Mt Toubkal Winter Climb: photos and notes

Photos and notes from my February half term holiday: the Mt Toubkal Winter Climb courtesy of Exodus*. A fun introduction to crampons and ice axe, walking and climbing(ish) amidst beautiful snowscapes and fantastic scenery in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco.

Sunday 16 February 2014: LondonMarrakech (مراكش‎) (photos)

Easy EasyJet flight 8895 from LGW to RAK, landing in Marrakech around 8pm. Chatty (once we moved into French) minibus driver providing the (free) transfer to the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers in Guéliz.

The excellent Mohammed, our local guide/leader for the week, intercepted me at reception and ran me through the plan for tomorrow. Decided to settle into room 104 rather than catch up with the others already out dining nearby. Unpacked my rucksack, packed my kit bag. Wondered if I was overreaching myself with a high altitude winter climb, graded as “Tough” by Exodus…

Monday 17 February 2014: Marrakech (مراكش‎)Imlil (1740 m / 5708 ft) – Aremd / Aroumd (1920 m / 6300 ft) (photos)

After making the most of the buffet breakfast at the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers and meeting the rest of the group, I spent the morning exploring the Medina with Max – walking there and back along Avenue Mohammed V, experimenting with Sony Cyber Shot camera settings at the Koutoubia Mosque (جامع الكتبية‎) and – forewarned by Will – keeping our bearings in the souk with the aid of Max’s compass.

All aboard our minibus a little after 1.30pm, and a 2 hour drive in the drizzle to Imlil via Asni (أسني‎) – home to a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to a yellow Fisherman’s Friend, incongruously clad in bright yellow oilskins and sou’wester.

At Imlil we donned our own waterproofs and daypacks and set up along the familiar (to me) track to Aremd, arriving at the Hotel Aremd just after 4.30pm. Low cloud, gloomy – no sight of the High Atlas mountains, let alone Toubkal.

Rooms sorted, we rendezvoused in the wood fire warmed lounge for mint tea and biscuits, a briefing from Mohammed, and – a little later – tasty tagine for dinner.

Tuesday 18 February 2014: Aremd / Aroumd (1920 m / 6300 ft) – Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) (photos)

Tuesday dawned grey and gloomy, but with the occasional bit of snowy mountain breaking through the cloud. During breakfast Mohammed handed out our crampons, ice axes and avalanche transceivers, and then once our kitbags were loaded onto donkeys we said farewell to the Hotel Aremd and set off into the gloom.

A stony path led alongside the floodplain, where villagers sift sand for the Marrakeshi housing boom – there was a flash flood down valley in August 1995, which accounts for the stones and boulders that cover the valley floor. Lots of the rocks have light/dark coloured flecks embedded in them – I’ve not seen that before. I’ve brought one back as my souvenir stone.

We crossed the floodplain to a hillside that’s home to walnut groves and stone walled enclosures, and started climbing. A pause at a quiet cafe where the path turned south east, then on between iced juniper trees and frozen grass to the shrine of Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft). After a (10DH a glass) mint tea refreshment stop while our kit bags transferred from donkeys to porters, we crossed the snow line and started climbing up the valley of the Assif n’Isouhouanem n’Ouagounss.

Occasional glimpses of blue sky taunted us, but as the snowfields solidified and the stream disappeared under ice and snow down in the valley below, the clouds overhead grew heavier and greyer, and as it turned out, full of snow. The trip grew more ominous when our path crossed with a group of stretcher-bearing porters carrying a trekker wrapped in green. Thankfully not dead (my initial thought), but clearly in pain – he’d twisted / broken his leg. I don’t think any of us envied his journey back to the road head at Imlil.

Arriving at the Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10 522 ft) a little after 1.30pm, we settled into our dorm (I think it was Biiguinnoussene 4002m (yes, named after a local peak)) and then rendezvoused in the dining room for lunch – the first of many excellent meals provided by Hussein-the-cook, featuring super-tasty shakshuka, a mountain of salad, olives, rice, bread and plenty of refills from the tea urn (aka a pump action thermos).

Our afternoon was earmarked for ice axe and crampon training. Once we’d been shown how to lace up/on our crampons, walking techniques were quite straightforward but when it came to practising self arrests using our ice axes the sticky snow made it tricky to simulate a steep slope slide (and let’s say that I didn’t excel at the head first technique!). So when it started to snow in earnest everyone seemed happy to head back indoors.

