The Route: Jebel Toubkal | Distance: 16.5km | Time: 12 Hours
Height gain: 967m | Max Altitude: 4167m | Start: Neltner Refuge | Finish: Imlil Village
Map: Orientazion – Toubkal Hiking Map ISBN: 9788493560003 | Date: 08/06/2014
There was no mistaking it there was definitely movement on a mass scale as people stumbled around in the dark gathering gear and buckling up! It was 4.00 a.m already and the last time I’d looked at my watch it read only 3.00 a.m. That hour or so earlier and in total darkness I’d crept up the stone stairwell in the refuge finally crawling into my sleeping bag having spent the previous precious hours cold and shivering downstairs on a hard bench.
But now it was time to move, time to get going, time to go and climb that bloody mountain! My God it was actually happening!
With no time left to confront my worries and fears I started to kit up like everyone else. A quick breakfast was wolfed down, headlamps attached and we all quickly congregated outside the refuge in the dark freezing air that is only found at such rare altitudes. It was so dark outside that if I raised my hand in front of my face I literally couldn’t see it! I wrestled relentlessly with my rucksack like a man demented, treble checking that I had water, treble checking that I had glucose bars, treble checking that I’d packed my down jacket etc, etc, etc. No time to waste!
Suddenly the berber porters started to chant, quietly at first, and then louder and louder, crescendoing in a deafening roar, fellow summit hopefuls who were on some kind of pilgrimage then started shouting out “Allahu Akbar” God is Great and suddenly I felt in a world very far away from home and a million miles or more from my green, leafy and very English suburban home.
All my fears, apprehensions and anxieties paled into the shadows as being in the moment began to take me over. No time to think about problems with altitude now, no time to worry about my insanely rumbling stomach cramps, no time to think of anything but being in the moment! And what a moment to be alive in! We were off!
I got my head down and focused solely on the heels of the man in front of me as per instructed. A procession of flickering headlamps started to slowly zig and zag it’s way up the rocky slopes like a long line of minuscule ants. I told myself to hang on in there whatever happened and not to lose the line, to keep to my set pace as instructed and to keep going until I reached the summit! No time now for self doubts, I was in it deep alright and so steeled myself to achieve my only objective, the only thing that mattered, the Summit!
Slowly the darkness turned to light and as the sun rose ever higher in the sky the mountainous valley that we were hiking up became bathed in golden rays of sunlight. The peaks started to reveal themselves to us and suddenly you had a real sense of where you were. I estimated there were around seventy people hiking to the summit that cold morning and the procession snaked it’s way up the gully in front of me for dozens of meters.
Eventually after several painstaking hours we reached the 4000m mark where our guide Omar turned around once more – as he had been doing the whole way up so far – to check on our well-being, a simple thumbs-up from us was all that was required as a sign signalling that we were indeed okay to carry on upward and onward.
At that 4000m mark we swung around left from the col to make the final summit push northwards. From here on in the warm confines of the sunlit gully disappeared and the cold winds that rushed over the col acquainted us with a deep chill.
At this point I inadvisedly made an attempt to eat my by now frozen Mars bar from deep inside my rucksack. I craved a much needed chocolate and glucose rush, but the bar was as solid as a brick, and as I fumbled to open it’s wrapper I found that my hands had already started to freeze solid and become immobile by the ever increasing chill and wind. Foolishly I had not bothered to get my gloves out as I’d been doggedly trudging up the path. My laziness would now haunt me as my fingers stung and were rendered useless. I asked my colleague Chris if he could help me with the wrapper and to help me closing my rucksack as I frantically rubbed my hands together now firmly encased in my gloves trying to goad them back into some sort of life.
The next member of the team to be in trouble was surprisingly Jason a veteran of several altitude climbs who somewhere after 4000 metres started to feel the slight effects of altitude and complained of mild dizziness and nausea. We stopped for a few minutes to let him recover only too aware that anyone of use could be afflicted by AMS.
