Morocco; skiing couloirs from the Tazaghart hut

In March 2013 I skied in the Atlas mountains for the first time. I summited some peaks around the Toubkal hut and skied perfect corn snow. Apparently there is another, more remote, hut from where one can access a number of beautiful couloirs. In February 2014 I visited Refuge Tazaghart in order to ski the best lines Africa has to offer…

February 3 I arrived in Marrakech where I met Jurriaan Huisman. Together we would explore the area around Refuge Tazaghart for a couple of days. Jurriaan and I met a couple of years ago through an online ski community when Jurriaan bought my Marker Duke bindings. Ever since we planned to ski together, now it was finally about to happen. After a nice day in Marrakech we were picked up for a transfer to Imlil the following morning. There our guide and porters were waiting for the journey to the hut. Lahcen, our guide, had promising news. Only one couloir was skiable and the fact he was skiing on equipment from the 80’s made me doubt whether he could ski a couloir at all. Let the journey begin…

Normally mules carry all the equipment to the hut. However, since there was too much snow at lower elevation we had porters instead. They couldn’t cover the 1250 vertical meters from Imlil to the hut in one day so we stopped at the Azib Tamsoult hut for our first night. We passed some impressive scenery, berbers and goats along the way…

life in refuge Azib Tamsoult

life in refuge Azib Tamsoult

After a relatively comfortable night we continued towards our final destination, Tazaghart. Around noon we arrived at this very remote hut which is surrounded by several couloirs, the reason we were there. Our cook prepared a nice lunch and soon we noticed we were not alone in the hut. Bryce and Ryan, from the US, were also there exploring the best African ski terrain. This turned out to be our rescue because they informed us about several options to ski of which our guide had no intention to go to. Once our lunch had settled, we opted for a nice afternoon adventure. Lahcen stayed inside, something I didn’t mind at all. Jurriaan and I picked the Occidental couloir as our first objective. This couloir is around 35 degrees, Northeast facing and protected from wind and sun. A good start of the trip…

Refuge Tazaghart is small, basic and above all very remote

Refuge Tazaghart is small, basic and above all very remote

From the hut it’s a short skin to the start of the couloir. After about an hour or so we transitioned to bootpacking. There were two routes up, we opted for the one looker’s right because it looked a bit more challenging. One by one we took the lead, to make the bootpack, in order to save energy and we slowly progressed. Unfortunately the bootpack made by the Americans was erased by the wind. Since we had started just before 3 pm we had to watch the time as skiing in the dark might not be the best idea in a couloir you have never skied before. Around 5 pm we arrived at the top of the narrow section and a flatter section was all that was left before we would arrive at rocks. Skiing all the way from the top was not possible. We transitioned back to skinning and 40 minutes later we were getting ready for our first descent. The sun had set and with a beautiful evening twilight we skied down until we reached the plateau at the bottom, in full darkness. With headlamps we navigated back to the hut where Lahcen was waiting for us. A great first day of skiing!

left: I'm skiing the upper section of couloir Occidental in beautiful twilight, right: Jurriaan reached the bottom of the couloir in full darkness

left: I’m skiing the upper section of couloir Occidental in beautiful twilight, right: Jurriaan reached the bottom of the couloir in full darkness

Life in the hut is very simple. The hut is small, it fits about 10 to 12 people. There is no heating or electricity. Drinking tea, talking, eating, drinking tea and more talking is the daily routine. In between you fine-tune your equipment or read in the guidebook about possible skiruns. Around 9 pm time has come to go to bed. A couple of headlamps will shine from the upper floor where the matrasses are located before everyone falls asleep and dreams about new adventures.

Our new adventure was a couloir referred to as the “hidden couloir” by our American friends. Looker’s left of the Occidental couloir there is a main gully with a very narrow couloir on the right side. Since it’s difficult to spot, it’s easy to see why our friends had chosen this name. According to the guidebook “Montagne du Maroc” it turned out to be the Median couloir (both the main gully and the very narrow one we skied). It’s rated as a 4.2 with quite some exposure (E3) indicating that the angle varies between 40 and 45 degrees. The exposure might be related to the couloir looker’s left as I didn’t experience any significant exposure during our climb or ski. Anyway, still a very interesting objective…

climbing couloir Median

climbing couloir Median

The routine was similar to the one of the first day; a moderate skin to the entrance of the couloir was followed by a long climb in the couloir. This couloir was definitely steeper and narrower than couloir Occidental. Since we had to wait for the wind to lay down in the morning, we had an afternoon start again. There was no time to take long breaks if we wanted to be back before dusk. However, we were in Morocco to have a good time so we took some short breaks and enjoyed the view on the top. Let’s call it a compromise. During one of our short breaks we noticed a fantastic couloir on the other side of the valley. It seemed to be very steep and narrow. Could we finish our trip in Tazaghart with that run the following day?

