How to Climb Mount Toubkal Without a Guide
Located in the Atlas Mountain range in Morocco and standing at an impressive 4,167m, Mount Toubkal is the tallest mountain in North Africa. Also known as Jbel Toubkal, its snowy conical summit is easily recognized by the peculiar metal pyramid on the summit.
Although first ascended in 1923 it is now becoming increasingly popular amongst climbers hoping to reach the 360° view of Morocco from atop the tallest African mountain north of the Sahara Desert. Its easy accessibility attracts thousands of climbers annually.
While surrounded by several other three- and four-thousand metre peaks of the High Atlas mountain range, Toubkal dominates the area with its steep rocky faces and surrounding massive granite buttresses. There are no longer glaciers on the summit trails, although extensive snowfields may be present at higher elevations on the northern slopes late into the summer.
Toubkal is a fairly easy climb and an excellent introduction into the thin air of 4000m mountaineering. While guiding services are excellent and plentiful, I personally became irritated by the frequent aggressive sales tactics of the locals and after a quite off-putting encounter with a particularly rude and obviously distrustful local I opted to climb Toubkal solo. This is my account of that climb and my advice on how to climb Mount Toubkal without a guide.
Toubkal National Park
Toubkal is located in the High Atlas Mountain range east of Marrakech, which is one of the largest and most bustling cities in Morocco. Food, accommodations and worthwhile attractions make this an excellent city to fly into and serve as a base camp.
It took us mere minutes to locate a porter service. The country is now built around tourism and local guiding outfitters are on nearly every street. After a quick negotiation we secured a return trip shuttle in a 4x4 for the two hour drive from Marrakech to Imlil, the small town 64kms awayat the base of the mountain. This cost us 800dh and should never cost you more than 1000dh for a return trip.
The minute your vehicle arrives in Imlil it will be bombarded by hopeful, would-be guides shouting limited English at you to get your attention. Although you will feel rude, one quickly develops the blinders to these tactics, lest you be ripped off at every junction. Should you feel the need to procure guiding services, by all means. There will be one available for you at a moments notice. Note, however, that the majority of these "guides" are merely locals who know the trails. Very few are trained in first aid, recognize symptoms of mountain sickness, or are really capable of much aside from walking the path beside you. Many will also tell you that having a guide is mandatory. It is not.
Any last minute supplies can be purchased here. There are a number of options for food, water, equipment or accommodations. From Imlil there is a steep path weaving between houses that leads to another small village named Around. This scenic 3km hike crosses a few streams as you ascend 183m from 1747m to 1930m. The path is fairly well defined but should you have a navigational issue, ask any of the townspeople who are milling about the town. They are all very helpful but be sure to provide a small gratuity for their assistance.
Climbing Jebel Toubkal
While is it certainly possible to summit Mount Toubkal in one day, it is most common to complete the trek in two. Traditionally, the first day consists of a six to ten hour hike (without mules) to the refuges and the second day is a two to five hour ascend followed by a two hour descent and long walk back to Imlil.
To complete the summit in a single day you must begin your climb early. Leaving Aroumd, you follow a well marked path through the town, down a slight hill and across a stone bridge. A left hand turn along the road leads you towards the mountains. This path will continue along a wide floodplain, below Adrar el Hajj, past several houses and a school and towards the left slope of the valley. Here the trail becomes apparent and is essentially a sidewalk. As the well-trodden trail meanders along the hillside you will encounter numerous, sometimes temperamental donkeys. Provide them a wide berth, for they have the right of way.
Continuing along the path towards the east, it should take a little more than an hour to reach the Sidi Chamharouch settlement and Muslim shrine (2284m). There are a number of small cafes to purchase food and drink here. During winter months, this will be roughly the beginning of the snowline.
Directly above the shrine the trail zigzags steeply up the right hand side of the mountain. Here there will be numerous goats scampering amongst the rocks and they will make your climbing skills feel quite inadequate.
Follow the path along the right hand side of the Isougouane valley for four to five hours to reach the Nelter Hut refuge (3200m). Many climbers spend a night here before summiting the following day but with adequate fitness and appropriate acclimatization it is possible to continue that day.
Important: At this point you have trekked for 12km and have passed the 3000m mark. It is imperative that all climbers are aware and recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness at this point. It can strike without warning, debilitating even the heartiest of mountaineers and is a serious concern.
There are a number of options for accommodations that usually don't require advanced reservation. Affordable options exist to stay in the huts, camp or bivy nearby. They will continue to vehemently insist you need a guide, ignoring the fact that you'd climbed more than a vertical kilometre already without out.
To begin the final ascent, cross the small stream and head east for the obvious valley. Zigzag long the valley bottom following the obvious path and the occasional rock pile through the snow or skee until you reach the headwall. During winter months these 30 degree slopes may be slippery and in the summer rockfall may be an issue. Here the paths are not mule-trodden and therefore less obvious but have clearly been worn by countless feet. Climb the headwall of Tizi-n-Toubkal and continue along the ridgeline towards the North East. This path will continue to narrow and steepen until reaching the summit plateau. In adverse weather conditions this final approach can expose climbers to high winds, slippery footing and icy rocks so be cognizant of the hazards. Slips can and have been fatal so ensure you're wearing crampons (the Petzl Vasek's worked great for me) and carrying an ice axe (I liked the Grivel Nepal) during the snowy months.
The 4,167m summit is crowned with a triangular metal frame and affords climbers with fantastic views of the surrounding Atlas mountain ranges. Revel in the views and knowing that you're now at the highest point in Northern Africa, a Country High Point and the 36th most prominent mountain in the world. If you are feeling particularly spry, this final push can be done within two hours of the Nelter Hut below.
Follow the same route down. Depending on your knee health you should be back at the refuge within ninty minutes. Be aware that rockfall risk increases later in the day and watch your steps as 90% of climbing accidents happen on the descent. Remember: The Summit is only halfway!
The path returning to Imlil is identical to your approach and with the gradual downhill one should be able to reach the town in half the time of their ascent. It is possible to reach the town with sunlight and a traditional Berber meal will never taste better.
While is possible to summit Mount Toubkal any time, spring is arguably the most enjoyable. In April to June the weather is warmer but residual snow anchors much of the loose scree making for easy trekking. During this time an ice axe may be helpful on the remaining snowfields which retreat up to 3000m but you will benefit more from trekking poles. Temperatures will vary greatly, being well below zero at night and very warm during the days, so ensure to dress in easily alterable layers.
Summer and Autumn
Summer months may be too hot to make the trek enjoyable. Daily average maximums in August are 42 ºC and the south facing side of Toubkal can be an additional 5ºC warmer. The scree is loose and the mountain can be very dusty. Minimize your climbing time during peak sunlight hours but starting early and ensure you're carrying adequate quantities of water with at least 3L being ideal. It is not uncommon for later afternoon thunderstorms to ravage the mountain so be mindful of the weather and quickly seek sanctuary should lightning come.
During the winter months, the mountain is blanketed with snow and ice, necessitating crampons and the use of a general mountaineering axe. The snowline settles below 1400m so ensure all equipment is adequate and you're comfortable with prolonged periods of non-glacial snow and ice travel. Precipitation on the north slopes of the mountain is greatest between October and April with February and March typically being the worst. Temperatures can be quite cold so err on the side of caution with the temperature ratings of your gear selections.
If climbing without the assistance of a guide, you are entirely dependent on your own research and assessment for weather conditions. Detailed weather forecasts for varying altitudes can be found at mountain-forecast.com
This list assumes a base knowledge of the required equipment and clothing needed for a 4000m peak. Ensure you're including enough layers of appropriate clothing for the desert heat at the base of the mountain and the potential snow at the top. Also be sure to bring adequate food, water and emergency equipment in addition to your Ten Essentials for mountaineering.
For summer climbs, durable hiking boots with high ankles will work, however proper three season mountaineering boots will make it must more enjoyable. For winter climber, mountaineering boots are imperative but the insulated leather variety will work. You will not require double plastic boots. If you're staying in one of the huts, bring a pair of shoes to change into. Scarpa Triolet Pro GTX perform exceptionally well.
Scarpa Triolet Mountaineering Boot
Useful for winter ascents, not needed for the summer. General 12 point mountaineering crampons that have been properly sized to your boots will work. Consider the Petzl Vasek.
Petzl Vasek Crampon
Mountaineering Ice Axe
Non-technical mountaineering axe, probably 55cm-65cm depending on your height, will ensure safety and make the trek far easier in winter months. You can't go wrong with the Grivel Nepal.
Grivel Nepal Ice Axe
For early starts and late nights, a small LED headlamp is an essential piece of safety equipment. There are a lot of options but the Petzl Tikak performs well for a good price. Bring extra batteries.
Petzl Tikka Headlamp
At the time of composition, no climbing permits are required to summit Toubkal.
Arabic, Berber and French are commonly spoken but English is very prevalent.
Morocco uses the Moroccan Dirham (MAD) which is only available within the country. Exchanging currency at the airport will usually get you the best rate as it is well regulated. Many places will also accept Euros but the exchange rate will not be favorable. Ensure you're familiar with the current rates as literally everyone within this country will try to trick you.
Climbers should be up to date with their routine vaccinations but no yellow fever vaccination is required to enter Morocco. Hepatitis A and Rabies are common problems and vaccinations are highly recommended.
Above 3000m many climbers will feel the effects of altitude, most commonly in the form of a headache. Those developing Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) may suffer from nausea, dizziness, a loss of appetite, lethargy and difficulty sleeping. It may be further aggravated by exertion and typically improves with rest and over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Other medical preventions are avalible but please consult a doctor before trying any and don't rely solely on this information.
The only way to prevent or mitigate AMS is to properly acclimatize by ascending gradually with some experts believing 500-1000m per day above 3000m followed by a rest day every three to four days being adequate. Should symptoms worsen, quickly and carefully descend to an altitude where the victim previously felt well.
Medical and Rescue Services
Basic medical assistance can be found at the Nelter Hut and Imlil. Ambulances can evacuate patients to the closest hospital at Asni 15 kms away. There is no emergency mountain rescue service in Morocco. In case of extreme emergencies a helicopter evacuation to Marrakech may be avalible but is entirely dependent on weather and costs around $5,000 so ensure adequate insurance is in place.
Radios are operated by most trekking guides. At Nelter refuge there is a telephone and mobile phone reception is possible on some networks.
Would you be comfortable climbing a mountain like Jbel Toubkal without a guide?
Climbing mountains is an inherently dangerous activity and involves unavoidable risks that every participant must assume. It should be undertaken only by those who have properly prepared, have adequate knowledge, fitness and equipment and have the confidence in their abilities to recognize, assess and manage risks and hazards as they present themselves. Failure to do so may result in personal injury or even death. Climbing solo further exacerbates these risks and should only be attempted by those with adequate training and experience. Utilizing the services of a trained and competent mountain guide may serve to mitigate some of these risks but climbing solo does present a different and wonderful experience but please ensure you're ready for the challenges you will face.
Do not rely solely on the information contained on this page. This site nor the author can nor will be held responsible in any way for any problems caused by any use of the information. Use your own good judgment, remember you are on your own.
© 2014 Kurt Morrison