How do I get there?
Easyjet and Ryanair amongst others, fly into Marrakech. EasyJet of course having the best baggage allowance (20kg). Cost approx £120 return per person.
You basically have 3 choices about what to do on arrival which will partly depend on the flight times:
a) Stay a night in Marrakech. Not really necessary unless you get a late flight.
b) Travel direct to the refuge (taxi to Imlil then walk.) Possible in a day, but overnighting in Imlil (over 1700m altitude) will certainly help with acclimatisation.
c) Go direct from the airport to Imlil, stay overnight in the village then trek to the hut the next day. Better for acclimatisation plus you don't run the risk of getting to the hut in the dark.
We paid 300DH for a taxi from the airport to Imlil. Other people we met paid 650DH so it's a matter of haggling and threatening to take the bus to town! I'm still not convinced we got the best deal possible but £25 for 2 people for over an hour's trip didn't worry us unduly. There are local buses from Marrakech to Asni (a town maybe half an hour away from Imlil) from where you could also get a taxi for the remainder of the journey. However, since this would mean bus to city centre (No. 19, cost 20DH per person,) bus to Asni, taxi to Imlil then I imagine it would be more time consuming and stressful than simply haggling for a taxi all the way.
Plenty of cheap hostels to stay in and no need to book in advance. We did book since we didn't know what it would be like and stayed at Dar Adrar, a Mountain House in Berber run by a local guide. Taxis stop in the main square (where there are other hostels) and this place was a 10min walk uphill from there, carrying all the bags. It's also possible to stay in Aroumd, a village 30mins further up but again, you'll be carrying everything or taking a mule from the taxi rank.
Mules and porters:
Aroumd - just above Imlil, on the trek to the refuge.
© Caralynr, Jan 2009
From Imlil it was just over a 5hr trek to the hut with about 1500m ascent. It's certainly possible to do this with no support if you have a large rucksack and no other luggage. However, bear in mind the ascent and altitude (and the fact that in my case I hadn't done even a short walk for 2 months before going!) and you may decide to use the excuse of “supporting the local economy” and take a mule. In our case we also didn't want anything other than daysacks for walking/climbing so chucked the rest of the kit in a large duffel bag.
Contrary to what is written in some guidebooks, mules *do* go above the snowline. They stop however, where the path becomes sheet ice. In January 2009 this was about 2/3 of the way along the track. Therefore if you do not want to carry large kitbags, ensure you have negotiated for porter transport after the mules stop! One party we met had paid for mules, but no porters so had to struggle when the muleteer turned round. Muleteers are to be found in the square in Imlil or can be arranged through the hostels. Costs seem to be anywhere from 600 – 1100DH for a return journey depending on if you have a porter as well. It may seem expensive (and a rip off when you have a muleteer that then leaves his mule and turns into a porter, so you think you've paid for 2 guys but only one does the work!) but for us it was part of the experience and something we'd budgeted for. Ours was also utterly reliable, was where he would be when he said he would be, every time and full of good humour.
UIAGM guides are available through the guides office in the main square in Imlil. Mohammed Aztat, the owner of Dar Adrar is apparently one of the best. Do you need a guide? I'd say almost definitely not. There's certainly no obligation and anyone with winter / nav experience shouldn't have a problem going solo.
Before we went it seemed there was a lot of confusion about new and old huts and the facilities they have. So, a few facts:
- There is NO such hut as the Neltner Hut. The old CAF hut was called this and still is in some places hence some confusion when reading guidebooks, maps etc.
- There is an old CAF hut that is now a summer muleteer's shelter.
- The new CAF hut (Refuge du Toubkal) has heating downstairs but no heating in the damp dorms. I'm unsure if they cook dinner for you.
- The private Les Mouflons hut has no heating at all but they have a roaring log fire going in the main room and do hearty local meals in the evening. We stayed here and although it was -1C in the dorm (clean, modern, loads of fluffy blankets) and “dressing for dinner” meant “drag yourself away from the fire, put belay jacket on, and sit down,” we liked it (take crampons for the upstairs loo – the floor was sheet ice last week!) You will need a good, warm sleeping bag for either hut so factor this in when deciding for or against mule transport.
