I know the shape of this coast, the rocky shore, dark waves rolling in thirty-four thousand feet below. The jet engines hum. A businessman raps on the lavatory door. A line of tile-roof houses appears, then, further inland, factories and highways and the broad, unlit fields of Viré, Flares and Nonancourt. The captain makes an announcement. The businessman sits. The plane banks left and the great circle of Paris rises above the wing.
This is the route you take to the Alps, where French skiers wedel in fluorescent stretch pants and Italians eat osso bucco in the summit lodge. But that’s not the destination of this ski trip. The final destination is still unclear. It’s to the southeast, I believe. Over the Pyrenees, across two oceans, on another continent…
I’m unprepared. My only bag is a small canvas backpack with a sleeping bag, ski pants, rain jacket, two pairs of socks, a compass and a book inside. I’ll find skis and boots somewhere on the mountain. There’s a guide there, too, who grew up in the foothills. If there’s snow, he’ll sniff it out. If not, we’ll sit in a teahouse and talk about the crazy shit going down in the Middle East.
Land on runway 4B. Taxi to the gate. Espresso at a kiosk. The connecting flight leaves in six hours from a different airport—tickets were cheap—so I take the RER to Gare du Nord, hub of the civilized world and center of Paris’s circles. You can catch a train to Chamonix, Brindisi, Istanbul or Moscow at the station. I take one to Montmartre and follow the winding streets and staircases straight up to the Sacré Coeur on top of the hill.
The orange rim of the sun lifts above half a million chimneys. A choir inside the basilica sings a prayer. Songbirds drop from their roosts and flit across the courtyard. A young soldier holding a machine gun looks at his phone.
Yesterday I fixed my car on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Tomorrow I’ll be on another continent. This kind of travel doesn’t make you see things differently. It makes you see things for what they are.
Hugh of Vermandois, brother of King Philip I of France, left from here in 1096 to join the first crusade. It took his army six months to march to Constantinople. That afternoon it takes me two hours to fly over the Mediterranean and land in Africa. The coast is bigger and wider here; the beaches are sandy and there are no houses. I drift off to sleep an hour after takeoff. When the plane begins to descend, I see twelve minarets backlighted by the setting sun.
There’s a wall around the city. Sultans used to spear the heads of their enemies on it. There are twenty gates to get in. Inside are jade-tiled mosques, dirt streets, candlelit fountains, riads, fire, smoke and twenty thousand taxi drivers looking for a fare.
To the south, barely visible through the haze, is the uprising. The mountains are pastel shadows against the red haze. They’re bigger than I expected—brown and thick on the bottom, razor sharp and white on top. Somewhere in the middle there’s fresh snow. I need to sleep. Then go and find it.
Light falls in sheets through the slatted roofs of Marrakesh’s souks, bends around corners, reflects off the cobblestone. Berber men in gown-like djellabas shuffle past. Six teenagers play soccer in an alley. There are goat heads and snails for sale at a kiosk on the corner, falcon wings and crystals at the pharmacy across the street. The tanneries use pigeon droppings to tan leather on the roofs of Dar Dbagh.
For a thousand years Marrakesh has been a place where you arrive. Ciuinean gold, Saharan salt, slaves and goods of all sorts were transported through breaches in the twelve-thousand-foot High Atlas Mountains, past the palmeries and kasbahs of the northern flanks of the range and across the high plains of El Haouz to the city’s markets. Caravans from the kingdoms of Benin and Ghana hauled their cargo through the passes and Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur rode through on his campaign against Timbuktu. At the end was always Marrakesh.
I’m sore, dirty, lost and jet-lagged. For 380 dirham, a middle-aged man scrubs black soot off my skin at a steamy hammam downtown. I wander to a teahouse and sit among twenty men playing cards. They wear black jeans and black leather jackets, smoke cigarettes and look at the small topo map I printed off the Internet. The mountain I want to ski spans the entire High Atlas range. To the north is the road to Marrakesh. To the south are two rivers, a dozen oases and the great void of the Sahara.
There’s hardly any information on the range, other than the fact that there are a handful of mountains above twelve thousand feet—and sometimes they get snow. I’m shooting for Toubkal. At 13,671 feet, it’s the tallest peak in North Africa. If there’s snow, I’ll find it there.
