Jalla, jalla to the Morocco and north Africa high point
|Adrar El Hajj||3140m||210m||High Atlas, Morocco|
|Jebel Toubkal||4167m||3755m||High Atlas, Morocco|
In late autumn 2016, Turid Helle and Anne Rudsengen started planning a trip to Jebel Toubkal (4167m) in the high Atlas range. Toubkal is not only the Morocco high point, it is also the highest peak in north Africa. They selected Toubkal Voyages to organize the trip, and offer airport to airport service, including guides on the mountain and mules to carry the load.
The invite went out to friends and friends of friends and by the time of departure from Oslo on Oct 13 2017, the group consisted of 12 people; Turid Helle, Jostein Mårdalen, Jorunn Reitan, Torkel Fyrvik, Toril Åsnes, Gunnar Moan, Lena Øvrebø, Terje Øvrebø, Bente Rønning, Kay Gastinger, Anne Rudsengen and myself. Unfortunately, Anne could not join us on the mountain hike, having broken her back six weeks prior to the trip. She would simply have to try enjoying herself as much as she could in a nice hotel on the gorgeous beach of Essaouira.
The following plan was made:
– Oct 14: Departure from Oslo, spend the night in Riad Marrakech, near Jamaa Elfna place.
– Oct 15: Hike from the Mizane valley, via Matate village and up to the Refuge Azib Tamsoult (approx. 2250m)
– Oct 16: Acclimation hike to Adrar El Hajj (approx. 3140m)
– Oct 17: Hike to Refuge du Toubkal (approx. 3200m), via a 3600m pass
– Oct 18: Hike to Jebel Toubkal and descent to the village Aremd (approx. 1950m)
– Oct 19: Hike to the village Imlil and go by bus to Essaouira on the coast
– Oct 20: Tourist day in Essaouira
– Oct 21: Bus ride to Marrakech and flight to Oslo
Note: If you are a strong hiker, and don’t have to worry about acclimation, you’ll be able to go from Imlil, up to the summit and be back in Imlil in less than 12 hours. In good weather conditions, it is not a difficult hike, although the total distance is approx. 30km and the vertical gain is almost 2,500m. The only issue could be to find your way from Imlil and up to the mountain path to Refuge du Toubkal above Aremd. You might not need a guide, but if you choose to hire one, you’ll be putting your money into good use.
Half the group was from the Trondheim region, three from Sunnmøre, Anne from Sogndal and two from Longyearbyen (currently residing). The majority of the group knew each other already, but Lena, Terje and myself were new to the group (with the exception of Turid, whom I already knew). In short, a bunch of 50-year (plus and minus) old Norwegians, going to Morocco for one of the most memorable hikes ever…
So what about Toubkal Voyages? Could we trust them with our pre-payment? Would they deliver on their promises? You don’t have to read this entire trip report to learn the answer; An unequivocal Yes! I don’t hesitate for one second recommending this company to anyone who might be interested in a trip in the high Atlas. One of the guides said on the very last day; “the most important thing is that everybody had a good time”. This sentence could very well be the company motto. They went beyond expectations to give us one of the greatest outdoor adventures we could ask for.
Oct 14 – Oslo – Marrakech
Anne and I took the plane from Sogndal, late evening on the 13th. I was quite nervous about the weather, getting gradually worse as the day progressed. Sogndal Lufthamn Haukåsen is a very volatile airport, and if the plane was unable to land, our plan B was to take the night bus to Oslo. If the bus was full, plan C was to drive ourselves. But the plane did arrive and 25 minutes behind schedule, we were on our way to Oslo. We checked into Radisson Blu on Gardermoen around 1am. The rendevous time at Starbucks the next morning was 11:30am, and everybody made it on time. My first impression of the group was very good. Friendly folks! And although they had different experiences from mountain hiking, I was pretty confident that all would make it to the top – unless mountain sickness kicked in.
The flight departed 1:50pm and we landed on time in Marrakech 5:40pm local time (one hour behind Oslo). The passport control was a nightmare. It must have taken at least one hour to get through. And the luggage still hadn’t arrived on the belt! Then followed another security control of the luggage before we could walk into the hot Moroccan night.
