Stuck in the Rockies: High Atlas Adventure

Chris makes his first turns on skis on the African continent.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been living with COVID-19 for two years. Has it been that long? I think the global pandemic has warped my sense of time.

It feels like an eternity since we started 2020 with our daily routines, busy schedules, and something I’ve been missing: adventure travel.

Lately, I’ve been feeling cautiously optimistic that we’re emerging from this period of uncertainty and unwanted disruption. I know we shouldn’t declare the pandemic behind us, but I hope that moment is not far away.

In the meantime, I find myself looking back on the time leading up to COVID-19. When I think back to those fun memories from before the pandemic, it makes me excited to get back to normal and excited for what might be in store for me.

In March 2020, as the virus spread like wildfire around the world, we were finishing a ski trip in Morocco and the Atlas Mountains, one of the most memorable mountain adventures of my life .

Located in the far northwest of Africa, the Atlas Mountains stretch across Morocco in an east-northeast direction for 1,600 miles to neighboring Algeria and Tunisia. This mountain range separates the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts from the neighboring Sahara Desert.

The mountain region with the highest and most snow-capped peaks is called the High Atlas. They contain several peaks over 4,000 meters high (just above 13,000 feet).

Corn skiing under the North African sun.

Not only are these mountains high, but they also receive a fair amount of snowfall. And as we all know, when you have mountains and snow, you can ski.

Moroccans know this sport. They have a few of their own ski areas, including Oukaimeden, with six lifts and 2,000 feet of vertical gain. Nordic skiing and ski mountaineering in Morocco are also growing in popularity.

Despite increasingly dire headlines regarding the spread of COVID around the world, Christy and I and our friend and ski partner Chris Davenport packed up our ski gear and headed to Marrakech on March 1, 2020.

We thought we could climb and ski new mountains on another continent and gain some cultural experience. Chris had an additional motive – after a lifetime of skiing, he had carved corners on every continent except Africa. This trip would allow him to tick that last box.

Like much of the world, Morocco experiences climate change and significant variations in annual snowfall. According to some estimates, rainfall in the High Atlas has decreased by 60% compared to historical averages. The average annual temperature has already exceeded the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius set by the Paris Climate Agreement.

The Moroccan landscape was quite contrasting compared to what we were used to in Colorado.

Like many mountain communities that rely on snowfall for water and their local economy, Moroccans hope these trends are outliers rather than the new normal. Time will tell us.

Winter 2020 was hot and dry in the High Atlas. But we weren’t just looking for deep powder. We wanted to experience skiing in Africa and explore the High Atlas Mountains. Even though it was off season, we figured there was almost always snow somewhere to ski. He just had to be found.

Luckily for us, we had a friend who could help us with that. Aaron Gould-Kavet is a Vermont resident living in Colorado who often spends the winter seasons in Morocco. He has been exploring the High Atlas on skis for years. He has immense appreciation for his people, culture and mountains, especially the indigenous Berber communities who have occupied the Atlas Mountains for over 10,000 years.

We left Colorado on March 1 and headed to Marrakech. After a night in the Old City, Aaron met us and we headed northeast to a 12,000 foot mountain called Jbel Ayyachi. The term “Jbel” is Arabic for hill or mountain and it is coincidentally that El Jebel got its name.

Ascent of a corridor on Jbel Maaskar, 10,712 feet.

We had planned to stay with Aaron’s friend and guide, Mohammed, who operates a guesthouse, known locally as a gite – pronounced jeet. We had dinner with him and his family and settled in for the following days. The cultural experience had begun.

The next day it was time to ski and the experience quickly diverged from the way we do things in Colorado. Aaron had arranged to meet a local mule driver who loaded our skis, boots and backpacks onto his mule. So with no gear to carry, we all started heading up the dry valley into the snow.

Loading mules for the hike to the trailhead.

Arrived at the snow, we put on our boots and start to cut up. There were countless ski slopes in front of us. We looked at the options and decided on an ascent route. As the slope got steeper, we put our skis on our backs and climbed the mountain under the hot African sun.

Reaching the top felt like always, but the surrounding views of the barren landscape continually reminded us that we weren’t in Colorado anymore. As we prepared to descend, we congratulated Chris on successfully skiing all seven continents of the world.

Following Aaron’s lead, we skied in a different valley than the one we ascended, navigating variable spring conditions that turned to corn snow as we descended. The setting and remoteness were different from where we had skied before. After a few thousand vertical feet we reached the end of the snow and Mohammed was there with the mule and a full Moroccan lunch.

The après-ski lunch spread out at the end of the snow.

We skied several high Moroccan peaks the following days, following the same routine. Loading the mules, hiking to the snow, climbing and skiing, ending with a huge lunch – it was a pretty civilized way to go ski mountaineering.

Each day ended at the lodge in the small Berber village, where we were showered with hospitality and immersed in the tradition and stories of the locals.

The evening after our last day of skiing, Mohammed and his family threw a big party. They cooked an amazing dinner with various tagines, couscous and salads. The ladies pushed Christy aside for an extreme, Berber-style makeover. She arrived at the party wearing the Berber wedding dress and jewels of the mother of the house, and neighbors came to join in the singing and dancing festivities.

The next morning, we left the small village after several days of skiing and culture overload. The experience was simply amazing. We were able to explore and ski in this new part of the world, spend real time with the local Berbers, participate in their unique rituals and see the simplicity of their lives and the happiness they all share. It was unforgettable.

The party at the gite, note Christy in the middle in traditional Berber attire.

We may have gone to Morocco to climb and ski mountains, and we succeeded. But it was the people we met, the new friends we made, and the cultural experience along the way that left the real impression.

The three of us had barely processed the experience when we returned to Aspen, faced with the new pandemic world. Today, two years later, I look back on that trip with emotion. And while I remember, it excites me to put this COVID chapter behind us and hopefully put some mountain adventures back on the calendar.

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