When we started planning our trip to Morocco, my friend said to me: We need more nature and more hiking on this trip. Well, the highest mountain in North Africa is luckily located in Morocco. Since there were expeditions of a few days combined with stays in the Sahara, we jumped at the occasion. Let me tell you we had no idea what we were getting into, but I'm glad we did it. As John Green wrote in Paper Towns: "If we don't die, this is gonna be one hell of a story". Well, here is the story!
To start, let me tell you a little bit more about the tour we had booked. We purchased a five days, four nights expedition out of Marrakech with a group from two to twelve people. Since there were already two of us, we knew for sure the expedition would not be cancelled even though we were visiting in October, during low season. We were to spend two days on the Toubkal, two days in the gorges on the way to the Sahara, one night in the desert in Merzouga and then one day on the road back to Marrakech. We had seen some longer treks up the Toubkal during our research, but since we had a limited time in Morocco, we decided on the shorter hike that would still take us to the top. We ended up being the only ones in our group. Although there were other people on the mountain, we were by ourselves with a guide and chef/person that leads the mule up the mountain.
The day of our departure for the Atlas, I woke up to see my friend had an eye infection. Her eye was barely opening and bright red. Not the best way to start a two day trekking journey up the highest peak in North Africa, but she decided she still wanted to go and would just put some cold water on it and wait after the hike to see if she needed medical attention. So a driver came to pick us up at the riad where we were staying in Marrakech and drove us to the small village of Imlil, about au hour away from Marrakech. In Imlil, we were greeted by Jamal, the owner of the company we booked the tour with, who explained the road up the mountain and the different steps of our journey. He introduced us to Mohamed, our guide, and Abdou, the chef. After the traditional mint tea, we were grabbing our backpacks and starting our ascension to the top of Toubkal.
On the first day, we were to climb 11 km to the Base Camp, also called "Les Mouflons", at 3207m of altitude, where we would spend the night. At first, it was a walk in the park. We were slowly going up and the view on the mountains and the little villages was beautiful. We stoped after about an hour and a half to take a sip of water and enjoy the view. After about three hours, we stoped for lunch at a little hut where we ate on the balcony in the sun. There was a Tajine of course, but also different cheeses, some traditional bread, vegetables and fruits. Everything was delicious and we had to stop ourselves from eating too much.
After lunch, we still had a way to go to get to base camp and, honestly, I was getting tired. We kept going up on a rocky path and I guess the altitude was starting to get to me as every step felt so hard. From the moment we first saw the camp, which is a huge building built out of rocks, it felt like it took a whole hour to get there. But we finally made it and were able to talk to other hikers and sit down to relax with a nice cup of mint tea before dinner. I was so tired that I was barely able to eat some fruit and some bread that night. The moment the sun set, I was ready to go to bed!
Unfortunately, I didn't have a restful night. With the time difference between Canada and Morocco (this was our second night in Morocco after landing the day before) I had trouble falling asleep. It was also pretty cold in the camp and the beds were giant structures that went the whole way along the wall, which meant we were sleeping in the same bed as a dozen strangers. Nothing to help you get a good night of sleep.
I had barely fallen asleep when Mohamed came to wake us up at 2 AM. We wanted to make it to the summit for the sunrise, which meant a very early morning start. Luckily for me, even after no sleep at all, I felt energized after the delicious breakfast.
When we stepped out the door, we were gobsmacked by the view. First, it had snowed during the evening and everything was covered by a thin blanket of white dust. Being from Canada, that's not what impressed us though. There were absolutely no clouds and no light pollution and we could see the stars. Now, I know what you are thinking: young lady, you can see the stars from anywhere on a clear day, what's the big deal? Here is my answer: you have never seen the stars like this! There were thousands of them and we could see them so clearly! Being so high up in the mountains, it felt like we were surrounded by stars. I can't even describe it correctly, but even in National Parks I had never seen a view like this one and I haven't seen anything like it since. I wish I had a good picture, but we didn't think to take one and, even then, it would never do it justice.
