Monday, September 15, 2008


This weekend we decided we needed an adventure, so Zach offered the idea of climbing the highest peak in North Africa, Mt. Toubkal. The peak is 4,167m tall, and its base is located in a town called Imlil, which is about an hour out of Marrakech. It seemed like a good idea, and with our new lovely schedule, we could catch the night train Thursday, and be at the base of the mountain before noon on Friday. We offered our trip itinerary to all the kids on the program, but come Thursday after class, Jesse and Helen where the only other takers. This was a perfect amount for a climbing excursion.

After asking around, we found out that the night train left from Rabat at 3 in the morning. We all thought this was a great way to start an adventure, so come three in the morning, the four of us met in the alley of the train station, waiting for it to open. A few minutes after three, the gates opened, and we pushed our way along with the others waiting for the ticket window and then the train. We rushed in hopes of snagging two compartments, only to find out that the train, for some horrible reason, did not have compartments, but individual seats, two on each side, facing another two. Besides Helen, who had been out all night with her host brother, we had all slept a few hours before coming here. With the help of exhaustion and an empty train, we found some semi-comfortable positions, and restlessly slept the four-hour ride to Marrakech.

Upon arrival, we set out to find a super market in Marrakech before catching a grand taxi to Imlil. This was an adventure in itself, and after our accidental tour of the nouvelle ville, thanks to the precise directions of local strangers, we found our way to the La belvie.
With a bag full of dates, bread, and jelly, we crossed the street to go barter with a few taxi drivers for a ride. In the high season, rides with four people should only cost 50-70 dirhman a person, so at the end of the season, we should be paying no more then 50. Apparently the driver didn’t have the same outlook as we did, and after finally giving us our price, he refused to talk to anyone for the duration of the drive. But he had an outlet for his anger, blindly passing on curves on a mountain rode…

We thankfully made it to the mountain in one piece, and immediately after hopping out of our taxi, we started our ascent. Our crew, besides Zach the mountain man, looked like the saddest bunch of misfits the mountain had ever seen. All three of us where wearing running shoes instead of hiking boots (mine purchased the night before in the medina at the knock off nike store) designer (or knock off designer) glasses, and whatever random fitness attire we decided to bring on the trip. Preparation was not the name of the game this weekend, but adaptation is a very important aspect of travel.

The hike started through the main town of Imlil, which consisted of two hotels, and random shops with ceramic animals and wool hoodies, that looked like they had been stolen from hippies in the 90’s, were the only goods. After passing the buildings, hikers get the first glimpse of the valley. Before starting on the mountain path, there is a stream that runs through apple orchards and green grass, and down through the town. It also follows the hiking path all the way up to its source beyond the refuge. The mountain itself is a mix of deep gray and brown, and hides the summit for a good majority of the hike.

Guides aren't really necessary for the trip, so we decided to hike on our own. I think guides normally designate pass, so our guide free trip came with a hellish pace. It can take anywhere from 3 1/2 to 6 hours to make it to the refugee, but with our pace, we could have probably made it in two. We followed the stream for a little over an hour until we reached the half way point, which consisted of a waterfall draining into a pool, as well as obnoxious sales men thinking its a good idea to sell large items to people who are walking up a hill. We stopped and ate lunch here, dipped our feet in the freezing pool, then started up again.

As we continued to hike, we passed several groups of people, the most outspoken of course were the Britts, who would loudly comment "there go the Americans." But Even at our pace, we were constantly being passed by Moroccans on mules, carrying supplies to the refugee. At anyone moment, you could also turn your head and see packs of wild and herded goats working their way up and down the mountain.

What was fun about the small group was the ability to chat with one another, and after a few hours of ice breaking questions, we dove into questions that would break the surface a bit. As we walked in the mountains, surrounded by the elements and the sound of moving water, we talked about all the things young people thrive on; love, lust, relationships, the future, parties, the opposite sex...the opposite sex...the opposite sex. Its amazing how fast you can really get to know a person after only a few hours.

What is difficult about the hike to the refuge, is the fact it is hidden until you are about twenty minutes out. After about 2 and half hours of hiking, Helen began to feel the effects of altitude sickness. I think we all were feeling it a bit, but since she hadn't slept the night before, and restless train sleeping sufficient, I think the exhaustion intensified the effects for her. That morning we had been at sea level, and now we where just under 11,000 ft. According to lonely planet, and your local physician, this is a giant no no. But Helen, who was a DII soccer player, is very stubborn and tough. We slowed down a bit (but she didn't let us that much) and we fought our way to the refugee.

The concrete building, which matched the color of its surroundings, on the inside felt like a secluded, yet humble ski lodge, somewhere far of the beaten path. It was a sight for sore eyes, and although freezing, and lacking the burning wood fire of a ski lodge, it was a great place to be after a hike.

They greeted us with mint tea as we arrived, and we threw our bags in our shared dormitory. There were sixteen beds altogether, two bunk beds, with four touching mattresses on top, and four on bottom.

