My 69-year-old father, my younger brother, and I arrange a big mountaineering trip each year. We've been fortunate enough to trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the summit of Mount Olympus in Greece, and mainland Spain's Mulhacén, to name a few.
It's not about the profound, male-bonding odyssey or the quest to push each other and test ourselves against the natural elements. Living in different countries, it's the only chance we get to hang out except at Christmas, so we try and make it as memorable and as rewarding as possible. (Just an excuse for a few cold beers, really.)
We have always been intrigued by Morocco, however, with it being so close to Europe, yet on the continent of Africa, and having a large Arabic- and French-speaking population—in addition to ancient cities, bustling markets, sweeping deserts and, of course, superb cuisine. I had been to Tangier for a couple of days a few years earlier where I got a quick glimpse of the above, but this time, I was here with my father and my brother to climb the highest mountain in North Africa, Jbel Toubkal, which stands 13,671 feet tall, is around 60 miles south of Marrakesh, and is no mean feat.
As we stepped out of the frantic, yet sleek and modern, Marrakesh Menara Airport, we could see the snow-covered peaks of the Atlas Mountains through the sandy haze in the distance. We had no time to truly take it in, as we were ushered into a weathered SUV amid the chaos of the airport's taxi rank.
The driver hilariously repeated our pronunciation of Imlil out loud before chuckling and continuing to exchange friendly banter with us until just outside of Marrakesh. As we were approaching the foothills, the car went silent as we gazed out of the windows, looking at the rocky hillsides and the sheer drop into the deep canyons below, which were just centimeters away as the roads got narrower and narrower.
We arrived in Imlil—a small Berber village that we would use as base camp for our ascent—in the early afternoon and we were greeted by our amiable host, who was nothing but a complete gentleman the entire stay. Within half an hour of our arrival, we were treated to a delicious chicken tajine with a plate of fries, a traditional Moroccan salad, and mint tea.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the shops and the cafés, which, more often than not, just felt like stepping into people's homes—being made very welcome and being offered everything from tea to a three-course meal. The highlight of the day was when we were overlooking the village from the top of a shorter hiking route at the time of the call to prayer. From noisy commotion to a calming silence, the change was surreal. The first lines of the prayer projecting out of the mosque, resonating throughout the mountainous valleys, was spine-tingling.
After a hearty breakfast of boiled eggs, spicy olives, and toast, we set off on the first leg of our trek. We were headed towards the refuge on Toubkal, roughly a four-hour walk past steep gorges, even smaller villages, and numerous mule trains. We stopped for tea and coffee a couple of times on the way, and each time we were greeted with warmth and kindness from the local Berber community.
Upon arrival, our room at the refuge was cramped to say the least. The bunk beds were merely large planks of wood with small mattresses laid out side-by-side to accommodate 16 of us in total. You can imagine the difficulty of trying to sleep in dramatically reduced temperatures, while 15 other people are snoring, rustling in their sleeping bags, and coughing—it was quite orchestral!
We set off for the summit at 8 a.m., and the route started with some steep, energy-sapping scrambling before switching to a long slog up snow- and ice-covered inclines. By this point, the high altitude was having an effect, and the snow made crampons and ice axes a necessity. Despite the relative struggle, however, it was easy to be in awe of the, quite literally, breathtaking surroundings.
Four hours later, we were standing on the summit just as some menacing looking clouds were coming in thick and fast. We had just enough time for the obligatory summit selfie before navigating our way back down during a blizzard. The weather report had predicted snowfall in the evening, but that's mountaineering for you!
We were delighted to arrive at our lodge in Imlil for the night, quite ready for some more tajine and some mint tea. Our room was simple, but sophisticated; the beds were warm and cozy, the shower had hot water, and there was a stuttering Wi-Fi signal, everything we could've wanted. In the morning, our host had prepared us a glorious breakfast and arranged for our ride back to Marrakesh.
By this point, the snow had reached Imlil, and we were looking forward to the dryer weather and the chance to explore the city, especially the medina and its vibrant markets. We were able to enjoy a well-earned cold one in the airport before a few high fives and some back slaps, and then we were on our separate ways...until next time!
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