13 Thousand Foot Club: My Journey to the Top of Toubkal

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
― John Muir, The Mountains of California

Never in my life have I pushed myself to the extreme that it took to achieve what I did this weekend.

On this trip we knew mountain trekking would take much more planning than exploring a city does. We tried as best as we could to make solid plans and stick to them but as I’m quickly learning that in Morocco you can plan everything down to the minute and things will still not go precisely as you thought they would. We planned to take the train from Fez to Marrakech and stay there until we headed to Imlil the next day. Wednesday we just barely missed the last train that left at 4:30 PM so we got a taxi to the bus station and bought tickets for the only bus left with three spots left on it. It didn’t leave until 9:30 PM but as long as we got there, it didn’t matter. After our overnight bus ride we got to our hostel at 4:30 AM, checked in, and slept for a few hours before we had to get up the next day for our appointment at the spa (I’ll talk more about our experience at the spa in a later post).

The one thing we did not plan well was the actual mountain trek. At first we were going to go with a school organization that takes students on trips all the time. Unfortunately, by the time we contacted the group all the spots were filled. Next, we just assumed we would just meet the group at the mountain and take care of all our own transportation and it would be no problem. As simple as that seemed we had a feeling that things could go terribly wrong if we were to just wing it. So we looked up tour guides and the Toubkal Refuge online. I emailed the website and heard back from them the next day. The email said that for about 140 USD each we would get transportation to and from Marrakech, all our meals for two days, a place to stay Thursday and Friday night, and a guide up the mountain. Just like that our entire trip was set and we were ready to climb Jbel Toubkal.

Our journey started Thursday afternoon as the taxi driver picked us up from a restaurant near the old medina in Marrakech. I feel asleep instantly in the taxi (when traveling you learn to sleep whenever and wherever you can. A friend told me recently that sleep is an investment in the future). When I woke up we were in Imlil. In Imlil, we met our guide, got in his car, and headed to our accommodations for the night in Aroumd. To get from Imlil to Aroumd you have to take the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. There are literally excavators and bulldozers carving into the side of the mountain as you drive by. The road consists of fresh and very uneven gravel. The worst part was when a giant trash truck sized vehicle was coming from the opposite direction and we had move to the side so that it could pass. We were literally only a few feet away from sliding down the side of the mountain. Needless to say it was one of the most stressful car rides of my life.

When we finally got to Aroumd we got settled into our hostel which was the entire bottom level of our guide’s house. It had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge dining area, and a roof top terrace with a view of the mountains. We couldn’t have gotten luckier. The place was awesome. For dinner our guide’s wife made us a traditional Berber meal. We had bread, soup, tajine, and “Berber Whiskey” (Ha it’s what he calls Moroccan mint tea). I’m so thankful for their hospitality. The three of us had a great night and were able to relax and prepare for the next two days.

Friday morning we woke up and for breakfast we had bread and jam. At 8:30 AM we started our six hour hike to the refuge. Aroumd is around 6,000ft above sea level and the refuge is around 4,000ft higher. The elevation change made this one of the hardest parts of the entire hike. We would stop to catch our breath and less than five minutes later I would be completely out of breath again. Our guide did a good job at pacing us and making sure we were going slowly. At times we went even slower than the pace he set for us. Around five hours into the hike both my feet had blisters from the brand new boots I had just brought the day before (not the smartest decision I have ever made) and my self-doubt was at an all-time high. I began to seriously question my mental and physical ability to achieve this climb. Did I overestimate my capabilities? People train for months to do things like this. If I hiked to the summit was I going to endanger myself by doing so? By the time I got the stone steps of the refuge I was convinced I wasn’t going to make it to the top of Toubkal. I had spent the last hour huffing and puffing on the outside and on the inside convincing myself I had given it my all and that I wouldn’t regret not going all the way.

Our guide showed us inside and led us to where we would be sleeping for the night. It was the type of place my mom would definitely have a heart attack knowing that I spent the night there with a 50 year old French dude in the bed next to mine. The refuge was awesome though and it definitely added to the experience.

After we got situated we went downstairs to hang out in the common room and to see if we could find the other students from AUI; we found them! It was awesome to see people we knew so far from campus. We also met some Americans who are working in Casablanca for a couple months. It was nice to talk to people from home and to compare how we’ve all been adapting to life in Morocco.

At dinner our guide told us that breakfast was going to be at 4:00AM and we would start hiking at 4:30AM in the dark to avoid the heat. The thought of hiking up a mountain in the dark was terrifying but after rethinking my decision to finish the hike to the top and being motivated by everyone I had talked to that night I decided I was going to do it and nothing was going to stop me from making it to the summit. We were in bed by 8:00PM and our bags were packed and ready with water and snacks for the trek to the summit.

I was so nervous, I barely slept, but as soon 3:45AM rolled around I was up and ready for the day. Breakfast again was bread and jam and at exactly 4:30AM we left the refuge in the pitch black and began our journey to the top.

I didn’t think I would like hiking in the dark but it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. The stars were absolutely spectacular. Being in the mountains made them seem so close you could touch them. It was so dark you couldn’t see the other hikers and all you could make out were lines of glowing head lamps that almost looked like tiny stars hiking up the side of the mountain. It was hard to tell where the mountain ended and the sky began.

As sore as I was, I tried to focus all my energy in putting one foot in front of the other. That was another benefit of the dark – you couldn’t see how far you had come or how far you still had to go. Our guide told us about 30 minutes into the hike that from here on out we couldn’t stop for long because our muscles would get cold and tense. As intimidating as this was I wouldn’t have made it to the top if I didn’t keep going at a constant and steady pace. No stopping, take it slow, and one foot in front of the other.

The sun began to rise right as we reached the ridge. I walked up to the edge and was so overwhelmed with how beautiful it was, my body’s only reaction was to break down into tears. Thinking about it now still chokes me up. I think I scared our guide. He thought I couldn’t breathe. The mountain had taken my breath away but it wasn’t because of the altitude.

From the ridge to the summit was another 45 minutes and it seemed to pass so quickly. And after a total of 3 hours of hiking reaching the top was so rewarding. It took me a couple minutes to realize the battle I had just won against myself. I did it! I overcame all my doubt both mentally and physically and climbed Mount Toubkal. At the summit I wasn’t my usual overwhelmed or excited self. I was completely at peace. Content with my accomplishment and blissfully taking in one of the most scenic views I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

On our way back to the refuge we basically slid all the way down. The rock is so lose and thick, it was like walking down an escalator for two hours. Back at the refuge there were smiles all around and everyone was congratulating one another for making it to the top. I collapsed in a bed and didn’t want to move. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that. We ate lunch and left the refuge in order to head back to Aroumd and ultimately Marrakech for the night.

The walk from the refuge to Aroumd was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done in my life. Whoever said getting to the top of the mountain was the hard part was extremely misinformed. The walk was four hours of direct impact to the cartilage in your knees and no matter how hard to try to not stomp each step hurts more than the last. Part of me is more proud of myself for making it down the mountain than for making it to the summit.

Pain and soreness aside I conquered Toubkal and met some awesome people in the process!

 

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