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African sun and a howling blizzard: trekking through Morocco's High Atlas Mountains

Juniper forests and orchards planted by the Berber people frame the lower Toubkal valley in Morocco. Even in winter, the trees are full of songbirds.
Brian Mann
/
NPR
Juniper forests and orchards planted by the Berber people frame the lower Toubkal valley in Morocco. Even in winter, the trees are full of songbirds.

HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS, Morocco — When we set off on foot from a tiny mountain town called Imlil, it was still early, the sky purple. The peaks towering above the valley were just visible in the dim light, with rocks and crag outlined in sharp blue shadows.

The High Atlas Mountains run roughly east to west through central Morocco. They're some of the wildest, most remote places in North Africa. I first glimpsed these soaring, snowcapped summits nearly 40 years ago.

In the 1980s, I was little more than a hippie kid hanging out in the nearby city of Marrakesh, meeting Berber tribesmen who came down from the Atlas region to trade. In those days, I lacked the equipment and experience to travel into the high country safely, but these mountains stayed in my mind.

A stony path leads through the Toubkal Valley, climbing toward the highest summits in North Africa.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
A stony path leads through the Toubkal Valley, climbing toward the highest summits in North Africa.

The reason I'm finally able to make the trip now, at age 58, is down to two guides: Omar Iydar, who is a Berber, and Connor Holdworth from Scotland.

"I do this work as a guide for eight years now, like my grandfather and my father and also my uncles," Iydar said. "So I am really lucky."

Holdwsorth first discovered the High Atlas more than a decade ago: "It's a really nice mix of wildness and remoteness. It's really quiet here, especially this time of year."

Our first challenge was a five-hour trek to a base camp at about 10,000 feet on the shoulder of Toubkal, the highest summit in Morocco.

We picked our way over the rocky path behind a team of mules, their colorful red and blue saddles packed with climbing gear and food. The warm sun finally broke over the peaks as we climbed through a forest of juniper trees, raucous with songbirds.

NPR correspondent Brian Mann spent nearly 40 years dreaming about the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. This winter, he finally got to climb into its highest valleys.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
NPR correspondent Brian Mann spent nearly 40 years dreaming about the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. This winter, he finally got to climb into its highest valleys.

The Berber people have lived in the Toubkal valley for thousands of years, planting orchards and herding goats. As we trekked higher, forest gave way to boulder fields, red rocks and growing signs of winter. We passed near curtains of ice.

Toubkal is the highest summit in Morocco. "There are other mountains," says Berber guide Omar Iydar, "but the first mountain you should ... do, it is Toubkal.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Toubkal is the highest summit in Morocco. "There are other mountains," says Berber guide Omar Iydar, "but the first mountain you should ... do, it is Toubkal.

At dusk, we reached the climbers hut. It felt sort of like an outpost on the moon, bright lights glowing from the windows. Inside, climbers from all over the world ate and gossiped and prepped their gear.

It was cozy and warm, but in the night while we slept, the world changed. A snowstorm swept over the valley, coating the steep slopes in polar white.

"We woke up to a bit of like surprise snow," Holdsworth said. "It's like icing sugar on a piece of French toast."

We set off going higher on Toubkal, wind so fierce we needed goggles to see. The gale nearly knocked me down. Up high, it was barren, scree and snow as far as we could see.

Climbing through a blizzard on the shoulder of Toubkal, the wind is so fierce it nearly knocks us off our feet.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Climbing through a blizzard on the shoulder of Toubkal, the wind is so fierce it nearly knocks us off our feet.

That might not sound beautiful. But there's clarity in high mountains, like a painting stripped to simple clean lines. After hours of picking our way over stone and ice, we reached a saddle between two gothic spires.

Iydar looked out and grinned: "There are other mountains, but the first mountain you should ... do, it is Toubkal, the highest peak. It's beautiful."

Through the blizzard, there were sweeps of sun and porcelain blue sky. Holdwsorth pointed to the Sahara Desert glimmering in the distance.

From the high reaches of Toubkal, climbers can catch glimpses of the distant Sahara Desert.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
From the high reaches of Toubkal, climbers can catch glimpses of the distant Sahara Desert.

"We are so high up, we can see the curvature of the Earth," he said. "We look one way, and all we can see are mountains. We look the other way, we can see the desert. It's just awesome, it's really incredible."

It took me decades to get to that high place, so I just sat for a while, bundled in my parka, feeling breathless joy as I watched the light and snow sweep over towers of rock.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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