The email arrived in my inbox in early December of 2019 from my friend Doug Stoup. Would I be interested in joining a trip to Morocco this coming March for an exploratory trip with Ice Axe Expeditions, to establish an itinerary for ski touring in the Atlas Mountains?  I’ve been on several Ice Axe trips before, and they have all provided some of the best ski and travel adventures of my life. Greenland, Antarctica, and Svalbard have all been added to my resume through Ice Axe and the skiing combined with the chance to visit these remote lands to experience the culture of the region have all been rewarding life experiences that I cherish. On my upcoming ski calendar however, I had already committed to a 2-week trip to the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia (Ascent Early Winter 21), and with my responsibilities to my family and to the publication of this magazine would I be able to swing it? I quickly said yes, I’m in. The previous winter I was invited by Doug to do a similar exploratory trip to the Altai Mountains of Northwestern China. I too was in for this rare opportunity, but the Chinese Government had other plans, and my visa was denied. The team that went to China consisted of Glen Poulsen, Andrew McLean, Shaina Zamaitis and Frank and Mike Sahlman. It would be this same team, plus Sara Davidson, traveling to Morocco and I was certainly happy to make up for my missed opportunity to the Altai with this great group. Glen and Andrew have skied all over the world, and Frank and Mike were looking to add Africa to their list of continents skied, giving them turns on all seven of them with this trip. For me, adding Africa would be 6, adding another continent to my goal of skiing the planet.

Skiing the continent of Africa gives pause, as it is not the first place one would associate with the sport. The Atlas Range however often receives ample snowfall with the highest peak, Jbel Toubkal, topping out at 13,671 feet.  Andrew and Glen have both had successful ski trips to this area so we weren’t going in blind, however with any expedition, it’s always good to maintain flexibility and have a plan A, B, and maybe sometimes, a plan C.

Plan A

 

We had been watching the weather and snow patterns, and Glen was sending out regular updates on reported conditions. January and February were dry, and the Atlas wasn’t receiving its regular winter snowfall. It was the same story all over the place that winter, as my trip to the Caucasus had been lacking in snow, and flying home, the spectacular views of the entire Alps of Europe from my window seat revealed high snow lines. Perhaps in the next month it would improve. Shortly before our departure to Morocco, Glen confirmed the latest, it was looking pretty grim, but we were going to give it a go. I left Hailey and drove to the SLC airport where I met Andrew. Glen, Sara and Shaina flew in from Reno to SLC and we all boarded the direct flight to Paris. Frank and Mike were already in Morocco exploring the Sahara before meeting us in Marrakesh. As our AirFrance flight from Paris approached Marrakesh, the parched landscape sprawled beneath us. We could catch distant views of the Atlas Range, with some shades of white, but not much!  On approach, we were all handed forms that we were instructed to fill out regarding the spreading Coronavirus that was starting to cause concern. Basically it was asking us if we had been to China recently, or had been in contact with anyone who had been to China recently- a concern for none of us, and the situation seemed like a distant threat. Upon arrival in Marrakesh, we walked out into 90-degree heat, feeling out of place carrying ski bags. Our Moroccan liaison Jamal piled our gear into his van and drove us into the walled Medina of Marrakesh, where we had a 10-minute walk with our ski gear through the bustling throngs to our quiet Riad, an oasis inside another set of walls where we met Mike and Frank. As is custom throughout Morocco, we were promptly poured a glass of mint tea. Saying the Medina is bustling is an understatement. It is a busy and hectic bustling, with scooters, cars, mules, and people all hustling through an incomprehensible maze of streets and alleys that are packed with merchants. Having Jamal to coordinate travel through this labyrinth was invaluable. Things slow down somewhat as the call to prayer (Adhan) rings from the mosques 5 times a day. We spend the next day getting a tour of this magnificent city taking in a great cultural tour with a local guide Mohammed who after lunch, takes us to one of the biggest and better rug merchants in town, and from what we gather, there are hundreds of rug merchants. We sip tea and enjoy the spectacle of having dozens of handmade rugs laid out before us. Shaina and I get lost in the fog as she buys one and I buy 2, Shaina takes hers with her and packs it into her luggage while I am pleasantly surprised when mine show up at my house a month later…as promised. We enjoyed our time in Marrakesh with the fine food cooked in the traditional tagines and the Berber hospitality. Tomorrow is a travel day into the Atlas Range, and we finish the warm evening under the stars on the patio of the Riad with a bottle of scotch from the airport duty-free to celebrate Andrew’s birthday. We would also soon realize the difficulty of obtaining more of the demon alcohol of any sort in this Muslim country.

