Into The Clouds - Trekking Toubkal Mountain

Morocco has always been ingrained in my adventurous self. I first travelled to Morocco circa 1987 when my parents took me on a very exciting (and at times scary) camping trip around Morocco. This was not an easy feat back then. Nevertheless I never forgot the sense of adventure, adrenaline and the smell of foreign culture which one can say cemented into my personality. 

So on my path to become The Explorer Doc and an Expedition doctor, in order to help others achieve their dreams to travel adventurously, an opportunity came when I found out that Wilderness Medical Training (WMT) was running a Mountain Medicine Expedition Course in Morocco which hiked the Toubkal Mountain. I did not have to think twice. I absolutely loved this course and if you're interested, WMT is doing another course from 29th September – 5th October 2018. Look here for more details. 

Here is my experience and hopefully, allong the way you will find some useful TIPS.

The beautiful colours and shades of the High Atlas - Morocco

Day 1 - Arrival

I flew from London Gatwick to the Menara Airport in Marrakech. This beautiful brand new airport blew my mind. It is gorgeous, wide, clean and easy to navigate. There was though, a long queue in customs. Although not clear why the delay, as they seemed to be quite well staffed, the crowd was just gigantic. 

Tip 1: Bring a pen with you, it will be easier to fill in your details and joining the queue as soon as possible
Tip 2: Confirm if you need a Visa before travelling: Try Morocco Visa online for a useful Visa check and application (if required)

As we arrived quite late, we were driven straight away to Imlil, our base for our course and for our initial acclimatisation. Once at Imlil we needed our head torches for walking up to the hotel. Our luggage was carried up by mules as you can see from the video. This was so much fun! 

 
 

Day 2 - Imlil

We were incredibly lucky to be able to stay in one of the National Geographic's Unique Lodge of the World: Kasbah du Toubkal. The Kasbah was once in ruins and in 1989, Mike McHugo, a traveler and explorer who fell in love with Morocco, came across the ruins and soon developed the idea of reconstructing what had once been a local feudal lord holiday home. It was a very difficult reconstruction as electricity did not come the village until 1997 and therefore, until then, hardly any power tools were used. 

The Kasbah du Toukbal sits on a privileged slope of the Imlil Town

Since then, this piece of berber architecture has allowed many people to experience the berber lifestyle but it is also a unique experience with some quite luxurious rooms.  

The famous Hollywood director Martin Scorsese chose this place for filming his worldwide acclaimed movie - Kundun. 

Since then Mike McHugo, who we had the opportunity to meet, has developed many social and charitable projects in the area, particularly around education of children and has since then allowed many young girls to be able to attend school. 

 
 

On the second day we were extremely lucky to have met the current UK ambassador for Morocco - Mr Thomas Reilly. He has worked in both counter-terrorism and Global Warming as a diplomat for many years and we had the opportunity to listen to a very smart, funny and interesting talk about his previous personal experience in some very scary scenarios. Yikes! 

Our first day would mostly be used for acclimatisation and we had very interesting talks from our instructors. We learned about hypothermia, tropical medicine (including how to recognise different venomous snake families and how to treat bites), teaching navigation techniques and much more. 

We went trekking for a 6 km walk to Around, near Imlil, where we had the opportunity to learn how to do rope knots to secure people, train navigation skills and learn how manage a crisis and developed the necessary communication skills when things go wrong. What a fabulous way to learn! 

At night we had the opportunity to hear about the absolutely amazing experience of one of our instructors regarding his climb to the EVEREST at 8848 metres high! 

It was a gentle but long day and early at night we went back to sleep in our berber salons where 9 were sleeping. Apart from being a bit noisy, the room was quite comfortable and the view tremendous. 

I strongly recommend taking some ear plugs and there is nothing like Mac's silicone ear plugs. These are a must with any trip I make! 

Day 3 - Hike around Imlil

On this day The Explorer Doc (me) 🤠, and the rest of the group participated on a few lectures about taking care of eye conditions while on expedition and how to deal with other types of injuries. We started early and after the delicious breakfast at the Kasbah, we set out for a much longer walk. 

Tip 3 - Use the following as a full day hike example around Imlil. It works well for aclimmatisation and it is beautiful

 We were driven by truck to Tizi-n-Tamatert, a mountain pass East of Imlil. It took us 20 minutes. You can walk up and it will take you around 2-3 hours. Please see the map below and you can see the path you can take. This is better done quite early before the weather gets quite hot and you will still have quite a long day ahead of you. Make sure you bring plenty of water or water purification tablets. 

We then went down to the town of Tinerhourhine, crossed a small bridge and walked along East to the small stream up to the town of Ikkiss.  Along the way we saw some people carrying fruits, doing their washing and some children playing. Most kids were extremely happy and you always have to wonder how good it is to be far from all the modern technologies that somehow manipulate how you live your live these days. 

The landscape was bare and the houses mostly made by mud and straw bricks, almost camouflaging them against the arid mountains of the Atlas. 

We then turned left and west and started a somewhat steep climb. After an initial area close to the stream where the trail goes slightly missing, we found the path again and started our climb.

Tizi-n-tamartet
Hike around Aourtit 'Ouassif

Hike around Aourtit 'Ouassif

On our way back to Imlil, after Tizi-n-Aguersioual, we took a small trail southwest. Please note that there is an easier trail down the mountain, well marked on the topographic maps (ESSENTIAL). Trekking this trail is at places less obvious and some passage areas can be tricky and slippery. I would probably advise you not to do this on your own if your not very experienced.