What remained of the day disappeared into afternoon tea (with biscuits and the sweet/savoury mélange we christened – possibly somewhat inappropriately – “dog biscuits”), dinner (soup, couscous, pineapple chunks), a briefing from Mohammed on tomorrow’s Toubkal ascent then bed. The refuge’s wood burning fires and stoves making the rooms nice and cosy – although the stairways, halls and downstairs bathrooms remained frrrrrreezing in comparison. Outside the snow continued to fall….

Wednesday 19 February 2014: Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) – Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) (4167 m / 13671 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) (photos)

An early rise and shine at the Neltner Refuge – 5.53am alarm, breakfast back down in the dining room at 6.30am ish, donning waterproofs, boots, then outside for crampon lacing and ice axe wrangling (and photos) and we were ready and raring to go on our Mt Toubkal ascent by 7.15am. Beautiful clear blue skies, pristine snow and very cold. We’d had feather patterned ice on the inside of our dorm window this morning.

After a bit of stopping and starting we found our pace, with Hussein-the-guide leading the way and Mohammed bringing up the rear, and eventually splitting into two groups. Strong winds en route brought the temperature down further and whipped up the snow – beautiful but occasionally painful. You needed to keep moving. My ears got very cold (hence the scarf-as-headscarf look in the photos). Towards the top of the valley, the morning sun caught up with us, providing a touch of warmth but making the snowscape very bright. Time to don the Julbo sunglasses (another image element I’d rather be without!).

Just after 11am we reached the head of the valley – Tizi’n’Toubkal (3940 m / 12926 ft) – and were rewarded with a magical view east of misty blue ridges and, somewhere beyond that, the Sahara. Looking behind us we could see the valley we’d climbed through, to the north the path up to the peak – the metal pyramid on top making it easy to identify. A very photogenic stop, and Hussein found us a sheltered spot for a bit of a breather before the final push up and round to the very top of Toubkal.

We summited at 11.45am or there abouts, and once we’d caught our breaths it was time for celebratory snaps, sweets and mélange courtesy of Hussein. Tara, Liz, Denyse and Mohammed arrived about half an hour later accompanied by another group who were carrying skis on their packs, planning to a ski descent. Now that’s what I call nuts (but then again, I don’t ski….). More photos, plus bread and cheese triangles to celebrate. Beautiful panoramic views under blue skies – who could ask for more?

A speedy descent – due to a combination of taking a more direct path down and gravity, plus the lure of lunch back at the refuge. The wind had dropped and it got hot clad in accumulated thermals. I’d settled on Uniqlo polo neck base layer, M&S thermal top, Mountain Kingdoms fleece, plus my Goretex jacket on top; for bottoms, Icebreaker thermal leggings, Gelert trousers, Tibetan waterproof trews (admittedly a little on the short side) plus gaiters – a lower half look reminiscent of Little Lord Fauntleroy. As I’d absent-mindedly done yesterday’s crampon training in my Salomon hiking boots (Women’s Sector Mid GTX), I’d worn them again today – my new Scarpas didn’t get a look in on this trip. My Mountain Equipment Women’s Randonee Mitts were invaluable, as were (Hazel’s – thank you…) trekking poles.

We were back at the refuge around 3.30pm, and by 4 o’clock were feasting on a late lunch of pasta, lentils, carrots, peas, cucumber/tomato/red onion/sweetcorn salad, bread and olives, accompanied by lots of tea and rounded off with the zingyest clementines I’ve ever tasted – it’s citrus season, and these are fully ripened, fresh fruit.

As the wood stove warmed the dining room, afternoon tea followed at 5.30pm – paratha-y pancakes drizzled with honey – followed by dinner at 7pm. Bed followed not long after (and a good night’s sleep, partly due to escaping last night’s condensation drips).

A fantastic day.

PS It looks like we did the South Col / Cwm (Irhzer n’Ikhibi Janoub) route.

Thursday 20 February 2014: Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) – Tizi n’Ouagane (3735 m / 12254 ft) – Ouanoukrim (Timesguida summit – 4089 m / 13415 ft) – Tizi n’Ouagane (3735 m / 12254 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10522 ft) (photos)

Another early morning and our Ouanoukrim (جبل عون الكريم) ascent day dawned clear and bright, providing similar conditions to yesterday but with a lot less wind chill. With Liz and Denyse deciding to stay at base, and Canadians Darren and Brandon joining us together with their guide, Hussein led the way to the head of the valley of the Assif n’Isouhouanem n’Ouagounss.

