There are few places in the world as magically haunting as the land of the Berbers, where the snow-tipped Atlas peaks stretch southwards towards the Sahara, looming in tranquil splendour over the hullabaloo of Marrakech.
A winter ascent of Jbel Toubkal – the tallest jewel in this range – when it is covered in snow is a true physical and mental challenge, and a great initiation into the world of mountaineering: but one that doesn’t require you to dangle over precipices at the end of a rope. It’s a tough two-day trek, if you are lucky with the weather; the altitude of 4,167m is rasp-inducing but bearable, and the peak you aspire to is only an hour from Marrakech. Where else could you do serious mountaineering one day and be sunbathing on a riad rooftop the next?
Leaving the office for Gatwick, I check the local weather on Jbel on my phone to learn that there has been unseasonably heavy snow in the Atlas Mountains for the past two days. This means that any summit attempts will be as tough as they can possibly be. On the three-hour 37-minute flight to Marrakech I try to catch a few winks – a plan thwarted by the noisy family in front of me.
A 20-minute taxi ride takes me to the very heart of the medina; a series of ever narrowing streets lead to a door, behind which is the hushed courtyard of orange trees and ornate, trickling bathing pool of the Riad Farnatchi. It’s luxury of the most intricately designed sort here, and I am quickly whisked off to the hammam. My skin is thoroughly scoured before I am covered in a eucalyptus-soap mask and doused with buckets of hot water.
I move to a dimly lit room for a massage; the transcendental tones of the muezzins’ call to prayer hover over the city, relaxing my mind and body into a near-somnambulant state.
There’s still time for a late, stamina-building feast to stock up on energy reserves for the trek ahead. The sweet and savoury delicacy of pigeon pastilla is accompanied by spiced lambs’ testicles and ox heart, to make my stomach as stout as a Berber’s. Sated, I crash.
It’s up early for the 40-minute drive to the mountain village of Imlil. The landscape changes with marvellous rapidity outside the city walls; there’s been a three-day blizzard in the area – virtually unheard of this time of year. From Imlil, it’s a short hike up to the Kasbah du Toubkal, a stunning lodge situated 1,800m above sea level and boasting the best mountain views of any hotel in Morocco. I leave most of my luggage here for my return.
I don my winter gear and we set off with my guide, Omar Imrhane, plus two mules and two porters carrying bedding, food, crampons and ice axes. Omar first climbed Jbel when he was 16 and says he is only one of two guides qualified to make such a winter ascent. The climb requires no permits or fees; it is a fairly straightforward task to trek in summer, but gets exponentially more challenging – and can be downright dangerous – in the winter months.
It takes me a while to acclimatise to the altitude and cold as we trek slowly along a long valley and then climb its sides. I spy a mountain goat on a precarious perch just above where we stop for a lunch of flat bread, cheese and mint tea at a shack in the foothills. Ah yes, mint tea; “the Berber whisky”, as Omar jokes, a little repetitively, whenever he sips one – inevitably causing my mind to stray to single malt rather than the insipid green leaves that fuel the locals.
The mules only last 100m or so before the snow is too deep. They are sent back; the poor porters, now dwarfed by their loads, look for all the world like they are carrying giant snail shells.
The going starts to get steep. It’s below freezing, but I sweat even as my feet grow numb. Fuelled with dates and nuts, we sink to our knees in snow, but keep up a steady pace. This preliminary hike to the Neltner Lodge, set at 3,200m, takes us around six hours. Only the very occasional sunbeam breaks through the bitterly cold cloud around us, fleetingly lighting snow crystals in our path.
We pass a Czech trekker lying down in his sleeping bag; he seems a little on edge. We give him chocolate and water and tell him to come with us, but he waves us on. Later, we learn that he had been separated from his friends and had spent the previous night out in the blizzard; but he made it to the lodge a little while after we did. It’s a stark warning of the conditions.
We arrive through deep snow at the lodge, which looks – and feels – like a Moroccan Colditz, full of trekkers literally trying to escape. None has yet been able to reach the summit, and even two top Italian mountaineers are saying it’s impossible with this much snow.
My spirits are low; it looks like there’s no chance of going up unless the weather changes drastically, and my tight schedule means I cannot wait a day. So I settle into the banter over couscous, spiced beef and yet more “Berber whisky”. I learn that the first-ever European ascent of Jbel was in 1923 by the Marquis de Segonzac, Vincent Berger and Hubert Dolbeau; but Berbers had surely climbed it for hundreds of years before.
We seem to have slept under a lucky star: the sky is clearing. We will start our summit push in daylight, when the deep snow has frozen a little more.
Blue skies all around. I peel myself out of a warm sleeping bag and cram down another huge omelette: we’re going for it.
Omar points out that a successful summit attempt looks unlikely; the conditions are still very tough, and he reckons it could take us four or five hours to reach it, meaning we won’t get back to the Kasbah du Toubkal before 9pm. The ascent will be a brutal assault on our stamina, our balance and our nerves.
Leaving the porters at the lodge we head off, with a bottleneck of climbers ahead of us. We forego the crampons many of the serious mountaineers are wearing and scramble up, on our hands and knees when it gets steep. For some strides the frozen snow crust holds firm, for others I half sink in; and on the odd one or two my leg disappears into the depths and I have to push myself out with my hands. It’s like a painfully slow, sinking version of snakes and ladders.
It’s also demoralising; and one section of rock and ice has my heart in my mouth as I scrabble to clamber up it. But we set a rhythm of sorts, and after five hours of lung-bursting hiking we reach the steep lip leading to the final ridge traverse. Even Omar suffers cramp at this stage – not the best sign, I think to myself. We tread steeply to the right, now actively pushing down into the snow to keep rooted to the mountain; a fall to the left, and it would all be over.
Near the summit comes the greatest test. The last few steps are tougher than I’d thought possible – up ahead we see a Spanish girl go down with altitude sickness – but finally, we make it. At the height of the summit, it feels as if we are on the edge of the world, the snow-capped peaks all around mingling with threads of pink-tinged clouds.
The euphoria is brief; time is ticking and we have to get back. We descend at a rapid speed, my mind already straying to the deep bath in my room. Going downhill we really let go, running and treading snow, inevitably going head over heels from time to time. Between the snow and the altitude it’s been the ultimate leg workout: 12 hours up in nearly two days, and only four hours down in the final afternoon.
Lower down we pass through dense layers of cloud; the Atlas becomes a Tolkien-esque world of jagged rock and mist-shrouded valleys. We descend the last few kilometres in the dark, utterly ready for the hammam and delectable dinner of chicken tagine that awaits at the Kasbah du Toubkal.
I am almost asleep on my feet. My body is battered, my face wind- and cold-ravaged. I fall into the land of nod.
I wolf down yoghurt, honey, fresh bread and eggs. The airport is less than an hour away by taxi transfer, and it’s only about two before I’m winging my way back to London. It was a small summit in serious mountaineering terms, made daunting by a fluke of the weather; but those tough, tough first and last steps to find out what it’s all about were worth it.