By Jeff Norman
Photos by Jeff Norman & Alex Bonebakker
It’s 1 p.m. in Imlil, a small village in the mountains outside of Marrakech, Morocco, and for the first time on our trip, it’s raining. The plan is to embark on a two-day hike to the top of Jebel Toubkal, North Africa's highest Peak (elevation: 4,167 meters). There’s something familiar about this rain (I’m from Vancouver), and it gave me an inkling that just maybe it’d be snowing at our destination.
Our host, Lachen, must have heard me thinking because inside of 15 minutes two sets of skis arrived and you could see the dollar signs in his eyes. Negotiations ensued (and like every negotiation of the trip, I felt that I lost) and a few minutes later I had rented my second set of skis in Africa.
The first pair was used to ski down the 50 feet of vertical of the sand dunes at Merzouga—something I don’t recommend to anyone. Without water, skis don’t slide, and without sliding it’s just not the same. Those skis were rented from a man who could very well be the largest single ski owner on the continent. He had more than 50 pairs in the back room of his hut, evidently waiting for sand skiing at Merzouga to become the next Whistler-Blackcomb. Initial planning for this trip, dreamt up over a few beers on New Years, mostly involved mountain bike touring, but the thought of fresh snow and some turns in Africa was too good to pass up. And so here I was, wondering if I was the first person ever to rent two pairs of skis in two different African locations in the same week.
Jebel Toubkal is a relatively easy summit to reach via a two-day hike. Day one takes six hours, up 1500m to a refuge in the alpine that looks more like a castle than the primitive huts that we are used to in Canada. The hike passes through terraced villages full of blossoming apple trees, herds of sheep, waterfall-strewn valleys and people selling you delicious almonds and sesame seed-based treats.
As we walked through town prior to departure, people starred at us and asked us what the heck we were doing with skis. And under my uncomfortable Moroccan pack, my shoulders were asking me the same thing. In an attempt to save $4 each, we were too stubborn to rent mules to carry our equipment like most people, so we slugged our skis on our backs and started off. I had spent a great deal of time preparing for the bike portion of the trip, however it was becoming increasingly apparent that I was not prepared to climb a cold snowy mountain and that my bike gloves were not made for mountaineering. Half an hour into the hike, passing through a small town, my nerves go the better of me and I purchased an ugly Moroccan sweater for warmth from a guy who called himself the Robin Hood of Imlil.
After five hours of walking and two other people trying to convince us that they were named Robin Hood, we arrived at the refuge run by the Club Alpin Francais. We were greeted by warm glasses of mint tea poured from three-feet above the glass to ensure it had enough head, or "turban," as Moroccan’s call it. The refuge is an amazing place filled with people speaking all different languages from numerous countries, and unfortunately for us, all packed into a bunk room with 35 others to sleep. Sidenote: snoring sounds the same no matter what language one speaks.
The next morning the skies had partially cleared and there was a sense of energy and anticipation in the refuge. The ascent was relatively straight forward—about three hours of skinning brought us to within 100m of the summit. The last 100m was too rocky to bring the skis, and it was a bit exposed and nerve-wracking without crampons, but soon enough we were standing on the summit in the sunshine looking out on the Sahara desert. There is something odd about being able to see palm trees below you when you are standing on snow, but no complaints here.
The ski down was as good a ski in Africa with boots three-sizes too small and sans buckles… could be expected to be. The fresh snow had turned into a heavy mush in the April sunshine and the strong desert wind that had hampered us on our bikes the whole trip had blown sand onto the snow giving it a brown tinge that really added to the African feel of the day. Slowed by our equipment and the conditions, it took us about 30 minutes to descend the 1000m back to the refuge. There, we shared stories of our climb with some of our snoring roommates from the night before and even splurged the $4 to get a mule to carry our skis down. Sidenote: it was the best $4 we'd spent in a long time.
Jeff Norman is a Vancouver based outdoor enthusiast, see his blog at mountaintopsandbellyflops.com