The imposing Atlas Mountains of North Africa stretch thousands of kilometers creating an almost impenetrable barrier between the wild coast of the North Atlantic and the burnt sands of the mighty Sahara. Maurice Schutgens travelled to Morocco to experience the romantically named Idraren Draren, the “Mountains of Mountains”.
Photographs: Maurice Schutgens
The Red City grew ever smaller in our rearview mirror as we sped due south. Truth be told, it was a relief of sorts. While beautifully chaotic and infused with the most pulsating energy, a few days of aimlessly wandering the claustrophobic labyrinth of streets that characterise Marrakech, was enough. Our excitement was tangible as we headed for the mountains on the horizon with our trusty Berber driver, Rashid, who spoke no English and even less French.
After managing to dissuade Rashid from stopping at all the usual tourist traps along the way (most of which sold argan oil famous to the region), we pulled into the town of Imlil, the unofficial gateway to Toubkal National Park and the High Atlas. Imlil was littered with souvenir shops, cafés and gîtes. We did not linger, our journey continuing up steep hairpin bends with sheer drop offs to the village of Aroumd – the most notable village in the spectacular Mizane Valley. The Berber people who inhabit this part of the Atlas region have lived here since time immemorial, carving out an existence in this hostile environment.
Aroumd was positively diminutive, situated on the edges of a rocky floodplain dotted with apple and walnut trees. Above all, however, it was quiet. The Mount Toubkal Lodge, our accommodation for the night, served up a mouth-watering traditional Berber Tajine served with couscous and a hint of saffron as we watched, transfixed, how the snowy summits slipped in and out of view behind the clouds.
In the late afternoon we climbed the steep winding alleys of Aroumd. It was a ghost town, only occasionally disturbed by an unseen voice calling from a street somewhere within. We continued on, gradually leaving the village behind. On a large rock, far above the village, we sat side by side and surrendered to the heat of the sun as we contemplated our adventure to come.
Light only reached our valley after 8:00am the following morning. Our breath froze in the morning chill. Ibrahim, our Berber Mountain Guide, was a man stocky in nature who had climbed Jebel (Mount) Toubkal over 400 times. We were therefore in good hands, at least according to him, but he abandoned us for most of the day as he caught up and drank tea with his multitude of friends along the way. It was of no consequence; the route was simple to follow, slowly winding its way up the side of the valley. Muleteers and their respective mules zipped past us, seemingly oblivious to the altitude. Sadly, we never as much as caught a glimpse of the indigenous wild mountain sheep, the mouflon, that dwell in the Atlas region.
Four hours and 11km later, we arrived at the two mountain refuges (Les Mouflons and Refuge du Toubkal) at the top of the valley. The latter was ours (make sure you book ahead, especially in the peak season otherwise you may find yourself perched on a snowy ledge at an altitude of 3,200m. I guarantee it will not be enjoyable).
The refuge was bursting at the seams with climbers and skiers dressed in brightly coloured apparel and speaking a myriad of languages. As the sun dropped behind the neighbouring peaks the temperature plummeted and we huddled inside around a much sought after fireplace with a pot of sweet tea.
Our aim was to summit Toubkal at sunrise. Ibrahim, deciding that we looked reasonably fit and had performed adequately during the day, set our departure time for 5:00am. In a dorm room with 16 strangers, however, sleep did not come easy, if it came at all. Infuriated by the outrageous snoring going on I turned to my girlfriend Jorien lying next to me, “Why do we even do this?”. The alarm erupting at 4:30am was a relief and soon the whole refuge descended into a flurry of chaotic activity.
There was hardly a moon as we stepped onto the virgin surface, our crampons biting into the snow with a reassuring and rather satisfying muffled crunch. With our ice axes at the ready we were the first to head up into the darkness. Soon, however, a scattering of 40-50 lights were dancing in our wake. We moved quickly up the face, fighting the mind numbing sub zero windchill.
Suddenly Ibrahim slowed to a halt, “we stop here for five minutes. I pray, Ok?”. I looked around; we were still enveloped in darkness. I had lost all feeling in my toes and fingers an hour ago, but he wasn’t joking. I checked. It was 6:00am. I pounded my fists against my legs, desperate to keep the blood flowing in my limbs.
The sun breached the horizon as we arrived at Tizi’n Toubkal (the South Col, 3,940m). I cast my gaze around, admiring the countless craggy snow-covered peaks. The air felt thin, but I felt alive. Ibrahim made us ditch our crampons as we navigated the final boulder field that led up to the summit ridge.
Suddenly the summit triangle loomed ahead of us, proudly announcing an altitude of 4,167m. There was no higher to go. There was nobody but ourselves on that beautifully windswept morning. We looked out over Morocco, the Marrakech plains to the north, the Sahara to the south, the Atlantic to the northwest shimmering in the morning rays. It was glorious. Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman scholar, once described the High Atlas as “the most fabulous mountains in all of Africa”. I think he may have been onto something.