For those looking for a winter mountaineering fix, the Moroccan High Atlas range offers a very different experience compared with the often fickle UK winter climbing conditions. Coupled with the contrasting North African Arabic/Berber culture, a winter climbing trip to Morocco is much more than just big mountains and technical routes.
During the summer, Mount Toubkal provides a popular cooling respite for overcooked tourists from Marrakech, who undertake the hike to bag the highest summit in North Africa. However during the winter, the range is transformed into an alpine playground with numerous winter walking, technical mixed and ice climbing routes, all easily accessible from several guarded refuges.
Climbing Area and Logistics
The Toubkal valley of the High Atlas range is accessed from the base village of Imlil – approximately 90 mins drive from Marrakech. Used to the summer rush of tourists, Imlil is well equipped with hostels and eateries as well as a guide's office and a few 'equipment shops'. Despite this, don't rely on these to get hold of gear or mountain food as the offerings are quite basic, especially if planning on undertaking long and technical routes.
In terms of places to stay in Imlil, the Dar Adrar hostel is a clean, warm and friendly hostel run by an English speaking guide who is very helpful. Another option is the Hotel Soleil Imlil, run by Abdulatef ,a basic, but very friendly and safe hostel. Again the owner is very helpful. Alternatively, the Kasbah du Toubkal is an upmarket Riad for a more luxurious stay in Imlil.
In order to get to the refuges in the climbing area, a trek south from Imlil through the villages of Aroumd and Sidi Chamharouch takes 4-6 hours following the valley base with the mountains rising either side. If you're feeling fit (and cheap) it's possible to carry all of your kit, but many use mules and porters available from Imlil and Aroumd. The daily rate for mules is currently around 130 Dh a day (but this doesn't include tip, or responsibility to feed and shelter the muleteer if on a multi-day trek). Be wary that the mule may stop at the snow line, necessitating yourself or the porter to carry your kit the remaining distance to the huts.
Hiring a guide for the day costs around 300 Dh, but bear in mind, most guides are only familiar with the three major summits (Toubkl, Ras and Timesaguida). Many opt for a complete package, including accommodation in Imlil, guides, porters, transfers and half-board in the refuges. These packages can be arranged by the refuges or an accommodation provider in Imlil (i.e. Dar Adrar and Hotel Soleil)
Once in the climbing area, there is a choice of two refuges: the Mouflons Hut or the CAF - Refuge du Toubkal, both guarded offering beds and full dinner service. The Mouflons hut is privately owned by the local Berbers and is the far less busy of the two huts, although the CAF is slightly cheaper – especially if a member of an alpine club. The food in the CAF is also more varied, and hot showers are available. Both can get very cold at night, so definitely take a 3-4 season sleeping bag and be prepared for snorers in addition to the 6 am punter headlight disco!
It is possible to camp outside the refuges for approximately 70 pence per night per tent if you are on a super tight budget (or don't like sharing with people who snore).
The highest peak, Toubkal (4167m) on the west side of the huts can be climbed by several great routes, the West flank being the voie normale (F) which is a direct hike from the huts and the best route in descent. The South West (Ouanoums) ridge (AD-) is an excellent sustained rock route with a grade IV corner pitch taking in the subsidiary Toubkal West peak (4001m). However, the finest route has to be the South East ridge (D-), a long complex route, with rock and mixed sections crossing out of the valley over the Tizi-Ouanoums col onto the East side of the mountain giving stunning views with an air of isolation. If the snow is firm, there is a choice of three technical couloirs on the West face of Tete Ounanoums (all three graded at AD – D depending on conditions) ultimately leading to Toubkal West.
Alternatively, a non-technical but lengthy trekking route, involving a bivvy, starts with an Eastern ascent from Sidi Chamharouch and traverses the ridge from North to South, taking in several summits before finishing on Toubkal.
On the west side of the huts, facing Toubkal, is Biguinnousenne (4002m), featuring a jagged ridge punctuating the skyline. The traverse of the Clochectons (bell-towers) and Biguinnousenne (AD+) is another fine route ascending a wide couloir to a col, and traversing North across a technical rock ridgeline over the 'bell-towers' to the summit, then further to a descent couloir back to the hut.
Further south-west in the valley, there are several other worthwhile 4000m peaks easily accessible from the huts, including the second and third highest in the range: Ras and Timesguida Ouanoukrim (4089m), as well as Akioud (4030m) and Afella (4043m). The most difficult alpine routes in the valley can are found on the East face of Afella with several TD offerings.
For a truly isolated mountaineering experience, the Tazaghart valley East over from Biginoiuseenne has several established routes, served by the Tazaghart (formerly Lepiney hut). Most of these routes take the couloirs to the Tazaghart summit plateau (3980m) via several narrow technical couloirs graded between AD+ and TD. However, the hut can only be accessed when the guardian is summoned from his village near Aroumd!