We set off c. 7.15am in the blue morning moonlight and with only a couple of stops en route we arrived at the Tizi n’Ouagane (3735 m / 12254 ft) about 2 hours later, the sunshine catching up with us just ahead of the pass. Crampons off, time for lots of photos of and from the pass – back along the way we’d walked and south down the Assif Asserdoune n’Irhzifene (thank you Cordee map).

After last night’s briefing I’d almost decided to forgo the scramble along the ridge (and thus the peak) – memories of Crib Goch last a long time. But, after a breather at the pass I decided to give it a go – the drops didn’t look too sheer and it was a calm, still morning, plus there was plenty of encouragement coming my way. Probably not the most elegant half hour of my life, but a very rewarding one (albeit roped up to Hussein for one short section).

On the far side of the scramble, we traversed south up and along the Ouanoukrim plateau, crossing sections of snow and scree to emerge at the Timesguida summit at about 11.15am – handily a cairn picks out the ‘peak’ amidst all the rocks. Superb 360° views – north east to Mt Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) and east the mountains of the Tifnoute, south towards the Anti-Atlas (الأطلس الصغير‎) and west towards the Plateau Tazarhart / Tazaghart and the mountains of the Adrar Iwzag-ner.

Ouanoukrim summiters - on a total high
Ouanoukrim summiters – on a total high

After sustenance (mélange, bread and cheese triangles) and photos, it was time to descend (~11.40am). Hazel’s poles came into their own as we hot footed it back over the snowy mountainsides sans crampons. Contrary to expectation, the climb back down to the col was no harder than the scramble up – long legs came in handy – and we were back at the pass by 12.45pm ish. Over the next hour or so we enjoyed a lovely snowy route down from the pass (albeit overheating again), Denyse, Tara and Rob waving us back into the Neltner Refuge from their roof top sun trap just after 2pm.

After another tasty late lunch we headed up and out onto the roof to catch some sun (and to watch the Explore guide ski down the valley opposite) until it disappeared behind Biiguinnoussene and cast us into much colder shadow. Settled back into the snug of the dining room, afternoon tea materialised at 5pm and featured Berber coffee and popcorn – only for Hussein to surpass himself by serving up fresh chips (and fritters – courgette and aubergine – steamed veggies, salad, bread…) for dinner followed by more zingy clementines.

After the (always awkward) working out of the tip, Max and Arif led the way on an impromptu night time photography session, capturing stars plus planets and probably satellites in the High Atlas setting. Liz’s nautical knowledge wowed us all – no need to the Night Sky app for us!

A relatively late night, snuggling into my North Face Superlight sleeping bag around 9pm.

My favourite day of the three, I think.

Friday 21 February 2014: Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10 522 ft) – Tizi n’Ouanoums (3684 m / 12087 ft) – Neltner Refuge (3207 m / 10 522 ft) – Sidi Chammharouch (2350 m / 7710 ft) – Aremd / Aroumd (1920 m / 6300 ft) – Imlil (1740 m / 5708 ft) – Marrakech (مراكش‎) (photos)

A long day, but with an extra half hour in bed before the watch/phone alarms went off. This morning’s objective was Tizi n’Ouanoums (3684 m / 12087 ft) from where, the trip notes promised, we would “look down the steep southerly face to the emerald green of the Lac D’Ifni below” – hmmmmm.

The first part of our route followed in yesterday’s footsteps (literally at times) half way up the Assif n’Isouhouanem n’Ouagounss before turning due east and straight up a very steep snow slope. After a few hundred metres of side steeping ascent and a welcome breather under a bare rock buttress with magical views back down into and across the valley, a short zig zag along a scree lined path brought us out at the pass (~9.25am).

We could just about distinguish the waters of the western-most tip of the lake, but the view down was outshone by those out over mountain ridges beyond and Mt Toubkal (جبل توبقال‎) to the north.

Over photos of the views, album cover poses, push ups and collected Grivel yellow crampons Jagged Edges was born – and then (~10am) it was time to head back downhill to the Neltner Refuge, encountering an Eastern European couple en route who thought they were on the Toubkal path …. uh oh.

Back at the refuge by 11am, we had an early lunch (~11.20am!), then a final sort out of daypack, kitbag and layers before setting off around 12.30pm back down the valley, feeling slightly sad. Crampons on, crampons off, crampons on, crampons off.