We started making our way to the summit, across rivers and over boulders. My friend was having some difficulties with the altitude, but compared to the day before, I felt absolutely fine. Now, there is one thing I was not expecting. We had been told that it would be about 0 degrees Celsius on top of Toubkal and we had expected it to be a little colder until the sun came up. We both had a coat (although not a Canadian winter coat), long pants, gloves and a hat and it was fine at the beginning, but after a while, the wind came up and it had to be at least negative 15 degrees. At least! It was freezing! And let me repeat, we are from Quebec City, the temperature can go down to negative forty in January and I am still alive to talk about it. We are used to cold weather. This was whatever comes after cold! But we had made it this far, so we pushed through and kept going. On the way up, you reach a point where you have to wear crampons over your boots as it is snowy and icy and slippery. You have to watch your step and, every step you make, you slip down halfway. After hiking for hours, we finally reached a plateau where we could see the sunrise. I would love to say, at that moment, that the whole struggle felt worth it, but to be honest, I couldn't feel anything. I was completely frozen and, although the view was absolutely, ridiculously, beautiful, I couldn't appreciate it at the time. My friend was a few minutes behind me and when she made it up to where I had stoped to watch the sun rise over the horizon, I could see on her face that she thought the same thing. But we weren't on the summit quite yet. We had about half an hour left of climbing to reach it, so we started walking again.
I have no idea how long we kept walking. All I remember was seeing the summit and seeing clouds rolling in and knowing that even if we reached the top we wouldn't be able to see it. I remember thinking that with the wind, it was getting dangerous. And my friend and I looked at each other and we both knew that this was it. One kilometer to the summit and that was it. We were going back down. Reaching the summit didn't matter anymore. We were exhausted, we were cold, we had seen the sunrise and this was over.
Now over a year later, I still don't regret it. Reaching the summit wouldn't have given us anything more than what we had at that moment. It wouldn't have made us prouder of ourselves. We wouldn't have had a better view or a bigger sens of accomplishment. To this day, I still consider that we made it. But we also made it back down safe and sound and with all of our limbs which is really what matters here.
Deciding to turn back down is one thing, but it doesn't magically transport you to the base of the mountain. It doesn't erase the cold or the tiredness. We still had to walk all the way back down the mountain.
The walk back to camp is another thing that is blurry in my mind. I remember being so cold that I almost ran down the mountain. I remember stoping for a break because I felt nauseous and sitting down until our guide came up to me and said I had altitude sickness and we had to keep going down, this was the only way to feel better. Apparently going up too fast is not a good idea, but going down too fast isn't much better. Then I remember walking into the refuge and asking if we can take a nap because I felt like crap. I think we slept for maybe an hour, but I felt better afterwards and was able to eat a light lunch.
After lunch we slowly made our way down back to Imlil and every step we made I felt more and more like myself. The nausea disappeared, the tiredness was more tolerable, I felt lighter and overall way better. Altitude is no joke!
The last two or three kilometers though, were very hard. My knees were hurting and we were both tired and just wanted to get there and get some rest, but we did make it. We were welcomed at Jamal's house with mint tea that had never tasted so delicious. We had a feast for dinner and had our own room for the night where I got the best sleep of my life.
My friend did end up having to go to the doctor for her eye infection that had not disappeared and was actually getting worse and both of my knees ended up swelling pretty badly. One of them I could not bend for about five days. But, even after everything we went through, I still believe it was worth it. We got to talk to our guide ant learn so much about the berber culture and life in the Atlas. We saw some gorgeous views and in the end, we had fun!
After living through this adventure, would I climb the Toubkal again? I don't think I would do this again. Once was enough. Was it worth it? Definitely! You never know how you are going to react to being challenged like this and I am proud of myself for going all this way and making it so far. Do I want to hike another mountain after this one? Of course! I would love to hike to Machu Picchu and I would love to try to Kilimanjaro, but next time, I will bring clothes for any weather, even if it is supposed to be warm. Next time, I will plan it in advance and actually train for it. Next time, I will know what to expect. Let's do this!