First things first, we had to ski down couloir Median. From the top we had to carefully downclimb a rocky section before we could step into our bindings. It was not as late as the previous day, so we didn’t have to worry about time. The snow was pretty good and the couloir was very aesthetic. Certain sections of the couloir were really narrow, jumpturns were the only option…

You can read more about skiing Couloir Median here.

jumpturns in couloir Median (left: Paul, right: Jurriaan)

jumpturns in couloir Median (left: Paul, right: Jurriaan)

Back in the hut we talked about our adventures with our American friends. They had skied this couloir the day before so they knew exactly how stoked we were. They had, on the other hand, skied our objective for the next day, couloir ouest de l’Adad. That is the fantastic couloir we had spotted during the climb. Since they were excited about the run, we couldn’t wait for the next day to begin. Hopefully the wind wouldn’t spoil the day…

in the evening one can see Marrakech from refuge Tazaghart

in the evening one can see Marrakech from refuge Tazaghart

The next morning there was hardly any wind. However, there was no rush since we had planned a 10 am start. Normally you would start as soon as possible but the sun would reach the couloir around 1:30 pm so being on the top at noon didn’t make sense at all since the snow had to warm up first to get in good shape. We enjoyed an easy breakfast and prepared our equipment before we skinned to the entrance. From all the couloirs surrounding the Tazaghart hut, this one looked by far the most intimidating. It looked very narrow and steep and went straight to the summit. At around 1/3 of the way up there was a huge rock we had to go around, both up and down of course. Would there be enough space for our skis? After 30 minutes we reached the big rock where an ice-axe might be handy according to our friends from the other side of the Atlantic. Since the wind hadn’t ruined their bootpack of the previous day, we could make it without the axes. Couloir ouest de l’Adad is a shorter climb than couloir Median but with a very consistent angle. I guess it’s around 40 degrees all the way. Unfortunately I don’t have any official stats about this couloir. Another advantage of this couloir is its location. Being on the opposite site of the valley means it’s in the sun. If you wait long enough, but not too long of course, this couloir offers some great Spring skiing, even in the beginning of February!

climbing couloir ouest de l'Adad was great fun! (photo credits: Jurriaan Huisman)

climbing couloir ouest de l’Adad was great fun! (photo credits: Jurriaan Huisman)

The couloir turned out to be not as steep as it initially looked. Soon we were convinced to reach the summit. Most of the climb we could use the established bootpack and therefore we were making progress quickly. After about an hour of climbing Jurriaan thought we were getting really close to the summit. I though there still was a bit to go but Jurriaan turned out to be right. Shortly after, we were standing on a little plateau on the top with a beautiful view. It wasn’t even 1 pm so we had time to take a break and let the snow warm up in the meantime. We brought our blood sugar levels back to the usual and imagined possible lines towards the adjacent valley. No wind and a strong African sun meant it was a very comfortable pastime.

Lahcen, who again didn’t join us on the adventure, decided it was better to leave for the Azib Tamsoult hut in the afternoon in order to reach Imlil early the following day. Jurriaan had a flight to catch and therefore we didn’t want to take any risks by leaving from the Tazaghart hut and travel all the way to Imlil in one day. Because of this time pressure, we decided to start skiing down at 1:30 pm even though the couloir wasn’t entirely in the sun meaning some parts would still be hard. Jurriaan skied the first part nicely in decent snow before I took over in the next section. Soon we arrived at the big rock where we had to navigate carefully. We both survived and skied down taking the lead one by one. At the bottom of the couloir we were treated by some perfect corn snow on a wider pitch. We could make nice GS-turns towards the hut (more about skiing Couloir ouest de l’Adad here).

