PHOTO: Porter Fox
PHOTO: Porter Fox

Lost

The art of ski travel in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains

PHOTOS: Porter Fox

10 February
I know the shape of this coast, the rocky shore, dark waves rolling in 34,000 feet below. The jet engines hum. A businessman taps his fingers on the lavatory door. A line of tile-roof houses appears, then further inland, factories and highways and the broad, unlit fields of Viré, Flares, and Nonancourt. The captain makes an announcement. The businessman sits. The plane banks left and the great circle of Paris rises above the wing.

This is the route you take to the Alps, where the French wedel in fluorescent stretch pants and Italians eat osso bucco in the summit lodge. But that's not the destination today. The final destination is still unclear. It's to the southeast, I believe. Over the Pyrenees, across two oceans, on another continent…

Inside are candle-lit fountains, riads of the old pashas, jade-tiled mosques, fire, smoke and 20,000 taxi drivers looking for a fare.

I'm woefully unprepared. My only bag is a small canvas backpack with a sleeping bag, ski pants, rain jacket, two pairs of socks, a compass, and a book inside. I'll find skis and boots somewhere on the mountain. There's a guide there, too, who grew up in the foothills. If there's snow, he'll sniff it out. If not, we'll sit in a teahouse and talk about the crazy shit going down in the Middle East.

Land. Taxi to the gate. Espresso at a kiosk. The connecting flight leaves in six hours from a different airport—tickets were cheap—so I take the RER to Gare du Nord, hub of the civilized world and center of Paris' circles. You can catch a train to Chamonix, Brindisi, Istanbul, or Moscow at the station. I take one to Montmartre and follow the winding streets and staircases straight up to the Sacre Couer on top of the hill.

The orange rim of the sun lifts above half a million chimneys and a choir of 40 nuns inside the basilica sing a prayer. Songbirds drop from their roots and flit across the courtyard. A young soldier holding a machine gun gazes off to the east.

Yesterday I fixed my car on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Tomorrow I'll be on another continent. The change shakes you out of your shoes, the little fears slip away. This kind of travel doesn't make you see things differently. It makes you see things for what they are.

Hugh of Vermandois, brother of King Philip I of France, left from here in 1096 to join the first crusade. It took the army six months to march to Constantinople. That afternoon it takes me two hours to fly over the Mediterranean and land in Africa. The coast is bigger and wider here; the beaches are sandy and there are no houses. I drift off to sleep an hour after takeoff. When the plane begins to descend, there are minarets on the horizon, backlit by the setting sun.

There's a wall around the city. Sultans used to spear the heads of their enemies on it. There are 20 gates to get in. Inside are candle-lit fountains, riads of the old pashas, jade-tiled mosques, fire, smoke and 20,000 taxi drivers looking for a fare.

Off to the south, barely visible through the haze, is the uprising. The mountains are pastel shadows against the red haze. They're a lot bigger than I expected—brown and thick on the bottom, razor sharp and white on top. Somewhere in the middle there's powder. I need to sleep. Then go and find it.

11 February
The thing you notice first is the light. It falls in sheets through the slatted roofs of Marrakesh's markets, bends around corners, reflects off the cobblestone. Berber men in gown-like djellabahs shuffle past. Six teenagers play soccer in an alley. There are goat heads and snails for sale at a kiosk on the corner, falcon wings and crystals at the pharmacy across the street. The tanneries use pigeon droppings to tan leather on the roofs of Dar Debagh.

The best deals in the market come after the prayer. The call ends; the loudspeakers go quiet. There is a moment of silence, then the vendors move in. Within a minute you can buy walnuts, chickens, carburetors, or snakes—all in a 100-square-foot courtyard.

For 1,000 years, Marrakesh has been a place where you arrive. Ciuinean gold, Saharan salt, slaves and goods of all sorts were transported through breaches in the 12,000-foot High Atlas Mountains, past the palmeries and kasbahs of the northern flanks of the range and across the high plains of the Haouz to the city's markets. Caravans from the kingdoms of Benin and Ghana hauled their cargo through the passes, and Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur rode through on his campaign against Timbuktu. At the end was always Marrakesh.

