I had to add the caveat that this is snow skiing I'm talking about because whenever I mention to someone that we went skiing in Morocco, they assume I mean some sort of sand skiing (is that a thing?). But, the reality is you can go skiing in Morocco during the winter months. Mt. Toubkal one of the highest peaks in Africa soars at more than 4,100 meters (13,600 feet) above sea level. Yes, that's nearly as tall as the famous Mount Blanc in the Swiss Alps. It's true the Moroccan ski industry isn't quite up to par with Europe but it's a unique experience you'll remember forever and should include in your plans when you travel to Marrakech.
Mt. Toubkal is in the village of Oukaimden a little less than two hours from Marrakech. In the summer many people come here to hike, and in the winter to ski. There's one well-worn road up and down and it can be congested on weekends when it feels like the busloads will never end. Yes, Arriving in the town during winter you'll see plenty of enterprising entrepreneurs set up with rental equipment. Skis, sleds, snowboards, and ski blades, everything you need for taking to the hill. When coming in on the main road, you'll see another road to your left. If you want to ski, I recommend taking that road and finding parking further along. We made the mistake of parking very far from the ski lifts.
No problem right?
In fact to get from the road to the big ski lift was at least 1 kilometer and possibly more. Hiking that in ski boots while carrying skis on a muddy road…let's just say it didn't last very long. We were bothered left and right from men offering us a ride on their mule (how's that for a pick-up line?) and for “guiding” us down the hill. We politely refused the ride and told the “guides” we knew how to ski. When we realized the last part of the walk was up an incline our minds changed. Then I happened to see this very nice man standing on the side of the road with his mule. He didn't hassle us so I motioned for him to come over. He pointed at his chest and mouthed the words “moi?” and it reminded me of the way you might respond if your crush picked you to dance in junior high. He told us that for 50 dirhams he would take us to the lift, wait until we came down, and then take us back. I didn't even have to barter with that price –Deal!
While my mom and I made our way to the lift via mule the boys and MarocBaba went sledding. There was plenty of space for them to take run after run. The hill was overrun by kids (and adults) sledding and afterwards M told me he walked up so high he was right next to the houses. Houses? Somehow I had missed that there were actually houses in the side of the hill and the sledding hills butt right up to them. I'm not sure how the locals like all the company but the boys said they were playing with other kids and didn't bother anyone.
Once we got to the ski lift we paid 25 dirham each for a ticket (one trip up – there are options for full day tickets), we tried to figure out how to get in line. We realized there were two lines. One for people skiing, and another for those who just want to ride the lift up and down. This was the first time I'd ever seen a ski lift that just gave people a ride up and down. Just in my general observations, Moroccans don't ski. The people on the ski side were us, some Norwegians, a few Brits and local kids. Like most things in Morocco there also was no semblance of a line – there was a lot of shoving and the local kids who clearly didn't care if they skiied right over the top of your skis. Finally after being frustrated I chastised them and they gave way for us to go up.
While in line we also saw a chair full of skis come down only to be literally thrown off the lift by the operator. We gasped, as did the Norwegians next to us. “Rentals,” we said in unison and laughed. I couldn't figure out why they were there until we got up the lift. There are two drop off points. The first is about 3/4 of the way up the mountain, the other at the top. As we started going up I thought we should go all the way to the top. I mean if we're going this far, we might as well go all the way. But, my mom decided we'd get off at the first stop. Good thing. Those skis that were coming down? They were from people who got up to the top and chickened out. When we got of the lift one of the men who had been bothering us before we caught our mule ride to “guide” us was magically right there. We ignored him completely and took off down the hill. Sorry brother I was born in the snow, I got this! Yes, we really did know what we were doing, thankyouverymuch!
The hill was a lot longer than I thought and it took us about 15-20 minutes to get down, with breaks here and there to take pictures and enjoy the view. The weather was beautiful and perfect “spring skiing” conditions.
If you want to ski in Oukaimden here are a few takeaways;
- Come prepared. While at the base of the hill the weather can be warm the higher up you go the more windy it gets. Cover your face. The sun also can be quite bright, glasses will be helpful.
- Look around for good skis. There are lots of people with skis for rent, unfortunately many have seen brighter days. They're not well taken care of (I doubt ours had been waxed or sharpened in a decade). Make sure they fit well.
- If you DO NOT know how to ski well DO NOT go to the higher lift. There is a lower lift and a tow rope. This is much better. The large hill is NOT for beginners, no matter what a guide may tell you.
- Remember you're skiing more or less at your own risk, there may be a few ski patrols but they are not actively on the hill. If you have an accident higher up it's going to take time to get to you.
- If you're not sure of the ski conditions, get off the big lift at the first stop. The higher up the harder the pack.
- The hills are not groomed, or if they are it's not well. The conditions varied from icy hard pack to slush and soft pack. Varying conditions on mediocre skis can make for an interesting situation. This may have just been due to the time of year and temperature but something to be aware of.
- There are not many restaurants or places to stay in Oukaimden but it's an easy day trip from Marrakech.
- The lifts stop running around 4pm.
If you visit Oukaimden there's one thing I really hope you get the chance to see. This is something K, our youngest son, calls the best part of the mountains.
You're higher than the clouds! The thrill in his voice when we roll down the window and he reaches out to touch the clouds is worth it! Have you seen something so beautiful?
So next winter will we see you on the slopes?