It's certainly worth bringing two axes and a few ice screws as all along the climbing valley, numerous ice cascades form a short distance from the huts. This allows quick access (10 – 60 minutes) to up to 3 pitch ice routes. Many of the routes are at accessible grades between WI 2 and 3+, however when the ice is bullet hard in early season, it can certainly pack a punch! A few particularly good spots include 10 mins south of the huts where the river has cut a cascade (WI 2), further south in the valley on the West side between the Akioud and Ras corries (WI 2-3).
South West of the hut on Biguinnousenne is a narrow couloir split into two icefalls, one with huge chockstone forming a tunnel (WI 3+). On the opposite side of the huts just north of the voie normale for Toubkal are a series of easy icefalls which get plenty of sun. Finally, 30 mins further north of the huts on the trail back to Sidi Chamharouch, a long ice curtain forms on the east side.
Moroccan High Atlas Winter Mountaineering
The first snow falls towards the end of November, with the climbing season running through to March/April. The coldest months are December and January, but depending on snowfall, the winter climbing season can last until April, after which there is plenty of opportunity for long days on the rock routes. The weather tends to be stable until a storm rolls in, which can last many days. In which case, an early retreat to Marrakech before returning to the area in better weather can be an option. Accurate weather forecasts and conditions reports once up in the mountains are basically non-existent, so you'll have to use your own well informed judgement (or a chat with a friendly mountain guide).
How to get there
Easyjet and Ryanair both fly to Marrakech for less than £200 return including hold luggage. There is plenty of information on getting to Imlil from either the airport or centre of town on the internet. In a nutshell, for the least amount of hassle and convenience, you can often arrange a transfer from your accommodation provider in Imlil. Realistically expect to pay £25-35. Otherwise, and this is more useful if staying in Marrakech first: Head to the south of the Old City (Medina) to the gate of Bab Rob. This is a large taxi station with serves south of the city. Haggle a taxi to Asni – a town just outside of the mountains approx 16km from Imlil. From here you can change taxi to finish the journey.
How long to go for
2 to 3 weeks is an ideal length of time to get a load of routes done in the mountains and have time to explore Marrakech. Bearing in mind how long it takes to get to Scotland for that magical week in the Cairngorms/Glencoe, getting to Imlil from the south of England can often be quicker! Therefore, it is possible to do a trip in a week.
What's the Scoff like
In the mountains, the food is generally limited to Tagine, cous-cous or pasta and can be repetitive if you're staying high for a while (bring some condiments!). Harira, a hearty broth with chickpeas is also commonly dished up as a starter. Other, more western options are available in Imlil, but tend to be abstract or involve the chef having to go shopping first! However, the night markets in the central square of Marrakech (Jemaa el Fna) make up for the simple mountain food. Here, kebabs, cous-cous snails, pigeons baked in pies and even sheep's heads are on the menu. Owing to the prevalent Muslim population, alcohol is hard to come by, especially in the hills. Instead, 'Berber Whiskey' - extremely sweet mint tea is served up virtually everywhere.
Des Clarke's Cicerone guide 'Winter Mountaineering in the High Atlas' is a great guidebook with plenty information on getting from airport to summit. It contains a range of routes from walks, scrambles to mid-grade technical climbs and is available here. For more technical climbing routes in the area, the Desnivel guidebook is certainly worth a look as it contains multi-day treks, technical mixed, ice and climbing routes. However it is written in Spanish.
Other things to do
A couple of days in Marrakech during your trip is a must; staying in the Medina (old town) for the full Moroccan experience. It really is a vibrant, cultural and wacky place. Once you've had enough of Marrakech – which is possible in a few days, book an excursion to the desert, gorges, beaches etc. Information on these options is plastered all over the net. Around Imlil, there are a variety of hikes and treks which supply beautiful views of the Atlas foot hills. After January when the snow depth is greatest, a trip to Oukaimeden – Morocco's only ski resort is worth a visit, being only 1 hour drive from Imlil.
Hints and Tips
Accept that you will have to haggle for virtually everything you purchase whilst in Morocco, especially in Marrakech. Some things, such as refuge and hostel prices are fixed, which can be a relief. As a general rule, try to knock the price down to a third of their initial offer.
Hygiene and sanitation is basic in Morocco; with traveller's illness prevalent amongst many tourists. Getting ill whilst in the mountains can easily scupper any ascent plans. Take hand sanitiser, and stay vigilant with hygiene.
Although the native languages are Berber and Arabic, many locals also speak French, therefore a working knowledge of French will go a long way.
The mountain rescue is very limited, and consists of assembling the local guides to assist in a rescue. We found that there were few experienced alpinists in the area at the time we visited who could also assist, so self reliance is key. This is especially valid for the longer more isolated routes which leave the safety of the valley. In this sense it is well worth leaving your itinerary and ETA with an English speaking guide staying at the same refuge.