With four Moroccan holidays under my belt, I'd experienced ancient cities like Marrakech and Tangiers, surfed the Atlantic breaks near Agadir, and stuffed myself with seafood in romantic Essaouira. But this trip would be different.
Touching down in Marrakech, I'd be spending a night in the city before travelling two hours into the High Atlas Mountains, a sub-section of the Atlas range that's a hotspot for hikers.
North Africa's tallest
Slicing diagonally across Morocco, from the Atlantic coast to the Algerian border, the High Atlas are home to North Africa's highest mountains. Jbel Toubkal (4,167m) is the tallest and attracts a year-round flow of tourists, who come to photograph its pyramid-shaped peak, hike in its foothills or attempt an ascent to the top. This is where I was heading.
I tackled Toubkal in winter, arriving in early January when snow iced its upper slopes, while bright sun still drenched the foothills.
Imlil: The hikers' hub
The starting point for most High Atlas hikes is the small town of Imlil (1,740m) – 90 minutes by taxi from Marrakech and five or six hours by foot from the base of Toubkal.
Nestled in the hills, this bustling hiking hub brims with guides, hire shops and guesthouses. While most people book their hiking tours in advance, it's possible to simply turn up, find a guide, and hire everything you need here, from sleeping bags to skis.
I met with my pre-booked guide – a young Berber called Mohammed – in one of Imlil's alfresco cafes, where we sat in the sun and poured over an OS map, sipping sugary thyme tea as Mohammed pointed out our route.
Seeing as it was winter, he recommended a two-day trip, hiking for up to nine hours on the second day. "In summer it's nice to take it easy, make a camp, relax in the mountains," he explained, "but in winter it gets cold, so it's best to keep moving."
The long and winding route
Setting off in a t-shirt, I followed Mohammed along a rough track which led out of Imlil, wayward goats and tiny brown cows skipping past us as we walked past apple trees and small stalls selling woolen jumpers. Following a trickling stream, we trekked deeper into the Imlil Valley, pink and grey mountains closing in around us, while our chef and mule plodded behind with our bags.
We stopped for lunch and snacks along the way but kept on our feet for much of the day. As we gained altitude, I pulled on layers. By the time we arrived at the Refuge de Toubkal (3,207m) – a mountain hostel at Toubkal's base – I was slipping across patches of thin ice and wearing a woolly hat.
The roof of North Africa
Having slept in a shared bunkroom, we set out for the summit at 5am the following morning, hiking in full winter gear beneath a blanket of stars.
The first hour was magical. We stomped through crispy snow, chipping our toes into the ground as the sun rose on the horizon and flooded the mountain with much-needed warmth.
But as we climbed higher, we were soon scrambling over loose scree and slippery ice, the thinning air making every step a real effort. The final push along an exposed ridge took every last scrap of energy but the panoramic view from the summit made it all worthwhile: hundreds of peaks reached up towards us, sprawling west towards Morocco and east towards the Sahara.
Mesmerised by the view, we stayed despite our fingers freezing in our gloves and our toes curling further and further inside our boots. But when a dark cloud slid across the sun, Mohammed signaled it was time to go. "We don't want to risk being here in a storm," he warned. And with that, we began the long descent back to Imlil.
Spring in your step
Winter is the toughest time to climb but you can make things easier by visiting in spring or early autumn, avoiding winter's ice and summer's sizzling heat.
My mother-in-law made it to the top of Toubkal for her 60th birthday, visiting one Easter when the warmer weather allowed her and a group of friends to spread their ascent over five days. Ambling into the mountains, they hiked for a few hours each day before their guides set up camp and prepared delicious feasts of meat tagines and golden couscous. When they set off for the summit on day three, there was little snow on the ground, making it a much easier climb than winter's icy route.
The way of the Berbers
Appreciating the High Atlas doesn't have to involve a Toubkal summit. Hundreds of smaller peaks rise on the horizon and a network of lower paths thread across the hillsides, leading to fertile mountain valleys and terraced Berber towns.
The Berbers have lived in the Atlas Mountains for hundreds of years, surviving from the land. Today, many Berber families continue this simple way of life, herding goats and sheep, or farming small patches of land. Their mud and stone villages flank the mountains and perch on cliff-tops, as if they were hewn from the bedrock.
Before heading back to Marrakech, I spent an afternoon in the town of Aroumd – an easy amble from Imlil. Following Mohammed's lead, we strolled beside a stony riverbed (the water at a fraction of its full flow), passing small fields where handmade scarecrows guarded a scattering of green crops.
As we approached Aroumd, the sound of barking dogs echoed through the streets and calls to prayer resounded from the mosques. I followed Mohammed through the narrow streets, climbing steep stone steps which traced up the hillsides.
Reaching a stone terrace which hung over the valley, Mohammed lay out a picnic of flatbread, dips and salads. We sat in the sun, nibbling the food and gazing into the mountains.
"These hills were the homes of Morocco's first people," Mohammed explained, gesturing towards the mountains. "Here, we learnt about Morocco's land, food and soul."
"You can't truly understand this country if you haven't been to the High Atlas," he smiled, dipping a piece of flatbread into cumin-spiced oil.