from our hosts before we said farewell. We were able to find two seats next to each other this time round on the train back, and the compartment was significantly less crowded. I always find myself more at peace when there are empty spaces nearby, and so I was able to finish my book in a calm, pensive, and quiet manner.
A woman, who I found out from later discussion was a University student in Rabat, saw the copy of A Dying Colonialism lying closed on the table. I watched her pick it up and skim through a few pages in interest, and I gathered she spoke English well from her pleased expressions at its content. She asked for my opinions about the novel, which I told her. I asked if she wanted the book, to which she nodded and began reaching for her purse. I told her it was free, after all I had finished it and taken from its pages what I could. In turn, I felt compelled to share freely the knowledge within. I believe this is what its author, too, would have wanted.
We arrived in Rabat at 16:00 on Sunday afternoon carrying our backpacks, duffle bags, and the shared gratitude to Toubkal for permitting our little adventure.
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