The High Atlas – a One-Tick Wonder?

A party perched on the Tadat col, overlooked by the distinctive Tadat Pinnacle

In a week’s time I will be kicking off my winter season – although slightly off the beaten track – in the High Atlas, Morocco.

I was there at the end of August for a quick burst of summer mountaineering, which was excellent (see here), but this time the purgatorial screes and the sun blanched rock will have mostly vanished beneath the snow. There have now been a number of significant dumps of the white stuff, and, if my timing is right, the snowpack will be nicely consolidated.

However, from what I have seen and read of activity in the High Atlas, the area is a bit of a one-tick wonder. Parties generally arrive in Marrakech, make a beeline for Imlil, blitz it up to the Toubkal refuges, summit and then make a quick exit for Menara airport. Amongst all of that there might have been an acclimatisation day up to a local col or peak and a quick dash into the souks of Marrakech medina.

That is truly doing the High Atlas injustice.

With the new Cicerone English language guidebook for the Atlas in circulation (see here) and the Desnivel Spanish climbing guidebook (equally easy to get hold of), mountaineers shouldn’t be short for ideas to do up there. And yet Toubkal continually features as the main, if not only, objective of the majority of visitors to the area. If you want to whet your appetite for other objectives in the area, Des Clark, the author of the Cicerone guidebook, has a selection of route pages on his blog (see here).

I’ll be quite honest and admit that I am not hugely interested in Toubkal – in August, we climbed the WSW Ridge of Toubkal, but having reached the edge of the climbing and breached the 4,000m nark, were quite happy to descend to the hut again. This time, we’re planning to warm up by climbing Toubkal by the North Cwm route (the better of the two normal routes), and then move onto more exciting things. I have my eye on another of the big Toubkal ridges, the South East Ridge, although it is a long and demanding outing, without easy access.

Clearly, there is plenty to do out of the Toubkal refuges, but if you read the guidebook, it soon becomes clear that a week (which equates to five days plus travel in and out) is hardly any time to get stuck in properly to the mountaineering potential. I haven’t even mentioned Tazaghart, the distinctive plateau to the West of Toubkal, which has many quality lines climbed and unclimbed, which can be accessed from the Lépiney hut in the neighbouring valley.

Approaching spot height 1141m in the Northern Corries - one of my best days out last year

I’m looking forward to this trip massively, as if all goes smoothly, it will lead nicely into a decent winter season of outdoor work, both in Scotland and Morocco again, finally culminating with my Winter Mountain Leader training course at the end of February. Not only that, but I have also confirmed the dates for my first trip to the Alps at the end of June!


Atlas Aftermath

The High Atlas is a relatively unknown and unfrequented area outside of Jebel Toubkal and a few other venues (such as Mgoun). This is remarkable given the depth of mountaineering potential in the region, but inevitable given the lack of reliable mapping, language barrier to English-speakers and fear of terrorism, to name a few.

There are a number of trekking and climbing guidebooks to the area, but we used the most recent, Mountaineering in the Moroccan High Atlas, by Des Clark (available from Cicerone). Although primarily aimed at winter mountaineering, the book was very helpful with orientation and route planning. Ideally, I would like to get hold of the classic guidebook, Le Massif du Toubkal, by Jean Dresch and Jacques de Lépiney, but it is currently out of print.

The most recent guidebook for the High Atlas

Otherwise, there are a small number of sources of information for mountaineering, but it is very much a case of turning up and winging it!

I have included a few more favourite photos from the trip.

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