Mount Toubkal, Morocco – Embrace the highest peak in North Africa

Located in the Toubkal National Park, Morocco, at 4167m, Jebel Toubkal is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. It is also, the highest peak in North Africa and the Arab World.

Located just 75-minutes drive from Marrakech (approximately 40-miles) the National Park and the Toubkal summit has long been an excellent opportunity for those looking for a challenge, either for a specific purpose or as an add-on to an active holiday. As ultra-running, mountain running and the desire to explore new places grows. Morocco and Toubkal is a great place to adventure. Toubkal is considered by many as a great entry level mountain and it’s altitude is a great allure.

Toubkal has two-seasons, Winter and Summer. In winter, summiting the peak brings different challenges as it is completely covered in snow and ice. Winter mountain skills are required and the use of crampons are essential.

So, in this article, we look at Toubkal as a summer adventure and in due course, I will follow up with a Winter article.

PRACTICALITIES

Flights to Marrakech are in abundance and if you plan ahead, you can get very good deals, particularly from some of the budget airlines.

If you have not been to Marrakech before, I would say it is essential to soak up the atmosphere of the place by staying in the Medina (souk) in a typical Riad. Riad’s are standard Moroccan accommodation and like anywhere, you can go cheap or expensive. I have several favourites. My all time favourite, the ‘Dixneuf La Ksour’ (http://www.dixneuf-la-ksour.com ) which has only 6-rooms, excellent staff and they serve wonderful local food in the evenings and they have a licence to serve alcohol, if that is your thing!

My advice would be, arrive Marrakech and then spend two days sightseeing. Visit the Medina, get lost and haggle for a bargain. On the following day you could visit the Yves-Saint-Laurent Museum (https://www.museeyslmarrakech.com/fr/ ) and the Jardin de Marjorelle (https://www.jardinmajorelle.com)  both worth the effort. There are many other things that one can do, but this is a good starting point. You could then go to Imlil/ Toubkal for your adventure and the return back to Marrakech for another day or two before returning home.

TOUBKAL

Depending on your budget, you can either get a taxi or a private car to the village of Imlil. This is the starting place for all summit attempts. A taxi will be 35-40 euro and private car 80 euro.

OPTION ONE:

This is a standard option for Toubkal, and what most people do on a first attempt.

They leave Marrakech after breakfast, looking to arrive Imlil, say for 11am. You then meet your *guide, have tea (nearly always compulsory) and then leave for the refuge.

*A guide is now compulsory in the National Park and you cannot enter without one. There are currently three checkpoints that you go through and on each occasion your guide must provide your passport and the details are logged.

Imlil to the refuge is designed to introduce you to the terrain and slowly adapt you to the altitude. Imlil is at 1800m and the ‘Les Mouflons’ refuge is at 3207m. Depending on experience and adaptation, Imlil to the refuge can take 3-6 hours. 

Leaving Imlil, you have a narrow trail that rises quickly to a road and then the village of Aroumd. Here you will meet the first passport control and then you cross a floodplain before starting the climb to the refuge. The terrain is rocky and rough but not dangerous.

Chamharouch is the next passport control and here you will see a large white rock that is a Muslim Shrine. Here it is possible to get water, food if required and soft-drinks such as Coke.

The path now climbs steeply and gently reaches upwards, once again the terrain is rocky. You will arrive at two disused building that now sell drinks and here is the 3rd and final passport check. Before you know it, you will arrive at the refuge located at 3207m.

Depending on what you have arranged with your guide, you will have a meal at the refuge and then you will stay in a shared dorm with all the other climbers. These dorms are often unisex, so be prepared. You also need to be self-sufficient in terms of sleeping bag, additional clothes and warm layers. Everyone usually sleeps by 8/9pm.

The summit day will typically start at 0400 with breakfast and the intention will be to start the climb asap. Sunrise is approximately 0700, so, depending on your projected speed, the guide will advise on a departure time so you can climb from 3207m to 4167m.

In summer, the trail is very dry and although not a technical climb, Toubkal does have a great deal of loose scree and rocks. With the addition of the demands of altitude, the climb can provide an excellent challenge for someone new to experiences like this. Or, experienced runners and climbers can use it as a form of training. The trail goes straight up often zig-zagging to ease the gradient. Once at the saddle, the trail goes left and right. Here you go left for a final push to the summit. On a clear day, the views are magnificent and if you time it correctly, the sunrise can be truly magical.

Importantly, be prepared for the cold. It may be 30-40 degrees in Marrakech but the summit can be very cold and windy. Make sure you have wind proof jacket/ trousers, warm layer, hat and gloves as a minimum.

