Climbing Mount Toubkal in Winter – A Brief Introduction

We have been leading winter climbs of Mount Toubkal in the Moroccan Atlas mountains for a few years now. It is a superb trip and one that people often sign up for as a great little winter break and also a chance to try out trekking and mountaineering in winter conditions for the first time. In many ways it is an ideal trek to do this; it is a short and inexpensive flight away, it is a short trip, it is only to moderate altitude, weather and snow conditions are generally reliable etc etc.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Approaching the Summit of Toubkal in February

However, when people make the step up from trekking in summer conditions to winter conditions they nearly always have reservations and concerns about whether they are ready to make that step. From talking to many people in this position, we note that the same questions nearly always come up. We will try to address a few of these common questions below:-

  1. I have never used crampons before.

This is one of the most tangible differences between summer and winter trips. For some, the idea of using crampons is one of the key points of interest, for others it is one of the key concerns. A lot of this seems to be influenced by the image of crampons being used in their most extreme ways. Ie hard core ice climbing up vertical sheets of ice. However, at their root, crampons are just an upgrade for the sole of your boot to allow you to get some purchase on snow and ice. They make things that would be very difficult in just your boots extremely easy.

They say that learning to use crampons takes half an hour to learn and a lifetime to perfect. This is true to some extent, but the crampon skills needed for a winter climb of Toubkal can easily be learned within the training session that we will have on our first day above the snowline. We will then also have ongoing training and tips on this throughout the trip. Learning and practicing these skills is a big part of the interest and focus of the trip.

ice climb

Not Winter Toubkal!

  1. Your info says I need an ice axe; are we going to be hanging off cliffs by our arms?

The short answer is – yes you need a (walking) axe – No you won’t be using it to ‘climb’. The type of ice axe we use on trips like this is different to the one alpinists use for ice climbing.

We use a walking axe which is longer and straighter and is used in a similar way to a walking stick almost all the time. It does also have an adze which can be used to cut steps and a pick, which can be used to stop you sliding if you end up lying in the snow. In reality you won’t need to do either of these things, but we do carry and learn how to use the axe in case of an emergency.  Again, learning and practising how to use these techniques is actually great fun and part of the interest of the trip for most people.

At no point on the normal ascent of Toubkal would you normally need to use your hands. There is an alternative descent route on the north cwm where you might hold on to the rocks as you walk down some of the upper snow slope. It is really very easy and the guides will decide whether to go that way based on the group and if we do then they will help show you how to do it.

Another peak we usually climb is called Ouanoukrim. The climb starts with a walk up the frozen valley with a steeper section near the head of the valley, but it is walking all the way. There is then a section along a ridge to get to the easy broad slopes beyond. A couple of sections of this ridge do have steep slopes dropping off to one side and we use our hands to steady ourselves on the rocks. However, the weight is on your legs, not your hands and it is actually very easy and the guides will be there to help show you the best way to tackle it.

Looking at Ouanoukrim from Toubkal

Looking at Ouanoukrim from Toubkal

  1. There is a lot of expensive gear on the kit list. I don’t think I can afford all that.

It is true that if you bought everything on the kit list it would add up to quite a bit of cash, especially of you bought it all new and top of the range. However, most people hire at least a few of the more specialised items if they are not sure they will use them again. This would often include crampons, axe and harness, and also often B1 mountain boots, sleeping bag and down jacket too. Companies such as expeditionkithire.co.uk offer packages and also the opportunity to buy the gear at the end of the trip, at a used-price, if you really liked it.

A lot of people also borrow gear from friends or get some items second hand from places like ebay. For this trip it is also important to remember that you don’t necessarily need top of the range gear. It is worth targeting your expenditure, boots are somewhere where it is well worth getting good ones that fit the shape as well as the size of your feet. Safety gear like a harness, axe and crampons clearly need to be in good condition. Your warm and weatherproof layers can quite easily be of a shop-own-brand level of quality. Sleeping bags can be cheaper but heavier and bulkier synthetic insulation rather than down-filled as we are not carrying them. We sleep in a refuge so the comfort temperature only needs to be just below 0degC, and you could always upgrade an existing bag with a fleece liner.

We encourage you to speak to us about kit and especially before buying or renting anything so that we can advise you and make sure you save your cash for buying pretty trinkets in the souks of Marrakesh instead!

  1. Its Morocco, in Africa, surely we don’t need all these warm layers.

This is a very common misconception, mainly on the summer trip rather than the winter one. There is a lot of detailed information on our website about it but the brief answer is – Yes, you do need all the warm layers, and; Yes, it does get very cold at times. (even in the summer)

The cold is mainly due to the altitude but also due to wind-chill if there is a breeze. Normal temperatures drop by around 5 degrees per 1000m of altitude, Toubkal is 4167m high, therefore it is likely to be 20 degrees colder on top of Toubkal than at the beach in Essaouira. Therefore, even if it was 25degC on the beach you would expect it to be about 5degC on Toubkal. Add to that a light 15kmh wind and you are down to -5degC including windchill. As the wind may also have blown up the valley over a load of snow, and your feet are stood on a pile of it and you can see that you need to have a good set of warm clothes to stay happy!

'Hero Shot' with Toubkal behind

‘Hero Shot’ with Toubkal behind

These are just a few of the most common questions and we are happy to answer all these and others in order for you to feel happy and prepared for the trip. A winter Toubkal trip is a superb little expedition and we can’t recommend it highly enough for a short, exciting winter break and as a first introduction to trekking in winter conditions.

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