Toubkal Voyages is a family enterprise, and two of the five brothers – Hamid and Houssain – met us outside the airport and guided us to the shuttle bus that took us to our hotel in Marrakech. My first impression of downtown Marrakech was: I will NEVER drive a rental car here. Finally, the bus arrived at its destination and we were led (on foot) into “a city within the city” – the Medina. I felt like walking in a maze. Eventually, we reached the Riad (a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden), where we would stay the night. In our room, the air stood still, but fortunately there was air condition. And a bit later, our room was just as cool as we’re used to back home.
It was high time for dinner, so we went out to find a restaurant. The center of Marrakech gave me one of the greatest cultural shocks ever. The crowd, the marketplace, the smells (good and bad), everything … this was nothing like home! First, we had to find an ATM and get hold of some local currency – Dirham. For practical purposes, we regarded 1 Dirham as 1 NOK.
We then found a restaurant and enjoyed a nice meal on the roof. Any precautions about food we might have had, were all quickly set aside. After dinner, the big question was; would we find our way back to the hotel? It turned out that Jostein had excellent navigational skills, and we all made it back to the hotel, safe and sound.
Pictures from Oct 14:
Oct 15 – Marrakech – Mizane – Matate – Refuge Azib Tamsoult
After breakfast the next morning, we checked out of the Riad and got on a shuttle bus that would take us to the trailhead. Estimated travel time – approx. 1,5 hours. So far, everything was running like clockwork. Hamid and Houssain were traveling with us. The trailhead (1570m) was just 3km north of the Imlil village – where we would return 4 days later. The weather was gorgeous and everyone was dressing accordingly. For the first time in my life, I was about to go hiking in my swimming shorts.
At the trailhead, we met the guides Houssain (a different one) and Abdul, the five mules, the four mule drivers and the cook. Houssain and Abdul spoke good English, which was a big relief. I had mixed feelings about having the mules carry (half) my gear. In Norway, we carry our own load, even on trips spanning days. In hindsight, knowing what I know now, I would have been able to pack everything I needed (except for food) and carry it myself. But now we were here, and I could not possibly carry everything myself.
With the words “Jalla! Jalla!” (come on/hurry up) we headed out just before 10:30am and followed the dirt road up to the Matate – a village clinging to the mountain side. I hope that mudslides is not a common problem around here. The “Jalla! Jalla!” part brought smiles to our faces, every single time.
It didn’t take long before the first “we don’t see THIS back home…” situation presented itself. A woman with two sheep on a leash (!) – grassing on a tiny green spot. Her husband (I presume) was overlooking it all. The woman turned her back to us. Not to be impolite, I am sure. For all I know, for the very opposite reason! We had a lot to learn about the life and culture in the high Atlas…
After a 6km walk, we arrived at the Tizi Oudite pass (map height 2219m) and took a quick break. The mules and the drivers had passed us a long time ago, and was probably about to prepare lunch for us – down in the village Ait Aissa. We hadn’t seen too much of the higher peaks yet, but the landscape surrounding us was already breathtaking…
On our way down from the pass, I saw goats climbing trees for the first time in my life. This was not the last time on the trip I saw this, but this was the ONLY time it made me feel good. Because these goats climbed voluntarily…
2,7km after the pass, we arrived in the Ait Aissa village and were led to a guesthouse where tea, snacks and lunch was served. My jaw dropped when I saw what the food they brought in. I had expected sandwiches at best…
After lunch, we started on the final 8km leg to Azib Tamsoult. I had bought brand new hiking shoes (La Sportiva Ultra Raptor GTX) and expected blisters. But none so far, and the shoes simply felt fantastic. And no headache so far either (I am ultra-sensitive to heights > 1800m), so all in all it was a very good day.
