“Only another fifteen minutes to the top,” Youssef said encouragingly, seeing our weary expressions and sweaty, glistening faces. I breathed in deeply, the altitude making it hard for my lungs to get enough oxygen. As I inhaled, I looked around, marvelling at the sharp ridges of craggy rock that fanned out below me before disappearing into the soft haze of the horizon. On any normal morning, I wouldn’t have even had my breakfast by now… Yet here I was, perched high on an outcrop, taking in the sensational view.
I was, by my trusty guide’s estimation, a mere quarter of an hour from the summit of Mount Toubkal in Morocco, North Africa’s highest mountain, which stands at a mighty 4,167m. Our trek had begun just the day before in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, where we’d met our fellow teammates and laden our mules with equipment and baggage. Waving them off as they disappeared into the valley ahead of us, I felt the familiar ripple of excitement erupt in my belly… It was time for an adventure to begin.
Leaving the small town behind, we immediately found ourselves picking our way through a rocky valley, the conversation flowing as we got to know the people we were to spend the next week with. Any trees and cultivated land rapidly gave way to the steep, boulder-ridden mountainside that rose above us on all sides, patches of snow visible on the lofty peaks. As we slowly made our way higher up into the hills, the few remaining buildings gave way to an increasing number of waterfalls that came tumbling down the mountainside in a cascade of rushing white water.
After a re-fuelling stop, during which we had our first taste of the infamous Moroccan mint tea, we pressed on, aiming for the refuge at Toubkal base camp where we would spend the night. We were now accompanied by sporadic rumbles of thunder emitting from the darkening clouds that had gathered around the mountaintops. Not one to be phased by bad weather (I’ve certainly dealt with my fair share), the dropping temperature and threat of rain did nothing to dull my enthusiasm for what lay ahead. Even with the first drops of rain falling heavily on our heads, soaking quickly through our clothing and giving the rocks underfoot a treacherously slippery surface, my smile did not fade. I trudged along with my head down to keep the rain off my face, sneaking the occasional glance up to marvel at the dramatic scenery around me. Though even my underwear was completely soaked through and my socks made a distinct squelch with every step, I was in a state of soggy bliss.
A short while later we finally made it to the mountain refuge, whereupon our group of eight immediately commandeered an entire dormitory to ourselves. Our wet garments were hung from whatever bannister or piece of furniture we could find and, reunited with our luggage, dry clothes were eagerly yanked on. After the dry heat of our arrival into Marrakech, the lower temperature in the mountains was somewhat of a shock. That said, all it took was a few cups of mint tea and some generous platters heaped with popcorn and biscuits and our energy and humour was replenished.Over dinner it was agreed that our alarm would be going off during the early hours of the morning, meaning a start in the dark and the promise of one of the most spectacular settings ever to watch the sunrise… Thus, what felt like mere minutes after crawling into the warmth of our sleeping bags, we were being awoken by the panicked whispers of our teammate Saty, who took morning wake-up duty very seriously. Having established that we hadn’t actually overslept – contrary to the stress in her lowered voice – we reluctantly dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags and into our still-damp clothes from the day before.A quick caffeine-rich breakfast later and our headtorches were donned. Stepping outside of the refuge, it was just about possible to make out the silhouette of the mountains against the star-flecked night sky. Care was needed as we picked our way over boulders and streams, the light of our head torches illuminating the path that Youssef was forging ahead of us.
Our route was noticeably steeper than the previous day and we found ourselves gaining altitude rapidly. As the sun rose gradually higher in the sky, still hidden by the towering peaks looming ahead of us, I found myself constantly turning to look behind to observe the way the sun transformed the mountains from vague dark masses of rock to intricately detailed exhibits of nature’s artistic talent.Continuing our ascent up the rock-strewn mountainside we increasingly found our path interrupted by patches of snow that required balance and patience to get across without ending up on your backside… The sun was now fully risen in the cloudless blue sky and the vistas were opening up around us. By now, a few of us – myself included – were beginning to feel the effects of the altitude. Those who weren’t kept the group’s morale high with banter and questionable singing, distracting us from the strain in our lungs…
As we reached the final ridge line several hours after setting off, there was a cry from the front of the group; the summit cairn had been spotted! This was it, the final push before our reward of knowing we were the highest people in North Africa (and the handful of nuts and dates that had been promised to us by Youssef). Crossing the last stretch of frosty ground we made it to the metal structure marking the highpoint of the peak. High-fives, laughter, snacks and photos ensued as everyone’s spirits soared: we’d successfully climbed to the 4,167m mark!
After regaining our energy it was time to tackle the descent, a much simpler and less strenuous exercise than what we’d already accomplished so far that morning! Covering the ground much quicker, we made it back to the refuge in time for a very early lunch and opportunity to rest our feet. Pressing on, we retraced our steps from the previous day, admiring the beauty of the landscape that had been partially hidden from us by the rainclouds and visors of our raincoats.
As we left the higher mountains behind and re-entered the foothills, an old friend returned in the form of a heavy black cloud. Within minutes of the first rumble of thunder, there was a river running at our feet as the rain poured down with such ferocity that it threatened to wash away our feet from under us. Soon the rain drops turned to hailstones falling with such force that they stung as they made contact… Though that was partially my own fault for not reacting fast enough and getting my raincoat on straight away!No sooner had it started, the storm eased off and we were able to cross the valley floor in relative calm. Reaching Imlil, the town at the foot of the mountains, we were escorted to our accommodation for the night. Whereas the previous night had had limited electricity and running water facilities, here we were met with hot showers, towels and a sprawling terrace with mesmerising mountain views.That evening we relaxed to our hearts’ content, proud of our accomplishment of the last few days grateful for such exceptionally good company. Just 36 hours previously we were a group of strangers; now, one 4000m mountain later we were a tight-knit group who had shared in a fantastic and rewarding experience. Falling asleep that night I smiled to myself; the success of the first part of the trip boded well for what we were yet to experience, for Mount Toubkal was not all that was on our agenda for this action-packed adventure…..