Climbing Mount Toubkal: headaches, midget gems and feeling on top of the world
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Back in October, I climbed Mount Toubkal in Morocco. I was super excited at the prospect of climbing it, as it would be the highest I’d ever been. Here’s the story of getting to the top.
The chimes of my phone alarm rung out, their gentleness insincere as they rudely woke me at 2.30am. As I started to remember where I was, I saw figures stirring in the darkness, their forms slug-like as they slithered off the bed platforms, following the light of their phone screens and reaching out to switch them off. I did the same.
I was in a shared dormitory in the French Alpine Club’s Refuge du Toubkal, deep in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Just a few hours before, I had trekked up from the mountain town of Imlil with a group of strangers and a local guide, on an attempt to climb Jebel Toubkal. Standing at 4167m, Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa. It seemed like a good place to start for my first high altitude mountain – it’s big but not a technical climb, and so it didn’t matter that I hadn’t time to brush up on my mountaineering skills. After about 7 hours hiking through beautiful valleys and up steep rocky paths, we had made it to 3200m and settled in for a few hours sleep at the refuge.
Suddenly, the room lit up in a flash as someone switched the big light on. There were groans and laughs as everyone started to wake up. I caught my new friend’s eye and we giggled - we both looked exactly as rough as we felt. I caught myself in the mirror – my face was big and tight and I felt like a puff pastry.
The giggles were good as they distracted me from the pounding that was going on in my head. This was my first time at altitude and we hadn’t had much time to acclimatise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and so when my headache set in the evening before I’d just popped some painkillers and written it off as being due to my period or dehydration. With the throbs still there that morning, I was beginning to wonder if the altitude might be to blame. I took a couple more painkillers to dull it and tried to ignore it as I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and into my extra warm clothes that were going to be essential for hiking even higher. I was grateful that I had sorted my clothes out a few hours earlier, as I don’t think half-asleep me would have done a very good job of deciding what I needed to wear.
We made our way downstairs where we sat down to an enormous breakfast. A lot of people struggled to eat which was completely fair enough – it was the middle of the night after all. My stomach, in all its glory, let out an enormous rumble. No matter what time it is, if I’ve woken up for the day, she’s there ready and waiting for the first feeding of the day. I devoured several eggs, bread, yoghurt, fruit and cereal, and washed it all down with an oh-so-sweet mint tea and cup of coffee.
It was now 3am, and we had to start making our ascent soon if we were to summit around sunrise. As we filled our packs with extra clothes, water and anything else we needed, I looked around at everyone’s faces and saw them filled with sleep, nerves and topped off with a cherry of excitement.
Stepping out of the refuge, the cold night air enveloped us immediately. Silence. The slightly chaotic rush to get togged up and ready to get going instantly seemed a world away. We started to walk. The crisp air was so still and so quiet, the silence only being broken by our boots as they made contact with the ground. We quickly started to ascend, and the lights of the refuge disappeared behind a ridge. There we were, standing on the side of this mountain under the clear October sky. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, rocky outcrops and the mountain ranges started to reveal themselves. The moon shone down brightly and thousands of stars sparkled up above our heads, new ones seeming to constantly appear. I couldn’t believe the stillness. It felt as though the whole world was asleep while we crept up this secret mountain, silently watched by the surrounding silhouettes of nearby peaks.
The lights of the head torches from other groups ahead of us danced up the side of the mountain, half-showing us how far we had to go. Spoiler – it was a long way. Our group quickly got into a rhythm of trudging upwards, mainly in silence, stopping every fifteen minutes or so to check in, catch our breath and put on extra layers. It was getting very cold. I crammed some midget gems into my mouth every so often which I'd hurriedly bought at the airport a few days before. These are rock hard at the best of times, so the freezing temperatures meant they stuck my teeth together completely and made it near impossible to talk.
Now while all of this was magical (bar the stuck-together teeth) and it’s easy to romanticise the starry skies, at this point my head was relentlessly pounding and being completely honest, I felt pretty sick and groggy. I was beginning to wonder if all of that breakfast followed by too many midget gems hadn’t been such a good idea. Was I enjoying myself? I wasn’t sure. I kept looking at the sky to distract myself, but it was a constant battle between wanting to drink in the most stars I’d ever seen and needing to keep an eye on where I was putting my feet. I decided to focus on the tunnel of light emitted from my head torch, stealing glimpses of my surroundings when I could. I so desperately wanted to keep reminding myself where I was and not take it for granted. I’d chosen to have this adventure and was privileged enough to be able to do it, and I knew (as is the tendency with outdoor adventures) that when I’d look back at this trip the memories of the not-so-good bits would fade into the background and the memories of beautiful landscapes and joy would move into centre stage. It’s easy to forget that at the time though, and I was genuinely a bit worried about why I was feeling so bad and whether I’d actually be able to make it to the top. Our guides had been brilliant and warned us about the signs of altitude sickness, and so I was trying to stay aware of the signs and not let my eagerness to get to the top and pride get in the way.
On we went, higher and higher. The ground below was rocky and surrounded by scree, making me tread carefully. A couple of hours passed, but my sense of time felt warped by the early start and the monotony of climbing in the darkness. We were well over half way and it simultaneously felt like we’d been going for hours and only a few minutes. I started to notice that I was gradually being able to see further ahead in front of me, and the surrounding mountains were coming more into focus. Sunrise was on its way.
I began to see a bit of a plateau up ahead, where we planned to regroup before heading to the summit. It was getting steeper, and the ground was meeting my feet more readily with every step. I started walking in time to the pounding in my head – step, pound, step, pound. I willed myself onwards and put the summit to the back of my mind for a second. I just needed to get to the plateau.
At that moment, the sun leapt into life. There it was, rising up and up in all its glory and welcoming us crazy early risers to a new day. It beamed out across the sky and onto the clouds below, making them appear like a vast ocean inhabited by birds that dived and swam across the sky. Everything felt so surreal. I started to feel a bit emotional, which I hadn’t really expected. Seeing a view like that along with not feeling brilliant, memories appearing out of nowhere, and the sheer sense of relief from having made it this far was all quite overwhelming. I let go.
Still, the summit had to be reached and I could see it up ahead. The daylight filled me with energy and had refreshed my sense of determination to get to the top, and so onwards we went. People started to pass me on their way down – that meant it was possible to reach the top and surely not far now!
No longer restricted by the darkness, I could take in everything. Birds soared below us, I saw a plane that felt like it was at the same height as us, and the sheer scale of the mountain ranges started to become apparent. The sun was smiling at us like a big friendly face and I felt my pace pick up as the summit got closer and closer. I felt tingly when I imagined reaching it.
And then, I was there. We’d done it. I hugged my other group members and our guide and we took photos of us each standing at the top. I felt like I was on top of the world. I felt like I was in a dream - I don’t think any words can ever describe the view. It was spectacular. My brain was struggling to make sense of where I was - it felt like I could have been out at sea or in space. I had to concentrate hard to comprehend that I was on top of a really big mountain in North Africa. Below those clouds were the rest of the Atlas Mountains on a continent that would eventually turn into the Sahara Desert, transforming into jungles, plains and savannahs. I might be looking in the direction of Algeria or Ghana or Zambia. It felt limitless and free.
And so, that’s the tale of reaching the top of my first high altitude mountain in all its scary, exciting and tingly glory. Have I conveniently forgotten about the nausea, headaches and freezing cold? Of course I have! And that’s why I keep climbing.