Distant views of a palm fringed Sahara wouldn't be very high on your list of things to expect ice-climbing; unless you're visiting the Toubkal massif over the winter months for some escalade de glace. Mike 'Twid' Turner returned to Morocco's High-Atlas for the second year in a row, this time on a guiding trip and sent us the following account.
"Our journey began in the dusty Berber village of Imlil, the most commonly used starting out point for climbing or trekking on North Africa's highest mountain, Jebel Toubkal (4167 m).
After a failed bartering session trying to hire camels to carry our climbing gear to the hut we settled on a couple of fine donkeys. Donkey assisted approach for ice climbing is highly recommended. The donkeys carried all our kit, food and hidden supplies of whisky along the sun drenched path up to the Mouflons hut at 3200m. Perhaps there's an opening for some Scottish fellow on Ben Nevis we wondered. Walking in a t-shirt and trainers carrying only a light sack behind our animals made the five hour walk quite pleasant. As with the whole eight days we never saw a cloud in the sky, enjoyed perfect weather and had ideal temperatures for ice climbing.
The Mouflons Hut is set at the base of the south cwm next to the Club Alpin Francaise (CAF) Refuge du Toubkal Hut (formerly known as the Neltner Hut). Both huts are run along similar lines to traditional alpine huts but the Mouflons hut got our vote, with its amazing variety of fine Moroccan grub and a super heated comfortable living room. Both huts sleep around 100 people and during our stay were both full of trekkers and climbers of many nationalities. Mohamed our host at the Mouflon Hut was a fine gent and excellent cook. The refuge has a well stocked shop, showers and is a perfect base for a climbing holiday. The cost per night was around £25/person including dinner and breakfast.
Why ice-climb in Morocco? Well, its just ace! You can climb cascades only 50 metres from the hut, multi-pitch routes of all lengths, long mountain climbs, numerous summits to 4000 m and from the tops you can see the Sahara and the Atlantic. It's also a very socialable place. We had one memorable evening chatting to a couple of Australian bankers from London, a French farmer from Calais, a Moroccan mountain guide and a male strip artist from the UK!
The cascade climbing is generally on very solid blue ice and spring fed. It is found everywhere around the high valleys on all aspects. It was great being able to spend some time climbing in the sun to top up our holiday tans. For longer days you can walk for one or two hours to a choice of fantastic long gullies. Many of these at around Scottish grade II - IV finish on 4000 m summits. There are longer gully climbs of a harder nature and some with mixed sections. One of the harder routes at around Scottish V had 6-7 pitches and wasn't too dissimilar to many of the best Scottish gullies. Ski touring is also popular in the region.
For a rack take along ice screws, a set of Wallnuts, a few cams and a smattering of pegs which will allow most climbs to be well protected. The area has two good guidebooks: the best English one is by Des Clarke (Cicerone) and there's a good Spanish winter climbing guide published by Desnivel. It's an ideal place for climbers looking for introductory and mid-grade ice routes. Undoubtedly the climbing potential is vast and you can tailor your adventure to suit your experience but conditions vary greatly for the harder routes. Ice is dependable from December to March."
Twid can be contacted through his website and will be running guided ice-climbing, belly dancing, camel riding, and donkey assisted trips to the High Atlas next winter.