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The High Atlas Mountains of Morocco: A Thoroughbred Affair, Part II

In our last article, we talked about preparing yourself for the climb up Mount Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains. We discussed how you must painstankingly prepare and bargain for a mule and muleteer, and perhaps a mountain guide, at least a day in advance before attempting to trek up to the Mount Toubkal Refuge. The place to begin trekking is in Armed, a small Berber town situated 45-minutes up the mountain after Imlil, positioned perfectly so that you can hit the Mt. Toubkal trailhead in the early morning.

If you are planning on traveling in the high season, you may find that many of the gites or small hotels are full in Armed. And, even if you reserve in advance, dont always count on having a place to sleep. Big groups are given preference over single or pairs of hikers. If this occurs, you can always sleep in a familys house. You might be able to find an extra spot on the floor of a gite if they can squeeze you in. It is a great idea to bring your own air-filled sleeping mat, sleep sheet, and the proper sleeping bag for the season. In Armed, youll be sleeping at 1920 meters (6320 feet), so the nights can be chilly.

In the early morning, you will take off on your hike. It is best to leave at around six or seven in the morning, so that you will arrive to the Mount Toubkal Base Camp Refuge by lunchtime. In the colder months, when the sun doesnt rise as early, you might have to leave around eight in the morning and might have to have lunch on the trail. If you are coming from October through June, you might consider bringing crampons and hiking sticks for support in case of snow.

The start of the trail begins just after crossing the Nfiss River, which will be running wildly in the winter and springtime. Flooding is common down below, but Armed sits high enough above the river to not be affected. In any regard, follow your muleteer or guide. If you have neither, follow the small path from the base of river that hugs the eastern hillside where youll be able to stay well above the water. This will connect with the trail directly.

After 2.90 kilometers (1.80 miles), you will have climbed to 2290 meters (7520 feet). As you come around the bend, youll be able to look down upon an impressive waterfall. This is one of the first sites of the trip as you will be able to see a huge white, painted rock in the distance. Here, locals claim that a saint is buried in the mausoleum-like structure. Only Muslims may enter past the wooden fence into the small mosque to pray. Others say that people come here to pray, meditate, and be healed from their ailments. Whatever the case may be, it makes a good pit stop to grab a soda or orange juice and snack, if you didnt pack any. But, be prepared to pay about triple the regular.

The trail up to the Mount Toubkal Base Camp Refuge is easy to follow. In the snow, there are some tricky spots. But, in the summer and early fall; you will have no trouble following the trail. In the winter, watch for slippery spots along the rocky surface. From the first waterfall and mausoleum, there isnt any other worthy markers or sights along the way, although some of the higher vantage points are breathtaking. As you continue, the sparse vegetation becomes nonexistent after a few more upward notches in altitude.

After a total of three to six hours after leaving Armed, depending upon the trail conditions and your level of fitness, you will arrive at 3140 meters (10,300 feet) where the French-built Mount Toubkal Base Camp Refuge, a.k.a Camp Neltner, sits camouflaged in the backdrop of rocks. In the evening, you can either pay for a meal, which will cost 50 to 100 Moroccan Dirham, or if you brought supplies, your muleteer or mountain guide will help you prepare it. Or, feel free to go into the kitchen and prepare it yourself –youll have to pay an extra 20 MAD for use of the stove.

After hanging out in the common room with other trekkers, try to hit the sack early. Youll want to be up out of bed by five in the morning in the summer and by six in the morning in the winter. This will allow you enough time to climb Mount Toubkal, and enough time to climb down, eat lunch, and return to Armed or Imlil. You can even make it back to Marrakesh by nightfall if needed.

The climb from the Mt. Toubkal Refuge to the summit is nothing like the trail. This climb is not childs play and should not be attempted if you are in bad health. The trail up to the top begins to the west of the Refuge and really isnt a trail at all. It is more of a slippery, rocky path. Youll have to climb a small hill of rock and cross over a stream. Dont be surprised if there is snow, even at this altitude, until July. In the early morning, the snow will be icy and should be crossed with proper hiking boots, crampons and walking sticks. If you dont have a guide, try to follow another group with one. The paths become quite confusing.

As you climb, youll notice the temperature drop and forceful winds can gust out of nowhere. Its a great idea to bring along your hat, gloves, and wind and waterproof jacket, even in the summer. In the winter, youll need a down-filled trekking coat and perhaps another outer shell.

After two to three hours, youll near the top. If you look into the distance, youll notice a metal pyramid that marks the exact summit point. The walk on the top of the summit is easy in comparison to the climb up. Once you arrive at the summit, youll be standing at 4167 meters (13,700 feet). Take a photo and dont be surprised if your guide begins howling in joy. Feel free to join in. You can always blame it on the altitude later!

Tip I: One common issue that some dishonest guides will claim is that you have to pay for their stay at the Toubkal Refuge. You do not have to pay for your guides stay at the Toubkal Refuge, so this should not be a part of the bill. But, yes, you should pack enough food to feed your muleteer and/or your guide.

Tip II: Another problem that you might experience is altitude sickness. If you begin to have a severe headache and flu-like symptoms, you may have to descend. A difference of 300 meters (1/5 mile) will make a huge difference in how you feel. Again, while this is rare, you should read up on altitude sickness and bring along medication to treat it should you not be able to descend during the night.



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