We passed through the village Tizi Oussem, which – if I am not mistaken – is a summer village for the people further down the valley. This was the first place we met locals (besides the guides, the mule drivers and the couple walking their sheep). Here, people live from their land and takes great care of their animals. Animals in 1st floor, people in 2nd. I fell in love with the place right away. It is a hard life, I am sure. But also good, in many ways. I could easily see me as a goat shepherd here, in a different life…
17:20pm, we arrived at the Tamsoult refuge – owned by Hamid’s family. We were greeted by Hamid’s father and shown to our 16-bed dormitory. The room looked just fine, and I told Hamid’s father that since Anne was not here, I was the only one “sleeping alone” – i.e. not sharing the two-mattress bed with anyone else. This was then misunderstood and he took me to a room upstairs. When I realized the misunderstanding, I said it was totally OK to sleep downstairs. But as he insisted, I decided to humbly accept. I didn’t want to leave the group, but in case I got a migraine after the acclimation hike the next day, privacy and silence would be something I would indeed treasure. And boy, did that turn out to be true…
Tea, coffee and cookies was then served outside. But it immediately started raining and we moved inside. Besides our group, half a dozen (or so) other hikers stayed the night in the refuge. After sunset, we had to use our headlamps to find our way around the refuge. But just before dinner, the power (and lights) came on!. The dinner was just superb. Mustapha (I believe that was the name of the cook) and his mule driver helpers were performing magic in the kitchen. They were cooking using gas and were not dependant on the power, which was turned off again when we went to bed.
Pictures from Oct 15:
Oct 16 – Adrar El Hajj
The next day, we plan was to hike up to Adrar El Hajj – a peak at approx. 3140m, rising directly up from the valley floor and the refuge. Pronounced ADJ! Another important element in the perfect acclimation plan that Turid, Anne and Hamid had set up for us.
We headed out 08:50am, after breakfast and followed the valley leading up to the Tizi n’Tzikert pass at 2930m. It was a nice hike. The trail was good and the spirit in the group was great.
After 2 hours of hiking and 4,1km on the trail, we reached the pass. We were able to get a phone signal up here and I talked to Anne for the first time, since parting with her in Marrakech. She was now on her way to Essaouira in a bus.
On our way to the summit, I started to feel the altitude. The headache came gradually, stronger and stronger. The stay on top wasn’t all that bad, but the real pain normally comes on the way down.
Houssain and Abdul had brought sandwiches for this “picnic”, and they were well received! My GPS showed 3144m, and compared to other waypoints I took at known elevations, I concluded that this peak was approx. 3140m. The map didn’t provide information of height. There were two other “humps” on the summit ridge, but the guides insisted that this was the high point. The less movement, the better. That was how I felt at the time. On the positive side, the others seemed to do just fine at this altitude.
From the top, we barely got a glimpse of Jebel Toubkal – for the most part hidden in clouds. Two days from now, we would be on our way down from that peak. Inshallah…
We followed the southwest ridge downwards. I was very eager to get back to a comfortable altitude and get rid of the headache. The ridge was for the most part scree and gravel, so the majority had chosen regular hiking boots for the occasion. Back on the main valley trail, we stopped by the local “store” for orange juice and coke. I left the others and returned to the refuge.
Back in my room (or should I say suite), the headache simply would not let go. I didn’t worry too much about it. It wasn’t 3pm yet, and still plenty of hours before departure early the next morning. But a few hours later, I realized that it wasn’t the altitude that was the problem. It was the tension from weeks and weeks of stressful work, that caused the muscles in my back to ache. I started with self massage (I had brought a tennis ball just in case this would happen) and rubbed against the wall for several hours before I collapsed into bed. I was SO thankful for having my own room! Yet, it was impossible to get any sleep and I felt pretty miserable when I packed my bags the next morning. Houssain had noticed that I had issues, but was convinced that I soon would be okay. Inshallah! I enjoyed his positive attitude.
For dinner this evening, they served (a.o.!) a baby goat who ended its life on this day to become our dinner. It’s a was a bit overwhelming. Humbled as we were, I think I’d rather see that meal go to the locals. I would have been quite OK with macaroni and vegetables…
Over the two evenings in the refuge, we enjoyed listening to Houssain – telling us about life in the mountains, his background, his family, his education as a National Guide, the pillars of Islam, marriages, divorces, the Berber people + history and many other aspects of the life in Morocco. He spoke very good English and I’m sure he and Abdul are great inspiration to the younger generation who don’t speak much English and consider dropping out of school.
Pictures from Oct 16:
Oct 17 – Refuge Azib Tamsoult – Refuge du Toubkal
We headed out 6:30am the next morning. It was pitch dark outside, but daylight would be less than one hour away. We continued up the valley south of Tamsoult and reached the Cascade Ighouliden waterfall as the day started to dawn.
We continued a bit further up the valley until the route changed course to the east. The mules passed us and we greeted our base-camp crew as they passed. Very strong men and very strong mules!
