Climbing Toubkal: Guide or No Guide?

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Claire and I along the Trail to Toubkal

 

On our way to Morocco’s and North Africa’s highest peak, the one unanswered question that bounced around in our heads was whether or not to hire a guide.  In this post, I will share our experience of trekking to Toubkal and evaluate if a guide is necessary.

Getting to Toubkal

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View of the Minaret in the town of Imlil

The easiest way to get going on the trail is to start from the small mountain town of Imlil, an hour and a half taxi ride from Marrakech.  If you are willing to share a cab with others, this can cost you as little as 50 Dirhams ($5) a person.  Upon our arrival, we decided to stay at Imlil Refuge which was the cheapest option in town. We were greeted with a warm welcome accompanied by tea and snacks.   As we drank and ate, the manager of the refuge began to share with us the route we would need to take in order to reach the summit of Toubkal.  After a day of rest in Imlil, we would begin our trek up the valley.

What to Bring for the Trek

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Food!  Always important… Local Tajine

Along the route there are plenty of mud hut cafes that locals operate due to the number of trekkers using the trail.  Due to this, it is not necessary to bring snacks and water with you.  Keep in mind however, that beverages and snacks will come at a higher price once on the trail.  In order to avoid having to buy snacks along the trail, we bought some local fruits, candy bars, and boiled some eggs to keep us going throughout the trek.  This ended up being a lot cheaper than purchasing as we went along (on the trail a candy bar is 10 dirham).

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Was very happy to have my winter jacket and hat once I was above 4,000 meters

The most important items to bring with you is warm clothing.  Although it may be hot in Imlil, over the course of two days, you will be moving up 2,500 meters in elevation.  That means the top of Toubkal will be, on average, 16 degrees Celsius cooler than Imlil.  I was very happy to have my fleece during the evening at the refuge below the base of Toubkal as it got pretty chilly.  For the hike to the summit, my light winter hat and outer shell to my winter jacket were very useful.  If you don’t bring these items, you are not going to enjoy your hike.

Another essential item for you to bring is proper hiking boots.  While you can do the trail in sneakers, you run a higher risk of injuring your ankle (something you don’t want to do 10 km away from help).

As we did the trip on our own, we also brought a first aid kit in the event that we did injure ourselves.  Luckily, we only needed to use the moleskin to prevent some blisters on our feet from occurring.

Trekking to Toubkal

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Heading up the switchbacks that lead to the road

We left our Refuge by 7:45 am in order to get most of the hike done before the heat of Morocco set in.  After asking for directions, we found the trail head, while although not marked, is a very obvious path to follow.  To find it, simply ask at your refuge or hotel and they will point you in the right direction.  After getting out of town, the trail leads you through a series of switchbacks until it meets up with the local road.  Follow the road through the town of Aroumd.   After passing town you will walk down to an open field of boulders.  Follow the clear path to the other side of the field  where you will find the trail the begins to lead up to the valley.  You then follow the path up through the valley until you reach Sidi Chamharouch, the last little town you will pass before arriving at the refuge.

The town is unmissable due to the mosque built upon a large white boulder.  Pass through town and take the trail as it switchbacks up the valley.  This is probably the most difficult section of the hike up to the refuge at the base of Toubkal.  After this, it is a matter of following the mule trail until you reach the refuge which is a few hours walk away from Sidi Chamharouch.

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Inside the Refuge at Toubkal

Once we arrived at the refuge, we rested and allowed our bodies to acclimatize before setting off to the summit the next morning.  In the end, we decided that it was in Claire’s best interest to sit out on the summit attempt as she experienced symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness on the way to the refuge (in addition to her fear of heights).  At the refuge, you are offered bunk beds and can also take full board which includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  We took half board which included dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.  It was then time for some much needed rest, as I would be getting up at 4 am in order to start my ascend to the summit at 5am.

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Starting the hike up to the summit

Well… 4am never happened as I woke up to my surprise at 6am.  Upset with myself, I frantically began to pack my bag for the summit, chowed down on some food and headed off to the trail.  With me I brought my first aid kit, cold weather gear, 2 liters of water, and a few snacks for the summit.  I soon was very thankful that I did not attempt to hike up Toubkal at 5am in the dark as the beginning of the trail up Toubkal proved to be the trickiest to find.  After going the wrong way up, I slowly made my way across loose rock to meet up with the trail again.  Had it been dark, I would have been completely lost.  Once you overcome this obstacle, the trail remains very obvious all the way up to the summit.   Starting at 6:45 proved to be the perfect time to start.