The drive to Oukaimeden is spectacular as we climb in elevation into the Atlas leaving dusty Marrakech behind. The range is spectacular, and Oukaimeden is a sometime ski hill with 2 lifts, not running. There is some snow, and we’ll ski, but we’re going to be limited to the ribbons of white in between the larger patches of brown. We drop our luggage at our quarters for the night, have tea and a tagine lunch of meatballs and pasta on the patio, and then gear up for an afternoon ski.

Our tour today is going to consist of the main snow line near the ski hill, which looks to be our longest continuous option. At the base are several Berbers with mules and a small collection of vintage ski gear spread out as a rental option for tourists who might spontaneously give it a go. It’s a sharp contrast to our technical and modern clothing and gear, and regardless, we’re offered a porter to the top, which we politely decline. We skin up a steep slope nearly 2000 feet to the summit over a rotten and hardpacked piste. From here we’re greeted with a spectacular view of the High Atlas spread out before us, and our main objective of Jbel Toubkal in the distance. We’re elated and take our time taking lots of photos and giddy with the realization of where we are, but it’s also sinking in that we’re not going to be getting the skiing we had hoped for.

Eventually, we slide down back to the base area, with the satisfaction that Mike and Frank have now made ski turns on their seventh continent. After a transition at the bottom in front of the amused Berbers who were admiring our turns with their mules, we head to the Chez Juju for après beers and appetizers on the patio. It’s the only place in Oukaimeden that’s open, and the village is otherwise ghostly quiet except for us, and the few locals who quickly learn that we’re not interested in buying any trinkets today.

After a comfortable night, we pile in Jamal’s van for a short ride to another side of the mountain in search of more skiing. It’s pretty much the same as yesterday as we find a slope with some snow continuity for turns and we again linger on top admiring the vista. This may be it for skiing, but we’re hopeful that Toubkal will have better conditions on her higher flanks. At the bottom, the beautiful spring weather influences our first itinerary change- instead of driving to Imlil at the base of Toubkal, we’re going to hike over the pass and walk down to Tachdirt, a high mountain village on the other side where we’ll stay at a guest house for the night. Jamal will meet us there, and before we leave we give him a fistful of dirham with the order to buy as much Casablanca beer as this will afford. It’s a beautiful hike through the mountains in shorts and t-shirts and we pass a few sheepherders along the way who pay us no mind except for a few disapproving looks to the women on our team who dare not cover up. They also do not like having their picture taken by women. We’re deep in traditional Morocco now.

 

Plan B

 

Jamal arrives with a bag of beer and though it’s warm with no way to chill it, it’s still refreshing. He also delivers the news that it’s not looking good for skiing on Toubkal, and perhaps we should reconsider.  There is also no skiing around Tachdirt, despite the excellent looking but completely bare ski terrain. Andrew, Glen and Jamal converse, and sketch out a plan we all discuss over dinner. Tomorrow we’ll transfer to Imlil, and consider going for a hike or a mountain bike ride. We’ll then hike to the Toubkal hut with our original intention of summiting Jbel Toubkal. If there is skiing, great and if not- we’ll head for the Sahara and experience the magic of the largest ‘hot’ desert in the world.

Imlil is a spectacular mountain town with a few beautiful mosques nestled at the foot of the High Atlas with Toubkal looming behind. After tea, we move our stuff into the comfortable Riad. We’re going for a mountain bike ride, and there happens to be an outfitter in the village who rents decent modern bikes. There are also a few small mountaineering shops that though they look out of place, definitely cater to the European tourists who travel to Imlil specifically to summit Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa. Jamal hands us over to Omar, a local guide who lives in Imlil, and we’re off down the road for a 15km ride to Asni for tea and a tagine lunch. Omar arranges a shuttle back into the hills and to our great surprise- we are treated to a great ride on smooth singletrack that winds back down 18 km to Asni. There are no mountain bikers here Omar tells us, except for him and a few friends. The trails are mostly routes used by mules to transport between villages. It’s flowy, fast and fun.

The next day we are up early and out of the Riad for our trek up to the Toubkal hut, a climb of nearly 5000 feet from Imlil to the hut at 10,500ft. Despite Jamal’s, and now Omar’s skepticism of no skiing, we’re taking all of our gear anyway. If anyone can sniff out a line for skiing, it’s Andrew and Glen. The mules are loaded down and are off the front before us. Omar leads us and points out his house in one of the small Berber villages along the way. He can’t be older than 30, and lives in a house with his extended family. He’s summited Toubkal many dozens of times. It’s an amazing trek into Toubkal National Park, passing the Sidi Chamharouch, a pre Islamic shrine at 8000ft. The “King of Jinns” shrine is a giant boulder, painted white, behind a small mosque, where non-Muslims are forbidden entrance. Animals are still sacrificed here daily for healing mental disease, exorcising spirits, or simply for good luck and good health. Arriving at the spacious hut we strike a deal to have our group in a private room, and there are many other climbers and trekkers staying here to climb Toubkal. Many look as if they have never even been in the mountains before, but we discover that it’s an important pilgrimage for many to obtain the summit. Glen and Andrew head off to have a look for potential ski lines, while the rest of us enjoy tea and relax.  They return confirming- it’s not going to happen.