We could now see a group of hikers coming down from Refuge Lepiney (approx. 3000m), and this was the Norwegian group that we met in Oslo before departure. Their trip was organized by Hvitserk, and Lars Hagen was the trip leader. We had the opportunity to chat with him on several occasions. Lars is a very seasoned traveler and one of the company partners.
We took a break on a plateau at 3000m. From here, we could see the infamous 95 switchbacks that would lead us up to the pass at 3540m. They don’t take mules up here when the snow has fallen, and I could easily understand why. On the subject of snow – winter didn’t seem to be very far away…
After completing all of the switchbacks, we took a break in the pass. It got quickly very cold, even if we were partly sheltered from the wind. Houssain and Abdul had brought sandwiches, but my appetite wasn’t very good. I just looked forward to get to the refuge and find myself a dark room…
We continued into the Mizane valley and got Refuge du Toubkal in view after a little while. Jebel Toubkal rose high and mighty above the valley, with fresh snow in the upper part. But at this point in time, I didn’t care much about the mountain.
After approx. 1350 vertical meters, close to 12km and 6,5 hours on the trail, we arrived at Refuge du Toubkal just before 1pm.
We were welcomed by Hamid’s cousin – Mohamed. There were two main buildings, and we went to the uppermost. I am not sure what is inside the lowermost building. We were shown up to our dormitory, which contained 12 beds – 6 high, 6 low – in one rack.
It was impossible for me to lie in bed, so I borrowed a chair and was able to squeeze it in between my bed and the wall. One more night on a chair. This would not be my first and this would not be my last. But after lunch, all the hours of self massage finally paid off and I was honky dory fine again! I didn’t even feel the altitude (approx. 3200m) and now I really started to look forward to the ascent of Toubkal the following day.
I was able to get a phone signal once, and had a quick chat with Anne, who had a good time in Essaouira, but clearly looking forward to our arrival there.
I was fortunate enough to get myself a shower without waiting in line. But I regretted not bringing my indoor sneakers (trying to save weight for the mule). The floor in the toilet/shower area was constantly wet.
We killed time in the lounge, drinking tea and coffee and chatting with other hikers. A family from Denmark and two crazy young guys from Oregon (backpacking their way through Europe) who planned to spend the night outside – only in their sleeping bags. On the subject of outside – the rain was pouring down, and it felt that winter was coming this very evening.
After yet another nice dinner, we went to bed early – around 9pm. I hoped that my earplugs would take most of the ambient noise away, and I managed to get a few hours of sleep until I abruptly woke up at 2am – when the first hikers started to prepare their ascent. For the remaining two hours, I was just counting down…
Pictures from Oct 17:
Oct 18 – Summit day
Roll call at 4am. Breakfast at 4:30am. Bread, jam, eggs, and porridge. Planned departure was 5:30am, but we were on our way by 5:20am. Pitch dark outside, but fortunately, it was not raining.
When we got up to the rocky area above the refuge, the rocks were glaciated and we had to be very careful, even when moving upwards. I *hoped* the ice would melt during the day. The guides considered us being a fast group and reckoned we only would need 3 hours up the mountain. I felt we were walking very slowly, yet it didn’t take us long to catch up with another group that was much higher up when we started.
It seemed that everyone was doing just fine (with a possible exception for Lena), which was really good news. It would have been very sad if someone had to turn around. We traveled this long way together, and we would stand on the summit together!
When we reached the upper valley, we got the first daylight and entered the windy zone. For a Norwegian, this was quite ordinary mountain winter weather. But 4000m is different than 1000-2000m, and we made sure to dress accordingly. The only one with visible issues was Kay, whose gloves did not offer enough protection from the wind. I gave him my mom’s woolen gloves, and he was good to go.
The wind was much stronger in the pass between the west and main summit, and it would have not been a bad idea to bring snow goggles. I had sunglasses, which offered protection, but snow goggles would have been better. Most of the group had neither.
Just before reaching the summit, we met the Hvitserk group coming down. They had headed out considerably earlier than us (some said 4am), and I doubt they had stayed on top for more than 10-15 minutes. Not that it matters, but it only proves that our guides were right about us – being a fast group. Even if I felt we climbed the mountain in turtle speed…
The group had been scattered during the ascent, but we made sure we arrived the summit as one team. 8:25am, we reached the highest point in north Africa, after a 4km and 1000 vertical meter ascent. The wind was not bad at all on the summit point, and we could have stayed there for quite a while!
