Warm zephyrs washed over me as I stepped out into the floodlit taxi rank of Marrakesh airport. We approached the burly man who seemed to be in charge.
“How much to the old town?” I said.
“Three hundred dihram,” he said, ushering over a taxi.
“No, no,” Robert said. “Don’t be silly. Fifty dirham?”
“I’m sorry, my friend.” The man said opening his palms. “Is fixed price.”
“Ok. We’ll leave it,” I said.
We walked a few feet away and discussed whether we should try and walk to the hotel. The distance was only a few miles, but the interzones surrounding airports tend to be difficult for pedestrians to negotiate. Trying my luck, I hoisted my backpack and started towards the distant main road. I could see the taxi man turn to face us in my peripheral vision.
“Ok. Ok.” He called. “My best price is two hundred dirham.”
We knew he had us. Fresh off the flight, walking out into an strange city, unsure of exactly how to get to the hotel. Coming to Marrakesh I was prepared to haggle with wily merchants in the world-famous souk, but had not expected it to begin just outside the airport.
We cruised down a long palm-strewn boulevard before eventually cutting left under an arch in the huge clay walls that enclosed the old town. The taxi pulled up and we hopped out.
The medina quarter is a labyrinthine network of passageways, which darkness made even harder to navigate. We soon found ourselves stumped. I noticed a group of teenagers was following us and increased my gait.
I looked back at Robert and silently indicated we were not alone. He nodded.
Lost in the forking pathways, we attempted to pull ahead and lose our pursuers. Forging on, we strode under a sandstone arch and turned the corner into a long darkened passageway.
“I think we lost them.” I said.
Almost immediately the din of the group echoed from behind us.
I continued briskly along the passageway, which turned out to be a dead-end, punctuated by an ornately decorated door.
The boys had now caught up and swarmed in front of us. “Riad Aderbaz? Riad Anya? Riad Viva?”
It turned out they were calling out the names of local hotels, doubtlessly having previous success in directing perplexed tourists to their lodgings for small change. Luckily we had stopped right outside our hotel and noticing the sign, rung the bell and after a few moments were welcomed in by the owner.
Riads are the predominant accomodation in this area, a type of traditional Morroccan dwelling built around a central courtyard or garden. The contrast between the dim and dusty exterior and the opulent environs of the riad, directed my curiousity to what other wonders were concealed behind the ancient walls of the medina.
After dropping our bags we headed out into the city. Once you emerge from the stygian backstreets, the centre of Marrakesh opens up into the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. Walking into the square at night was an assault on the senses. Snake charmers, dancers and drummers plied their trade as men in pointy-hooded djellaba carved their way through the crowd. Brightly-lit food stalls lined the square, selling fresh orange juice and street food. The skyline was dominated by the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque, towering two hundred feet above street level.
We had come to Morrocco to climb Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. Around forty miles south of Marrakesh, in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, lies a village called Imlil. Most people begin their ascent towards Toubkal from this area, so we were looking to travel there the following morning. After strolling the backstreets for a while, we were accosted by a man selling tourist daytrips from a small shopfront.
“Here, here.” He said, pointing at a sandwich board plastered with faded photographs. “Agadir? Essaouira? Ouzoud? I give you good price.”
“We’re heading to Imlil.” Robert said.
“Ah, Imili.” He said, nodding. “You need grand taxi. It leaves every hour from the bus station.”
“We’re trying to climb Toubkal.” I said. “How do you fancy our chances?”
He stroked his beard and considered the question.
“Is possible.” He said. “Weather can be very bad though, storm can come in then…”
He paused and glanced around. “A German guy died up there just last week.”
What have I got myself into, I thought. Researching the area, I had discovered the vast majority of people hiked in the area during the summer months and it being January, the high altitudes would be covered in several feet of snow. Almost everyone had advised against climbing the mountain in winter. Hearing about the recent death only compounded my doubts about whether would make it up there and if so, would we make it back? We made our excuses and set off back to the riad.
Early next morning we hoisted our backpacks on and left to find the grand taxi. The city was more subdued in the cold light of day and there was a slight chill to the air as we trudged towards the main road. After several false starts we were able to locate the taxi bound for Imlil, and climbed aboard. Our backpacks were stored on the roof by the driver. The grand taxi turned out to be a rickety minibus stuffed with several rows of metal seats. The spacing of the seats was so narrow that it forced anyone larger than the tiny Berber grandmothers that populated the rest of the bus, into an awkward crouch.
We drove through the archway in the walls we had passed through the night before. As we edged further out into the desert it became clear that our vehicle’s engine had the power and indeed the incessant drone of a lawnmower. Countless delapidated Mercedes zoomed past our ride as it continued down the endless highway.
After about an hour we stopped in a desert village. Another similar minibus had parked up directly behind us. We were ushered into the other vehicle and our bags were tossed from one roof to the other by the driver. Our new transport was even less hospitable than its predecessor. As I squeezed into my seat, I noticed a chicken pecking at the straw-strewn floor beside me.
The grand taxi continued through several more desert villages, before the rising foothills of the Atlas mountains emerged on the horizon. The driver swung the ramshackle bus around several sharp corners, catapulting every passenger around furiously.
A few hours later we arrived Imlil and trudged up the muddy main street. Snow drifted silently from above.
“I think we should set off soon.” I said.
“I don’t know.” Robert said. “We need to make it to the refuge by nightfall. It’s already one o’clock”
Just below Toubkal lies Les Mouflons, the mountain’s refuge. Most people that climb the mountain will trek to the refuge and stay there the night before they attempt to summit.
We rounded a corner and came across an open shop front. A heavily built man sat inside on a small wooden stool, smoking a cigarette.
