High Atlas Mountains + Mount Toubkal trek / 7 days / April 24 to April 30, 2019 / World Expeditions
Refuge du Toubkal (3207m) – Mount Toubkal summit (4167m) – Refuge du toubkal (3207m)
We were up by 5am for a quick breakfast. I tried to eat lots as I needed all the help I could get but it was too early for that kind of eating. It was still dark by the time we left just after 6am so out came the headlamps. It was chilly but not too cold. About fifteen minutes after leaving, we stopped again to put on our crampons. Despite yesterday’s lesson on how to wear them, we pretty much all needed help from the guides to put them on.
Right from the start we were divided into two groups. Me with one guide and everyone else with the other. We said our goodbyes and our good lucks and off we went. By then, it was well on its way to being daylight, so headlamps were no longer necessary. I made a mental note of the roaring waterfall somewhere nearby – that sound will be my signal that I made it back alive.
The attempt on Toubkal started off with a steep ascent on crunchy snow. Some of the snow was deep and some of it was barely there so at those times, we had to pick our way through rocks. Not an easy thing to do when your hiking boots were strapped into crampons! I don’t remember thinking anything beyond “expletive, this is steep” and “remember to keep your ice axe mountainside”. That last one was important because if I fell, that axe would be what kept me from sliding far or tripping over the crampons and breaking an ankle.
No matter how slowly I went, I was never able to draw proper breath and therefore, never had my usual amount of energy to propel me. It was a mix of the steepness, the altitude, and the malfunctioning lungs as I later found out once I got home.
After that first steep ascent, we came across a snowfield that would take us right across to the valley-like dip between two mountain sides. And yes, this was steep, too. By now, it was mid-morning and some people were coming down the mountain. They’d likely started so early that they caught the sunrise at the top. Step by step, I eventually made it to the end of the snowfield – crampons, off!
As you can see in the second photo on the right-hand side of this page, we turned left and continued the climb up. By now, I probably don’t need to say it, but I will – it was steep! The trail was made up of rocks and scree; the latter is something on which I have never enjoyed hiking because it can be slippery. And scree combined with steepness? Such a joy. But it wasn’t all miserableness. At this point, we were now high enough for the views to be phenomenal. Never mind the fact that to one side, I could see grey clouds starting to roll in – I ignored that side. But in the other direction, it was all clear blue sky and tall craggy mountains. Beautiful.
Back on the snowfield, only once did the thought cross my mind that I could choose to end this torture. On this third upwards section, it must have been at least three times where I questioned my sanity. Once the guide did ask me if I wanted to continue. Stubborn me said yes. Each step was a mental mantra of “just a little bit more”. And each time I died a little bit inside and pushed on. Part way up this section, I was able to see tiny tiny figures high above. The angle and steepness were such that it almost felt like they were practically right above me! Then I got even higher and was able to see the tall summit marker in the distance off to my right. Mountain optical illusions made it seem fairly close, but it definitely wasn’t.
This high up, the trail was mostly in switchback form, but it was also very narrow in some spots – there were times I actually felt a bit nervous. Don’t get me wrong – Toubkal isn’t known to be a particularly dangerous mountain. But, yes, a wrong step could mean trouble, especially on the slippery scree. If someone was coming down the trail, I’d step to the mountainside to let them go by. People were generally nice and said a few encouraging words as they passed. As I approached the final (thank god) ridge, my group was coming down. Whoops. They were genuinely happy that I was going to make it because quite frankly, even I didn’t think I would. Though considering how stubborn I can be about the dumbest things, I shouldn’t have been surprised I made it!
Once on the ridge, it was only another 10-15 minutes to the actual summit marked by unofficial graffiti and an official pyramidal metal structure. By then, more clouds were rolling in so I knew we wouldn’t stay long. I was fine with that because the clouds meant the views weren’t as spectacular as I’d hoped. But we did stay long enough to have a snack, to take a few photos with the summit marker, and to hang out with a squirrel. Then I figuratively girded my loins and headed back down Toubkal.
It was much faster, coming down the mountain, but still difficult as the steepness didn’t magically disappear, and I was that much more tired. But if this mountain has taught me anything, it is that I seem to have decent “mind over matter” skills and an adequate endurance level for pain. I am not sure, though, how anyone can do this hike without hiking poles or at least, an ice axe, for stabilization. Mine prevented my tired legs from tossing me down the mountain. It also saved me the numerous times I stepped through the snow rather than on it. Whenever my step dropped me further than expected, be it knee height or even hip height, it took strength and support from the ice axe to pull myself out again.
On the final steep descent, with the refuge back in sight, it started to snow rain. At that point, I just laughed. The universe clearly wanted to throw me one more curveball, but it forgot – I’m Canadian. I can handle inclement weather! Also, as I made my way down the trail that was getting slipperier by the minute, I stepped into a hole again. But that was better than the poor woman further behind me who slid right off the trail and part way down the mountain side. It took some effort, but she managed to get back up, thankfully.
The last twenty minutes of the hike were Not Fun. I was wet, my boots were soaked, I was exhausted, and I was just done with this mountain. I was happy to finally hear the waterfall again. As I got closer to the refuge, it stopped raining and I think by coincidence, some of my group stepped outside as I was approaching the door. It was nice to have a welcoming committee! It was almost 3:30 by the time I finished so this hike took me a total of 8.5 hours to complete: 5.5 hours up and 3 hours down. I told you I do much better on downhills!