Fifteen diesel Mercedes sedans are lined up outside a small café. I ask a driver to take me to Imlil. He points me to another driver, who puts me in a car and cuts a deal with yet another. The old Benz purrs to life and we roll out of the city, through the slums, past ten miles of eucalyptus trees and onto the plains. Charms, earphones and a small tablet inscribed with Sanskrit swing from the rearview mirror. The driver wears a gold ring on his finger and plays a Joni Mitchell album I’ve never heard. The road turns to dirt and we pass through a narrow gorge with five-hundred-foot cliffs five feet from the shoulder. Vendors and mountain guides look on when we enter Imlil. They see my rain jacket and crowd the taxi to offer their services.
Jamal Imerhane of Toubkal Guide is my contact. His brother, Rachid, will take me up the mountain. Rachid’s friend, Mohammad, will take me to the snow. The brothers worked as muleteers growing up in Imlil, hauling tourist gear on donkeys for a few dollars a day. The town sits at five thousand seven hundred feet and is the gateway to Toubkal National Park. The brothers are Berbers, the mountain tribe that has controlled the Atlas since people first crossed it.
We start walking right away, eight hundred vertical feet over a mile to the town of Armed. The houses here are made of mud or cinder blocks. Wooden crates of oranges and nuts lean against the walls. An older man in an orange djellaba waits on the roof of his house. He’s holding Scarpa ski boots and Dynastar skis with Fritschi bindings. His wife asks us to take our shoes off at the door and shows us to three plastic chairs on the roof. The skis are one hundred fifty dirhams a day to rent, including boots. I try them on and they fit perfectly. The tea is free; the man laughs as he lifts the kettle high and fills three small glasses.
We shoulder the gear and cross a wide floodplain south of the village, then Rachid rents two mules and straps our skis and boots to them. We head up again, through terraced fields and a walnut orchard. Flocks of sheep roam the hillside and a few shepherds watch us walk past. The sky darkens and snow starts to fall at seven thousand five hundred feet. There are blue chunks of ice floating in the stream, and a small shack selling knit handbags, hats, djellabas and fresh oranges—whole or juiced. We take a break, then continue up, and up, thousands of vertical feet on a seemingly endless trail. The snow deepens around nine thousand feet and the mules start to slip. Every now and then a rimed peak reveals itself through the clouds. They are all caked in snow, with near-vertical snowfields and thin, winding couloirs.
We stop at another shack an hour later and drop the mules off. We’ve been walking for seven hours and blisters are forming on the balls of my feet. It’s well below freezing and I duck inside the hut to put another layer on. A man boils tea in a golden pot and pours four cups. We sit on milk crates and pillows and he heats up two clay dishes of tagine and serves it with a loaf of flatbread.
The man is an angel and I feel revived. There are Dynastar skis from the 1980s leaning against the fieldstone wall. Metal bowls and utensils lay on a small stone hearth beside three cases of empty Coke bottles. Rachid eats quickly and talks to the man, then we put climbing skins on the bottoms of our skis, step into our boots and continue on a slick white track.
It’s snowing so hard a half hour later I have to close my eyes. It doesn’t matter. For the first time since I landed I feel at home. The familiar motion of skinning—the hiss of the glide—is somehow grounding. I pass Rachid, then Mohammad, who gives me a dirty look. At ten thousand feet an hour later, the clouds break and the giant cirque we’ve skied into reveals itself.
Everything is white: giant, craggy peaks, hanging snowfields, twisting chutes carved into rock faces. Boulders and rocky ridges lay exposed on the valley floor, but up high it’s all snow with descents everywhere you look. One couloir to the west drops what looks like three thousand vertical feet straight from a summit all the way to the valley floor. Another to the west wends left and right for almost as long down the flank of a giant massif. This is an old range, created fifty million years ago when Africa collided with Europe. The continents collided again when the French occupied Morocco for half the twentieth century. When they finally went home in 1956, they left behind a climbing refuge built in 1938 by the French Alpine Club of Casablanca.
We ski to the stone structure and put our boots in wooden cubbies in the foyer. The hut keeper, Hamid, puts our skis in a metal rack next door beside a stack of blue propane tanks. The place sleeps thirty-five. There’s a kitchen on the ground floor with three propane burners and an eating room with four large tables and bench seats. Power comes from a hydroelectric turbine in the stream outside. The “pharmacy” sells aspirin, sunblock, Pringles and Nutella and upstairs are four bunkrooms for guests.