Back in the hut we had lunch, a lovely salad with some sardines, bread and of course… tea. Once feeding time was over, we had to pack our stuff for the way back. In the morning Bryce and Ryan, our two American friends, had left but overnight a guy from Switzerland had arrived who stayed another day or two. He would have a private house in the middle of the mountains…

Lahcen, the cook and the porters took the direct route back to Azib Tamsoult. Jurriaan and myself took an alternative route hoping to find a nice skirun to end our trip in style. We made somesort of a slight uphill traverse over to the next valley and around the next corner and the next corner, until… well, until we had to go down because of time restrictions. We found a nice little bowl with some rocks in between…

Jurriaan charging towards Azib Tamsoult in the late afternoon

Jurriaan charging towards Azib Tamsoult in the late afternoon

At the bottom of the run, we had to cross a tricky section with a waterfall in the middle. Lahcen was walking with skis on his shoulder, we decided to ski the section. It turned out to be some nice survival skiing resulting in extra business for the ski tuners. Funny fact: this is my first guided skitour where I didn’t see my guide ski! Before sunset we arrived at the hut where we had already spent a night two days before. I got a warm welcome by the dog who tried to bite me twice during my previous visit…

The next day we left the hut around 9 am to start our final stage of the tour. On our way up to the hut on the first day, we could ski almost all of it. Now, because of the strong sun of the past days, we had to walk almost all the way to the last pass where we could ski down towards Imlil. Another 45 minutes of walking was required to reach the guesthouse where a highly needed shower was waiting!

Once our smell was acceptable again and we had packed our bags, we drove to Marrakech where we dropped Jurriaan at the airport. He flew back to the Netherlands, but I still had another week to explore and decided to take a look in Essaouira since I hadn’t been there during my last visit to the country. It’s also highly recommended as a nice place to relax a little bit.

After staying in a basic hotel in Marrakech and in several huts in the mountains, I decided to treat myself on a nice accommodation. Dar Nora, named after a recently born girl, was the lucky one. Ibrahim, father of Nora, picked me up at the bus station and showed me the way in the medina towards his house. It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. I had a nice double bed with private shower in a quiet setting, perfect to relax for a couple of days!

chilling at the Moroccan coast...

chilling at the Moroccan coast…

Essaouira is a small coastal city with a population of 70.000 people. One of its nicknames is “The city of cats” which I, as a true catlover, of course didn’t mind. Since it’s a city known for chilling out and relaxing there is a bit of a hippie atmosphere but it wasn’t too bad and therefore manageable. The medina was beautiful with its old walls and nice colours, mainly white and blue. Especially in the late afternoon the city looked spectacular. The many cats used local produce to their advantage. They were sleeping on beautiful handmade carpets when they were not stealing fresh fish in the harbour. The locals were by far not as aggressive as in Fes or Tangier, although I was offered hashish about 50 times every single evening. During the day though Essaouira was a pleasant city to walk around in. I spent my time walking around, making a fish tajine with Ibrahim, watching the Winter Olympics (yes, in Morocco!), eating out and watching some movies. My three days in Essaouira were a perfect place to reflect on the skitrip in the Atlas mountains and to relax in general.

Morocco delivered again. Last year I had a great time when I skied around the Toubkal hut, visited the desert with my parents and traveled to the North of the country. This time I skied a different, more challenging area and visited the coast. The skiing was excellent again. Backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering are gaining popularity rapidly, leading to more and more people outside the boundaries of the ski resorts. In Morocco however, and around the Tazaghart hut especially, the number of skiers is very low. It is a very remote hut and it offers great skiing. Because of the local climate you can find great springskiing in the middle of winter. Avalanche danger is almost non-existent and it offers the perfect mix of adventure and culture. You’ll walk by the most remote Berber houses, drink mint tea, eat Harira (traditional Moroccan soup) and get to ski some exciting terrain. What else do you want? Well, maybe have a look from the top of the Tazaghart plateau when all couloirs are filled with enough snow. That simply must be paradise. This time it didn’t make sense to climb to the plateau since it wouldn’t give access to more couloirs. Since there was relatively much snow this time I guess you’d have to time it absolutely perfectly in order to have all couloirs in condition. Remember, it is Africa we’re talking about… Once the skiing is over and when your body is completely exhausted, you simply go to Essaouira where you can relax for days. Just try to ignore the touts and the hippies…

From Marrakech I will fly via Madrid to Istanbul where I’ll have a couple of days to prepare for my trip to Iran. On February 18 Turkish Airlines will hopefully take me to Tehran, the capital of Iran. The largest country of the Middle East in terms of population is known for having some beautiful architecture, partly because of the Silk Road. Another reason for me to visit this country is to explore the possibilities for skiing in a region one wouldn’t think of wintersports in the first place. Close to Tehran there are some interesting ski resorts worth checking out and hopefully, when weather allows, I can attempt a climb and ski of Mount Damavand, with its 5671 meters a serious challenge. On March 12 a longtime dream will hopefully come true when I’ll board the Trans Asia Express. Originally this train runs from Tehran all the way to Istanbul but due to maintenance on the railroad near Istanbul it only runs to Ankara nowadays. I’m really looking forward to witness the Iranians leaving their country in search of freedom.

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Morocco!