Hold Up the Sky

A quest to ski the high­est moun­tains in Morocco

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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.

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