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View from the top

It was bright enough to see our surroundings and also allowed me to do the entire hike up to the summit before the sun beamed down over the side of the mountain (Once the sun comes up over the mountain, the hike becomes much hotter which makes it much more difficult).  Once you arrive at the summit, sit back, relax, talk with your fellow climbers, and enjoy the views for an hour or two.  Keep in mind that if you want to head back to Imlil the day you summit, it will take at least an hour and a half to get back to the refuge and then another 3 hours or so to get back to Imlil.  Plan accordingly.

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Starting the long route back down

 

The hike back actually proved to be more challenging (for me) than going up.  This was simply due to the fact that the hike back down…. is all downhill.  By the time you descend 2,500 meters, your feet and knees are begging to stop.  Once we arrived back in Imlil, there was only one thing we could think of… lying down!

So What’s the Verdict?  Guide or No Guide?

Let’s break down the trek in terms of cost and difficulties to determine whether or not you should bring a guide:

Cost

With a Guide

To hire a guide for two people costs 500 dirham a day per person.  This includes the guide and you and your guide’s accommodation and food.  So for two people with a guide for two days would cost 2,000 dirham ($214 USD).

Without a Guide

We did our trek without a guide.  For two people, we paid 500 dirhams for accommodation and food.  In addition to this, we brought snacks and bought some along the way.  In total, we spent 685 dirhams ($74 USD)

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View from the Summit

Difficulty Level of the Trek

For the first day, most of the path being a mule trail made it very easy to follow.  Although the trail is unmarked, it is difficult to get lost.  There are no weird crossroads or instances where the trail splits into two different directions.  As long as your directional skills are better than Claire’s, you will be fine.  In more blunt terms, follow the mule crap… As long as there is still mule crap in front of you, you are going the right way!  Many inexperienced hikers choose to hire mules to carry their gear.  As for the difficulty, it is all uphill the whole day.  Some parts are steep, but if you are in good physical condition, the hike is no problem.  For me, the hike to the refuge was effortless while it was a challenge for Claire, but she pulled through.

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Mountain views

As for the summit day, the trail becomes less obvious and you do have to cross a rock scree (area of loose, falling rocks).  Although this requires no technical skills, it is an injury risk.  As long as you follow the trail, you should be fine.  As this is a popular trekking destination in Morocco, it is best to plan the night before to go with other trekkers.  This will help give you peace of mind about the climb, and the buddy system is always the best system in any situation!  Coming back down is where you run the highest risk of injuring yourself due to rock fall.  Take it slow, and don’t rush.  The second day is definitely more difficult than the first.  The air is thinner, and the trail is steeper.  Be sure to take it at a steady pace in order to avoid altitude sickness.

The Final Verdict

As long as you are in good shape and have some basic trekking experience, you should be ok to do this trek without a guide.  For what the trek is, a guide is very expensive and unnecessary.  But remember, always do your own research and see what is best for you.

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Up around the summit 4,187 meters

If you decide to do the trek without a guide, the most important thing for you to be aware of is the symptoms associated with altitude sickness.  If you have a severe headache, dizziness, or are vomiting (among other symptoms) you need to stop climbing.  If these symptoms do not go away, descend immediately.  If you are not familiar with altitude sickness, consult your doctor before trekking as improper treatment can lead to death.

Another essential tool you need while trekking on your own is the phone app maps.me.  This app works offline after you download the local map and can navigate you all the way to Toubkal’s summit.  It proved very useful for the one or two places where the correct trail became slightly uncertain and allowed me to realize I was off the main route when climbing up to the summit.  Download the app for a worry free hike in the Toubkal region!

Overall, this was a great hike due to the location and accessibility.  If you are looking to get off the beaten path, then this is not the hike for you.  If you are looking to enjoy time with friends, get some exercise and be on the top of North Africa, climb on!

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The moon rising over the mountains around Imlil

Have you hiked up Toubkal?  What are your thoughts?  Do you agree on not bringing a guide?  Have questions?  Comment below!

 

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