He looked up as we approached. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“We want to climb Toubkal.” I said.
He nodded. “There’s a snowstorm up there right now. You’ll need an ice axe and crampons.”
I looked up at the walls full of hiking boots, harnesses and mountaineering paraphenalia. “Do you think we could make it to the refuge tonight?”
He considered the question for a moment and shook his head. “I would not recommend it.”
I stepped out into the street while Robert was fitted for his boots and crampons. The snowfall had intensified and I pulled up my hood to block the icy sleet that was now being blown into my face. I retreated back to the shop and was fitted for my gear, as Robert chatted to a couple of trekkers who were staying in their rented camper van nearby. The store owner disappeared into the back room for a while before returning with a gleaming ice axe in each hand.
With little chance of making it to the refuge by dusk, we decided to stay the night in Imlil. The store owner called an associate who owned a hostel on the hill and we followed him up to our lodgings. A thick layer of snow had now settled and we shook off our frosted boots as we entered the hostel. Alone in the place, I reclined on the large semicircular sofa as Robert brewed some mint tea.
We were joined later by two Canadian women, Rebecca and Jen, politics students travelling through North Africa and the Middle East. There was some intial unpleasantness when I appeared to threaten Rebecca with an ice-axe, but we found common ground and quickly reconciled. Snowed in, the four of us guzzled mint tea, played cards and put the world to rights until the wee hours.
Imlil to Toubkal refuge
Early the next morning, we began our trek. Terracotta villages nestled on the snow-speckled hills as we gained altitude. A few hours into the hike we came to Chamharouch, a terraced village built into the rocky mountainside. The sun had been relentless and discovering a shaded cafe, I darted inside.
After a rest and a few glasses of mint tea we continued climbing skywards.
Above Chamharouch the landscape was almost entirely covered in deep snow. The slopes became increasingly treacherous and we fitted our crampons onto our boots. The couple Robert had been talking to back in Imlil had caught up to us, Sam and Frankie. They had been travelling around Morocco in a camper van and had parked up in Imlil.
“It can’t be much further to the refuge?” I said.
“At least two hours.” Robert said.
“It’ll be dark by then.” Sam said. “We need to get up there and set up our tent before nightfall.”
“You guys are staying in a tent?” I said. “You’ll freeze to death out there. Don’t you know there is a perfectly good shelter?”
They both laughed knowingly, but said nothing.
“Crazy bastards.” I muttered.
Our progress slowed to a crawl as a sudden blizzard began to cover the slope. I realized there was a problem with my crampon after it detached several times and left me staggering about wildly.
The sun had slipped below the peaks ahead and an ominous blue light bathed the hillside. Robert noticed my bizarre movements, stopped and called back. “You need help?”
The constant snow had soaked my gloves and my now-anesthetized fingers were incapable of properly attaching the crampons. Robert knelt and tightened the cord with a satisfying ripping sound.
“We need to get move on.” He said. “We only have an hour at most before its dark.”
I nodded and strode up the hill with purpose. The climb was going well until we arrived at a ridge that sloped towards a yawning chasm. The fresh snow had disguised any previous path and I took speculative steps up towards the crest. Each solid footfall was a relief. I began to get into a rhythm as I crunched towards the top of the ridge.
Shifting my weight to my front foot a feeling of dread took hold. There was no solid ground underfoot. I tried to regain my balance, slipped and began sliding backwards down towards the cliff edge below. Instinct took hold and I dropped to the snow face first, planting my ice axe into the ground. I continued to slide for what seemed like an eternity before coming to a standstill.
I lay rigid for a few seconds, pressing my axe into the ground.
“Are you okay?” Robert cried.
“Fine.” I said, my voice muffled by the deep snow. I stood up and brushed myself off. “This place is fucking death trap.”
We trudged on through the twilight. The valley began to close in slightly, as we neared our destination.
Carving your way up a snowy hill for hours on end can nibble away at a mans cheerfulness. I stopped and lay back on my rucksack. “You sure we’ve come to right way?”
Robert smiled wryly. “It’s not much further.”
Night fell on the mountainside, silent except for the rhythmic crunch of our footsteps. My face was numb beneath a soggy ski mask. The fluorescent arcs of our headtorches revealed unremitting snow beyond.
I noticed what appeared to be fireflies gliding up the hill a hundred metres ahead. I wondered if my mind was breaking loose from its moorings. Squinting at the lights, I came to my senses and realized it was a couple of trekkers just ahead of us.
Robert turned around and pointed to a faint glow above. “There’s the refuge.”
Seeing evidence of the refuge provided a renewed vigour and we cranked up the pace. Closing down one of the trekkers, I realized it was Frankie. She was plodding forward about in a bewildered state.
As I approached she appeared to be in a kind of exhausted oblivion. “I can’t carry on.”
“The refuge is just up there.” I said. She seemed to be on the verge of collapse, fatigued and confused. “Robert, you got any of those chocolate bars left?”
Sam had traced back and joined us. She wolfed down the bar and slowly regained some lucidity. Checking everyone was fit to continue, we persisted up the valley and the refuge finally emerged through the gloom. We approached the entrance wearily.
There is a kind of relief you can only feel finding sanctuary, after teetering on the brink of mental and physical collapse. Staggering into the porch of the refuge I let out a gasp and sank to the stony floor in an ecstatic sprawl. What I had thought would be a gentle hike, a warm up for the dangerous climb ahead, had transmogrified into a hellish slog that had drained most of my reserves. After recuperating for a few minutes, I dragged myself up. Lurching over to the doorway, I pounded three times on the front door.