v H

Mount Jbel Toubkal

Louis-Philippe Loncke

On the plaza, I find bamboo sticks and plastic bags, from which I build my trekking poles that can double as tent stakes.


In December 2010, after spending the past 4 years preparing and working on various expeditions, I found myself with the luxury of a 1 week holiday? I browsed the website of low-cost airliner and started looking for good deals and inspiring places. Cyprus? Malta? The winner was Marrakech as I had never been to Africa except for a day in Tanger after crossing Gibraltar. I was excited by my choice as I would be in a warm place while the snow had started to cover Europe. Visiting a cultural and famous city, eating local dishes and getting lost in the Souk and the myriad of colors. I opened an atlas and my eyes went straight on the Atlas Mountains, actually it was even the High Atlas. And there it was, Mount Jbel Toubkal, the highest summit of Northern Africa at 4.167m, a little challenge. It took me just a week to prepare the climb and estimate the trek around the Mountain was possible too in a few days. I found people who combined the trek and the climb in 6 days but I must do faster to catch my plane back.

I packed all my lightest and most efficient gear into a cabin-sized backpack and arrived at night in Marrakech. I roamed the Jamaa el-fnaa plaza and found a room to sleep. In the airline cabin, crampons, ice-axe, tent stakes and gas stove are prohibited and I needed to find solutions to get that gear as the mountains are covered with snow. On the plaza, I find bamboo sticks and plastic bags, from which I build my trekking poles that can double as tent stakes. After a good sleep in my hostel, I get the last food and take a taxi to Imlil, one of the entrance villages to the High Atlas. I find Mustapha, a guide who rents me a pair of crampons; we share some stories about the mountains and, of course, hot tea.

It’s already late in the afternoon and I have to rush to reach the Toubkal refuge 1500m higher. Underway I meet a few people with donkeys, climbers, I’m in Berber country and I do not speak the language. My pace is slow and I start to feel the altitude around 2500m where it begins to snow and the sun begins setting. About an hour from the refuge, it’s dark and I do not want to use the batteries of my head torch. It’s slippery but ok to guess the route safely. I soon see a light in the distance and reach the hut happy, cold and hungry. I have to learn the lesson that night comes quickly in the winter and the cold is permanent in these mountains. I pitch my tent and get warm water. There are four Spaniards who intend to wake up early to climb the peak before the morning clouds hide the view from the summit. I will follow the same idea.

The scenery is stunning, there’s almost no wind. It is a sunny gorgeous day. I feel the altitude and my head hurts a little. I slow down and I know I do not have enough water with me and 2 snickers are not going to be enough.


The wind blows hard during the night, my thermarest has a leak and I sleep badly. I’m already awake when my alarm tells me it’s time to go. I pack the tent, eat, take all the necessary and leave first just 5 minutes ahead of the fellow climbers. Light starts to come in the valley and we are sure the sky is clear so it’s the perfect weather to climb. I go behind the refuge, pass the frozen stream, put my crampons on and start climbing. The slope is about 30 degrees and icy but I can put my feet in remaining tracks of the previous climbers. We are a party of 5. Two Spaniards are in better shape than me and after an hour, they pass me and take the lead. The two other will abandon the climb at mid distance.

The scenery is stunning, there’s almost no wind. It is a sunny gorgeous day. I feel the altitude and my head hurts a little. I slow down and I know I do not have enough water with me and 2 snickers are not going to be enough. I reach the summit just when the two Spanish conquerors start going down. I spend twenty minutes on the summit enjoying the magnificent panorama to the rest of the Atlas and the desert in the distance. It’s magic. The clouds are coming and it’s time to leave. Downhill, I pass the scree slope, and then take a shortcut and run in the snow when the slope is low. In the last slope, I catch the Spaniards and, happy to be near the end, I make a mistake and fall on my chest on the icy slope and start sliding rocket fast head down towards the stream. I slide for about 150m, manage to turn on my back feet first and try to stop myself with my crampons before crashing on a large boulder the size of a car. The 2 first tries twists my ankle as the speed is high. I’m lucky to stop 30m from the danger. The Spaniards come to see me to check if I’m ok. I wait one minute to calm down then get up to find the entrance of the refuge where I left my pack. The Spaniard go back to Imlil, I tell the warden I’m continuing to the Tizi n’Ouanoums pass and hope to reach Ifni lake before it’s too dark.

The climb to the pass was harder than the mountain climb and I hesitate on the route with just a paper printed map. It’s dark but the moonlight shines through the clouds to distinguish the relief without headlight. I find the pass which is very narrow and reach the other side of the mountain, which is quite steeper and rocky. I will never reach the lake so I decide to go down as much as possible to avoid the wind and the cold. I’m very tired and put my headlight on my head and use the light when necessary to check where to walk safe.

Suddenly I fall again and start sliding fast into the unknown and hit my leg with a crampon. I hurt my hands and chest on a rock, the shock makes me lose my headlight that continues the slide without me as I successfully stop. I change my plans: find a flat surface to pitch my tent asap, sleep and search my light in the morning. Nothing is very flat and with no tent stakes I must find a spot where I can also put my bamboo sticks into the snow. It was too dangerous to go for the pass that night; I should have stayed near the refuge.


Louis Philippe

Loncke started traveling in 2000. In 2002, he was send to Singapore for work and learned scuba diving. To fulfill this passion he traveled for a year in Oceania between 2004 and 2005. He started hiking and heard about adventurers and explorers; and became interested after seeing the world acclaimed film Alone across Australia. Back in Belgium, he met author and adventurer Sylvain Tesson who encouraged him to continue and Louis-Philippe left again in 2006 to Australia to start his first major expedition.

Since then, Loncke has organised and participated in many expeditions worldwide. He is a member of the Explorers Club and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society

Find out more:

The next day is perfectly sunny, the sunrays enter the tent and I decide to get out. I’m very lucky to find my headlight quickly and I get down safely to the lake in the rock scree and streams. Near the lake are some ruins and old tiny cabins used by the Berber shepherds. I hear bells ringing and soon see a Berber shepherd with his dogs and hundreds of goats. The goats climb everywhere, having far better climbing skills than me. It’s picturesque. A few hours after the lake, I reach a village and an old man begs me to sleep at his place. I accept and he will prepare me some Tajine. I pay in advance for the night and food. What follows is very awkward. After eating, the man asks me if I want a massage. As I’m sore, I nod ok. He starts to massage my back. Then he removes my shirt, continues and suddenly pulls down my underwear to reveal my bottom. With a firm tone I tell him that’s really ok now, no need to massage anymore. He stops and leaves me to rest.

After a good sleep and warm tea with the man I start walking again. This day I have to make distance to reach back Imlil in time. I pass all Berber villages going down, passing Amsouzart and the forking into a new valley heading north to the 2 passes I want to reach today. Kids and adults look a little suprised when they see me. Perhaps it’s because it’s early winter and I walk alone with a small 30 liter pack? Also, I do not see any other tourist. They help me with directions in the maze of mountain paths towards my destination. I cover the huge distance and finish the last climb to the pass of Tizi n’Likemt in the snow without using crampons. On the top I have a view to Marrakech in the distance. I see all the fury of the town with all the lights and cars in town.

The last day I follow the road back to Imlil. I spent a total of 4 days and 4 nights doing this trek, which is too fast butI had excellent weather which helped immensely. I drank water from the streams without need to purify. I have seen men, women and kids working hard to harvest their daily supplies. Just a few hours from Modern Marrakech, poverty exists and the people find richness in the simple way of living from the land. Allah protects!


Don't miss out. Sign up to receive free monthly email updates from Sidetracked here.

Next Story