Most arrive at the summit between 0700 and 0900, you spend time soaking the views and taking photos and then return via the path you came. (There is another way down, more on that later!)

Descending becomes easier from an altitude perspective, with every meter you go down, the easier it will become to breathe. However, I think many find the descent harder and more challenging than the climb. This is due to the loose scree and rocky terrain. If experienced, one can drop from the summit to the refuge in 60-75 minutes. However, many eek their way down and falling/ slipping is a very real possibility. To clarify, there are no exposed ridges or real danger. It will just be a slip and a slide.

Once back at the refuge, many take a break for lunch and they will look to descend back to Imlil in the afternoon via the exact same route they went up the previous day. The out and back route is approximately 22 miles.

Once back in Imlil, it makes sense to book a local Riad, they are very inexpensive and serve great Tagine. The following morning you can arrange for a taxi/ car to collect you and you will be back in Marrakech for lunch.

OPTION TWO:

If you are experienced or want a challenge. Imlil-Toubkal-Imlil can be done in one day. I have done this twice now, once in Winter and once in Summer.

Most recently (August) I left Marrakech at 0530. I met my guide at 0700. We summited at midday and I was back in Imlil before 4pm in the afternoon. I had a car collect me and I was back in Marrakech before 7pm.

The above is not for everyone, but for me, it was an ideal opportunity to fit an action packed day between holiday days, before and after in Marrakech.

OPTION THREE:

As option two, but from the summit it is possible to take another route down. This is a more challenging descent with some exposure, very loose scree and lots of technical rocks. In terms of distance, it is maybe a little less than the standard up and down route but it does offer more excitement! I took this route down on my first trip to Toubkal. It rejoins the path up to the refuge below Les Mouflons.

EQUIPMENT:

During the day, shorts and t-shirt is ideal for the climb to the refuge. Shoes should be good trail running shoes with toe protection. Hikers will probably use walking shoes, approach shoes or boots. I used VJ Sport MAXx shoes which were perfect on these trails. You will need a pack and in that pack a change of clothes, warm layers, a sleeping bag and the capacity to carry liquid and some snacks. Refuge to the summit and back can be cold and windy. Be prepared with a Primaloft warm layer, gloves, hat and wind proof pants and jacket. It is recommended to have waterproof (just in case!)

I think poles for most people are an essential item. They will considerably help on the climb up and on the descent, they will add a security blanket.

TIME OF YEAR:

August for me is perfect. Marrakech is hot but has less tourists. Expect 30-40 degrees during the day. Imlil to the refuge, temperatures will be somewhere between 15 degs at 0700 and 30 deg in the afternoon. May can still have snow, so, be careful.

BOOKING:

The refuge at Toubkal is a great place to liaise with in regard to booking. 

refugetoubkal@gmail.com  – Liaise with Hamid.

Refuge Tariffs:

34.5 euro per person per night full board ( Dinner, breakfast and lunch )

29.5 euro per person per night half board ( Dinner and breakfast  )

19.5 euros per person per night ( without meals )

The refuge can also arrange the following for you:

Transport from and back to Marrakech

Accommodation in Imlil

Mountain Guide – A guide will be approximately 80 euro per day and is payable in cash only.

IMLIL HOTEL:

The Riad Atlas Prestige is located on the climb out of Imlil. It’s cozy, provides an excellent service and the food is great. It also very inexpensive at typically 30 euros a night for 2-people.

The hotel is on booking.com or you can contact directly +212 666 494954

SAFETY:

Morocco is safe. I have been travelling in different areas for over 7-years and I have always had a great time with wonderful experiences. Of course, there are cultural differences and as a tourist, it is we that must adapt. Women in particular should consider ‘covering up’ a little more, particular if running. But, in Marrakech, there are so many tourists that pretty much anything goes. Taking photographs, one should be careful. The locals really do not like it, and this I know from first hand experience.

Unfortunately, in December 2018 two girls were murdered between Imlil and Toubkal and this created a stir worldwide and locally. Hence the need for a guide and three passport controls now. I cannot emphasise enough that this incident was a one-off and to clarify, I have been back to Morocco and Imlil twice since this incident and at no point was I worried.

CONCLUSION:

An active weekend away or part of a longer trip to Morocco, Imlil and Toubkal is a real adventure and is highly recommended. For example, it would be quite feasible to fly from the UK (for example) on a Friday and return on Monday having visited Imlil and summited Toubkal over the weekend.

For those with more time Imlil is also a great place for a longer stay. There are many trails to explore in the area and the place is a hidden gem.