Unfortunately, there was not much to see in any direction. But I don’t think anyone in the group felt too bad about it. We were finally here! All of us! Time to celebrate!
On a side note, Houssain told us that in average, he had been up here twice a week for the past 6 years. And many times before he went to school. That puts things into perspective…
Our stay on top only lasted 12-13 minutes. We still had a long way to Aremd and lunch was waiting at the refuge. Some of us had brought crampons, but there was no need for them, even if parts of the snowy path had turned polished from all the hikers. I resisted the temptation to run down the snow. I had managed to stay clear of altitude problems, and I wanted it to stay that way.
Many, many hikers were still on their way up the mountain, some of them definitely NOT dressed for the occasion. Which made us reflect on how accidents are handled up here. There is NO rescue service, which is something we take for granted back home. The youngest person of the day seemed to be around 7 years old – accompanied by his father. I’m sure this is not the first high peak this young man has been to.
Houssain and Abdul told us about the high Atlas in winter, and all the great slopes for skiing. They told us they were pretty good skiers, and I don’t doubt it for a second. And they had even heard about Telemark! Made me wish I could go back there one winter for some lovely turns…
Finally, we got sunshine and we had a wonderful descent. The ice on the rocks from this morning had melted and we had an easy hike down the mountain. The first group arrived at the refuge at 10:30am, and shortly after, everyone was back down, safe and sound – all ready for lunch!
After lunch, we packed our bags and got ready for our descent to the village Aremd – where we would stay the night. The map calls the village Around, but according to Hamid it’s Aremd. We departed at noon sharp and had a wonderful walk down the beautiful Mizane valley.
Being fully acclimated, and with these gorgeous mountains surrounding me, it felt plain wrong to leave. But on the other hand, I really looked forward to see Anne again. I can always come back here some other time.
We passed the mountain village Sidi Chammharouch – a holy place (shrine) with a huge rock painted in white. Some sites state that this is a religious place, but we were told that people come here for traditional reasons. Apparently, this is the place where your wishes can come true.
We met several people on their way up to the village, seeking good fortune. To me, the village resembled the “Marrakech of the high Atlas” – for the most part a marketplace.
9,5km after leaving the refuge, we arrived at Hamid’s guesthouse in Aremd. Here, we were greeted by two other brothers of Hamid and Houssain. The guesthouse consisted of 3 rooms downstairs (each with two beds) and one dormitory upstairs. It was quite natural for me to go upstairs, and I got company from Lena, Terje, Jorunn and Torkel.
It was time to say goodbye to our guides, mule drivers and the cook. We handed over the recommended tip, which was distributed according to rank (guide, cook, mule driver – in that order). In addition, we had several bags of hiking clothes that we gave away. I also offered Abdul my fleece jacket, which he gladly accepted. I was quite fond of this jacket, but I would be humbled if he would continue to wear it in the high Atlas. And Jostein’s hiking boots might get a prolonged life on Houssain’s feet…
Then, we did a traditional Norwegian song for them – a song that only the minority of us actually knew. They responded with a local chant and dance for us. We parted as good friends. I have the highest respect for these men. They are mighty good people, and they are as STRONG as they come. In a time where the world seem to be going completely crazy, it’s so nice to meet people that just want to live a good and peaceful life. If the media focused more on this, the world would have seemed to be a much better place.
We were then served tea, coffee and snacks. Half the group then chose to go for a walk in the village, while the rest chose to stay behind for a nap, a book or the Wifi (that would be me). The other group ran into Houssain in the village (the guides are from this village) and he invited them home, where his mother served tea. They all spoke very nice about this visit.
In the evening, we enjoyed yet another nice dinner before calling it a day.
Pictures from Oct 18:
Oct 19 – Aremd – Imlil – Essaouira
7am the next morning, after breakfast, we loaded our bags into a car that would bring them down to Imlil. Abdul turned up to guide us down the 1,6km down to Imlil. Did we really need a guide for this short distance? I think so. Besides, it was pitch dark in the beginning.
