At 13,671 feet, Toubkal is the apex of North Africa's High Atlas range and an ascent into thin air unlike any other. That's because as you make your way through Morocco's most rugged alpine environment, you're in almost constant contact with the Berbers, the descendants of North Africa's pre-Arab inhabitants who have lived in the region for more than 3,000 years. Located 50 miles south of Marrakech, Toubkal is an easy hop from European hubs and – with the exception of the months between November and April, when extreme weather makes it impassable without crampons – a non-technical climb.
"It's a fantastic entry-level trek," says Kris Erickson, a world-class mountaineer who has logged first ascents all over the globe. "It doesn't require a great deal of skill or equipment. And by interacting with the Berbers, you're in contact with the roots of the real Morocco."
My trip begins at the Kasbah du Toubkal, a fortress-like, 14-room retreat in the shadow of the mountain. At dawn, I awaken to the sounds of what I think are the screams of children but soon realize are the shouts of mountain goats echoing off the fog-covered foothills. I pack and am introduced to Abderrahim Ait Idar, my 28-year-old guide, who wears a tie-dyed turban and welcomes me with a high five. We're joined by a muleteer who will guide two mules carrying our gear and provisions to the alpine hut we'll overnight in, a day's hike and 4,500 vertical feet away.
The route up Toubkal is by no means untrafficked. As we follow the left flank of the valley, we pass villagers chasing chickens up the path. Halfway through the day's hike, we stop at a small stream-side settlement called Sidi Chamarouche, named for a Sufi master who lived here sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries. Some 3,000 people a year visit to ask for the master's grace, many of them seeking help with emotional turmoil, Chamarouche's specialty. We continue climbing, passing a shoeless Berber in a red ball cap, praying on a rock outcrop, clouds churning beneath him.
The walnut, juniper, and pine forests slowly give way to fields of scree. The sun sinks slowly, transforming the lichen cloaking the limestone rocks from a dull gray-green to a fiery yellow that burns across the entire valley. At twilight, we arrive at the Neltner Hut, a bare-bones barracks at 10,500 feet. Inside, some 40 trekkers are warming up around a fire. After a dinner of harira soup, a tomato-and-lentil-based Moroccan specialty, I try (but fail) to get some sleep as my body acclimates.
At 4 AM, we start the 30-degree climb up Toubkal's South Col, ascending a zigzagging path through jagged, unforested terrain. (You need an early start, as the weather grows less predictable as the day progresses.) It takes three hours to ascend the final 3,100 feet. As we approach the summit, sleet stings my face and a bitter wind rips over the ridge, nearly knocking me over. My cheeks are near-frozen, but I can see a strip of the Sahara desert in the distance, roiling in the Moroccan heat.
After spending a few moments being beaten by sleet, we begin our descent. Seven hours later, I'm back at the Kasbah, soaking in the hotel's steam bath, remedying all that the mountain has done to my legs.
More information: Fly to Marrakech. The Kasbah du Toubkal is a 90-minute cab ride from the airport. You can arrange a guide through the Kasbah; there also are several outfitters based in the town of Imlil that can set you up with a muleteer, a guide, or both. The trek can be done without a guide if you've got a GPS and solid orienteering experience at altitude.