Morocco: jebel toubkal

Almost three years ago to this day, I took on the most challenging experience of my life (so far). I embarked on a trek to the summit of the highest mountain in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal, and this is my account of my life-changing experience. Enjoy :)

(Ok, so this has kind of turned into a mini-novel. Sorry, this is the work of procrastination. Be warned. P.s. Can I hold The student Room accountable if I fail my exams? P.p.s. That was a joke.)


I come from a market town in South Wales, surrounded by the beautiful Brecon Beacons, so prior to my adventures abroad, I already had a passion for mountain climbing and the outdoors. From as young as I remember I have been up the mountains with my family, chasing sheep and falling over. So, as you can imagine, when my form tutor announced an ambitious school expedition, that “was not for the faint hearted”, I was eager for the chance to get involved. After a lot of nagging my parents, as it didn't come with a small price tag, I secured my place on the Morocco Expedition, and from that moment my journey began...

As expected, climbing such a high mountain, with very little oxygen available at such altitude, is not an easy task (specially to myself at the time, as a meagre 13-year-old girl). Lots of training was required, which gave me an excuse to put down the books and to get out on the mountains. We also went on some team building trips to Snowdonia, which could be said to be unsuccessful... On one trip, as is typical of the Welsh weather, torrential downpours meant that we couldn't even get out walking. However, a team of sixteen students and three teachers spending two nights in the cramped conditions of a three-roomed hut (yes, that’s one bedroom for the lot) turned out to be beneficial; through home cooked curries and games of Articulate, we evolved from a team of acquaintances to our own little family. We all seemed to have defined rolls which fit nicely together, meaning everyone was important and contributed equally. In my opinion, the friendship and bonding in the team were what made this trip so special.

On Thursday 27th May 2010, we eagerly departed in our faithful old school minibus, that had previously battled all that the hills of Wales could throw at it, to Manchester airport. The excitement was evident in the buzz of noise that surrounded us the whole four-hour journey. This excitement was contagious, as we walked through the airport, clad in matching purple hoodies, we attracted lots of attention.

By the time we landed in Marrakesh it was already dark, but this didn't hinder the hustle-and-bustle of the city. Raring to explore, we went for a late-night walk to the Djemâa-el-Fna, the city’s main square. We were entranced by the dancing monkeys and drumming men, all contributing to a new and exciting atmosphere. All this can be intimidating, so we stayed in a tight group and the three girls were advised to link arms with the boys. All the aforementioned ingredients create an ideal recipe for pick-pockets, so a bum-bag to keep all your money and valuables is advised. Another helpful tip for visiting the city is extra care with traffic; simply looking left and right is not enough. Mopeds weave freely in and out the cars and ‘calech’ (horse and carts), they even drive along the pavement and through the souks (market area). I witnessed an extremely scary incident where a young child fell over when crossing a road and was almost knocked over. It’s all very crazy.

One thing Marrakesh is renowned for is its souks. They’re perfect for buying belts, scarves, instruments, bags, purses... and just about anything else. We tried our hand at haggling, usually quite poorly. To learn from my mistake: you can usually start bartering at about 30% of the price they give you, don’t worry about feeling rude, it’s what they expect. I was too shy and just accepted the first figure. I was kicking myself afterwards when my friends bought the same things for half the price!

After a morning wandering the city we departed for the mountains. The small village roads were just as scary, if not more so, than them of the city. At times we drove along single lane tracks with precipitous cliff-face drops. It was very much like something from an episode of Top Gear.

That evening we visited a local Hammam baths. This is definitely an experience not to miss out on. As Morocco has a strict Muslim culture, we had been constantly reminded to bring one-piece, neck-to-knee swimming costumes. It’s clear to say that the women at the baths didn't agree with them, but for all the wrong reasons... When we arrived at the changing rooms, we met European ladies proceeding, as we thought, to get changed. When we entered the first chamber we found that they hadn't been getting changed at all, they had simply been getting undressed. To further our discomfort, the women conducting the Hammam tried to pull our costumes from us (almost completely removing one of our teacher’s bottoms!) before scrubbing us down we some special Moroccan soap. We were then sent through three chambers, which got successively warmer. The third was a massage chamber where one of us was required to aid the masseuse. When helping one of our teachers get massaged, there were threats to our GCSE grades if we made it too painful. It’s safe to say that once back at school this was a topic we didn't delve into too much detail with.

