Climbing Jebel Toubkal

Rising to 4,167m, Jebel Toubkal is North Africa’s highest peak. It’s known as an ultra prominent peak (or Ultra for short), because its summit has a topographic prominence of 1,500m. Which is a techy, climbing way of saying it’s a really classic looking mountain, the kind a child might draw, describing a craggy triangle against the sky.
Its height makes it a magnet for climbers, but in fact, anyone with a good level of fitness and walking experience can tackle Toubkal; reaching its summit has its challenges, and there’s no doubt you do need some walking experience, but it’s a non-technical trek. You can spend five days slowly ascending, following mule trails through Berber villages, fields of barley, pretty orchards and turquoise lakes, acclimatising as you go. Paths become rougher and steeper as you ascend, with rocky sections, scree and steep ascents, but once at the top, the views over the entire Atlas range and to Marrakech are absolutely knockout. For added drama, most guided treks tackle this just before daybreak, so you get to experience the warm glow of bagging North Africa’s highest peak while, literally, enjoying the warm glow of the rising sun.
If that doesn’t sound challenging enough, try a winter trek. Climbing Toubkal is pretty much a year round option, with the long winter season stretching from October to April. Trekking at this time usually requires crampons and ice axes. It’s tough going, but most guided winter treks are designed for anyone who is fit, even if new to winter walking, and guides provide training as you go. In high summer, a Toubkal trek brings relief from the heat, but only once you’re above 3,000m. Marrakech can hit 42°C in July and August, with the the lower valleys of the High Atlas in the high 30°Cs, too. At medium altitudes days are hot and the nights warm, so you need to get really high before it feels cold, and be prepared for trekking in warm to hot conditions for the most part. You should also factor in the altitude. You’ll be trekking to a height of over 4,000m and anything over around 2,500m carries the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness.
Another reason for the popularity of trekking Mount Toubkal is its location. Morocco is just a short flight from Europe and the mountain itself just 80km south of Marrakech. It’s a rapid journey into a completely ‘other’ world – from an urban European airport to the rugged foothills of Toubkal – and it makes for one of the most exhilarating long weekends you can have within a few hours of home. If you have more time, you can combine summiting Toubkal with walking up North Africa’s second highest peak, Jebel Ouanoukrim, for more amazing views over the massif, or as the climax of a longer trek through the gorges and across the plateau of the High Atlas.
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Joining a guided small group trek is the only way to tackle Toubkal. Guides manage the pace, help you acclimatise to the altitude and on winter treks teach you how to walk in snowy conditions, and sometimes cut steps into the snow or lay ropes. They can help interpret when you meet the friendly Berber people that live in the valleys of the High Atlas, and will explain more about life in the mountains, bringing a layer of cultural insight into an outdoors adventure.
Guided treks also include support staff, who pitch tents and cook on full service camping treks, plus pack mules to carry any camping kit, food and water you’ll need. If the trek uses established accommodation, expect facilities to be more basic than in Marrakech, with gites and refuges typically used, generally with shared facilities and sometimes with dorm style rooms. Bring some ear plugs, in case of snorers!
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andres Fongen] [Introduction: Jason Rogers] [Winter trek: Por los caminos de Málaga] [Jebel Ouanoukrim: Fabrice Cadou ] [Berber people: Anders Fongen] [Camp: Jacques Bodin]