Hiking The Highest Mountain in North Africa

At 4,167 meters (13,671 feet), Mt. Toubkal is the highest peak in Morocco, in North Africa, and in the entire Arab world. And we hiked it last week. It was the hardest hike I’ve ever done.

Adam planned this trip right when we first arrived to Morocco back in September. Perhaps he thought climbing a high mountain would be a good allegory for what he had just accomplished: Passing his Arabic exam after an intensive nine months of study at a language school in Rabat. I had the trip in the back of my mind but didn’t give it much thought until a week or two before, which is when I started to worry. I had gotten altitude sickness upon landing in Bogota, which is 5,000 feet lower than Toubkal. And while I’m in pretty good shape, (I’ve developed a consistent gym and walking routine here in Rabat) could I handle that much walking and climbing? My fears were partially assuaged by reading blogs by young women who were like “I don’t work out and the hike was a little hard, but totally fine” and other folks I know at the embassy said similar things. Difficult but manageable.

Adam, three friends visiting from Washington DC, and me set off from Rabat and spent Tuesday night Marrakesh to be close to the hike the following morning. We drove to the village of Imlil early Wednesday and met our guide, Jamal, from Berber Travel Adventures, a guiding company I whole heartedly recommend. One friend – an emergency department doctor whose presence was a comfort to me – was quite sick with a stomach issue and decided to stay back. Our guide checked him into our lodging for the following night, the serene Kasbah du Toubkal, and the rest of us – our group included four hikers, two guides, two mules and a cook! – set off from Imlil for a four-hour trek to basecamp.

We stopped and had a nice lunch at a river/Muslim shrine along the way. Our package deal with Berber Adventures included a cook who prepared our meals, and I really appreciated the nice refreshing veggie salad he made for us at this stop. After lunch, more scenic and not too difficult hiking and some awesome goat and sheep sightings.

We arrived to basecamp (also called The Refuge) in time for late afternoon tea and popcorn, a beautiful sunset, and dinner. You have to stay at basecamp for the night to acclimate to the altitude. You can either camp in tents or stay in one of two buildings that have dorms, dining rooms, bathrooms, and showers. We stayed at the one called Les Mouflons.

Our group was in a small private room with a queen bunk bed (complete with pillows and blankets. Bring your own towel though). We figured after four hours of uphill hiking we’d all be plum tuckered and get a great night of sleep before our 4am wakeup for the ascent to the summit. Sadly, sleep eluded us. Except for Adam, whom I maintain could sleep on a tree branch during a hurricane and have the comfiest and coziest of nights. I also had a cold and it was hard for me to breath, so my body just wouldn’t doze off, save for maybe a 30 minute stretch. In the morning, Jamal asked if we had slept well and I said no, to which he replied “No one ever sleeps here! Not even me.” And he’s from those mountains! So sleepless night, plenty of instant coffee at 4:30am and we were off for the ascent.

I’d like to say it was a majestic and challenging climb. Truthfully, I was snotting like crazy and Adam taught me to shoot a snot-rocket, a skill I was initially repulsed by because I’m a lady and am I really gonna propel snot wads directly from my nose holes in public? But I was out of toilet paper or Kleenex with which to blow and my nose was so raw that I rather enjoyed surreptitiously launching mucus cannons along the route. But that about the only thing I enjoyed. It was damn hard and it only got harder as we climbed up and up into the ever thinner air. I was gasping for air, one in our group had a pounding headache, two had nausea. It felt dumb that I was doing this. Why was I climbing up onto an airless mountain, ascending through sheets of ice and snow and sharp rocks, what just so I could say I did? Am I so prideful I need to do things just to tell others I did them? Or is it about proving to yourself the power and endless capacity of the human body blah blah blah. I could barely gasp out “Why do humans climb mountains?” to Adam, because I was so breathless. He was doing totally fine, though.

It’s probably obvious, but this is my “Why do people climb mountains?” face.

We finally reached the summit and really those above-the-cloud views were so incredible that it felt possible that at some point in the future I’d consider the climb to be “worth it.”

So, yeah, it did feel like an accomplishment to reach the top. But you know what was far, far worse than climbing to the top? Getting the fuck down. It was so hard thanks to nature’s equivalent of scattering banana peels all around: Scree. Scree is small loose rocks mixed with dirt and it’s slippery as hell. There were many robust Germans doing this quick-footed little run down the mountain and it seemed to be working. I tried to mimic but not matter how I placed my feet, I ended up on my butt every 10 minutes or so. And it got incredibly difficult to get back up after all the little muscles in my feet, ankles, knees, and hips decided they’d had it. One fall was so bad that I threw my poles and told Adam to just leave me and I’d live on the mountain now. It was bad. After hours of teensy little steps and countless falls, I told him that it was the worst consecutive seven hours of my entire life.

Finally, finally, finally, we made it back to the basecamp. I was so physically and mentally spent that I could barely even eat lunch, let alone fathom that we’d have to walk ANOTHER FOUR HOURS back to Imlil. (Some folks do stay another night at the basecamp before hiking back to Imlil, but it’s not the nicest digs, there’s not much to do there, and the thought of another sleepless night in the basecamp was too much). I convinced our guide to give us 45 minutes and our two friends and myself took a luxurious half-hour nap. We actually slept! And after that, walking felt like perhaps not the worst thing in the entire world. I announced I had it in me to finish the hike just as I took a step outside of the refuge building onto the porch, landing on my 90-year-old ankle and it just rolled right over. I collapsed. Some fit and skillful Germans ran to my rescue.

I recovered from the porch fall – just one of many, many tumbles I had taken that day – and we set off. It wasn’t so bad this time, because were were steadily descending, but not on scree. After about three hours, two of us got to ride mules in for the home stretch. It was lovely being on top a mule at dusk riding into the village of Imlil.

What we were really doing the hike back for was to stay at the “Morocco’s premier mountain lodge” Kasbah du Toubkal. We had also left our sick friend there some 32 hours earlier. He felt almost completely recovered and had enjoyed convalescing in such a gorgeous setting. So after we made it back to our car, we drove to the top of a little mountain and then hiked down into Kasbah du Toubkal, which isn’t accessible by car. We finally were checked in around 8pm and some in the group used the self-service hammam. I took one of the top five showers of my life, which a delicious glass of Moroccan red wine in my soapy hand. We ate. And I slept. Oh how I did sleep.

A week after the hike, Adam and I were at the United States Embassy’s Independence Day celebration, the theme of which was Moon Landing. We stood in our red, white and blue and watched a film of JFK discussing what is the point even of going to the moon? We do these types of things “…not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Me and my dearest Danish friend enjoying the heck out of a moon landing theme American Independence Day party.

I’m not saying that this moderately in-shape girl from Michigan hiking a mountain you’ve probably never heard of is samesies as going to the moon. Although I bet the moon is covered in scree but probably the no gravity thing keeps you from going toe-up again and again. But JFK’s words felt prescient. I hiked that damn mountain because it was hard.

To climbing mountains or going to the moon or whatever,

Emily

4 Comments

  1. Emily,
    Enjoy reading your posts. You have come a long way since you taught my son, Ian, to tie his shoes when you guys were 5! Your mom and dad are so proud of you!…and a bit nervous at times, I’m certain!
    Linda Dackiw (Fullerton)

  2. Congratulations on your challenging accomplishment/summit achievement. Brought back a few of my own memories. “What does not kill you, makes you stronger! “,said someone. Loved reading about your adventure♡

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