The guy who ran the hotel Etoile Toubkal had lost a leg at the knee. I don't know whether that made him under or over-qualified to dish advice on a winter trek up Morocco's Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Either way, what he said was that we had to have a guide.
We smiled and told him we'd manage without. 'It is obligatory,' he tutted, shaking his head. 'In hut, no food. Food only with guide.'
A two-hour cab ride from Marrakech had brought us to Imlil. The trail up into the guts of the High Atlas range begins here, and with it the usual hard sell from the guides. We'd already decided to go it alone and according to them we were as good as dead. Only the young lad in the gear hire shop inspired any self-confidence as he quietly showed us the route on a map and sorted through a scrap heap of crampons for something that might stay on our boots.
Imlil is a muddied, one-track town. We'd arrived in winter, during Ramadan, and the plodding pace of Atlas village life had all but ground to a halt. Bony-arsed mules spent most of the day tethered in gloomy walnut groves, waiting for the occasional tourist with too-nice shoes and an awkward suitcase to haggle for a ride up the hill to the Kasbah du Toubkal, the poshest gaff in town.
Moroccans chewed their nails in lieu of the cigarettes denied by Ramadan. Some half-heartedly tried to flog us ceramics, hats, silver teapots and chunky hats and jumpers. Others lingered, looking like lost Star Wars extras under heavy, hooded robes, killing time until the droning chant of the local Imam broke the daily fast.
As the hour approached, waxy sides of meat and ropes of shiny entrails were spiked on hooks over marble slabs in hole-in-the-wall butchers. The general store sprung to life with eager hands raking sugared dates and scooping mounds of couscous into plastic bags. We joined the frenzy, stocking up on bread, cheese and biscuits for our trek.
We'd leave early the next day, aiming to put the six-hour slog to the CAF hut behind us by mid-afternoon. Meanwhile we filled up with an early dinner of couscous, potatoes, eggs and tomatoes stewed in heavy earthenware tagines before climbing the stairs to bed, sucking thin air against Imlil's 1740m of altitude.
In the morning we guiltily demolished a pile of bread dipped in oil and honey - washed down with mint tea - knowing that in obeying Ramadan the guy who put breakfast together wouldn't eat for hours. Then we set off shivering under brilliant blue skies, soon warmed by the pace of the walk and the rising sun. The landscape's reds and yellows glowed in the syrupy light of the new day.
Climbing up the valley into the hills we soon left Imlil behind. The tiny village of Tagadirt clung to the steep valley wall on our left. At Aroumd, a playground full of school kids pointed out our route across a wide, barren floodplain: 'Toubkal, Toubkal!' We followed behind a woman with a little girl and a doleful, plodding cow.
The path ascended steadily up the valley's left flank to Sidi Chamharouch, then up again over scree paths. The village seemed deserted apart from a couple of shivering, die-hard Berber traders hawking fossils, chunks of crystal and hand-knitted woolies.
Eating lunch perched on boulders above Sidi Chamharouch, we spied an ominous-looking weather front brooding in the north. Inevitably as we marched on it gave chase, sending out tendrils of white cloud to prod our backs.
Racing it was futile, and steadily the blue sky and snowy peaks were obliterated by grubby clouds. The temperature plummeted in what felt like seconds so, by the time we reached the snowline, the clouds were shedding spikes of sleet. Before the hut came into view, the sky was as dark and heavy as lead and we dropped our heads into the developing gale and flurries of fat, fluffy snowflakes. Finally we closed the hut door on the gathering storm and swapped our boots and packs for tatty hut slippers and mugs of sweet, black tea.
The hut was quiet – just a group of middle-aged trekkers on a guided tour of the High Atlas, the odd young couple and a crowd of East Europeans. The hut warden was nursing a dose of flu but between naps in his sleeping bag he was happy to negotiate an evening munch for us – revealing another fib from the Imlil guides.
As dusk fell the East Europeans got twitchy - one of their party were still out on the hill. By now the winds would be scouring its slopes and snow was falling heavily.