Hamid’s family has managed the hut for three generations. He’s wearing a bright-yellow djellaba and is half out of his mind. He slaps Rachid on the back every time he addresses him and hollers indecipherable English at me. He shows us to our room and I drop off my pack on a lower bunk. Hamid shakes my hand and departs with “Thank you very much! You crazy? Cocaine?!”
He leaves and I push open the wooden shutters. The mountains are giant, sheer and steep. Icefall arches over the cliffs. A snowfield wends up the middle of Toubkal then disappears. The rock walls on either side of the snow are almost one thousand feet tall. I can’t see any of the summits on the eastern side of the valley—just two golden eagles circling over the snow.
Mohammad is up at 6 a.m., fitting ski crampons over his bindings. I eat a few pieces of bread with marmalade, then meet him in the boot room. He hands me a pair of climbing skins. My boots are cold and wet and my clothes are wet too. I put the gear in my pack with a few candy bars, boot up and head out.
Mohammad is already skinning up when I click in. Three Italians suited up like NASCAR drivers hike in synch a mile in front of him. They have tiny randonnée skis and boots that look like sneakers. We climb a gradual grade over two moraines to the foot of the snowfield. It’s much steeper than it looked from my window, and we both put on ski crampons and make slow, precise steps up the headwall. The sky is bright blue and the sun is still below the ridgeline. The snow is hard, almost ice.
Halfway up, one of the Italians falls. He picks up speed as he slides and cartwheels down the slope. His ice axe and snowboard tumble behind him. He screams as he falls, like in a movie, then slides to a stop eight hundred feet below. I recognize him as one of the louder fellows from the night before. He hollers to his friend to come help him. His friend glances down, then keeps climbing.
It snowed a foot last night up high. It’s clear now and I can see dozens of ski lines—two-thousand-foot rock-lined chutes; rows of giant rocky ridges with ribbons of snow caught in the draws. From the top of Tizi’n’Toubkal pass three hours later, it looks like you could link descents all the way across the range and end up at the beginnings of the Sahara.
Wind rakes the snow on top of the pass. Clouds are moving in. We break for a few minutes, then start up again. Mohammad is losing steam and I take the lead. It seems to piss him off, but I don’t want to get caught up here. We’re hiking now, skis on our backs. The wind has blown most of the snow off the rocks. Every five hundred feet, a four-foot cairn marks the way. The relief is unbelievable: seven thousand five hundred vertical feet in forty-eight hours. A precipice drops off two thousand feet just to the right of the trail.
We reach a false summit, then scramble around a long, thin ridgeline. The wind is blowing so hard I have to crawl on my hands and knees the last hundred feet. I can see the summit tower, a small metal structure strung with prayer flags. The air is getting thin. One step, one breath.
Then there are no more steps. We’re standing on the highest peak in North Africa. The Sahara is like a dark streak across the horizon. It is surreal, having come from Brooklyn to the souks of Marrakesh to this view of fortified Berber cities on the edge of the desert in less than four days.
It’s cold on the summit, so we hike back to the pass and put on our skis. Mohammad steals first tracks in the upper bowl and promptly face-plants. I cut skier’s left to a fresh swath of snow along a rock wall. The first turn is intimidating—we’re far from help—but after a few more it’s the same old motion: compress, turn, link to another. I ski eight hundred feet, then traverse to another patch. It’s steeper there—deeper, too—and I make another twenty turns to the headwall.
Mohammad is angry I didn’t follow him and insists we stay in the low-angle belly of the draw. He takes off and I wait until he disappears behind the rollover, then traverse again to a steep couloir. There are no tracks in it and I ride a thousand feet to the bottom—ending on the slope I’d been looking at from my window.
Hamid is waiting at the refuge. He fetches a tray of tea and bread and asks where Mohammad is. Then he takes my skis and boots, climbs the hill and skis back down in three wild turns, his djellaba trailing behind him, yelling “Ski Moroccan!”
It’s only noon when we finish eating, and I spend the rest of the day in the common room, reading and sleeping. It’s cold outside. The only heat in the refuge comes from a small fireplace in the corner of the room. There’s a map of Toubkal over the hearth and an old wooden ice axe hanging beneath it. The room is white with a blue-tiled stripe around the middle. Two wooden windows face down the valley toward Imlil and another up at thirteen-thousand-three-hundred-ninety-two-foot Ras Ouanoukrim peak to the west. There are stickers on the bulletin board from La Grave, Serbia and Squaw Valley. Climbers, skiers and tourists filter in all afternoon, wearing brightly colored puff jackets. The guides and porters wear djellabas and outdated ski jackets. They play Ronda on one of the small wooden tables, slamming playing cards down and accusing each other of cheating. The images on the cards are of money, trees, fruit and princes.