For those combining holiday and adventure, Imlil and Toubkal is a great active outlet amidst a more relaxed time in Marrakech. If you are planning to be in Morocco for longer than 7-days, also consider heading to the coast to visit Essaouira which is a 4-hour drive. It’s an old place with a very different feel to Marrakech. Of course, the options are only limited by your imagination and budget – it is also possible to go and stay overnight in the desert and have a bivouac experience.

As destinations go, Morocco is a magical place.

Ultra Mirage El Djerid 100k 2018 Preview #UMED

The Ultra Mirage El Djerid 100k #UMED rolls closer. Now in its 2nd edition, this 100km desert race based in Tozeur, Tunisia, North Africa looks set to be a great edition of the race.

The 1st edition had just 60 runners from 12 countries, for 2018, these numbers have escalated to over 150 and a remarkable 20+ countries.

Tozeur is the main city of the Djerid, it is very well known for its stunning surroundings with a mixture of rocky mountains, valleys, salt lakes and desert dunes. The Ultra Mirage© El Djerid (UMED) is the first 100km Ultra Trail taking place in the stunning Tunisian Sahara Desert.

The diversity and the beauty of the Djerid makes it a major attraction for tourists from all around the world. In particular, its connection with the movie industry. The race starts at the location of Luke Skywalker’s home in the original Star Wars movie (more HERE).

 A single stage race that takes runners across a wide diversity of terrains, ranging from soft sand, small dunes, rocks, dried river beds and oasis. Runners will have 20 hours to finish the race with very specific deadlines to reach each of the five checkpoints which will be between 15-20km apart. Starting at 0700 on Saturday September 29th, the race concludes at 0300 on Sunday September 30th. 

Offering 4 ITRA points and equal price money for the top female and male athletes, the 2018 edition of UMED looks set to be a great race.

 

Heading up the male field are the El Morabity brothers, Rachid and Mohamed. They need no introduction to any runner or fan interested in desert running. Rachid is the king of the desert having won the iconic Marathon des Sables multiple times. He recently won Marathon des Sables Peru and once again retained victory at the 2018 MDS in Morocco. He is the key favourite for victory at UMED.

However, Rachid’s brother, Mohamed, won the 2017 edition of UMED and therefore has experience and knowledge under his built. Mohamed has been learning the desert craft from his elder brother and we will certainly see the duo battle for the 2018 win.

 Sondre Amdahl from Norway will also take part. He has raced at Marathon des Sables Morocco where he placed in the top-10. Certainly, the single-stage format and 100km distance will suit the Norwegian who specializes in long-distance races. However, Sondre would be the first to admit, he would like some mountains and elevation gain on the course to allow him a chance of victory… No doubt it will be an exciting race.

Two-time Marathon des Sables champion, Elisabet Barnes, will head up the women’s race. Elisabet has a had a quiet 2018 after relentless racing in 2016 and 2017. With time to rest, re-build and plan ahead, UMED will see the specialist desert runner return to racing. The 100km distance and flat course is definitely something that Elisabet will relish, don’t be surprised if she impacts on the male GC.

The competition will be very aggressive so make sure you tune in and connect to social media to follow the action as it unfolds.

Runners will start to arrive in Tunisia from Thursday 27th with many runners arriving in Tozeur on Friday 28th.

You can obtain more specific information from the race website, HERE

Running a desert or multi-day race? Why not join our 2019 Multi Day Training Camp in Lanzarote taking place January 17th to 24th. More information HERE

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Morocco 2018 – Street Photography

For the first time in a long, long time. I had a holiday! Those who follow what I do would arguably say, that I am always on holiday as I am constantly travelling to photograph running races all over the world. However, I can honestly say that in the last six years, I have not been away without working. Admittedly, on one or two trips, work has maybe only been 20-30% of the actual trip. It’s still a holiday but the work element is there.

This August I booked a trip to Morocco, I put my email on auto-reply, I downloaded a couple of books on my Kindle app and I went way with the pure intention to do no work for a good 14-days. 

As a photographer, you may be thinking or asking, but did you take a camera?

The answer is quite simply, yes!

When you do what I do in, day-in and day-out, it’s almost impossible to travel without a camera. I often consider a camera just an ‘essential’ item for what I do every day, be that a holiday or not.

The key thing with taking a camera on holiday is that I can take images for the pleasure of it. No brief, no deadlines, no clients – I can shoot what I want and when I want.

I started to post 10-12 B&W images a day whilst travelling, normally on my Instagram and on Facebook. What was interesting was the amount of feedback and direct messages I received. I guess most people know me as a sports/ running photographer, so, suddenly a series of gritty B&W street photographs appear, and it makes people curios.