We spent the first night in the mountains in a off-season ski hotel in Oukaimeden. We started our trek the next morning climbing to Tizi n’ou Addi pass at 2960m. The beauty of the surroundings was overwhelming at times, but ultimately helped take your mind off the hard work of climbing. Our head Berber, Mohammed, kindly shared out a bag of nuts, which was to be a repeated ritual throughout the four-day trek, and a way of telling us we had done well, despite the language barrier. (It also became an on-running inappropriate joke, considering the team was made up of mostly 15 year-old-boys.) Before leaving the Tizz, the team somehow managed to create a toilet roll avalanche down the side of the steep ridge. This resulted in us editing the trip motto from “take only photos, leave only footprints” to “take only photos, leave only bog roll”.

After the ski resort, the accommodation standards went tumbling downhill, much like the toilet roll. We stayed in the small villages where we got to meet the locals and experience their way of life. This was one of the most influential experiences of the trip. As we walked, the young children would follow us, pointing out our watches and cameras, clearly in awe of our possessions. As much as it was sad to see people in poverty, they seemed so much more happy and content than most people you would normally meet. The fact that they had so little seemed to make them much more appreciative. After playing football with some local children, the team diary entry sums this up well: 
“We walked in contented silence, and felt our view of the world widen as we reflected on our experiences. We all knew we’d remember this for a long time... 
Trip to Morocco: £750
Equipment: £100
Playing football with, and seeing Richard get owned by small Moroccan children: PRICELESS.”

A Moroccan delicacy, which is pretty much forced upon you wherever you go, is mint tea: they drink it by the bucket load. At every lunch stop or meal the Berbers would unload a teapot from their donkeys and start brewing. The mint tea was an acquired taste, which I unfortunately didn't find too appealing... but, for fear of being rude, I managed to stomach it by adding proximately ten sugars and trying to pretend it was a minty mug of PG Tips. Most of the team enjoyed it though, and bought bags of tea leaves home for their families to try.

The food throughout the trip was not as bad as you may have thought: there was always plenty of it, however it got slightly repetitive. On the fourth night of eating chicken tagine, due to simple probability, a couple of team members fell ill due to food poisoning. This happened to be the night before the final ascent, where we were staying in a lodge that meant we all had to share one bedroom. It wasn't pretty. Altitude sickness also meant that a few others were unable to take part in the final day’s trek.

The summit day started with a very steep scree slope, then the crossing of a snow-covered waterfall and more steep snow ascent. We were lucky as the snow-covered Snowdonian mountains meant we had already experienced the unexpected conditions. Despite this, there were a few close falls, in which people were caught and saved by Mohammed’s lightning-quick reflexes. For these reasons he was nicknamed ‘Super-Moho’.

After some more tiring climbing in the low-oxygen conditions, the end was in sight... We all lined up to touch the 13,671ft-high pyramid trig point in unison. We all hugged and realised this was the accumulation of over a year’s hard work and training. We sat and spent time snacking on Moho’s nuts and soaking in the views that went as far as the Saharan desert. In what seemed like no time, Moho was shouting “Yallah! Yallah!” (“Let’s go! Let’s go!”), so we left, taking with us precious memories and wonderful experiences that have moulded us into who we are today.

Teacher’s comment from the team journal: “For many of us on the expedition, the highlight was not reaching the summit of Toubkal but instead watching the Team taking care of each other, demonstrating a maturity beyond their years. The photos don’t show this aspect of the Expedition, but it is certainly etched on my memory and will be for many years to come.”

As you can see from these pictures I really like taking photographs. The wiki file uploader doesn't seem to agree with me, so follow this link to my blog to see a few of my favourites, they were almost impossible to choose! Click on the images to view them larger and to see the captions.

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Here's a link to the You-Tube Video of the trip uploaded by my teacher: