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.

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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.

Winter Mountaineering Gear Pt 3 – Choosing and Fitting Winter Mountaineering Boots

Winter is coming!

For some people that is not a welcome statement, but for those of us who love winter sports then the first dusting of snow on the high ground gets us excited about getting out on the ice and snow.

The third in our series on winter mountain gear will give you some tips on choosing and fitting winter mountaineering boots.

CHOOSING AND FITTING BOOTS

Remember – On a mountain trip you will spend a lot of time in your boots and your feet will be working hard. You will greatly regret cutting any corners with selection and fit of your boots!

If you are buying expensive boots for an expensive expedition it is strongly recommended that you visit a specialist retailer with trained staff, proper foot-measuring facilities (length & width) and a wide range of brands and models. This will allow you to try out a range of different boots before committing to one. Another important thing is to take the exact socks that you will wear on the trip with you to the shop. You need to try the boot on with the right sock as this can make a huge difference to the volume and comfort of the fit. Good shops will have also have some simulated terrain so that you can walk up and down hill in the boots. When you get home, wear the boots around the house for a few days, walk up and down the stairs etc. Most shops will allow you to exchange boots within a certain time period as long as they haven’t been used outside.

When fitting your boots, you often need to go up a half size or so from what you would buy in a normal shoe. This will allow for thick socks and some extra space as your feet often swelling a bit at altitude. Generally on high mountains you are walking very slowly and deliberately and will not experience the same amount of movement that you would with an approach boot. However, you do need to ensure that when walking you do not experience any ‘heel-lift’ inside the boot and that there is sufficient space around your toes for you to wiggle them. Any tighter than this and it is likely that they will either rub and give you blisters or be so constricting as to restrict the blood supply and lead to cold toes.

Note that certain boot brands commonly produce boots of a certain shape, ie. a narrower or wider fit. If your feet are of a certain shape it is worth identifying the most appropriate manufacturer for you. Some manufacturers such as Scarpa have ‘thermo-fit’ liners for their plastic boots; these are heated in an oven and then put on with special toe-spacers, the liner then moulds to the shape of your foot and when it has cools it stays in that shape. When the toe-spacer is removed it leaves some space for your toes with the rest fitting snugly. You will need to go to a shop with this facility to get this done properly.


Below the snowline it is possible to use B0 graded hiking boots, make sure they are worn in, but not worn out, and have good ankle support. However, a good solution for smaller peaks is to use a B1 or B2 Four-Season boot which can then be used on the peak too. This means that you don’t need to bring another set of boots.

If you are booked onto an Adventure Alternative trip then you get full access to our experienced staff before the trip so that you can be sure that you get the right gear.

Trips where you would need warm, crampon compatible winter boots include:-

Trip/Peak Reccommended Boots
Mount Everest High Altitude Triple Boots
Muztagh Ata Plastics + Overboots Reccommended
Huayna Potosi Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Pequeno Alpamayo Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Aconcagua Good Hybrids, Plastics or possibly Triple Boots
Mount Khuiten Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mount Elbrus Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mera Peak Good Hybrids or Plastics
Ojos del Salado Good Hybrids or Plastics
Island Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Yala Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Toubkal Winter 4-Season Boots

Winter Mountaineering Gear Pt 2 – Boots for Warmth

Winter is coming!

For some people that is not a welcome statement, but for those of us who love winter sports then the first dusting of snow on the high ground gets us excited about getting out on the ice and snow.

The second in our series on winter mountain gear will explain the differences between boots and how they are graded for warmth.

BOOT GRADING FOR WARMTH

Aside from allowing the fitting of crampons, another very important consideration when choosing your mountain boots is that of warmth. For anything other than technical climbing, this is likely to be the over-riding factor in your choice of boot. Different types of boot are constructed differently, with different materials and built up in layers. Usually on warmer boots, the layers are able to be seperated into an inner and outer boot. This helps as it allows you to warm/dry the inners and also to wear them inside the tent.

It sounds obvious when it is pointed out, but it is not just the ambient air temperature that is an issue. If you are walking on snow, your feet lose heat through the sole of your foot into the cold ground. This is made even worse if the snow is not hard packed, as you may be ankle or even shin deep in the stuff and your whole foot and lower leg may be conducting heat to the snow. Therefore, it is also the condition of the mountain that affect which boots are needed, aside from just the altitude or location.

Invitably, the warmer the boot the more volume and bulk it has to it and usually the more expensive it is too. Using a boot that is too warm can be as problematic as having one that is not warm enough. It will lead to excessive sweating which is uncomfortable and can ultimately lead to greater chance of blisters, cold feet or even frostbite- when you stop working hard, the sweat conducts warmth away from your feet, or can even freeze.

