Much Better Adventures Climb Mount Toubkal: The Winter Edition

Much Better Adventures Climb Mount Toubkal: The Winter Edition

A couple years ago I booked a trip through Much Better Adventure.  I was suckered in by their no-nonsense approach to adventures and how easy navigating their website was.  The trips are rated in terms of number of days off from work, group size, difficulty, location, etc.

I had a desire be in a snowy mountainous environment and a winter ascent of Mount Toubkal in Morocco fitted perfectly.  A few enquiries later and I was booked on to the trip from February 1st to the 5th.  The itinerary was very compact, but it was to be an awesome way of maximising my annual leave.  Everything was included in the cost of the trip excluding, flights, insurance, and personal expenses.

I owned suitable clothing for the trip, meaning I did not need to spend extra getting kitted out.  Technical equipment; crampons and axes, as provided as part of the overall fee so I cut further costs by taking only what I could carry in my hold luggage, a 25l Lowe Alpine Airzone rucksack, and wearing everything else.  Flying in La Sportiva B2 mountaineering boots is not the most comfortable way to travel but it saved a few quid. 

On the weeks approaching the trip I was received updates from Much Better Adventures.  This included the itinerary, kit list and details of where I would be collected from at the airport.   I was excited to get out there.  

Day 1 – Travel to the Riad

I caught an obscure bus from Bristol to Heathrow, I think it was roughly £20 return.  From Heathrow I flew to Marrakesh.  For the whole flight I was trying to spot other potential hikers who might also be on my trip but failed to find anyone. When I landed in Morocco, I exchanged some money, as Dirham is a closed currency, meaning I was unable to do this in the UK.

Note.  If you are doing a similar trip or heading out to the smaller towns and villages, make sure you get small notes as well.  I was only given 200’s which became difficult in the refuge later as they did not have enough change.

I was travelling without hold luggage so escaped the airport in a flash.  Even though it was February I was dressed in too many layers for the Moroccan heat.  I was met by a taxi driver, arranged by Much Better Adventures, and then soon after another climber.  We were driven from the airport to the Riad in Marrakesh where we would be staying for 2 of the 4 nights, one before and one after Toubkal.  During this journey, we chatted about passed experiences and aspirations, as you do when meeting a fellow traveller for the first time.

Riads are traditional homes in Morocco and this one was beautiful. Upon arrival, I was led through to the centre, which was full of large citrus trees, a pond and a large water feature. 

There is no roof in above the centre a traditional Riad and the rooms are in the levels above, with a large dining area off from the centre.  After gawping at the beautiful features of the building, the ornaments and the decorations around the walls I took my bag up to my room.  I quickly dropped it and headed down, hoping to meet the rest of the group. 

Sometime later, people started to appear, and our group was complete.  We chatted away, drinking tea until in the evening, when we were directed towards a table.  This table was quickly filled with vegetables, salads, mounds of cous cous and then the arrival of a couple large tagines.  A couple minutes later, along came the musicians. 

One had a Sintir and the other, a pair of miniature symbols attached to his thumb and index finger on both hands.  They started singing and playing, drowning out any conversations that we could have had.  We awkwardly sat looking between one another silently over the mountain of food, listening to the musicians play.  Normally, I would have been grateful of this performance, but I was wanting to learn about my fellow adventurers, but any conversation was impossible. 

The musicians both wore traditional hats with a tassel on the top.  Simultaneously they flicked their heads making the tassel spin around their hats.  I could not help myself and started laughing.  What a ridiculous situation, sat on a table with people I do not know whilst unable to talk as 2 men with spinning hats sang to us.

The first dinner altogether, once we could talk again.

After they finished singing, we hand hands thrust in front of us requesting the obligatory tip.  We had no idea what an appropriate amount was, so we all clubbed together some Durham and handed it over.  They did not look offended and disappeared.  After we had eaten our fill, we all sloped off to our beds.

Day 2 – Hike to the Refuge Du Toubkal

The morning was full of fresh fruit, coffee, tea and breads.  A member of the support crew came to collect our group where we were driven for a couple hours across the Moroccan countryside to the village of Imlil, at the base of the Atlas Mountains.  The car journey itself was an adventure.  The main motorway was new, but it seemed that there were no rules to which side or who could use it. This was nerve racking at times such as overtaking a donkey with a car coming towards us.

In Imlil we met our guide, Youssef, and the support crew.  At this point, some of the group who had come with 2 bags, handed them over to the porters.  Meanwhile I was feeling content that I was self-sufficient, even if a 4 to 5 hour hike in my B2 boots was not going to be exactly comfortable….

The beginning of the walk from Imlil

From Imlil we hiked up valley through the farming villages.  Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the higher we got the cooler the air. 

Passing past farming villages as we ascended the valley

Excitement was building as we ascended through the beautiful, dry, arid landscape. 

The snow slowly starting to build with the mountains high above us

Just before we reached the deeper snow, we stopped in a village for lunch.  After lunch and when I had drank my weight in the sugary Moroccan tea, we set off. 

Getting into the deeper snow

We had ascended into the snow; the air was dry and cold. 