- Cost for Les Mouflons was 180DH per person per night including breakfast (bread, cheese, butter, jam and coffee) and dinner (various local dishes and plenty of it.) Cooked lunch available (for when you get down off the mountains) at extra cost – we didn't bother.
- Les Mouflons does vegetarian food with advance notice – we found this very useful and easy.
- Both huts are next to each other at 3207m altitude.
- Both huts let you cook your own food in return for some payment for gas. There is no need to worry about stoves or fuel if you want to self-cater.
Local maps only seem to be 1:100000 scale. Stanfords do a pretty good 1:50000 map which we used. Cost about £13 but worth it. The hut also has a 1:40000 map on the wall which is a bit better but not available for purchase anywhere.
Summitpost has its usual good information on routes. We had intended to do the North Cwm route but due to weather and recent snowfall, stuck to the normal South Cwm instead. (Both routes graded F) This goes direct from the hut up a rather steep valley to the col at the top, then onto the summit ridge. Total time for ascent and descent, approx 5hrs. Descent in winter obviously speeded up by glissading large portions of it!
Other objectives in the area:
Toubkal summit - fkn freezing!!
© Caralynr, Jan 2009
Ouanoukrim, the 2nd highest mountain in the area has twin summits, Ras and Timesguida. Sadly, waist deep new snowfall and grade 4-5 avalanche risk meant we couldn't get up this but again, it's an F graded route. We also spied a nice gully going direct to the summit which we plan on doing next time (grade PD, tech I). Other than this, there are about 4 more 4000m+ peaks of various degrees of technicality. The hut has the Dec 08 copy of Desnivel with a huge feature on the High Atlas, so if you read Spanish there's loads to go at.
As mentioned above, our porter was waiting for us at 8am as agreed and took our bag down to the mule (all the new snow and lower freezing levels meant that this time the mule had only got halfway up.) He was also able to phone ahead for a taxi back to Marrakech for us, after yet another haggle over the cost. We had wondered about how to arrange this – in the end it was all very, very simple.
When to go:
The hut guardians said that December/January were the coldest months with most snow. In Jan 09 there was snowfall in Imlil and below, so down to 1700m if not lower. The new snow falling when we were there was a nuisance but we were told that after February, everything starts to melt. I'd go again at the same time of year – after all, trekking up through snow with mules is all rather picturesque!
We stayed a couple of nights in Marrakech to finish the trip, since Jez hadn't been there before. I won't put any details about this though because it's not strictly mountain related and info is freely available elsewhere. One thing to note though – take cash! When we were there, there was some fault with international bank transactions and we weren't able to withdraw anything from cashpoints, banks, or even use paypal! Luckily the owner of the place we stayed in Marrakech was very understanding! It's also very useful to have a working knowledge of French. I don't think I had any meaningful conversations in English (except perhaps with Mohammed, the owner of Dar Adrar), and spoke mostly French and some Spanish when in Morocco.
What would I do differently?
I do plan to return, probably next year to have a go at some other peaks in the area. This time we took a single axe each, crampons, harness, lids and a 30m length of “just in case” rope. Conditions meant that anything other than axe and crampons wasn't used but next time I'd also take a deadman (loads and loads of deep snow,) half a set of nuts and possibly a skinny 50m rope. I'd also not spend long in Marrakech. I know, to paraphrase people could say, “oh, if you're bored of Marrakech, you're bored of life” but I've been there quite a bit now and I don't need to see any more souks, snake charmers or salesmen thanks. I'd get the same flight in (arrives mid morning) then the morning flight out, the day after returning from Imlil. Finally, I'd buy more supplies in Imlil rather than rely on the hut. We knew basics could be bought there and weren't planning on big lunches anyway, but 40DH for a large slab of chocolate was a bit much!
Mountain Rescue mule??!
© Caralynr, Jan 2009