We’re walking by 9am. Its a long way to go and we have a considerable amount of altitude to climb. Karim, our guide; a youthful kid of 18 leads the way as we wind up through the upper villages of Imlil. It flattens out as we pass the village of Armend on our right. the gorge we follow flattens out here where the waters have run it wide and full of gravel. Men casually mine the rock to make their houses. Digging at piles with old shovels and picks. Its a barren land here in the alpine of these hills. All dirt and brown yet somehow still so full of life and greenery. The chime of goat bells and bleats echo off the mountains around us. We march on. The path takes the left hand side of the gorge as it steepens into a chasm off the right of us. Its a well worn path with more than a few travellers on the way. We are making for Sidi Charmharouch. A small wayside temple buried halfway to Jebel toubkal that supports a very small village at the confluence of two water channels. There are some big rock pools and the water is nice, albeit you don’t know whats upstream. This is a lunch spot and as we arrive we start to cross paths with the people making their descent from the refuge that day. We’ve climbed a good 600m of altitude so far and have close to 900 to go. Mohammed, our muleteer prepares us lunch – bread with onions, peppers, cucumber, eggs, tuna and lettuce. Very fresh, very healthy – every day lunch. We snap some pictures while we wait and I draw a quick sketch of the hills around us before we march on.
We follow the gorge the entire way, Toubkal looms over us, dead ahead with the faint blue shadow of its snows visible right up high. We wind our way off to the right and steadily march onwards and upwards. Toubkal now sits to our left side and the refuge straight ahead several steep kilometres up. Its a high alpine valley surrounded by the biggest peaks of the atlas. All vicious jagged rock litters with the white of high altitude snows.
We close in on the refuge and its a monster of a mountain hut. With space for around 200 people its vastly different than the alpine huts of Canada we are accustomed too. Made entirely of stone and built by the French mountaineering association years back, it is a welcoming place amongst the rough barren peaks. A row of tents are camped out front and a strong of mules chew their cud amongst the rock fences as we watch the sun echo hues of blues and reds to indigoes and violets off the lower hills in the west down the path we came. Darkness slowly consumes the vista and the valley and we head inside for the warmth of the fire and some tea.
4am. Assault on Toubkal. Its dark and cold out, but the night is clear and the refuge is a hive of activity. Weary mountaineers kit up to begin the ascent and we find Karim and move off into the darkness. Theres torches up ahead – 2 groups winding their way through the darkness under a brilliant starry sky. The air is thin and there is almost no light pollution, so when we take a break 20min in to strip off the outer layers once the blood is moving, I steal a few moments to gaze in awe at the heavens sparkling above. We over take the first group a short while later and soon after the sky begins to lighten with the coming dawn. The climb is steep but not too difficult – it zigzags its way up a chute nestled in-between the southern peak and the main one. 1000m of altitude straight up. Its rocky at first, a large collection of old landslides and rock falls at the bottom before smoother incline where the snows lay nestled. I say snow but its hard packed and icy. We strap on the crampons in our packs and march a straight line under the ever lightening sky. The plan is to hit the peak for dawn, and we are under pressure. Sunrise is at 630. That gives us 2.5 hours to climb 1000m of rough terrain. Challenge accepted!
The other group that was ahead of us has disappeared. Lost somewhere in the early stages with out a guide. Fucking fools. We can see the final stretch to the ridge line – not the peak for sunrise, but its only 50m short in the altitude stakes and its view stretches out half a hundred miles to the plains of the Sahara beyond. Though we are running out of time. Fatigue has struck and our pace has slowed. Though with immense effort we rally and crest the ridgeline just as the first rays of the sun strike the summit.
Glory. Beauty. Relief. Wow. A stunning vista takes form below us. Shadows slowly giving up their secrets to reveal valleys, ravines, farms and villages in the cascading hills below. We take a few moments for a snack and some pictures and walk the final few hundred meters to the summit actual where from the one point we see right along the chain that is the Atlas. Marrakech and the ocean plain on one side, the Sahara on the other.
Staring down at Marrakech its hard to believe that its a good 40c down there yet it’s 0c up here amongst the snows. Its a job well done as we are the first to summit for the day and pass close to 50 more climbers slowly coming up as we fly back down.
Its 10am and we are back at the refuge. 1hr45min down. Thats fast! Though the early start and toll of 2000m of vertical is taking its toll and we crash to bed. We wake a few hours later and begin the trek back to Imlil – another 1600m and 18km down the valley. Its a loooong day and we are on the verge of collapse as we arrive back at Ahmed’s guest house.