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On the Marrakesh Express

By: Dan Aspel, posted

On the Marrakesh Express

Jebel Toubkal is remote, foreign and very, very big. If you’re anything like me, that’ll make you want to climb it. But, again, if you’re anything like me those same factors can also put you off. Morocco’s highest is a long way away, it’s not in Europe and it’s far higher than any peak a UK hillwalker has regular access to. By all rights this should make a trip to its summit it an absolute logistical nightmare. A headache. Something you’d love to do but will probably never get round to. Thanks to KE’s “Toubkal Weekend” trips… it isn’t.

I booked onto one of their three-day itineraries last September because the idea of reaching the highest point in the Atlas mountains in the same amount of time it’d take to get to the Highlands and back was too sweet to turn down. It proved one of the most satisfying big mountain trips I’ve ever been on.

Because I was covering the trip as part of my role at Trail magazine, I put together the experience as an article in the mag (see below). But to give you a flavour of this awesome African climb, KE were kind enough to let me blog a few pictures and extracts from the feature. Enjoy!

“… there are much longer itineraries to be had on a Toubkal climb (KE offer a handful of 8-15 day alternatives in the Atlas), but this one is the most compact. It will make demands of you. The first day is gentle, but the second involves climbing from the Refuge du Toubkal to the summit and out to Imlil in a single day. This means 1000m of up and 2200m of down. It should take around 10hrs. But – with breaks for Berber tea and plates of fresh omelettes en route – it’s scarcely a military march. You’re more than likely to drink it in, feel the burn a little in the final hours and love (nearly) every minute of it.

“In the mid-afternoon of our first day, wearing little more than short-sleeved baselayers despite the altitude, we arrived at the refuge. It’s an odd sight. A bunker-ish shell not quite built for comfort. But, though drab and soviet from the outside, the Refuge du Toubkal is as welcome a shelter as you’ll find anywhere in the mountains (complete with mustachioed old gent napping on a vegetable sack behind the front desk). There’s even a hint of the kind of cushioned and spiced luxury you’ll find down in Marrakesh – courtesy of a warm fire and the odd afghan-patterned pillow in the common area. Soon we watched the world grow black, and readied ourselves for another tall plate of hiking fuel fresh from a Berber kitchen…

“We woke on summit day. At 3207m we were at a decent height already, but we still had over 900 vertical metres to go before we reach the roof of North Africa. Mountain essentials on our back, we set off up the rocky zig-zags that lead to the summit. Our first goal – a broad flattening about halfway up; the next – a steeper, though still broad, ridge that winds upwards; the third – the summit. In case you’re wondering about the technicality of the climb: it’s low. If you get a bit woozy with heights then you shouldn’t fear, there’s very minimal exposure and the cliffs can be given a very wide berth, while the only airiness comes from the sheer scale of the mountains around you and the fact that you’re perched on their highest shelf. It’s still a pleasingly hefty climb and as you look up at the surrounding ridges it’s impossible to believe that you’ll be climbing higher than them.

“The summit itself is truly an astonishing place to be: high above a red planet of dust and rock but cold enough to support broad patches of snow even outside of winter. It’s 30 deg C+ in the valleys below, which are incongruously filled with slender green veins of vegetation. The summit – on our trip - was windswept and quite brutally below zero.

“But – like any big summit – it’s an ecstatic one too. A couple of us broke out in a spontaneous sprint for the top, before the gentle throbbing in our temples reminded us just how high we were. Gathering under the pyramidal summit shelter we snapped the essential photos. You could almost – almost – see to the endless expanse of the Sahara to the south - the real death zone in this part of the world. It was utterly glorious.”

Dan is the features editor at Trail magazine. His full article features in the March 14 issue, on sale 23 Jan.

Head to www.lfto.com/trail to find out more.

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