I'm sore, dirty, lost, and jetlagged. For 380 dirham ($48), a middle-aged man scrubs black soot off my skin at a steamy hammam downtown. I wander to a teahouse and sit among 20 men playing cards. They wear black overcoats and black leather jackets, smoke cigarettes and look at the small topo map I printed off the Internet. The mountain I want to ski spans the entire range. To the north are the high plains and the road to Marrakesh. On the south are two rivers, a dozen oases and the great void of the Sahara.

There's hardly any information on the range, other than the fact that there are a handful of mountains above 12,000 feet—and sometimes they get snow. I'm going for the tallest one—Toubkal at 13,671 feet, the tallest peak in North Africa. If there's snow, it'll be there.

The vendors are wild the next day in Place Jemaa El Fna—the giant plaza in the center of the city where musicians, snake charmers and storytellers gather circles of tourists, workers, schoolchildren, and housewives. The noise is almost deafening—folk music, Barbary monkeys, firecrackers, card games. I buy three paper bags filled with dried figs, roasted almonds, and something that looks like beer nuts and head home to sleep.

12 February
Wind from the mountains blows through the streets. I head to the taxi stand where 15 diesel Mercedes sedans are lined up outside a small café. I ask a driver to take me to Imlil. He points me to another, who puts me in a car and cuts a deal with another. The old Benz purrs to life and we roll out of the city, through the slums, past 10 miles of eucalyptus trees with their trunks painted white and onto the plains. Charms, earphones and a small tablet inscribed with Sanskrit swing from the rearview mirror. The driver wears a gold ring on his finger and plays a Joni Mitchell album I've never heard. The road turns to dirt and we pass through a narrow gorge with 500-foot cliffs five feet from the shoulder. Vendors and mountain guides look on when we enter Imlil. They see my rain jacket and mass around the taxi to offer their services.

An older man in an orange djellabah waits on the roof of his house. He's holding Scarpa ski boots and 180cm Dynastar 4x4s with Fritschi bindings.

Jamal Imerhane of Toubkal Guide is my contact. His brother, Rachid, will take me up the mountain. Rachid's friend, Mohammad, will take me to the snow. The brothers worked as muleteers growing up in Imlil, hauling tourist gear on donkeys for a few dollars a day. The town sits at 5,700 feet and is the gateway to Toubkal National Park. They are Berbers, the mountain tribe that has controlled the Atlas since people first crossed them.

We start walking right away, 800 vertical feet over a mile to the town of Armed. The houses are made of mud or cinderblocks. Stacks of wooden crates for oranges and nuts lean against the walls. An older man in an orange djellabah waits on the roof of his house. He's holding Scarpa ski boots and 180cm Dynastar 4x4s with Fritschi bindings. His wife asks us to take our shoes off at the door and shows us to three plastic chairs on the roof. The skis are 150 dirhams a day to rent, including boots. I try them on and they fit perfectly. The tea is free, the man laughs as he lifts the kettle high and fills three small glasses.

We shoulder the gear and cross a wide floodplain south of the village, then Rachid rents two mules and straps our skis and boots to them. We head up again, through terraced fields and a walnut orchard. Flocks of sheep roam the hillside and a few shepherds watch us walk by. The sky darkens and snow starts to fall at 7,500 feet. There are blue chunks of ice floating in the stream and a small shack selling knit handbags, hats, djellabahs, and fresh oranges—whole or juiced. We take a break, then continue up, and up, thousands of vertical feet on a seemingly endless trail. The snow deepens around 9,000 feet and the mules start to slip. Every now and then a rimed peak reveals itself through the clouds. They are all caked in snow, with near-vertical snowfields and thin, winding couloirs.

We stop at another shack at 9,000 feet and drop the mules off. We've been walking for seven hours and blisters are forming on my heels and the balls of my feet. It's well below freezing and I duck inside the hut to put on another layer and wrap a scarf around my head. A man boils tea in a golden pot and pours four cups. We sit on milk crates and pillows, and he heats up two clay dishes of tagine and serves it with a loaf of flatbread.