Suddenly, the hut door burst open and one of the party staggered in. Blood dripped from his mouth and a golf-ball size lump throbbed on his chin. His pals gasped as he told them more of their friends were still behind him. One had fallen and was injured. He assured them their mate was going to make it back down, but it wasn't enough for some, and they grabbed hats and coats, setting out into the night to see for themselves.
The injured lad wasn't far behind, and soon appeared half-carried by two more friends. The strong winds had literally blown some of the party off their feet. The wounded guy had knocked his back in the tumble and a gaping wound flapped on his right hand.
Out came the foil blankets, and he was wrapped up and laid in front of the hut's single meager heater to thaw and de-shock. The heavy black kettle was soon back on the stove and a steady supply of hot, restorative tea was coaxed into him. Gradually, his grimaces relaxed into smiles. He'd had a lucky escape - and bagged a good tale to tell back home. His fall had also been a lesson to us all - even on a relatively benign 'tourist' peak like Toubkal there was still scope for disaster.
There were more mounds of couscous, spuds and chicken for dinner, while outside the wind howled and sculpted the fresh falling snow into huge drifts. If the storm was still up in the morning our chance of an ascent was blown. We knew we had to leave early to summit and get back down again by early afternoon. Over dinner, we agreed to team up with a couple from London who'd landed in Marrakech just that morning. A wiry young Spaniard with a pile of Frank Zappa hair made us five.
Some time during the night, the storm gave up. But the next morning, as darkness retreated, we realised we were cocooned in thick fog. Visibility was next to nothing.
Hoping the cloud would lift we tried to wake the hut guardian who'd promised us breakfast. He wouldn't budge. We kicked our heels while we waited for our chef to stir, watching the clock and the weather. Finally the guardian roused and served up bread and jam with more hot, black tea. By the time breakfast was in our bellies, the fog was lifting. The obvious U-shaped breach in the mountain wall behind the hut – the col we had to aim for the first stage of our ascent – was now visible.
Kicking through the deep fresh snow, we zig-zagged up the slope to the col. Tiny cairns, some no more than a few heaped pebbles marking a line of pimples across the snow, showed the way. A set of fresh tracks heading up to the col and then back down again showed at least one early-rising party had given up on an ascent that morning.
The col opened out into a flat section scattered with huge boulders that ended in a steepish snowy slope, with the floor of a cirque on our left rising towards the summit. By now we were in thick fog again, but we pushed on up the slope in front to gain the flank of the summit ridge for the plod to the top - one little step at a time, stopping every few paces to suck in some air.
Then, in one of those magical moments, the clouds suddenly began to clear. To our right, the summit ridge became visible and beyond it the continuation of the Atlas range. Beyond the peaks we could see the reds and oranges of the Sahara.
The nearer we got to the top, the more the clouds dispersed so by the time we stood beneath the iron pyramid marking Toubkal's summit, we had a clear view in all directions. Looming miles away, in the same direction as the previous day's storm, was another weather front. No one wanted to be on top of Toubkal when it hit so after the usual hugs and back slapping we headed back to the hut, seeming to bound down in what felt like minutes.
There was still the trudge back to Imlil, under heavy skies that soon began to sleet. Villagers wrapped in thin shawls, legs bared against the cold and wearing flat, threadbare sandals passed our party – dripping in technical clothing – with a nod and a smile as they headed in the opposite direction, towards higher, colder weather.
By the time we reached Imlil, the rain had turned its dusty streets to mud and the cold and wet had given the town a dreary, lonely air. One solitary taxi promised a ride back to Marrakesh where we knew we could find an all-you-can-eat buffet and a shifty hotel lobby selling weak beer. We haggled over the price and then climbed in, longing for a bit of warmth to permeate our damp clothes and revive our chilled bones.
As daylight faded and it grew hard to spot the turns in the winding road, we asked our driver why he didn't turn into on his headlights. Peering into the gloom, he told us nonchalantly that they didn't work. Perhaps the most dangerous part of our trip had just begun.
Robin Eveleigh is a freelance journalist living in Hay on Wye, Herefordshire. He's written for most of the UK national daily newspapers and women's magazines, as well as Footprints and Rough Guides travel guides, and magazines such as BBC Wildlife, Sky, Geographical and Bizarre. He's been climbing a few years and is still happily punterish. Winter climbing does it for him.