We head out in the dark early the next morning on foot, and are among the first to stand on the summit, and it is amazing. It’s cold and we all have on our warmest layers, the sun is rising, and while we’d certainly rather have a ski descent, such as it is. We’re still psyched; we’re on the top of the Atlas Mountains. On the descent we pass several groups who are struggling with the altitude and exertion, some in tears, some curled up on the ground in exhaustion, but they will too press on to the summit to fulfill their own individual and group goals. We descend to the hut, square up with the hutkeeper, and start heading back down to Imlil with the mules wondering why they carried all of our ski gear to the hut.

We’re feeling the mileage we’ve covered on foot when we check into the Kasbah du Toubkal, our most luxurious accommodations so far where we’ll experience some amazing Berber hospitality. We promptly head for the hammam, the traditional Islamic steam bath, and then regroup in the tower overlooking the valley for a relaxing teatime. The views in all directions are amazing and we’re able to watch the changing colors on Toubkal, well up the valley behind us. Our time in the High Atlas is ending, and we’d like a celebratory beer, but alas, Jamal assures us there is not one to be found anywhere near here.

Plan C

 

In the morning we hike down into town, the mules ferrying our luggage. We pile in the comfortable van for a long drive to the Sahara. There are no routes across the High Atlas, so it’s a long way around and a road trip day. Jamal has accommodated our changing plans with his usual efficiency, and Omar is accompanying us for the journey; we remind him that we’ll need to stop for beer at the first available option. We visit Ait Benhaddou, a historic fortified village along a caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh. It’s made of earthen clay, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has been the backdrop for numerous movies. We continue to prod Omar about getting some beers, and he nods and rolls his eyes at us. As we blaze through Ouarzazate, the driver makes a sudden stop, and there it is, a small liquor store in the middle of town. We stock up on Casablanca and grab a bottle of rum and scotch as well, for good measure. Our desert thirst finally quenched. We reach Merzouga late in the day, check in at the hotel, and then cross the street where the golden dunes spread out as far as the eye can see, and tower overhead. Our camels await, kneeling before us, as you climb on, they rise up, back legs first. The ride is smooth, similar to a horse, and these elegant beasts carry our gear and us across the dunes for several miles where we witness an unforgettable Sahara sunset. We pause to soak in the last rays of the day, and enjoy a warm beer that we’ve carried in our packs, amazed at our surroundings. Our desert camp that night is luxurious inside massive wall tents with running water, showers, and toilets, right in the middle of the dunes.  Rugs are spread out everywhere. A fine meal, and then a late night jam session fueled by the rum, and the music played around the fire by our Moroccan hosts.

At sunup- we’re back on the camels, riding for the highest dunes nearby. We find one with a decent slope, and make the transition. Soon, we’re skiing on sand in the Sahara. It’s as if skiing in slow motion however, and we are able to ‘skin’ back up without needing actual skins. It is a complete riot and we’re laughing and hooting while our camel tender waits patiently nearby. We’ve now skied snow and sand on the African continent in a matter of days, and not how we expected- but the plan came together regardless. It all comes to an end too soon and we’re back on the camels, back to the van, and back to Marrakesh in what seems a blur. We spend the night in a fine Riad in the busy Medina, and then the next day we start to go our separate ways back to the US, and back to a new reality.

The pandemic now has taken hold around the world. In the two weeks since we leave, Morocco would be shut down, leaving hundreds of Americans stranded, as AirFrance would stop all flights back to Europe. The usually packed Medina would become a ghost town. Back home, ski resorts would start closing for an initially planned “2 weeks” and we all know how that went. In the bigger picture, the pandemic would change life as we had known it, and things may never be back to ‘normal’ again. Our time in Morocco was an escape from any normal, one of a lifetime, and one I hope to repeat again, given the chance.

Ice Axe is resuming trips to certain parts of the world as Covid restrictions ease in recovering countries. They are now booking spots for the Morocco trip scheduled for spring 2022. Go to IceAxe.tv for more information.

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Paul Oelerich

What's on your backcountry radar this winter?

Collecting more great stories of adventure from around the globe, and making plans to pursue some of my own in the future.

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