From the summit of Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak (4167m), views stretch from the city of Marrakesh across the breadth of the High Atlas Mountains and on to the Sahara Desert in the south.
With such compelling vistas, it’s understandable that on most mornings of the year a twinkling line of hikers’ headlamps snakes its way to the top of Toubkal; the goal is to complete Morocco’s most popular climb for sunrise before slowly descending back down the rocky slope to base camp and to the villages beyond. It’s important to know that the rules for the climb have changed since a tragedy on the mountain, so here we detail the process from start to finish.
Long a favourite of trekkers in Morocco, Toubkal made international news for all the wrong reasons in December 2018 as two young female trekkers were murdered in the night by self-declared religious extremists. While the mountain reopened almost immediately to tourism, it did so with a heightened police presence and a new regulation that all hikers are now required to travel in the company of a local – typically this will be a guide or porter hired locally, and multiple police checkpoints along the trek will verify both your passport information and that of your local hiking partner.
The trekking experience starts in the village of Imlil, once a quiet agricultural community but now a popular hikers’ hub at the junction of three valleys (and trailheads). Independent travellers can stock up on stove fuel and basic foodstuffs here, as well as hiring a guide and/or porters (in the summer this will typically be a donkey and handler, while in the winter traditional porters make the snowy ascent to base camp) at the Bureau des Guides near the bottom of the village.
Climbing through dense walnut forest out of Imlil, trekkers must stop in for passport checks at the first of several police checkpoints below the village of Aroumd (known alternately as Armed), an Amazigh (Berber) community made richer by tourism but which has managed to retain much of its traditional architecture and culture. Many trekkers use Aroumd as an alternate base for the mountain, particularly for a few days to relax and immerse themselves in local culture after descending from Toubkal. Guides, unlicensed faux guides, and porters all wait at the police checkpoint above Aroumd for last-minute hires by hikers who have neglected to make arrangements in town; however numerous visitors have reported paying higher prices for worse service when making arrangements here, so it’s better to do so in advance whenever possible.
From Aroumd the route begins to climb gently for the first hour to the Shrine of Sidi Shamharoush (2430m), a local Saint of pre-Islamic origins whose tomb is still a place of sacrifice for those hoping for intercession in personal problems (particularly women trying to become pregnant). Past the shrine, and a second police checkpoint, the trail steepens considerably for the remaining climb to the Toubkal Refuge at 3207m.
The two mountain huts that constitute Toubkal base camp – CAF’s Nelter Refuge (3207m) and privately-owned Mouflon Refuge just below – operate year-round as shelter for hikers and climbers heading to the top of Toubkal and surrounding peaks. While it is possible to depart Marrakesh in the earliest hours of the morning to reach Toubkal Peak and return the same day, the majority of trekkers spend one night at base camp (dorms, private rooms, and campsites are all available) in preparation for a summit climb. Your local guide will need to register your passport information once more with the police upon arrival to base camp, after which you’re free to lounge around either of the lodges or head up a handful of side trails for short day hikes. Nelter often has the livelier atmosphere, while local guides agree that Mouflon typically has better food, but your choice will likely simply depend on which has availability when you book (both fill quickly in the summer and winter high seasons).
Summit morning typically starts early – most trekkers aim to reach the peak by sunrise, and with nearly 1000m of vertical gain over just 3.5km you’ll generally leave at least three hours before dawn; more if hiking in wintry conditions or at lower fitness levels. In summer the route is over rocky, loose scree, but it’s non-technical and is suited to all skill levels. Winter, on the other hand, provides some technical challenges due to the peak’s exposed face; climbing at this time of year should not be taken lightly. Several hikers die or are seriously injured in a typical winter season, primarily because they were unprepared for the rope and ice-axe skills necessary.
The long climb from base camp to Toubkal Pass (3970m) is primarily a mental challenge – in the pre-dawn darkness, with no sense of the views or surrounding peaks, and with no real visual reference to the progress made, this can feel like an ascent to a non-existent endpoint. But at the pass, as the lights of Marrakesh twinkle in the hazy distance and as the early morning blueness silhouettes the peak of Toubkal, the highest point of North Africa suddenly feels just out of arms’ reach.
The sudden gain in elevation towards the summit – particularly for those who transfer to the mountain from Marrakesh’s lowly 470m elevation – leaves many hikers gasping for air after every four or five steps along the final ascent. It’s slow but steady going, though at these heights the view has opened up and the growing light slowly brightens the outlines of successive rows of peaks on the eastern and western horizons. Reaching the top, crossing one final flat stretch to the summit marker, the entire High Atlas spreads out below, from the Tichka Plateau in the west to the Middle Atlas in the east. Windblown, sleepy and often surprised by the summit crowds; most hikers don’t linger long atop Toubkal before beginning the slow sliding descent back down the scree slopes to base camp and on to Imlil.
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