Finding More From Morocco's Mountains
By Sarah Locke
For many, Morocco conjures visions of palm tree-fringed pools, beautiful gardens hidden behind city walls and surf camps littering the turquoise coastline. While not immune to these charms, I was visiting for something completely different – to walk Morocco’s mountains.
It’s around 7am in Marrakech and the call to prayer has commenced in the mosque. It reverberates through the market, across the square, and now winds around the stairs of our riad hostel until it eventually stirs me from a restless sleep. I’m an early riser; a habit usually frowned upon by friends at home, but here I fit in with the local rhythm.
I’m excited about the adventure ahead. Driving through the city, colour catches us at every corner. Street hawkers shout to have their wares heard above their neighbours’, and a mixture of smells; fruit, flowers and local cooking, seep through my cracked window.
While I’m desperate to explore the maze of people and produce, it’s the mountains I came for and ahead of me; I’ve got many hours cramped in a bus travelling on uncomfortable roads.
The Atlas Mountains span three countries across North Africa; Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Until fairly recently, they’ve been left off the list of top tourist traps – but not for long, the West is waking up and their peaks are becoming increasingly explored.
The mini bus rattles into Imlil, the final town before we take to the footpath. The cold hits me as soon as I step foot outside. Blessed with unusually poor circulation, the tips of my fingers have already lost their pinkish hue. I make a beeline for the nearest second-hand mountain kit store in search of ski gloves; my knitted ones won’t cut the mustard.
The sky is bright blue. A combination of brilliant colour and the freshness of air only found up in the mountains or by the sea. It’s bitterly cold, but our guide, Mohammed, is wearing half the number of layers I am and remains insistent we’ll warm up once we get going. It’s April and though the northern hemisphere is beginning to warm up, I can still see the peaks up ahead dusted ominously with a white icy frosting.
The beginning of a hike is just as appealing as the summit for me and the excitement of the unknown is the only thing powering my legs. This particular pre-amble takes us through numerous hamlets scattered around the base of the Atlas’s, around the fringes of farmland and numerous rose cotton plantations. I can hear the sound of donkeys in the valley below and the smell of tagine cooked on stoves floats through open windows. These are the details the slow speed of hiking forces you to feel in high definition – you don’t experience this to this extent in any another mode I’m sure.
Two hours in and I can feel my feet start to sink into my boots – we’re only just warming up. Half way up the first valley, just at the fringes of one of the last villages, is a little house with a modest veranda overlooking the valley and Imlil in the distance below. A local man comes out from behind a wooden door and wordlessly begins hand pressing orange juice for us. Sat on the sandy floor, we soak it in – epic undisturbed views across the landscape, tangy orange on tongues, harsh sunlight furrowing brows. The noise of Marrakech has long been forgotten.
After lunch, we pass a church, pristine and vibrant blue against the backdrop of red dust coloured mountains. Mohammed tells me that single women give gifts here in the hope of being blessed with a husband. Sarcastic comments from my female companions ensue. From this, Mohammed notes that westerners do it differently; he doesn’t know any women who hike. He takes a moment and says he doesn’t actually know a reason for this, since we aren’t holding anyone back. I take a moment to enjoy that.
By the time we reached mountainside refuge, we’re all a different degree of pink-cheeked, but the same level of spent. The refuge is just at the bottom of snow line, and after eight hours of relatively peaceful hiking, we’re suddenly surrounded by people, noise, food and warmth.
Dinner is cosy and we crowd round a large table. The wall lined with photos of previous successful summits dating back to when the refuge was first opened. In preparation for the summit tomorrow, over bowls of tagine and games of cards, we hear from our guides and fellow hikers, about previous expeditions and what to expect.
Before bed, we’re each given crampons to fit and wear over our walking boots to deal with the ice and the first waves of nervousness shroud us. The bunkbeds in the refuge are made up of ten or more rows of beds, side by side. I’m not sure if this is an upgrade or downgrade from the bunkbed in Marrakech yet, only the night will tell.
My wake up is 5am and the cold, once again, is consuming. I wonder if it’s still called a wake up if you don’t sleep. The snoring from friends and strangers make this dubious.
Crampons firmly strapped to walking boots, we begin our ascent. The dark envelopes us and for at least the first two to three hours, we’re solely focussed on following the footsteps of the person in front, desperate not to slip on ice.
As the sun starts to rise, the dull ache in my calves is replaced once again by excitement and the monotony of my footsteps replenished by a quicker, more irregular pace. The summit is beautiful. 4,167m above the desert amidst crystal clear blue sky. There’s a large triangular plaque at the top with words of encouragement and celebration from previous summiteers, and while we rest at the top we’re joined by a few more hiking groups. Again, it feels odd to be surrounded by people in such a remote location.
On the way down we’re weightless with achievement and I feel almost drunk trying to keep my legs steady, battling the combination of steep incline and ice. We reach the refuge once again and this time the bunk beds are no bother – the nap turns into a deep slumber. Once awoken, we have to make the final descent just as the weather closes in and blue skies are replaced by rain. The red sand under our feet becomes a muddy slurry and by the time we reach the bottom, we’re soaked through with mud clumped around our boots.
With every step down the mountain, I warm a little more and we lose base layers every twenty minutes. Once in front of a fire (another tagine in my hand), the blood has returned back to my fingertips almost as quickly as it left.