We arrived to the Kasbah just after sunset, just in time for a quick but relaxing Hammam session. 

Day 4 - Imlil to the Refuge

We woke up to another delicious early berber breakfast at the Kasbah. As expected we had a few more teaching lectures which kept us on our toes about medical problems that arise from an expedition, sometimes in quite remote areas.

After sorting our backpacks for the next few days we set out for the hike between Imlil and the advanced base camp at 3200 metres where the Refuge Les Mouflons is based. 

This serves as hostel, restaurant, shop and camping ground for visitors and trekkers to the Toubkal National Park and Toubkal summit. 

There are multiple ways to get to the refuge but we took the most popular (and easy) one. 

Hike to the refuge @Gaiagps

Hike to the refuge @Gaiagps

 

Many hostels and accommodation arrange guided trekking tours which include transport of your baggage up to the heights. In fact, on our trip up, we often had to give passage to the mules and muleteers carrying goods and luggage up and down the mountain.

Up the mountain, in September, the air becomes colder. It is good to take a few layers with you, including waterproofs as it is common for clouds to form in the evening and rain is not so rare. We all found that the hiking effort was enough to keep us warm during our hike up. 

 

 

It is a 14 km hike form Imlil. It took us 5 hours and 20 minutes with a few stops on the way. We took a longer stop at Sidi Chamharouch. This is a small area of coffees and shops built around a white painted stone. We had a wonderful sugary mint tea to gather strength for the last stretch. We saw many well dressed moroccan ladies riding mules up to the sanctuary. Sidi (Saint) Chamharouch is the Kings of Jinns (devils) and some locals believe that mental health problems can be cured by sacrificing animals close to this stone. Fortunately we did not see any sacrifice. 

On our arrival to the refuge, at sunset, we could start feeling some of the effects of the altitude. I was starting to develop a mild headache and steps were being harder to take. It also started to rain and the clouds were enveloping the Toubkal massif. 

Tip 4 - Water is limited up the refuge. Avoid buying bottled water and take water purification tablets or a water purification system for your reusable hydration system. You can then easily refill at the refuge.

 

The small sanctuary stone of Sidi Chamharouch with the holy stone in white

The small sanctuary stone of Sidi Chamharouch with the holy stone in white

After a well deserved soup at the refuge we had a few more teaching sessions. After this a big storm developed and we could hear the howling sounds of the wind and heavy rain bashing against the windows.

I was quite concerned that this would mean our trek up the Toubkal the next morning would need to be cancelled due to the conditions of the trail. Although the instructors were positive, I could feel some apprehension. 

Around 9 pm I felt my headache was significantly stronger. I had to take some paracetamol and I could feel the altitude. I was not hungry and sipping water did not feel comfortable. I was having mild symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness). I went to bed hoping sleep would make me feel better. 

Tip 5 - Showering facilities at the refuge are limited. Bring some wet wipes and alcohol gel (and taken them back with you)

 

Day 5 - Up to the clouds

I had a terrible night and could not sleep. I did not make it easy on my bunk buddies either as I kept turning all night. My headache was the same or worse. My stomach was tied up in a knot and I just felt strange. 

Nothing that would prevent me from going up, but I was concerned about worsening as I was going up. I discussed this with the team doctor who said he wasn't feeling great either which was oddly reassuring at the time. 

Tip 6 - If you are not used to the altitude, I would recommend against going up without a guide and would definitely make sure you acclimatise for a few days so you can enjoy your trek even more. 

Up the mountain, the clouds were covering the summit and we could see it had snowed quite a lot so it remained uncertain whether we could summit.

It took us about 4 hours to get to the summit. Visibility was reduced and the conditions were slippery but we all made it. Has I started to go up I started to feel much better from the general sickness although as you approached the summit each step was slow and felt like a small victory. At 360 metres form the top I started pacing (counting my steps to establish the distance walked) so I could feel motivated about the distance getting smaller.

View and camping from the Refuge

View and camping from the Refuge

On top of the mountain my oxygen levels were around 84% (when they normally should be above 96%). Each step was tough but it was absolutely worth it. I decided to film a short video going up and you can see how breathless I was. The video isn't great as I am not sure I was thinking straight but you can see also see the surrounding conditions.

 
 

 

The sensation of victory did not come from the view as it was overcast and we could see very close to nothing.  But the challenge, the mental struggle and sensation of achievement was quite like nothing else I had experienced. As a doctor, feeling AMS myself is quite useful to understand how others might feel when I am trying to help them. 

On our descent we had to be very careful with the slippery ice but fortunately we all came down very safely. 

Tip 5 - Take walking/hiking poles with you

On that same day we went back to the refuge where we stayed another night enjoying our sense of achievement around the fireplace and going through some of the last details and teaching of the course. 

Day 6 - Down and Away

On the next day we woke up to a beautiful sunrise and after our breakfast we headed back to Marrakesh. We still saw some beautiful mountain scenery and the light that day was just stunning. 

This was the end of our High Atlas experience. We were knackered but delighted with our experience and I could not stop thinking about my next adventure climbing a mountain. 

I hope you enjoy this account and that you find it useful setting out on your own adventure! Please ask me any questions and I'll try to help and I'd be more than happy to read your comments. Explore More. Explore Safe.