Jul 31, 2016

Wellbeing of Women Team Kilimanjaro Reunited - Mount Toubkal Weekend Adventure Fix

About 4 years ago I began to organise annual climbs of Kilimanjaro with friends and colleagues to raise money for the women's health charity, Wellbeing of Women. These climbs have not only raised over 100,000gbp for the charity, they've also led me to meet a huge number of incredibly inspiring men and women who I now call friends.

As we were descending from the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro earlier this year, there was a general consensus among the team, based on our collective successes on the mountain, that we would have to do another adventure together - something short, achievable and ideally in the summer. It didn't take much convincing to get the team signed up to climb Mt. Toubkal,  (4167m) and the highest peak in North Africa... 

Fast forward a few months and I found myself, bleary eyed, on an early EasyJet flight to Marrakesch loaded with a small backpack, and eagerly looking forward to the adventure ahead.

I climbed Toubkal in the summer of 2011 and again in 2012 - so it had been a few years since my last visit. What I love about this little adventure-fix is the sense of satisfaction that you get on Monday morning when you’re sitting back in the office and people ask what you did over the weekend…. apart from go to Morocco and climb a 4000m mountain..! Perhaps it’s because both the geography is so different from ours but the weekend break genuinely feels like a week long holiday.

From the colourful souks of Marrakech, with their vendors of spices, carpets and bright leather goods, to the pretty stone-built villages of the Berber people, I was very much looking forward to sharing the experience of climbing in Morocco at its most authentic and getting in a healthy dose of exercise at the same time. As the pilot announced that it was a balmy 38 degrees in Marrakech we began to mentally prepare to bask in the sunshine and enjoy our cheeky escape.

The morning was spent wandering around the city, losing ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the markets and exchanging pleasantries with the vendors actively selling their wares under the blazing sun. It was scorchingly hot and we sought the shade offered by shops to take respite from the heat. The tourist trade was in full swing as we bright leather goods and carpets drew us into a maze of streets leading us ever further away from the heart of the city.

That night, with our team all assembled from various flights throughout the day, we all met for a mouth watering Moroccan dinner - delicious tangines, olives, teas - on the roof of a local restaurant with the most spectacular views of the city.

Day 1: Drive to Imlil and trek to the Neltner Refuge below Toubkal

After an especially carb-loaded breakfast, we set off on a spectacular 1.5 hour drive southwards out of the city with the peaks of the Atlas Mountains ahead of us to the start point of our trek. We stopped at the bazaar town of Asni, where we took a quick walk through the market and was absolutely overwhelmed by the plethora of vibrant colors of the wide array of fruits and vegetables being sold by the locals – onions, aubergines, apples, oranges, melons of every size, shape and color, nectarines, grapes, lemons, limes, plums… and on and on and on. Leaving Asni, we turned off of the main road and began the stunning climb into trail. 

Little had changed since my last visit. As we began the climb up the first gradual hill as the sun beat down overhead I spent some time in quiet reflection thinking of the year gone by and the many challenges that the future holds in the months ahead – work, expeditions, family, friends…. The sun was soon replaced by thick and rather ominous looking clouds. Sure enough, the heavens opened just as we passed the village and holy shrine of Sidi Chamharouch (2310m) which is surrounded by rocky peaks. A huge white-painted boulder marks the spot where, legend has it, a holy man lies entombed.

We had a delicious lunch made up of some fresh vegetables and then set off again for a steady climb of about 3 hours to reach the Neltner Refuge (3207m) where we would spend the night. Operated by the Club Alpin Francais (CAF) this hut was only completed in 2000 and has been designed to (loosely) resemble a Berber fortified dwelling. The hut sleeps around 80 people in dormitory accommodation. The refuge is a very basic mountain hut but it does have bathrooms and showers, plus a couple of large dining areas and a lounge with an open fire. 

After a fantastic dinner our guide gave us a thorough briefing on the history and geography of Morocco. It was a great overview and certainly provided me with a greater appreciation of the history and geography of the country and its people. In true mountian form, by the time 9pm rolled around my eyes were drooping and my sleeping bag beckoned..!

Day 2: Ascent of Mount Toubkal
After a 5am breakfast, we set off on the steep-ish ascent of Toubkal. Our route zig-zagged eastwards, directly above the hut across scree and boulders, before passing between two rocky guardian peaks to reach a high corrie. The temperature was mild and a comfortable 10 degrees. We continued upwards across more scree, with the views becoming more expansive as we reached the ridge-line which dropped off steeply to the east. At 8.30am, we arrived at the distinctive metal and brightly spray-painted tripod which marks Toubkal’s summit. At 4167m, you can definitely notice breathlessness due to the altitude but it was a feeling that I was more than familiar with and was happy that my body quickly remembered how to adapt.

No matter how many times I stand on the summit of a hill or peak or cross over a high mountain pass, I can’t help but feel a great sense of awe, satisfaction and feeling of freedom. As I tried to absorb the breathtaking views of the peaks of the High Atlas away to the north-east and of the Anti Atlas (Jebel Sirwa prominent) and the Sahara to the south I couldn’t help but feel lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of these adventures and experience the hospitality of such an old and traditional culture.

We began our 2300m descent back to Imlil and back to Marrakech. Reaching the hotel at 6pm I must admit, I was absolutely exhausted and struggled to keep my eyes open. A lovely roof-top dinner closed the evening where we reflected on the fantastic weekend and looked forward to future adventures and travels. 


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