Helen, unfortunately, spent the rest of the afternoon battling the sickness, while the guys played cards and talked about life. Since we are currently in the Muslim holiday of Bramadan (bro Ramadan)...and at the top of a mountain in Morocco, our hope for beer and wings for dinner was in vain. Even the Moroccan equivalent, Cous cous and Hawaii soda, wasn't available tonight, so we had to settle for fanta and chicken tangines.

Since the refuge didn't like to use its power, lights where out at 8, and at 9 we went to bed. Sharing a bed with three other people isn't the best environment for sleeping, and after hearing the symphony of alarms from other groups ring from 1-5, we finally got out of bed to summit.

There is a distinct path to take to the summit, but we decided, in honor of Bramadan, to make our own path. We found ourself on all fours, climbing up boulders, and pushing our way through loose rock. We slipped and slid, and fought our way up the steepest incline, then took the already made path when the mountain flattened out a bit into a valley. From this point we could see the summit, and although it was still far, we could begin to map out our route to its graces. At this point the sun was out, but our half-assed gear was still not warm enough to be completely comfortable.

As we got closer to the summit, the terrain got gradually steeper, while the air became a little bit more thin, and the temperature fell just a bit more. What amazes me is how fast, when the elements are against you, the comfort of your own thoughts can turn from a treasured ally, to a sworn enemy. I was cold and exhausted, and my thoughts had betrayed me, but as we saw the summit, and crawled up the loose dirt on all fours, I put all my hope in the view from the top. This was a very good idea.

From the summit you could see for miles. There was little cloud cover, and the entire anti-atlas mountain range came in our view. There was a green valley at the bottom, and some how, less then a hundred feet under us, a stray heard of goat. We took pictures, laughed, ate snickers, and took in the amazing view, all the while trying to keep warm and gasp in the glory of climbing North Africa's highest peak.

After about an hour, we packed our bags and headed down. The descent was faster, and although it was down hill, it still was very frustrating with all the loose rock. To battle the traitors in our minds, we talked about a wide range of topics, from life and where it comes from, to pokemon. After about an hour and a half we made it to the refuge.

Helen was there waiting for us, looking a lot more colorful, and feeling a lot better. We talked about what our next step was, and decided that we would rather spend another night at the refuge, then go to Marrakech and battle the heat and street vendors. It was around noon when we got back, so we spent the day playing rummy on the patio, watching groups of hikers, goats, and mules make their way up.

After about three hours of rummy and omlete eating, someone brought up the idea of maybe hiking down and catching the last train home to Rabat. It seemed only fitting to put this choice up to Allah (or God, whichever name you choose) and used cards as a medium for him to speak. We made up a ridiculous game, with contradicting rules to decide what we would do, and after about twenty minutes, we got the order to stay the night. A few more hours of card playing led us to the cous cous dinner I had been waiting for, then to our now empty dorm room.

Though there were only four of us, and four completely open spaces to sleep, we all decided to sleep on one bunk and share the space. It does sound like a cute situation, but it was actually the result of fear after telling ghost stories before bed. Everyone told their real life stories, or stories of friends with ghosts, and to finish the night, I payed tribute to my Grandma by telling the "Mary I’m at the foot of your bed story." It didn’t scare my friends as much as it did Megan and I when we were little, but it still made me smile thinking about every time my Grandma spooked us before bed.

The next morning we packed our things and calculated how much our bill should be. We were told it was 30 dirham for each meal, 20 for tea and 80 per person for the room. The English speaking man who had told us the prices was asleep while we were getting ready to leave, so we grabbed another employee to ring us up. We spoke a little bit of French with him, but he knew we were Americans, so he decided to try and charge us double for each meal we ate, and 10 dirham extra for every time we ordered. This sparked an argument, which led to a stand off, which led to him storming in and out of the room, then finally locking the front door, as to try and lock us in the refuge. Zach made a joke and asked him if he was kidnapping us, while threatening to call our embassy, but this seemed to be lost in the heat of the moment with the worker. As we sat in a stare down, we saw our friend begin to wake up, but instead of hopping to his feet, he started to writhe in pain, moaning and rolling on the coach. He said it hurt right under his stomach, near his groin, and so our only thought was that it could be a kidney stone. Jesse had Advil with him, so we dished out enough for two days, and told him how to take them. The other employee, who had tried to cheat us, was watching the whole time, and after this spectacle, decided to give us the actual price for our stay, and let us leave the refuge (even though the back door was open the whole time.)

Because of the stand off, we were in a bit of a rush to catch the one o’clock train back to Rabat, so we hiked down as fast as possible and went straight to the taxi stop. We ended up hailing the only passive/timid taxi driver in Morocco, and instead of speeding through the mountains, we arrived in Marrakech about fifteen minutes after the train left. But like I said earlier, the key to traveling is adaptation, so to occupy ourselves, we paid 50 dirham to swim and shower at the hotel Ibis next to the train station.

The four-hour train ride back was spent digging a little deeper with one another, as well as watching the scenery pass by. Even with the mornings delay and missing the first train, we still made it back to town only a few minutes late for Fitar (break-fast).
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