With Jason now feeling suitably recovered we made (what we hoped) would be the final push for the summit. From here on in the ground got more interesting and trickier, our plod turned into more of a light scramble but at altitude even a bit of light scrambling can feel like hell. I began to wheeze and puff with every stride and foothold.
By now I was praying more than ever that I would see that famous summit structure very soon. That familiar pyramidal steel monstrosity recognised the world over that had become an emblem of the mountain became my only thought.
Then, just as I was tiring almost to the point of stopping dead on my feet I looked up one final time, and then there miraculously I saw it, that famous pyramid that I had seen in photos was sitting there right in front of me sitting astride the summit right within my grasp.
With a renewed spring in my step I made galloping strides towards the structure now feeling safe in the knowledge that nothing could stop me, not even the altitude because once on the summit plateaux the ground suddenly flattens out and the final slog to the peak is a relative breeze, well comparatively speaking.
At a few minutes past 8.00 am on June the 8th 2014 I stood ever so briefly as the highest human in North Africa as I stood alone atop the summit at 4,167 meters above sea-level. Ten seconds later and I was surrounded by people once again. A constant flow of souls jostled for their summit moment just as I had done briefly before them.
It was not peaceful, it was not even that joyous, all I really remember is a feeling of relief and of being very very cold. I did not really take in much of the sublime views and the only thought I had on my mind seemed to be of getting off and down again. The altitude worries of the night before still danced around in the recesses of my mind and although I had achieved my goal I still felt anxiety the longer we all stayed at the summit.
Omar sensing all in his team were either cold or shattered opted to leave after about 10-12 minutes and so it was that after four months of planning and preparation, several hundred pounds of money and a couple of thousand miles of travelling my great adventure had climaxed in fifteen minutes of glory. But I was ecstatically happy! I had achieved essentially what I had set out to achieve. I had summited my first high altitude mountain, I had done it the hard way with no acclimatisation period, no warm-up climbs and yet here I was on the roof of North Africa.
Of course we all still had to descend back down to the refuge and then after loading our heavy holdalls back onto our ever reliant mule we still had to hike the ten or so kilometres back to Imlil, but in essence the challenge had been met. We hiked back down quickly and as the meters decreased rapidly we indulged in some scree running as our energy levels renewed with every meter we dropped.
The return was relatively benign in every sense as we set off for Imlil leaving the confines of the Neltner Refuge behind us watching as the building complex disappeared slowly and gradually as if being swallowed up by the mountainous background around it.
Basking in the glory of our achievement we chatted happily as we walked and the time passed quickly. Emma did manage to twist her ankle slightly and we employed a passing mule as a taxi to ferry her down the last few miles, but in the wink of an eye we were back in Imlil.
Soon enough we found ourselves back in Marrakech on a dusty restaurant terrace looking out over the now familiar Djemaa el Fna Square absorbing all the sounds and smells that the rose red city has to offer the globe trotting traveller and adventurer.
That evening as we all walked back to our hotel rooms across the square amid the mass of tourists fresh off their EasyJet flights, or those having been shipped in on coaches to see a bit of the ‘real Morocco‘, we all looked at each other and I know deep down we all felt the same, that indescribable feeling that you have when you have just done something so mad and so far off the grid that only those who were there can ever fully appreciate it.
Jebel Toubkal changed me inside, it took me to places in my mind that scared me and brought me out the other side a different person, that in the end was the real journey and the real adventure, not the mountain itself or the foreign travel etc, etc, the real journey is always the journey of the mind, and by that reckoning this had been one hell of a trip!
The Highs and Lows of the hike
Special thanks must go to our guide Omar who made it all happen in Morocco and to KE Adventures for organising the trip.
Additional photography by Emma Sinclair – https://www.facebook.com/elsinclair/media_set?set=a.10152500861067792.1073741846.579417791&type=1
flickr Pics: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157644711701358/
Full mapping of the routes and GPX downloads available from: