A Skier’s Discovery in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains

In Morocco, sand is everywhere: in your clothes, in your teeth, in your ski boots

Words by Karina Schwartznau

Photography by Daniel Rönnbäck

When the western shore of Morocco first came into view, I saw sunbaked sand stretching long and far. I expected dirt—dirt in the streets, dirt on clothes, dirt in the soles of my ski boots. I did not expect the narrow paved roads that twisted up the hillside out of the city, children who sprinted and waved behind our car with excitement as we passed their village, or donkeys that hauled straw piles twice their height.

As we drove along a high mountain road, I found myself as an eagle would, eyes scanning the villages, huts, and gardens. I looked at the vibrant red and blue garments worn by locals as they walked along the trees that held a rainbow of freshly washed clothes drying in the afternoon sun. Until recently, I had only heard tales of snow-capped mountains in Africa. But there I was, in the backseat of a Renault Duster, ski gear and duffels crammed into every corner.

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The best way to access the Atlas Mountains of Morocco is via an open mind, and a pack mule. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

Up on the hilltop, clay homes surrounded a white church nestled between bright green terraces and blossoming spring trees. Moments later, we reached the point where the cherry blossoms disappeared and the pines took on snow. Through muffled hums of motorbikes in the distance, we headed for serenity. At last, after 22 hours of traveling across three continents, we had found the mountains.

The lights of merchant shops glowed upward as I sat among other tourists high above the town plaza, watching as the sun faded to the west and clouds rolled in over the Atlas Mountains in the south. Just a short time earlier, I dragged my out-of-place ski bags and luggage down the busy afternoon center of Marrakesh, attracting stares of curiosity from bystanders and aggressive nudges from motorbikers who sped through the pebble alleys.

To my left were skiers Chad Sayers and Tof Henry, and photographer Daniel Rönnbäck, sipping glasses of hot water and whole mint leaves. We had come to climb and ski the highest peaks of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and hoped to immerse ourselves within the exotic culture and customs that make this North African country so colorful. Over the next two weeks, our journey would lead us down narrow streets in bustling cities, to skiing the great dunes of the Sahara, and up steep mountain trails. We’d experience the region as the original inhabitants—the Berber—might have, with local porters to show the way and mules to haul our gear. We’d wear our experiences on our sun- and wind-burned faces, and on the bases of our sand-ravaged skis.

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Chad Sayers traveled a long way for wind buff. It was worth it. PHOTO: Daniel Ronnback

Through muffled hums of motorbikes in the distance, we headed for serenity. At last, after 22 hours of traveling across three continents, we had found the mountains.

Morocco is vibrant in nature, the result of a mishmash of culture and religion that has existed for millennia at the crossroads between sea, mountains, and desert. The Atlas Mountains, snow-capped year-round, run northeast to southwest for 347 miles through the center of Morocco.

According to Greek mythology, the Titan god Atlas was banished to the world’s farthest western edge and forced to bear the weight of the heavens and hold up the sky, which was how the mountains took their name.

Formed 80 million years ago when the African and Eurasian plates collided, the range’s thick rims of limestone separate the earth’s largest desert, the Sahara, from the coastal Mediterranean. The Sahara plays a heavy influence on the weather in these mountains, with strong southerly winds offering a dry, warm climate. Average annual snowfall across the range is less than a foot. To find the most reliable snow, you need to get high, requiring a dramatic shift from Marrakesh, at 1,529 feet above sea level, to our planned descent of N’Toubkal, the highest peak in the range at 13,671 feet.

After finishing our tea, we turned away from the commotion of Marrakesh nightlife and walked through a narrow alley, past snake charmers and drummers and through a sea of rugs and curtains draped over shop walls. Stars emerged from the sky as evening prayer drifted out over the city from a loud speaker. As a nomad, my sense of home is always evolving, but it always leads me back to the mountains.

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Fueled by mint tea, Tof Henry and Chad Sayers seek wind protected snow in the highest mountains of North Africa. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

Morocco is vibrant in nature, the result of a mishmash of culture and religion that has existed for millennia at the crossroads between sea, mountains, and desert.

After departing Marrakesh in our small rental car, four ski bags strapped to the top with scrap pieces of climbing rope from Henry’s bag, we drove to the mountain town of Agouti. There we met two mules and our guide, Abdulla, who led the nine-mile journey to the refuge. The mountain air was fresh and we found our breath again after the days spent in the polluted city. We were six hours east near Jebel M’Goun, a large mountain in the Central High Atlas that glittered with snow. Our journey left me fatigued at day’s end, but with fresh snow within reach, I became energized.

It was surreal to stand in the bottom of a ravine, where water once ran strong and fueled life of desert brush and flower. Now, the ravine was home to pockets of dry snow protected from the strong desert heat. The sun baked through my shell pants and warmed me from thighs to shoulder, shoulder to scalp. When the wind picked up, I was once again chilled from the sun’s rays, a bit of a break from the heat I felt burning the tip of my nose. Sweat ran down the side of my face and brought me back to the realization I was standing on my skis, about to drop into a slope of fresh snow, in Africa.

Henry, a 33-year-old Chamonix native, climbed up to the top of a mid-shadowed gully, with sun shining in on the skier’s left and shade cast by a small cornice on the right. Standing at over 6 feet tall, his lean body resembled a machine, powering his constantly snow-driven mind to the top of the descent in half the time it took me. In the center of the gully, a lone boulder protruded above the snow, protecting the soft layer from the wind. The mountains outside the refuge of Tilibit-N-Terkedit were different than we expected. The 13,000-foot-plus peaks had been smoothed out from Sahara wind. Instead of couloirs, large open basins went untouched for hundreds of vertical feet.

But we could not hide from the sand. It was everywhere—in our teeth, in the snow, in the rock, in the sky. It would even be a medium for our skis during a brief excursion to the dunes, 10 miles from the Algerian border. Warm and abrasive, the sand eliminated the need for skins to climb a 500-vertical-foot dune. Each drift changed within seconds with the wind, and our tracks quickly evaporated. In snow, you expect to look back on your signature at the bottom of a line and reminisce in the joy. In sand, there is nothing to take hold of your turns, just the aftermath of grit in your boots.

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In Morocco, sand is everywhere: in your clothes, in your teeth, in your ski boots. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

Up in the mountains surrounding the M’Goun Valley, Henry gained excitement upon spying a 12,000-foot summit, whose name remained a mystery, and urged us to follow. We hoped to find snow protected along the northwest face of the peak, sheltered from the wind. As we sat on the ridge, we glanced across an open bowl and spotted a spine. All around us, ripples and waves formed in the snow, but we found a stretch that was as smooth as glass. Sayers quickly took the opportunity to dive in. There was enough vertical for the British Columbia native to make 12 perfect turns, snow flying into his stubbled face and over his tangle of blond hair. With each turn, his ankles rolled into a foot of soft crystal snow, leaving behind a trail of C-shaped turns highlighted by sand.

The rest of us tightened our crampons for the summit. The ridge was full of small shale pieces embedded into the snow and ice. We strapped our skis to our packs, and kicked steps into the mountain.

As the sun began to fade to the west, we chased our shadows. The path down had little snow, but it was dry and carveable, allowing us to slalom among the limestone fins threatening to snatch our skis.

The snow began to freeze as the sun moved away. Henry pointed his skis straight down the hill to get the final turns in daylight, surfing a wave between light and dark. One final traverse down and a few figure-eight turns later, the smell of cumin and spices wafted from the open window of the refuge.

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Colorful tea houses offer respite from the grit. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

Once inside our cozy shelter for the night, we hung gloves, skins, and socks from a metal shoe rack nailed above the door. The boiler was firing heat into the main room. Four small tables covered in blue with white polka-dot cloth remained in the center, with photographs of women hanging from the wall. The photos represented the only feminine aspect for these lonely porters in the refuge. With their dark hair pulled back from their faces, the women had strong cheekbones and glowing dark eyes. We were in a dormitory that slept 20 with two mats under our sleeping bags for added comfort. The porters called the kitchen their home, sleeping on benches and a in small closet beside the four-burner stove, giving us the warmest place in the refuge next to the boiler.

Abdulla, our guide, was responsible for this refuge and prepared us the evening tea and tagine—a traditional meal consisting of vegetables and meat baked in a clay pot.

Formed 80 million years ago when the African and Eurasian plates collided, the range’s thick rims of limestone separate the earth’s largest desert, the Sahara, from the coastal Mediterranean.

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Abdulla, the team’s guide, is Berber, the native people who have lived in the Atlas Mountains for centuries, raising livestock and sheltering travelers. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

He had spent his entire 48 years in the mountains and would spend the next five days in solitude while he maintained the refuge. He tended the boiler, prepared the food, and smoked in his time away from home in Agouti. Abdulla was not a skier. He wandered the Atlas by foot. In between stories of the mountains he had climbed, he showed photos of his son and daughter, both students in Marrakesh. Henry translated Abdulla’s words, as French is the third-most spoken language in Morocco, after Arabic and the Berber language. Abdulla’s black turban, printed with lavender stripes, sat perfectly on his head as he brewed tea on the boiler. He was Berber, the native people that have lived in the Atlas for centuries in high huts and who tend to poor soil and herd livestock. Berbers were the porters who carried crop, communications, and good fortune from north to south of Morocco. And while in M’Goun, Abdulla provided good fortune for us.

In the morning, after three days of skiing, we departed M’Goun before a change in weather could strand us with strong winds and zero visibility. The soil was still frozen under our feet and unveiled a story of most things before us: the tracks of porters, mules, and sheep. Out of the mountains and back to Marrakesh, fields of winter wheat and barley waited for the snow to melt.

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The struggle is real in Morocco, where Sahara winds ravage 13,000 foot peaks. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

After a well-earned night of sleep in the city, we packed up again for an hour and a half drive to the village of Imlil, which would give us access to the highest mountains in Morocco. Imlil shares resemblance with Nepal’s Kathmandu: shops sold maps, crampons, trekking poles, and knock-off The North Face jackets. We met our porter and pack mule at 3 p.m. to begin the three-mile journey to Refuge Du Toubkal Les Mouflons. As we gained elevation, a playground of couloirs and frozen waterfalls came into view. A cold breeze rushed down my jacket and through my hair, the sign a storm was coming. Just off the horizon, thick clouds at 13,000 feet began to consume the nearby summit of Oumlilene.

When we reached the refuge, ski parties from France and Italy greeted us. The interior was boisterous with skiers and porters, while dogs and crows lingered outside waiting for table scraps. The refuge, the best and most well-known shelter for those seeking to summit N’Toubkal, felt like a castle in the mountains, more than twice the size as Abdulla’s and full of smells of spice and charcoal lingering from the kitchen. With three boilers, two dining areas, an indoor bathroom, and room to sleep 60, it felt almost too comfortable. Out the window revealed a sea of white mixed with rock. The summit of N’Toubkal, hidden in the storm, loomed 3,000 feet above.

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Apres ski, Morocco style. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

We woke at 5 a.m. with the cook to prepare for an early departure. The French and Italians continued to sleep. It was pitch black except for the stars sparkling in the sky. It would be a clear day, but the desert wind had already begun to reach its long tentacles up the valley. Headlamps strapped to our heads and skins on our skis, we began to climb.

Once we reached the first pass, we were in a large basin that stretched long and wide up to the top of N’Toubkal and to the west summit of Tizi N’Toubkal. The basin had a defined skin track on the upper left, frozen over by wind and cold nighttime temperatures, and had residue of desert sand mixed with the snow. The peculiar combination was slick and hard, frozen to the earth, but the heat from the sun soon turned it to a sweet spring corn the color of a beach.

Up the bowl, into the rocks, and across the ridge, we stood at the highest point of Morocco. The wind was ripping and I leaned against it to stay upright. It had only taken us three hours to get here from the refuge, but I was exhausted, frustrated by the constant wind and sun beating down on my face. Yet I was also overwhelmed with a feeling of success and accomplishment. My team had pushed me to new heights in a remarkably foreign place, and I felt an uncontrollable joy as I watched prayer flags dance in the wind.

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Africa is not all sand and sun. Tof Henry finds quality snow in Morocco, a country the size of California. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

We stepped into our skis and began to descend. The snow was hard and rippled under my skis. Every turn was a balancing act of applying enough pressure to secure an edge but not enough to break through the wind layer. It was only 11 a.m. and, after skiing N’Toubkal, we were just 700 vertical feet below the west summit of Tizi N’Toubkal. We could not resist temptation and decided to tag our second peak of the morning.

We climbed large boulders in an exposed section before reaching a 1,000-foot couloir which funneled back to the basin of our original skin track. The couloir revealed soft snow enclosed by high rocks on both shoulders. New snow had fallen from the previous days and remained light and dry. Every turn was smooth. My skis submerged into the snow as the desert wind blew into the couloir and down my back.

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It’s a heavy burden to bear the weight of the heavens. Chad Sayers skis through them instead. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

Wide enough for the four of us to lay our own fresh tracks, we skied the final descent grinning ear-to-ear until we found, yet again, sunbaked sand. With the refuge in sight, we had one last couloir to descend. The wind had calmed and the sun was strong in the sky, rays filtering through thin clouds high above N’Toubkal’s summit. We lined up two-by-two, and in exhaltation, skied our final run together, dancing in and out of each other’s tracks.

This story originally appeared in the September 2018 (47.1) issue of POWDER. To have great feature stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.

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