He is an angel and I can feel my energy coming back. There are Dynastars from the 1980s leaning against the fieldstone wall. Metal bowls and utensils lay on a small stone hearth beside three cases of empty Coke bottles. Rachid eats quickly and talks to the man, then we put on our boots, skis and skins and continue on a slick white track.

A half hour later, it's snowing so hard I have to close my eyes. It doesn't matter. For the first time since I landed I feel at home. The familiar motion of skinning—the hiss of the glide—is somehow grounding. I pass Rachid, then Mohammad who gives me a dirty look. At 10,000 feet an hour later, the clouds break and the giant cirque we've skied into reveals itself.

Everything is white—giant, craggy peaks, hanging snowfields, twisting chutes carved into rock faces. Boulders and rocky ridges lay exposed on the valley floor, but up high it's all snow with descents everywhere you look. One couloir to the west drops what looks like 3,000 vertical feet straight from a summit all the way to the valley floor. Another to the west wends left and right for almost as long down the flank of a giant massif. This is an old range, created 50 million years ago when Africa collided with Europe. The continents collided again when the French occupied Morocco for half the 20th century. When they finally went home in 1956, they left behind a climbing refuge built by the French Alpine Club of Casablanca in 1938.

We ski to the stone structure and put our boots in wooden cubbies in the foyer. The hut keeper, Hamid, puts our skis in a metal rack next door, beside a stack of blue propane tanks. The place sleeps 35. There's a kitchen on the ground floor with three propane burners and an eating room with four large tables and bench seats. Power comes from a hydro-electric turbine in the stream outside. The "pharmacy" sells aspirin, sunblock, Pringles, and Nutella, and upstairs are four bunkrooms for guests.

Hamid's family has managed the hut for three generations. He's wearing a bright yellow djellabah and is half out of his mind. He slaps Rachid on the back every time he addresses him and hollers indecipherable English at me as he shows me to a room. I get a lower bunk and drop off my pack. Hamid shakes my hand and departs with: "Thank you very much! You crazy? Cocaine?!"

He leaves and I push open the wooden shutters. The mountains are giant, sheer, and steep. Icefall arches over the cliffs. A snowfield wends up the middle of Toubkal then disappears. The rock walls on either side of the snow are almost 1,000 feet tall. I can't see any of the summits on the eastern side of the valley, just two golden eagles circling over the snow.

13 February
Mohammad is up at 6 a.m., fitting ski crampons over his bindings. I eat a quick breakfast of bread and marmalade then meet him in the boot room. He hands me a pair of crampons and skins. My boots are cold and wet and my clothes are wet, too. I put the gear in a small pack with a few candy bars, boot up, and head out.

Mohammad is already skinning up when I click in. Three Italians suited up like NASCAR drivers hike in sync a mile in front of him. They have tiny randonee skis and boots that look like sneakers. I follow up a gradual grade over two moraines to the foot of the snowfield. It's much steeper than it looked from my window, and we both put on ski crampons and make slow, precise steps up the headwall. The sky is bright blue and the sun is still below the ridgeline. The snow is hard, almost ice.

Halfway up, one of the Italians falls. He picks up speed as he slides and cartwheels down the slope. His ice axe tumbles behind him. He screams as he falls, like in a movie, then slides to a stop 800 feet below. I recognize him as one of the particularly loud fellows from the night before. He hollers to his friend to come help him. His friend glances down, then keeps climbing.

It snowed a foot up high last night and for miles around there are dozens of lines—deep, rock-lined chasms running thousands of feet; rows of giant rocky ridges with ribbons of snow caught in the draws. From the top of Tizi-n-Toubkal pass three hours later, it looks like you could link descents all the way across the range and end up at the beginnings of the Sahara.

