Hold Up the Sky
A quest to ski the highest mountains in Morocco
first came into view, I saw sunbaked sand stretching long and far. I expected dirt—dirt in the streets, dirt on clothes, dirt in the soles of my ski boots. I did not expect the narrow paved roads that twisted up the hillside out of the city, children who sprinted and waved behind our car with excitement as we passed their village, or donkeys that hauled straw piles twice their height.
As we drove along a high mountain road, I found myself as an eagle would, eyes scanning the villages, huts, and gardens. I looked at the vibrant red and blue garments worn by locals as they walked along the trees that held a rainbow of freshly washed clothes drying in the afternoon sun. Until recently, I had only heard tales of snow-capped mountains in Africa. But there I was, in the backseat of a Renault Duster, ski gear and duffels crammed into every corner.
Up on the hilltop, clay homes surrounded a white church nestled between bright green terraces and blossoming spring trees. Moments later, we reached the point where the cherry blossoms disappeared and the pines took on snow. Through muffled hums of motorbikes in the distance, we headed for serenity. At last, after 22 hours of traveling across three continents, we had found the mountains.
THE LIGHTS OF MERCHANT SHOPS glowed upward as I sat among other tourists high above the town plaza, watching as the sun faded to the west and clouds rolled in over the Atlas Mountains in the south. Just a short time earlier, I dragged my out-of-place ski bags and luggage down the busy afternoon center of Marrakesh, attracting stares of curiosity from bystanders and aggressive nudges from motorbikers who sped through the pebble alleys.
To my left were skiers Chad Sayers and Tof Henry, and photographer Daniel Rönnbäck, sipping glasses of hot water and whole mint leaves. We had come to climb and ski the highest peaks of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and hoped to immerse ourselves within the exotic culture and customs that make this North African country so colorful. Over the next two weeks, our journey would lead us down narrow streets in bustling cities, to skiing the great dunes of the Sahara, and up steep mountain trails. We’d experience the region as the original inhabitants—the Berber—might have, with local porters to show the way and mules to haul our gear. We’d wear our experiences on our sun- and wind-burned faces, and on the bases of our sand-ravaged skis.
Morocco is vibrant in nature, the result of a mish-
THROUGH MUFFLED HUMS OF MOTORBIKES IN THE DISTANCE, WE HEADED FOR SERENITY. AT LAST, AFTER 22 HOURS OF TRAVELING ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS, WE HAD FOUND THE MOUNTAINS. WHEN THE WESTERN SHORE OF MOROCCO
mash of culture and religion that has existed for millennia at the crossroads between sea, mountains, and desert. The Atlas Mountains, snow-capped year-round, run northeast to southwest for 347 miles through the center of Morocco.
According to Greek mythology, the Titan god Atlas was banished to the world’s farthest western edge and forced to bear the weight of the heavens and hold up the sky, which was how the mountains took their name.
Formed 80 million years ago when the African and Eurasian plates collided, the range’s thick rims of limestone separate the earth’s largest desert, the Sahara, from the coastal Mediterranean. The Sahara plays a heavy influence on the weather in these mountains, with strong southerly winds offering a dry, warm climate. Average annual snowfall across the range is less than a foot. To find the most reliable snow, you need to get high, requiring a dramatic shift from Marrakesh, at 1,529 feet above sea level, to our planned descent of N’toubkal, the highest peak in the range at 13,671 feet.
After finishing our tea, we turned away from the commotion of Marrakesh nightlife and walked through a narrow alley, past snake charmers and drummers and through a sea of rugs and curtains draped over shop walls. Stars emerged from the sky as evening prayer drifted out over the city from a loud speaker. As a nomad, my sense of home is always evolving, but it always leads me back to the mountains.
AFTER DEPARTING MARRAKESH in our small rental car, four ski bags strapped to the top with scrap pieces of climbing rope from Henry’s bag, we drove to the mountain town of Agouti. There we met two mules and our guide, Abdulla, who led the nine-mile journey to the refuge. The mountain air was fresh and we found our breath again after the days spent in the polluted city. We were six hours east near Jebel M’goun, a large mountain in the Central High Atlas that glittered with snow. Our journey left me fatigued at day’s end, but with fresh snow within reach, I became energized.
It was surreal to stand in the bottom of a ravine, where water once ran strong and fueled life of desert brush and flower. Now, the ravine was home to pockets of dry snow protected from the strong desert heat. The sun baked through my shell pants and warmed me from thighs to shoulder, shoulder to scalp. When the wind picked up, I was once again chilled from the sun’s rays, a bit of a break from the heat I felt burning the tip of my nose. Sweat ran down the side of my face and brought me back to the realization I was standing on my skis, about to drop into a slope of fresh snow, in Africa.
Henry, a 33-year-old Chamonix native, climbed up to the top of a mid-shadowed gully, with sun shining in on the skier’s left and shade cast by a small cornice on the right. Standing at over 6 feet tall, his lean body resembled a machine, powering his constantly snow-driven mind to the top of the descent in half the time it took me. In the center of the gully, a lone boulder protruded above the
MOROCCO IS VIBRANT IN NATURE, THE RESULT OF A MISHMASH OF CULTURE AND RELIGION THAT HAS EXISTED FOR MILLENNIA AT THE CROSSROADS BETWEEN SEA, MOUNTAINS, AND DESERT.
The best way to access the Atlas Mountains of Morocco is via an open mind, and a pack mule.Fueled by mint tea, Tof Henry and Chad Sayers seek wind-protected snow in the highest mountains of North Africa.
ABOVE: The struggle is real in Morocco, where Sahara winds ravage 13,000-foot peaks.