Maroc & Roll
It wouldn't have occurred to me to ski in Morocco except I was desperate. Located in the northern tip of Africa, Morocco is well known for the Sahara Desert, snake charmers, tagine and as a backdrop for the movie "Casablanca," but not for ski mountaineering. My desperation was driven by a desire to fulfill a decade-long quest to find the best ski mountaineering on all seven continents. Having ticked off six of them and thinking it was safe to leave Africa for last, it was now time to see what there was to ski, if only sand dunes, on the Dark Continent.
The preliminary research was not very encouraging. The consensus was that Morocco's High Atlas Mountains were probably the best bet, but to keep my expectations low. Friends who had passed through the region predicted that the skiing would be lackluster, but the overall unique cultural experience would more than make up for it. In retrospect, I'm happy to say that my friends need a little more skiing faith.
Morocco is a very tourist friendly country, especially towards film production companies. Its scenic backdrops have doubled for Tibet, the American West and Arabia. No special permits or visas are required to visit, but they also don't allow in walkie-talkie radios. So after having ours confiscated at the airport, it was a surprise to step outside and see all of the taxi drivers using them to coordinate rides with. It was our first clue that inside knowledge plays a big part here.
Part of the reason Morocco is seldom visited by North American's is the 27-hour commute to get there. Access to the mountains is through Marrakech, which to Europeans is a direct three-hour flight. This, and the fact that Morocco used to be a French colony, explains why French is the second language of the country and most of the visitors are Europeans who are there for short vacations.
Marrakech was known as part of the Hippy Trail in the 1960s, although it hardly seems laid back and blissed out today. The center of the town revolves around the market, which has morphed from streets with stalls a century ago to a bewildering subterranean maze nowadays. The entrances are surrounded by tooth sellers, snake charmers, water peddlers, musicians, beggars, police, juice stands and pirated-music vendors. The massive enclosed area covers roughly a square mile and holds literally thousands of shops. Signage is vague, but it would be fitting to post "Abandon all hope ye who enters here" posters at each entrance. The temptation to explore is irresistible, although one hour in the market is the equivalent of a full day of skiing steep fall-to-your-death couloirs in the nearby mountains. Visitors stand no chance of blending in or competing against the finely honed sales and bargaining skills of the locals. If you are lucky, you will emerge with some of your savings intact and only a few curious purchases that make you wonder what you were thinking. Why do I need a size 60 fez? How am I going to get this lampshade home?
The nearby High Atlas Mountains are a major destination mainly because they contain the very climbable 13,671' high point of Morocco, Mt. Toubkal. Getting there is as easy as hailing a cab off the streets of Marrakech for the one and a half hour ride to the town of Imlil, which costs about $40. Imlil is a perfectly situated climbing village as it is at the confluence of two valleys which head up into the mountains. It has everything climbers and skiers need, including mules to carry your packs, lodging and supplies, but being a Muslim country, don't look for any liquid oxygen as you won't find it.
Upon colonizing any country, the first thing the French do is install mountain huts, and Morocco, or Maroc as they call it, is no exception. Not only are there huts, but they have hut keepers who will also provide all of the cooking (and more importantly, dish cleaning) for such an affordable price that it is a non decision. A scalding mouthful of crunchy freeze dried Sweet & Sour versus steaming plate of tagine is an easy choice.
The maps, or map, of the area is hardly worth a second glance or the paper it is printed on. With two valleys to choose from, the western Lipiney drainage looked like it might it might have steeper terrain. A Google image search hit the jackpot - the Brits liked Lipiney for Alpine climbing, and what they like to climb, I like to ski.
The casual five-hour hike into the Tazaghart hut grew more suspenseful with each step as the terrain steepened and couloirs started to appear as thin ribbons of white streaming through the hanging tapestry of the valley walls. After spending a comfy night in the stone hut with accommodations for twenty, I was excited to get outside the next day and see if this trip halfway around the world was actually going to pay off.
Halfway through the first day, I couldn't believe how Morocco was treating me and almost had tears in my eyes. Starting with the Occidental Couloir which is one of the biggest and most obvious couloir in the valley, I booted up 2,000' of carveable neve on a perfectly skiable 45-degree pitch which ultimately topped out on a warm, flat, sunny plateau. There was nobody else around and from the high vantage point I could see countless other couloirs stacked up like firewood just waiting to be skied.
The first turns on my last continent were full value with the yawning void of snow and rock stretched out below. Unlike free solo rock climbing where each step brings you further into the danger zone, the first turn with steep skiing delivers the maximum danger and exposure right from the start with subsequent turns bringing you closer to safety. After getting over the first shaky, jet-lagged, tentative turns, I got my legs underneath me and started to sink my edges into what skiing in Morocco was all about.
Alternating between long shots of thigh-smoking linked turns and rest stops to recoup, I enjoyed the scenery as I worked my way down the chute. The skiing was phenomenal, but even more than that, the closure of a decade-long quest to ski the world started to sink in. A lot of snow had passed under my bases and although skiing was the prime motivator, the main attraction was always the thrill of travel and the excitement of the unknown. Steep descents might have been the spicy curry, but it was nothing without the couscous base of travel to feast on.
Returning to the valley floor I realized that I needed to get busy as there was a lifetime of couloirs to ski and only ten days left in the trip. The following days were all clear and sunny with an endless stream of hits in the parade of descents. Classics like the Diagonal Couloir twisted and turned through towering rock walls while more moderate lines could be skied as a half day appetizers. The Lipiney valley is a perfect couloir playground, with chutes connecting the lower valley to the upper plateau like bars in a prison cell. From the top of one, you can see another. And another, and another!
After topping out on a perfect splitter, I wandered over and saw a thin little line that looked like it might go all the way to the grass in the valley floor. To guard against getting cliffed-out, I approached from a ridgeline halfway up, booted to the top through a maze of overhanging black rock towers, then turned around and skied it until the snow stopped and a creek began. Christened the "Black Mamba Couloir" in honor of the largest venomous snake in Africa, it delivered 3,640' of killer chute skiing-something I wouldn't have believed was possible two weeks before.
Being so close to the high point of Morocco, it seemed a shame not to tag Toubkal's summit. A one-day shuttle brought us over to the massive hut in the Toubkal valley, which with over 100 people inside was still only half full. The next morning we were helped up the summit trail by a hurricane-force tailwind, snapped the summit photos, and then chattered our way back down. With hours of daylight left, we skied and walked back to the town of Imlil to complete a triangular circuit of the twin valleys.
Skiing in Morocco reinforces the explorer's adage "you never know until you go." With the High Atlas Mountains containing such a treasure-trove of couloirs, there's no shortage of great turns. What elevates Morocco above all the rest is that it is skiing in exotic Africa and in this regard, my friends' predictions of lackluster skiing and a unique cultural experience was only half right.