Wind howls on the pass and rakes the snow. Clouds are moving in. We break for a few minutes then start up again. Mohammad is losing steam so I take the lead. It seems to piss him off, but I don't want to get caught up here. We're hiking now, skis on our backs, as the wind has blown most of the snow off the rocks. Every 500 feet a four-foot tall cairn marks the way. The relief is unbelievable—7,500 vertical feet in 48 hours. A precipice drops off 2,000 feet, just to the right of the trail. Around chalk stones and scree, the path keeps going up, like it will never stop, up into the sky and building storm clouds.

We reach a false summit, then scramble around a long, thin ridgeline. The wind is blowing so hard I have to crawl on my hands and knees the last 100 feet. On top I can see the summit tower, a small metal structure strung with prayer flags. The air is getting thin. One step, one breath. Mohammad wheezes behind me. And I focus on the ground in front of me.

Then there are no more steps. We're standing on the highest point in North Africa, the Sahara like a dark streak across the horizon, reddish rocks and red sand blown around by the wind. It is surreal, having come from New York City's JFK airport, to the souks of Marrakesh, to this view of walled Berber cities and a half dozen oases sidled up to the river.

On the northern flanks is 3,500 vertical feet of fresh powder, the magic carpet I've been dreaming of since I read about Toubkal six months ago. The run follows the valley over gentle rollovers and banked turns, down the headwall to the front door of the refuge—where crazy Hamid waits with Pringles and chocolate.

It's cold, so we start back to the pass and put on our skis. Mohammad steals first tracks in the upper bowl and promptly face plants. I cut skier's left to a fresh line along a rock wall. The snow had blown in there, and I find a pocket two feet deep. It's intimidating at first—we're far from help—but after a few turns, it's the same old feeling: compress, turn, link to another. I ski 800 feet, then side-hill to another patch. It's steeper there, deeper too and I make another 20 turns to the headwall.

Mohammad is angry I didn't follow him and insists we stay in the low-angle belly of the draw. He takes off and I wait until he's over the rollover, then side-hill again to a steep couloir. There are no tracks in it and I ski 1,000 feet to the bottom in two shots, making wide, sweeping turns out of the slot then down the face I'd been looking at from my window.

The run ends at the refuge where Hamid is waiting. He fetches a tray of tea and bread and asks where Mohammad is. Then he takes my skis and boots, climbs the hill and comes back down in three wild turns, his djellabah trailing behind him, yelling, "Ski Morocco!"

It's only noon when we finish eating, and I spend the rest of the day in the common room, reading and sleeping. It's cold outside. The only heat in the refuge comes from a small fireplace in the corner of the room. There's a map of Toubkal over the hearth and an old wooden ice axe hanging beneath it. The room is white with a blue tiled stripe around the middle. Two wooden windows look down the valley toward Imlil and another up at 13,392-foot Ras Ouanoukrim peak to the west. There are stickers on the bulletin board from La Grave to Serbia to Squaw Valley. Climbers, skiers, and tourists filter in all afternoon, wearing brightly colored puffy jackets. The guides and porters wear djellabahs and outdated European ski jackets and play Ronda on one of the little tables—slamming playing cards on the table and accusing each other of cheating. The pictures on the cards are of money, trees, fruit, and princes.

The refuge is an odd place with 30-some strangers huddled together, all trying to stay warm and stay up late enough so they can sleep through the cold. There's a great boredom here and people fight it with books and cards or listen to music and watch frost grow across the windows. It's a place of meditation, too, gazing for hours at the whitewashed walls, waiting for a meal, then waiting for dark. Hardly anyone speaks the same language well enough to have a conversation. Last night in the bathrooms—where water freezes in the toilet bowl—a woman cried over the sink while her husband consoled her.

14 February
Mohammad is up and eating breakfast at 6 a.m. the next morning. He's still sore at me. Moroccans are proud of their mountains, proud to know the way. An hour later, he leads up the skin track at a brutal pace. I'm so tired I can barely see straight. We stay right this time and head toward Ras Ouanoukrim. The mountain is only 98 feet smaller than Toubkal. It's much steeper and icier, I find, on the eastern ridge.

There are ridges carved into the snow on the first col, where the wind has eaten the snow away. To the north, the Haouza plain is cloud-covered all the way to Marrakesh. The wind rushes through the pass and down the southern flanks all the way to the river and the start of the desert.