A member of our party at around 2600 meters started to drop behind.  His bag was excessively large and clearly the altitude was starting to take its toll.  For the first time I started to doubt the fitness of some of the group.  If they are struggling now, how will they be at 4000 meters?  Will this jeopardise our summit attempt?  Hats off to him, he dug deep and kept pushing on.  The support guide dropped back, making sure he was okay. 

Yours truly in his B2 La Sportivas

After ascending for another hours, the temperature continuing to drop, we arrived at the Refuge Du Toubkal. 

I gratefully borrowed a pair of flipflops from one of the group so I could get some respite from my B2’s

In the ground floor there were fires warming the building but up in the lodges above, there was not making it bitingly cold.  Down by the fires we were well stocked with tea again until we were fed with more traditional Moroccan tagines and vegetables. Youssef came to speak with us at our table, normally after walking to the refuge, there is an acclimatisation day before the summit day.  Storms and heavy snow were forecast for the afternoon of the summit day, so the decision was made to miss the acclimatisation day and push for the summit.  This would be tough and possibly a bit risky, heading from around 500 meters altitude in Marrakesh to 4167 meters at the top of Toubkal in just 3 days? 

Following the discussion I headed up to the dorm at get some sleep.  Sleep that night, as I always find at altitude, was tough.  I frequently suffer with insomnia during my first couple nights at altitude and this was to be no different.  What did surprise me, considering how warm I was in the sleeping bag provided, was when I went to drink water from my bottle, the top was covered in a thin layer of ice…

Day 3 – Mount Toubkal

I woke in the dark, headed downstairs and once again, drank my weight in tea.  I put on my crampons and grouped outside on the balcony in the frigid air.  The temperature by the hut, was below -10oC.    Youssef gave a quick explanation; first we would head out of the refuge and up the valley, from here, a steep ascent up to the col and then finally to the summit of Toubkal.

We set off with the stars shining bright above us and silhouettes of the mountains all around.  It was truly beautiful and something that my camera would have failed to capture so I enjoyed the hike, breathing heavily in the thin, cold air.  As we ascended the sky brightened, the first signs of the approaching dawn.  By the time we were at the bottom of the steep ascent slope, the sun was just below the surrounding mountains, casting long shadows of the summits on the snow. 

Tired climbers early on the summit day.

We paused before starting the ascent to the col.  One of the group’s camel pack’s tube had frozen solid.  Waterless before we had started any real climbing?  Fortunately, the guides are prepared and had spare.  It is unwise to take water bladders or thin necked bottles into frozen temperatures as the small surface area of the water freezes quickly.  I have a couple Nalgene bottles, with wide necks so do not freeze quickly.  When it does, a quick tap with an ice axe frees it up. 

The climb to the col is steep and unforgiving.  A zig zagging path has been broken into the snow which is followed to the top. 

Youssef the Moroccan Moutnain Guiding Legend

This took a couple hours of slow steps, in the thin air to reach the top.  A few people had fallen far behind during this section as they suffered with the altitude and the steepness of the path. 

During the ascended the wind picked up, lifting the top layer of snow from the mountain, whipping it violently around.  When the direction turned, the force of the air stung as it blasted my face.  I was grateful for my ski goggles. 

The spindift being whipped up by the strong winds higher up the slope

Slowly the incline reduced, making progress faster until I had reached the col.  Looking down there was still sometime until all the group arrived.  I sheltered out of the wind; Youssef shared his tea from his flask with me. 

Youssef was generous with his tea

From the col, the view across the Atlas Mountains is astonishing, snow-capped jagged peaks as far as I could see.  

My Sony phone camera will never do justice to this view

45 minutes later the group was all together again.  We set of on the final leg of our summit which followed a broad ridge up to the snow cover summit.  After a bit more heavy breathing and steady paces up the ridge I lifted my head as I reached the iconic metal pyramid that signifies the top of the mountain. 

The summit pyramid

After many hours and around 1200 meters of ascent I was stood atop of the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains grinning like the Cheshire Cat. 

A very proud author

What an excellent journey, only 2 days before I had been in my home in Bristol.

A view from the summit
Amazing that only 2 days earlier I had been in Bristol

After several compulsory photos, some selfies and a couple group shots, we left the summit and retraced our steps back down to the refuge.  We all barrelled into the refuge, out of the cold some hours later to sit by a roaring fire and once again, drink our fill of sweet Moroccan tea. 

A good nap later, and we were grouped back by the fire for another round of delicious tagine, cous cous and vegetables.  Youssef joined us at the table to ask about the following day.  As we had not had our acclimatisation day, there was an opportunity to go to the mountain pass in the morning during sun rise.  The weather was due to deteriorate in the afternoon giving a clear morning.  The group looked completely shot and no one seemed to have any interest in walking to the mountain pass.  Other than me, so I raised my hand.  I was feeling fresh after the nap and since I had travelled all the way to Morocco, I wanted to maximise my trip.  Youssef did not look overly pleased at the prospect of an early start for me alone, but he explained that I would be waking in the twilight hours again for breakfast, on my own. 