The refuge is an odd place with thirty-some strangers huddled together, all trying to stay up late enough so they can sleep through the cold. There’s a great boredom here and people fight it with books and cards or listen to music and watch frost grow across the windows. Hardly anyone speaks the same language well enough to have a conversation. Last night in the bathroom—where water freezes in the toilet bowl—a woman cried and asked to go home while her husband consoled her.
Mohammad is up and eating breakfast at 6 a.m. the next morning. He’s still sore at me. Moroccans are proud of their mountains, proud to know the way. An hour later he leads up the skin track at a brutal pace. I’m so tired I can barely see straight. We keep right up the valley this time and head toward Ras Ouanoukrim. The mountain is only ninety-eight feet smaller than Toubkal. It’s much steeper and icier, too, I find on the eastern ridge.
The wind is so strong on the first col, it eats the snow away and blows my hat over the edge. We take off our skis and climb a steep chimney. The Italians are in front of us again. They all have crampons on their boots. All we have are twenty-year-old worn-out toes on our Scarpas. We balance on a half inch of ice each step for six hundred vertical feet. The wind gusts to forty miles per hour and throws me off balance. I’m holding my skis over one shoulder and both poles in the other hand. I show Mohammad the crampons on the other climbers’ feet. He shrugs and continues on.
Up here is where the ghosts come back. I think about family and friends, dead and alive. I see vivid images of their faces. There’s nothing else up here. Just wind and ice and a half inch of life I’m clinging to with each step. It’s part of the chore, facing the ghosts, and it’s part of the reward, too. Because when we make it to the summit, it’s not just the top of a mountain. It’s a rebirth.
We can see the whole High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges from the top, brown-and-white peaks scratching the blue sky all the way to the Atlantic. It’s blowing forty-five miles per hour now and we have to kneel to take our skins off. “Bravo!” the Italians yell, then skate to a couloir leading down the northeast face. Mohammad skis straight down the icy bootpack and I follow him for a bit, then take my own route down a skinny couloir.
The slot is rocky and steeper than it looked from below. The first two turns on the forty-five-degree slope are soft, though, and slough runs down the fall line. It feels good right away and I link two more, then six more, then twelve. I let out a yell—working the mountain every turn, dropping down the chute that must be near-vertical in the summer.
Mohammad appears across the valley and waves his arms. I cut left at the bottom of the chute and get another thousand vertical on a gentle powder slope. There’s a firm base beneath the new snow, but it’s soft enough to set an edge in. Wispy contrails soar behind as I link each arc. I’m out of breath; snot runs from my nose. I can hardly breathe, but I can’t stop. When I make it to the skin track, Mohammad is gone.
I follow the skin track back, looking over my shoulder at the maw, the wind whipping the summit and my tracks winding up the couloir and out of sight. Then I make a few more mellow powder turns to the refuge, take off my skis and climb the stairs to the cold, white bunk room where I dream twenty dreams every night.
It’s time to go. The climbers are gone; skiers are eating breakfast. Everyone in the common room is cold and silent. Sun rains down outside and the wind howls. I’ve been able to see my breath when I eat, sleep and brush my teeth for four days. I haven’t said more than ten words to anyone in almost a week. It’s an odd psychological experiment, this withdrawing, watching, thinking.
We pack up after lunch and head down. Back to the mule station, the orange stand, a piece of fuselage from a Ukrainian plane that crashed in 2002. We pass a shepherd and fifty sheep clambering up the path, then an old man in a djellaba in the floodplain. Closer to the bottom we pass three tourists riding mules. Mohammad waves to the muleteers. I avoid eye contact with the guests—overweight Europeans wearing gold jewelry and holding cameras.
We follow a small concrete aqueduct to Imlil where the vendors are out in force. They sell crystals, carpets, charms and crampons. It’s sickening to see the Berbers reduced to this. We pass them quickly and meet Jamal at a small restaurant. The brothers embrace and catch up on news. We have lunch and when it’s over, I ask Jamal to find me a taxi. He does and I ask the driver to take me south. He asks where, and I tell him I’m not sure. Over the mountains, toward the river. Somewhere far from the snow where I can walk into the desert.