So, I decided to write a brief post to answer the questions that was asked. 

Street and people photography are something that I love. It’s raw, visceral, gritty and when done well should transport the viewer to the place and immerse them.

Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused by enthusiasm by the most dreadful things…– Elias Canetti

Now there are many forms of street photography. And just to draw a comparison, I photographed in Nepal for many years, the street shots I have done there are very different to what I did in Morocco.

To clarify, I could photograph in Nepal the way I photographed in Morocco but not vice versa. The reason being, the people and the culture. The Nepali people love having their photographs taken, you can walk up to them, stick a camera in their face and take a shot. You can even ask them to move or look into a certain place. So, although it’s real, there can be an ‘element’ of set-up, however, I rarely go down that route.

In Morocco, the people are very different. They do not like having their photograph taken. Don’t agree with me? Take a camera in to the Souk in Marrakech and start pointing your camera at people – you will soon realise that it is not an option. Now of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally it is possible to do a ‘posed’ shot and I have found that my experience with 30-year’s in the business lets me know when that is an option.

Below, there are over 300-images captured in Marrakech and the coastal resort of Essaouira, I would say that approximately 10-12 images were taken with the subject knowing I was taking the photo and they didn’t mind.

The remainder of the images were taken with the subject not knowing that I was taking photographs.

THE EQUIPMEMT

Sony A7RIII with Sony/Zeiss T Sonnar* 35mm F2.8

If you look like a photographer, you will stick out and the people will already be wary of you. For street work and when travelling this way, I carry one camera and one lens.

I use a Sony A7RIII (approx £3200) which is a full-frame digital camera which produces a whopping image size of 42.4MP, when shooting in RAW, that file is over 80MP. I have found a large file allows me options to crop in to the image and still retain a high quality/ high resolution file. The camera is mirrorless and therefore considerably smaller than a DSLR, it also has Image Stabilization built into the body; super handy in low-light. The camera can also shoot at 10fps, at times, this can be super important for capturing that all-important moment.

I use a prime lens, the 35mm F2.8 – The Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 which is a Sony/ Zeiss lens. The optics are incredible, focus is fast and superb and F2.8 it is pin-sharp. There are several reasons why this lens is perfect for street work:

At 35mm, it is wide, but no so wide that you can’t take portraits. I would say that for most Pro photographers, a 35mm prime has replaced the traditional 50mm prime.

The lens has a lens hood which is flush to the front element keeping the lens neat.

Its size is extremely small.

Quality is off the scale, but it is not cheap, approx £850.

That is, it. I don’t use anything else. I don’t carry a camera bag and I have no accessories. The only two additional items I carry is a spare battery and spare SD cards.

SHOOTING

This camera set up is also my favourite set up when running and photographing. The main reason being is that the camera and lens are light, the quality is the best you can get, and I can carry the camera in my hand while running. I broke up my time in Marrakech and Essaouira with a 2-day trip to climb Toubkal, the highest mountain in the Atlas range. Here are some of the shots from that trip:

Back to the streets…

I have learnt over time to view the scene with a 35mm eye. Basically, I can look at a scene/ scenario and view the scene with the viewpoint and angle of the camera. This is essential in Morocco.

Many of the shots I took, I would say 80% (with the exception of the Toubkal shots) were taken with me NOT looking into the camera. The moment you raise your camera to your eye, people stop, look, put their hands up and on many occasions will say, ‘no photo, no photo!’

The below is a classic example of the subject posing for the shot.

This shot I was looking through the camera, but the subject didn’t know I was taking the photo.

This shot I was looking through the camera.

This shot was composed and planned but the subject didn’t know.

This is why Nepal and Morocco are so different.

To shoot, I would survey a scene, view the angles and decide on the shot and then walk past with my camera at mid-chest height. With experience, I understand the field of view the camera sees and I capture the scene.

Now of course, this sounds easy.

It’s not.

  1. One has to consider focus and how one gets the ‘key’ element in the frame in focus.
  2. One also has to consider exposure.
  3. One has to consider if it is possible to make one or two attempts at a shot.

The above is actually what brings adrenaline into shooting in this way. One also has to accept that you will have a high failure rate, certainly early on. Failure rate becomes less with more experience.

SUMMARY

There are no hard rules in capturing images when working a scene. The place, the people and the location will often decide what approach you need to take. The comparisons between Nepal and Morocco provide a perfect example.

The key is to enjoy the process, have fun and learn by taking many, many shots.

All images ©iancorless.com

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