Later that evening, I saw Youssef pointing in my direction when talking to the other guides.  I did not mind as I was up for it and I had paid for this trip. 

 Day 4 – The Mountain Pass

I woke, feeling the fatigue in my legs, and wondered downstairs to find a single place set for breakfast.  As per the other days, I drank my fill of tea.  Youssef sat with me, sharing tea, and explained where we would be going.  We would follow the same path as the day before but continue along the valley and then climb up to the Mountain Pass.  If we were quick, we would beat the sun. 

Waking in the moonlight

Crampons on, axe at the ready, we set out of the refuge.  Travelling with Youssef alone, he really put me through my paces, moving astonishingly fast up the valley. I could feel my heart beating in my throat, but I did not want to ask him to slow.  We continued like this for some time, passing the steep slope to the col from the day before.  Youssef then started to climb up, across a steep snow slope.  Unlike the day before, the trail had not been broken into this as well, the snow was deeper and more tiring.  We zig zagged up this slope until, thankfully, Youssef stopped so we could hydrate.

Continuing to zig zag up the slope, the steepness reducing until we stepped onto the mountain pass to see a strip of orange fire across the horizon.  I understood why he had been moving so fast, he had wanted to beat the sunrise, which we did.  Exhausted, I placed my bag on the ground and stood looking at the sun rising over the Atlas Mountains.  An experience I will never forget.

Again, a phone camera will never reproduce what I saw that day

The moment was broken when Youssef said, “you can take photographs if you want?”  I was so blown away by the beauty of it all that I forgot to take any pictures.  I got out my phone and took a few shots.  Youssef and I shared his flask of tea watching the sun rise.

It was a very special moment watching the sun rise over the Atlas Mountains

Youssef then started taking his gloves, axes, googles from his bag and arranging them in the snow.  He looked over and said, “I want you to take a picture, for my Instagram”. 

A strong new Instagram photo

I chuckled then took a few photos, he did the same in return. 

The sun had risen and the slopes behind us were being kissed by the first light of the day as we packed up and returned. 

The rocks glowing orange in the new days sun

We had expected to catch up with the rest of the group as they were walking back to Imlil.  Therefore, I was very surprised to find them all finished up their breakfast in the communal area of the refuge.  I finished off the tea on the table and gratefully devoured the remaining breads.  A couple minutes later and we set off all together on the return journey. 

The long walk back from the refuge

After a few hours, our tired group, I was especially tired, walked into Imlil. 

Final views of the snowy mountains we were leaving behind
Back towards the farming villages built into the hillside
Feeling exhausted but elated after a lot of time on my legs and early starts

Here we were brought into the home of Youssef’s friend where we were given the best tagine so far. 

The last tagine

This would be the end of our journey with Youssef and the support team.  We piled together a large Durham tip for the porters, guides and the refuge staff.  I gave Youssef more for waking up so early with me to hike to the mountain pass for sunrise.

After saying our thanks and goodbye’s we hopped in the minibus and headed back to Marrakesh.  Here we walked into the centre to have a final meal as a group before returning to the riad and on our respected journeys home.

The last view

Final Thoughts

Much Better Adventures were quick to respond to my questions and I found the booking simple and stress free.  The itineraries are well structured and truly maximise the time on the trip.  The entire process was hassle and worry free!

The trip was everything I had expected and more.  Clearly, not everyone will be as fortunate as we were with the weather and other will have more luck.  The summit was hard but totally achievable for most moderately fit people.  The guides and support team were fantastic, the meals were delicious, and the Atlas Mountains are breath taking.  I look forward to the future when I can return to explore more of these fine peaks.

Something I still do not know, what is a reasonable amount for a tip?  I think Much Better Adventures should provide some rough guidelines, but they did not.  Do some research before you go.  I also think more information on what to take is required.  Two of the group wore 2-season UK hiking boots and waterproof socks….  The temperatures at the summit were in the region of -18oC.  Those boots were not suitable, but they were lucky not to suffer any problems. 

Fortunately, I have spent a lot of time in the mountains, so I know what to expect, what to bring, and how to use it.  The freezing drinking tube on a camel pack seem obvious to me but it is not something highlighted in the details for the trip.  It is a small mistake but really could make the difference from a successful summit to a disaster. 

Toubkal is not a glacial mountain; this means we are not roped together during the ascent.  The axes are supplied so in the event of a slip, you can stop yourself from sliding down the mountain.  The irony was, no instruction was given of how to do this.  It would be a good idea to familiarise yourself with axes and crampons before you set off.  Maybe not essential, but a good idea.  

I highly recommend Much Better Adventures if you are searching for a quick adventure fix.  I have linked the Mount Toubkal Winter Edition trip here – link (accessed on 10/01/2021) 

Overall, what an experience.  Standing atop of the Mount Toubkal, watching the sun rise from the mountain pass, eating traditional Moroccan tagine’s and most importantly, drinking my body weight in tea.  I only wish I had taken more time, so I had time to explore Marrakesh.  I was back at work 2 days after standing on the summit of Mount Toubkal. 

Until next time!!

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