Back at the shrine at Sidi Chammharouch (~2.50pm) as we enjoyed another glass of mint tea at the cafe Chammharouch (and used their loo to de-layer discretely) our kit was transferred from porters to donkeys which then ferried our bags plus crampons and ice axes back to Aremd. We continued our descent in the sunshine – a striking difference to the weather during our outbound walk in only a few days previously.

Having said farewell to Hussein-the-cook at Aremd (~4.20pm) we said a fond farewell to Hussein-the-guide at the top end of Imlil, rendezvousing with our minibus at the other side of town around 5pm.

A beautiful sunset over the High Atlas mountains, a stork, a flock of egrets, a Tachograph traffic fine and a count down to hot showers marked our journey back to Marrakech (مراكش‎), and we drew up outside the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers a little after 7pm.

Rendezvousing clean, fresh and fragrant an hour later we walked a few doors down Rue Loubane to Chez Joel at the Hotel Le Caspien where I feasted on pizza, frites and other non-Moroccan fayre washed down with beer (1 bottle of Casablanca, 1 large draught mug of Flag), serenaded by a Mark Knopfler sound-a-like.

Saturday 22 February 2014: Marrakech (مراكش‎) (photos)

Despite the relatively late night on Friday, I was awake early which allowed for a very leisurely breakfast with several forays over to the various sections of the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers‘s breakfast buffet offering.

As arranged, a little after 10am Mohammed took Liz and I to a local hammam (although strictly speaking I think I’d call the Centre de Beauté Saint Tropez a Beauty Parlour) where we indulged in an hour or so’s worth of Hammam – Gommage – Massage, emerging clean, relaxed and a few layers of skin lighter – well worth the 280DH.

At 1.30pm, most of us headed off on the optional afternoon guided tour of the old city, starting with a taxi ride (Tara, Rob and I in one, everyone else – including well-padded Marrakeshi guide Mohammed – sardine-like in another) to the Palais Bahia. I could have spent a lot longer wandering around the beautifully restored rooms and the quiet courtyard garden.

We followed Mohammed into the alleyways of the souk on to the Musée Dar Si Saïd, which doubles up as the Museum of Moroccan Arts – more beautifully restored rooms housing some lovely arts and crafts (quelle surprise I liked the embroidery, and the English description of the “Zellige of Wall“, in particular what it takes to get the yellow enamel).

The tour of the souk featured a visit to a cooperative shop, just round the corner from a bakery where traditional loaves were being kneaded and baked in cavernous ovens – at 1DH a piece, hot off the paddles, the loaves were a big hit after the shopping extravaganza.

The food theme continued as Mohammed led us through the carpet souk to the open air slave souk, picking up Marrakeshi macaroons and freshly made savoury pancakes en route, before finishing up amidst the freshly squeezed fruit juice and fruit & nut stalls of the Djemaa el-Fna (ساحة جامع الفناء). Mohammed bade us farewell as the sun slowly sank behind the minaret of the Kouboubia Mosque (جامع الكتبية‎) …. where, prompted by a couple of local time lapse photographers, pillar jumping ensued.

After photos in the mosque gardens, we made our way to the Hotel Islane‘s rooftop terrace restaurant for our final group meal. A smashing starlit location with a beautiful view out over the mosque and the sunset skyline back towards the High Atlas mountains.

Armed up with ice cream / sorbet cones we walked back up Avenue Mohammed V to Guéliz and bed.

Sunday 23 February 2014: Marrakech (مراكش‎) – London (photos)

Departure day, and another early morning, so I packed and then headed down to sit by the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers‘s pool to catch up on my diary over breakfast.

I joined Liz, Denyse and Ian on a speedy visit to the Jardin Marjorelle (which I enjoyed a lot more than on my last visit – the new Berber Museum was small but beautifully formed) before returning to the hotel for the midday check out.

There followed a series of farewells as the group slowly dispersed until only Liz, Ian and I were left. A late lunch at the Grand Café de la Poste accompanied by a bottle of Le Ferme Gris rosé between three was a good way to end our time in Morocco.

A delayed departure for EasyJet’s evening flight EZY8896 meant a late landing back in London Gatwick and a late night / early morning journey via Victoria and the N11 night bus, eventually getting home a bit after 2am – time for 5 hours sleep before Monday morning at LW beckoned.

The end of a smashing trip. Active Treks Morocco come highly recommended.

* 28 March 2014 Update: Well, that’s a first – Exodus have asked me to remove my links back to their website as they’re having trouble with their Google rankings due to “unnatural links” pointing to their website. Here’s the unlinked URL for the trip: