Jebel Toubkal is my answer as to where to go hiking near London in the middle of winter! I’ve attending a work conference in London. In February. Really not a very good time of the year to go hiking in the UK. As fortune has it, one of my friends, who’s from the UK and has moved to Australia for a few years, suggested Morocco. Just a short flight away. And great walking… he’s also put me in contact with a local trekking guide, who took care of pretty much everything once we landed in Morocco. We’re doing the overnight hike to Jebel Toubkal or Mount Toubkal – the highest mountain in North Africa.
Imlil, the starting point for our overnight trek, is a couple of hours from Marrakesh by road and a nice drive up to the base of the mountains via Aremd & the Mizane Valley.
We meet Mohamed, our guide and owner / operator of the local Aztat Treks as well as our Support Mule, in Imlil. As we get ready to set out, I unpack my almost-never-used hiking boots, which basically disintegrate as I put them on. I later discover this is quite common with shoes that haven’t been worn for a long time, and is a “glue failure” between the rubber outsole and midsole, called sole delamination. Fortunately Mohamed says “no problem” and rustles up a spare pair of boots that are slightly on the small size, but will do the job for the next two days.
Day 1: Imlil to Toukbal Refuge
We finally set off, up the valley from Imlil, past the Kasbah du Toubkal. Now a National Geographic “Unique Lodge”, the Kasbah du Toubkal was transformed from a crumbling ruin to an upmarket lodge by two British brothers who visited the Atlas Mountains in 1989.
Traversing the Mizane Valley, we pass the village of Aroumd (or Aremd), the largest Berber village in the Ait Mizane Valley. It’s a good example of the distinctive Moroccan architecture, which uses earth or mud brick called pisé, and has been influenced by Islamization during the Idrisid dynasty (Moorish exiles from Spain).
As we continue east, we ascend above the flood plain along a narrow mule track, into the high rocky cliffs above the valley.
After a couple of hours we stop for lunch at Sidi (Saint) Chamharouch (2,350m), about halfway up the trail from Imlil to the Refuge Toubkal. Here there is a group of small shops and restaurants that has grown around a Muslim shrine. It’s not exactly a light lunch, but a cooked meal accompanied by traditional mint tea.
The hiking gets more serious from here, as we attach crampons to our hiking boots and start ascending through the snow, along the right-hand side of the Isougouane valley.
It’s incredible scenery, with the higher peaks of the Atlas Mountains serving as the picturesque backdrop to the hiking trail.
Our destination today is the Toubkal Refuge or Refuge du Toubkal Les Mouflons (3,207m asl), a hut near the base of Mount Toubkal. (The name “Les Mouflons” being from a breed of deer living in the Atlas mountains.)
The sprawling hut has multiple dormitories and a restaurant: it feels more like glamping than camping, as we enjoy more mint tea and another cooked meal at the end of our first day.
Jebel Toubkal (4,165m) and back to Imlil
We’re up early on our second day: Mohamed explains that it’s much safer to ascend before the sun starts to soften the snow and ice. With head-torches on, crampons attached and ice-pick in hand (not that I really know what I’m supposed to do with the ice-pick!), we set off up the steep and icy slope behind refuge.
Although there are no technical sections, you definitely need crampons as there is snow and ice along the trail.
The trail goes up the south cirque and across a scree field, where before it reaches the ridgeline.
From the ridge there are great view of the surrounding Atlas Mountain peaks, and it’s not much further to the Jebel Toubkal summit.
Described by Pliny as “the most fabulous mountains in all of Africa”, Jebel Toubkal (or Mount Toubkal) is an ultra prominent peak and the highest for over 2,000 km.
There’s only a handful of other people at the Jebel Toubkal summit (4,167m asl) with whom we share the 360-degree views. To the south is the Anti-Atlas (or Little Atlas) mountain range in the far distance, and the Sahara Desert.
To the north-east, the snow-covered peaks of the High Atlas range stretch as far as the eye can see.
We share the peak with a squirrel, which seems accustomed to eating food dropped by hikers, and a small bird.
As we start our descent, there’s a view of Aroumd in the Mizane valley far below, and beyond this the Marrakesh Plains at the base of the Atlas Mountains.
The return route from the Jebel Toubkal summit is slightly different from the way up, with the descent through the snow quite steep.
One of the steepest sections is the slope just above the Toubkal Refuge, where even with crampons it’s slow going and care is needed to avoid sliding down.
From the Toubkal Refuge it’s the same way back down. There’s a nice view of Aroumd, illuminated by the afternoon sun, before we’re back at Imlil.
We’re back in Imlil by late afternoon, with a few hours the following morning to explore Marrakesh before our flight back to London.
When to hike Jebel Toubkal
Mount Toubkal can be hiked all year around – but it’s harder in winter when most of the route is covered by snow. From Imlil to the Toubkal Refuge you probably won’t need any extra gear, even in winter, as the track is fairly well trodden. But from the Toubkal Refuge to the Toubkal summit you’ll need crampons. It’s recommended to do this walk with a local guide.
Accommodation around Jebel Toubkal
There’s lots of affordable accommodation in the town of Imlil, which is where you start and finish the Jebel Toubkal hike. Alternatively, staying in Marrakesh gives you lots more options for sightseeing, shopping and dining. Either way, staying in a riad (traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard) before and after our Jebel Toubkal hike was part of what made this such a unique adventure.
More information on Jebel Toubkal
- Foortprint Focus Guide – Marrakech, High Atlas & Essaouira
- Aztat Treks – Mt Toubkal Ascent Express Trek 2D1N