Young men running past us to catch the school bus from Imlil. I don’t even know where the school is. All I know is that they have to do 300 vertical meters back home every day. And they probably run up too. This is where mountain people are born…
The bus arrived pretty much on time and soon we were on our way to Essaouira. I lost track of time, but the travel time was close to 3,5 hours – including a stop for coffee along the way. It was an interesting drive. First, we drove down to Marrakech, then westbound to Essaouira. The distance between the two cities is approx. 170km (straight line).
Somewhere along the way, Hamid’s brother Houssain entered the bus and got in the front seat next to the driver. We didn’t ask what he was doing there, as we had already understood that this company will go all the way to take care of their customers.
The plan was to depart from Imlil at 10am, but Turid had managed to change the plan so that we would be picked up at 8am instead. Turid didn’t want me to tell Anne that we were two hours early, and looked forward to surprising her. But Anne kept sending me message after message; “where are you”, “when will you be here”, “call me when you’re at…”, etc. In the end, it was impossible to keep our earlier arrival a secret and 15 seconds after the bus arrived outside Hotel Des Isles, Anne came strolling out – seemingly surprised to see us so early…
Also at the hotel, Hamid and a 5th brother waited for us – just to check if we were OK. They had driven all the way from Marrakech to Essaouira (180-190km) just to see if we were OK! If that isn’t a statement about the company, I don’t know what is. When they learned that we were just fine, they drove back to Marrakech!
The rest of the day was spent having lunch, strolling on the gorgeous beach, visiting the Medina, shopping, going out for dinner and nightcap at the hotel. This was the first time we tasted alcohol since arriving in Morocco. Except for the few drops of Gammeldansk that Jorunn served on two occasions during the hike. I don’t think anyone of us had missed alcohol so far, but a cold glass of wine or beer at this point in time, felt … just fine.
The room was OK, but there was no air condition. Anne and I felt that the balcony door should stay open. The only problem was that the local bar played loud music until 3:30am. That’s when I fell to sleep. And I truly woke up again when the local mosque began its morning ceremony at 6am.
Pictures from Oct 19:
Oct 20 – Essaouira
Yet another day of relaxing, sightseeing and shopping. The day was still young when I got tired of the tourist life. The highlight of the day was the dinner at the Taros restaurant, where the food was OK and the live music was pretty darn OK!
Apparently, the local bar was closed this evening, so I looked forward to a good night sleep. But at 1am, both Anne and I jumped out of bed when someone was hammering on our door. We never opened the door, but most likely, it was a drunk Polish guy – on his way to the Sahara Ralley with his ATV – trying desperately to find his room and his buddies.
Pictures from Oct 20:
Oct 21/22/23 – Essaouira – Marrakech – Oslo – Sogndal – Gurskøy
The bus picked us up at noon and drove us to Marrakech airport, only stopping for lunch. We also stopped by the “goat tree”, where a tree is filled with goats. We also saw this going to Essaouira. At the time, I thought it was awesome! But now that I realized what was going on, it just felt just plain wrong. Clearly, these poor goats are rushed up the tree so that people will stop to take photographs, and the owners make some money. Day after day…
I had dreaded the airport passport control, but our journey into the departure zone went quite smooth. The new section of the airport is quite beautiful, I should add.
The 18:25 departure was delayed, and we took off exactly one hour late. The trip home felt much faster than going the opposite way. Kudos to the pilot, who managed to make up for most of the delay! This time, it was the passport control queue in Oslo that was horrible. But somehow, Jostein found a line in which there were no one else, and we were through in a couple of minutes. After securing the Christmas Aquavite in the tax-free zone, we checked into Radisson Blu – around 1am.
The plane to Sogndal left around noon the next day, and we landed in Sogndal less than one hour later. There was clealry something “wrong” with me, but I couldn’t say exactly what it was. My head felt as it if was filled with cotton. I decided to try to “run it off”, and at the same time check if the acclimation had paid off. So I ran up the local mountain Hesteggi (907m), and was only 12 seconds away from my personal record from 2015. And I hadn’t been running for at least a month! The downside was that this run unleashed something that turned out to be a very nasty cold/flu.
The drive back home to Gurskøy on the following day was not pleasant. And here I am, 3 days later, writing this trip report with a sore throat, a runny nose and a scarf around my neck. But was it all worth it? Hell, yeah! I most certainly recommend this trip, and also Toubkal Voyages!