Above the snowline there are four main options, in descending order of warmth:

Triple-Boots‘ for 8000m or very cold peaks (eg Cho Oyu, Everest, Denali) such as Millet Everest, La Sportiva Olympus Mons, Scarpa Phantom 800. These are constructed with inner boot, shell and super-gaiter.

Plastics‘ like the Scarpa Omega or Vega, preferably with a high altitude rated inner boot for warmth (eg for Elbrus). These are a double-boot with a shell and a liner boot.

These can also be upgraded with an overboot (eg 40 Below Purple Haze) if over about 6000m (eg Muztagh Ata), which will usually it up to a limit of about 8000m.

Hybrids‘ like the La Sportiva Spantik or Scarpa Phantom Guide which are a double or even triple boot but the outer boot is not solid plastic so tat is can be more dextrous and comfortable. This may also need to have its warmth upgraded with an overboot over about 6000m which will generally take it up to a limit of about 7000m.

4-Season‘ boots like Scarpa Charmoz or Manta; these are what you would commonly use in UK winter conditions. They would be suitable for mountains like Toubkal or other Moroccan Atlas peaks in winter, Yala Peak, Island Peak and possibly Mera Peak.

If you are booked onto an Adventure Alternative trip then you get full access to our experienced staff before the trip so that you can be sure that you get the right gear.

Trips where you would need warm boots include:-

Trip/Peak Reccommended Boots
Mount Everest High Altitude Triple Boots
Muztagh Ata Plastics + Overboots Reccommended
Huayna Potosi Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Pequeno Alpamayo Plastics + Possibly Overboots
Aconcagua Good Hybrids, Plastics or possibly Triple Boots
Mount Khuiten Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mount Elbrus Good Hybrids or Plastics
Mera Peak Good Hybrids or Plastics
Ojos del Salado Good Hybrids or Plastics
Island Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Yala Peak 4-Season Boots or better
Toubkal Winter 4-Season Boots

Winter Mountaineering Gear Pt 1 – Boots for Crampons

Winter is coming!

For some people that is not a welcome statement, but for those of us who love winter sports then the first dusting of snow on the high ground gets us excited about getting out on the ice and snow.

The first in our series on winter mountain gear will explain the differences between boots and how they are graded for use with crampons.

BOOT GRADING FOR CRAMPONS

Boots for any climb over snow and ice need to be of a type that will allow fitting of crampons. Boots are graded according to their compatibility with different types of crampon.

Boots graded B0 are not suitable for use with crampons. The sole is not stiff enough to prevent them moving differently to the crampon with the result that the crampons will move around and may come off all together. They are also not very stiff in their upper section and may not provide enough support to your ankle or enough rigidity to allow ‘edging’ of the boot in snow when not using crampons.

Boots Graded B1 are suitable for use with strap-on C1 crampons for use on moderate snow and ice conditions. They have fairly stiff soles so that the crampon does not loosen or come off as the boot flexes during walking. They are also fairly stiff on the upper part so that they provide good ankle support and allow edging in the snow when not using crampons. They are however not so stiff that they are too uncomfortable to walk in off the snow.

Boots Graded B2 are suitable for use with C1 or C2 crampons. C2 crampons have a clip lever at the back and therefore require the boot to have a protruding shelf at the heel for the end of the heel lever to engage with. The boots have a stiffer sole than B1 boots and will help to keep the crampon in place on moderate mountaineering climbs. Some B2 boots are still flexible enough to be used on an approach walk although this is very dependent on the materials and construction of the upper.

Boots Graded B3 are suitable for use with technical C3 crampons. The boot is fully rigid and allows the crampon to be used on more technical climbs (where there is likely to be sustained use of the crampon’s front points) without the crampon losening. B3 boots are likely to be very uncomfortable for approach walks and trekking as they are rigid and often heavily insulated.


On all climbs or treks where crampons will be used, your boots will need to be rated at least B1 or B2 for use with crampons.

If you choose to purchase your own crampons prior to the trip please ensure that you take your boots to the shop and ask a suitably experienced person to check the fit of the crampons with the boot. Some combinations of boot and crampon do not provide a good match and can lead to poorly fitting crampons and consequent problems on the mountain. If you are planning on using overboots to upgrade the wrmth of a boot you will also have to check carefully if the crampon will be secure. You may need to cut out sections of the overboot to align with heel or toe bails.

If you are booked onto an Adventure Alternative trip then you get full access to our experienced staff before the trip so that you can be sure that you get the right gear.

Trips where you would need crampon compatible boots include:-

Trip/Peak
Mount Everest
Muztagh Ata
Huayna Potosi
Pequeno Alpamayo
Aconcagua
Mount Khuiten
Mount Elbrus
Mera Peak
Ojos del Salado
Island Peak
Yala Peak
Toubkal Winter