December 2022

Mt Toubkal Expedition

Our week-long stay in Morocco started at Aroumd. This small mountain village in Morocco located in the High Atlas mountain range was to be our home for the next two nights. Aroumd is a popular destination for trekkers and hikers, as it serves as the starting point for many routes leading up to the Toubkal National Park and Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Aroumd is also known for its beautiful scenery, traditional Berber culture, and local markets selling handmade crafts and goods. To get to Aroumd, you can fly into Marrakech and take a taxi or organized tour to the village. Alongside our UK guide, we had a local guide with years of experience guiding Toubkal trek. We arrived at our lodge keen to discover the Atlas and finally meet the team over a cup of mint tea and snacks. The first evening was spent inside having a great chat and food by a log fire.
Day two started early with a simple breakfast and some last-minute packing. Shortly after we set off on acclimatisation walk. Acclimatisation walks are a common way to help your body adjust to the altitude and prepare for more strenuous activities, in high-elevation areas above Aroumd. These walks typically involve gradually increasing the distance and elevation of your hikes over the course of a few days, allowing your body to get used to the thinner air and lower oxygen levels found at higher altitudes. In Aroumd, it is common to start with short walks around the village or nearby valleys. It is important to listen to your body and take breaks as needed, as well as staying hydrated and wearing appropriate clothing and gear. Acclimatisation walks can help reduce the risk of altitude sickness, which can cause symptoms such as headache, fatigue, and nausea. They also provide an opportunity to explore the beautiful surroundings and immerse yourself in the local culture. We slowly and eagerly made our way up one of the side valleys. Well marked path offered amazing views. 
Long day
The third day was a long one. Walking from Aroumd to Toubkal Refuge is a popular trek for hikers. The trek typically takes 5 to 8 hours, depending on your pace and how many breaks you take along the way. The route follows a well-marked trail through the Toubkal National Park, passing a dry river bed, fields of crops, and stunning mountain vistas. This day involved a more strenuous ascent to the Toubkal Refuge, located at an altitude of 3,207 meters (10,522 feet). The refuge is a basic mountain hut that provides accommodation, meals, and equipment rental for trekkers and climbers. From the refuge, you can continue on to the summit of Mount Toubkal, or take a shorter hike to explore the surrounding area. Along the way, we stop at Café Chamharouch. A small shack by the river located at the foot of the steepest section of the trek. The Atlas really showed it’s beautiful side on this day. Clear blue sky with puffy clouds floating in the gentle breeze and comfortable temperatures made for a great day trekking. We reached the snow line as we approached Toubkal Refuge. The refuge is pretty simple, with dorm rooms accommodation and three common rooms where you can meet and chat with fellow climbers and travelers. There is one thing that’s sure about this trek. You will never be hungry! Moroccan food is great and chefs at the refuge will do everything to cook a great post or pre climb meal. We had choices of Tajines, both vegetarian and including meat. Fresh salad bowls with rice and cuscus are always accompanied by bread.
Mountain weather
The following day we went on our second acclimatisation walk, with aim of getting to around 3800-4000 meters and spending a few hours at altitude to allow our bodies acclimatise. The morning went by in a flash and after breakfast, the team was ready for a first test of proper altitude. We left Toubkal refuge and followed up the valley. Nearby summits were covered in a thick layer of low cloud and soon after we set off we got a full dose of horizontal-side-way-face-prickling icy crystals rain. Our guides did a great job of keeping everyone safe, moving, and warm. 500 meters above the lodge we had to turn around as the wind was beyond relentless at this point. After arriving back at the refuge we were welcomed by the sounds of Moroccan football fans celebrating their win over Portugal - a sight to see! Catching up with a few climbers at the hut only three people managed to summit that day and around thirty people turned around due to the weather. One couple only lasted around 500 meters form the hut before they packed it and turned around. Weather in the mountain is a fickle thing.
The fifth day of the trek was the big one! Climbing Mount Toubkal from the Refuge is challenging. The summit of Toubkal, at an altitude of 4,167 meters (13,671 feet), is the highest peak in North Africa and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountain range. Many climbers choose to start the ascent from the Toubkal Refuge at 4:00 am in order to reach the summit and return to the refuge before the snow gets too soft and the risk of an avalanche increases. The climb from the refuge to the summit typically takes 5-7 hours, depending on your pace and the conditions. The summer route follows a well-marked trail that is mostly rocky and steep, with some sections requiring the use of hands for balance. In Winter guides pick the safest route up the initial steep slopes and the upper valley. We were lucky as many rock sections were completely covered by snow and were easy and pleasant to walk through. It is important to be properly acclimatized on your summit day, as the high altitude and thin air can be felt on a strenuous ascent. Reaching the summit of Toubkal is a physically and mentally demanding feat, but the sense of accomplishment and the breathtaking views from the top make it a truly memorable experience.

Climbing a mountain at night and reaching the summit in time for sunrise can be truly magical. The darkness of the night and twinkling stars add an element of mystery and adventure to the climb, and the feeling of being above the clouds as the sun rises is indescribable. The whole team dug deep and pushed through the night by the light of head torches we moved steadily upwards. 

A few hours in we reached the summit ridge. Hues on the horizon have already started to change and mother nature has provided us with a spectacle of sunrise. Those first rays of the sun filled us with energy and excitement. and as the hues changed from deep reds to oranges and blues we progressed up the mountain one step at a time. As we turned a seemingly unremarkable corner, the first peak of the summit and the pyramid atop it suddenly appeared. Another jolt of energy for the team. 
The Summit
People say: "never celebrate too early..." but with the summit in sight the spirits were getting high, smiles and cheers were exchanged and mobile phones were snapping the ever-approaching summit and sunrise. 

There was only one more difficulty to navigate. A short 20-meter section of a narrow path lead us over rock hard iced up field with a not-convincing convex profile and many many feet of air underneath. This is where our three guides showed their experience and safely guided the team across this last obstacle. I can only imagine how rough this place was for those three summiteers from the day before. Maybe it's better not to see what's below sometimes...

The last difficulties cleared the path and opened up to a gentle slope and the summit of Toubkal. We were at 4167 meters, the highest people in North Africa, and with the sun just poking its first rays over the horizon and Sahara. A truly magical experience. Hugs and selfies, congratulations, and photos. We've done it! Or as mountaineers would say we were halfway...

Descent to Aroumd
Summit is only halfway. Every experienced mountaineer and climber knows that. Despite summiting Toubkal and technically accomplishing the plan guides still had challenges prepared for the team. The majority of Toubkal climbers will return back to the refuge the same way as they climbed through the night. We, however, took the more scenic route and descended the mountain by its eastern flanks.

As the team members had varying levels of experience guides decided to rope up and boost their confidence descending steep slopes. Difficulties were quite short-lived and well executed, even by those that have only a little experience on higher altitude snow peaks.

The descent went by really fast and soon we were resting at a hut with a very tasty lunch prepared by our chef. After a quick change of clothes and temperature perhaps 20C warmer than at the summit we descended all the way to Aroumd for a well-deserved dinner and rest.

Wrap up
Working and climbing in the mountains has a lot of challenges. From data management and keeping electronics running to the fitness and acclimatisation side of it all. But, as much as it it challenging I would argue that the payoff and satisfaction of working in the mountains outweigh the struggles many many times.

Working on Toubkal has been a great wrapup to a busy year and I'm having my fingers crossed for at least as challenging and rewarding 2023.