We take off our skis at the col and climb a steep chimney. The Italians are in front of us again. They all have crampons on their boots. All we have are the 20-year-old, worn-out toes on our Scarpas. We balance on a half-inch of ice each step for 600 vertical feet, zigzagging over 1,500 feet of exposure. It's gusting 40 mph and throwing me off balance. I've got my skis over one shoulder and both poles in the other hand. My hat blows off, flips three times and disappears—airborne—over the ridge. I show Mohammad the crampons on the other climbers' feet. He shrugs and continues on.

Up here is where the ghosts come back. I think about family and friends, dead and alive. I see vivid images of their faces and remember times we had. There's nothing else up here. Just wind and ice and a half-inch of life I'm clinging to with each step. It's part of the chore, facing the ghosts, and it's part of the reward, too. Because when we make it to the summit, it's not just the top of the mountain. It's life, your life, dark memories and all.

We can see the whole High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges from the top, brown-and-white peaks scratching the blue sky all the way to the Atlantic. It's blowing 45 mph now and we have to kneel to take our skins off. "Bravo!" the Italians yell, then skate off to a couloir leading down the northeast face. Mohammad skis straight down the icy bootpack and I follow him for a bit, then take my own route down a skinny, 1,500-foot couloir to skier's left.

The slot is rocky and steeper than it looked from below. The first two turns on the 45-degree slope are soft, though, and slough runs down the fall line. It feels good right away and I link two more, then six more, then 12. The rush comes back and I let out a yell—working the mountain turn after turn, dropping down the beautiful chute that must be near-vertical in the summer, everything pushing toward the white valley below and the mellow powder turns that lead back to the refuge and the cold, white rooms and my wooden bunk where I dream 20 dreams every night.

I've been able to see my breath when I eat, sleep, and brush my teeth for four days.

Mohammad appears across the valley and waves his arms. I cut left at the mouth of the chute and get another 1,000 vertical on a gentle powder slope. There's a firm base beneath the new snow, but it's soft enough to set an edge in. Wispy contrails soar behind as I link arc to arc. I'm out of breath; snot is running from my nose. I can hardly breathe but I can't stop, it's too good. When I make it to the skin track, Mohammad is gone. I follow the trail back looking over my shoulder, at the maw of the valley and wind whipping the summit and my tracks winding up the couloir and out of sight.

15 February
It's time to go. The climbers are gone; skiers are eating breakfast. Everyone in the common room is cold and silent. Sun rains down outside and the wind howls. I've been able to see my breath when I eat, sleep, and brush my teeth for four days. I haven't said more than 10 words to anyone in five days. It's an odd psychological experiment, this withdrawing, watching, nothing to do but think.

I want to see the desert. On each summit I found myself looking south at the amber expanse. It's not sandy here, mostly rock. When Caesar rode his army into the Sahara, there were forests. Now there's nothing but rubble and heat.

I'm out of breath; snot is running from my nose. I can hardly breathe but I can't stop, it's too good.

We pack up after lunch and head down. Back to the mule station, the orange stand, a piece of fuselage from a Ukrainian cargo plane that crashed in 2002. We pass a shepherd and 50 sheep barging up the path, then an old man in a djellabah in the flood plain. His dark eyes follow me as I cross. Closer to the bottom, we pass a few tourists riding mules. Mohammad waves to the muleteers. I avoid eye contact with the guests—overweight Europeans wearing gold jewelry and holding cameras.

We follow a small concrete aqueduct to Imlil, where the vendors are out in force. Crystals, carpets, charms, crampons. It is sickening to see this tribe reduced to this. We pass them quickly and meet Jamal at a small restaurant. The brothers embrace and catch up on the trip. We have lunch and when it's over, I ask Jamal to find me a taxi. He does and I ask the driver to take me south. He asks where, and I tell him I'm not sure. Over the mountains, toward the river. Somewhere far from the mountains, where I can walk into the desert.

This story was first published in the January, 2012 (40.5) issue of POWDER.