How To Get In Shape By Climbing A Mountain In Morocco
Travellers during the warm-up hike in Morocco’s Ourika Valley. Photograph by Mr Will Mayer, courtesy of Equinox
It was with mixed emotions this June that I went off to Morocco to climb the highest peak in North Africa. Emotions such as adventure and, wait, how tall is this mountain again? This trip was organised by Equinox Explore, a new luxury travel wing of the fitness company, which launches in September, offering this exact excursion to club members looking for a little more adventure in their getaways (who, like me, perhaps, enjoy their travels with a built-in project). And, fittingly for an adventure planned by Equinox, mine began in the gym. This was good: I like the gym. Mountains? Not so sure. But in the gym, I’m in a happy, neutral blank space (even if I take up a bit more space than I’d like). Training turns the adventure into a project.
It always amuses me to hear my middle-aged friends – old fogies, all – brag about getting in the best shape of their lives. I used to run a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and bench 2.5 times my body weight as a college athlete. The shape-of-my-life ship has sailed. In the weeks leading up to the trek, though, I thought I would try to get my fortysomething self under 10 per cent body fat – a project within a project. To that end, Equinox helpfully assigned me a trainer whose Instagram handle, incidentally, is @MelzTheSavage. A few times a week, Mr Savage and I would meet at some godforsaken hour for four or five circuits of four full-body weight stations. It was hard. It was good. And I made progress.
When we started our workouts in late spring, I littered my journal with complaints about my endurance, of being out of breath. Towards the end of our time, I was easily running a mile and a half in nine minutes (or I was before my long weekend in Jamaica, anyway; after that, my lungs strangely weakened. Weird). At the beginning of my time with Mr Savage, a full 14 per cent of my body was fat. Afterwards, it was… 12 per cent. But hey, that’s something, right? At any rate, I was ready for the real tests – svelte, motivated and, most important of all, dripping in Arc’teryx hiking gear.
Beginning the final ascent to Jebel Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains. Photograph by Mr Will Mayer, courtesy of Equinox
I did a little shopping in preparation of my trip. I got an entire look from Lululemon x Robert Geller, jackets, a puffer (in June!), hoodie, trousers and one of those funny little backpacks you wear on a mountain (the only things I carried in it were water and a fancy camera – for survival and the ’Gram, in no particular order). If you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you’ll, um, play good? Well, that’s what we told ourselves in college and what I comforted myself with when, after two days and 24 hours’ hiking, we reached the top of Toubkal mountain. Let me tell you, 13,000ft above sea level is a long way up. The altitude does things to you. Things including: make it hard as hell to breathe, zap all the energy from your limbs and mighty headaches. All that before even you look over the edge and let vertigo do its little dance with your inner-ear function.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Our trip began on the red rock lip of the Ourika Valley, about 90 minutes from Marrakech, at a lovely hotel, Kasbah Bab Ourika, built and run by a British expat, Mr Stephen Skinner, and his wife Beatriz. On our second day in the country, we left the burnt umber and terracotta foothills for the pale mauve and pink rock of Toubkal proper to begin our ascent. En route, we were serenaded by a guide, Mohammed, who was famed to be one of the best singers in the Valley.
In truth, the hike itself – thanks to The Savage and the extraordinary pacing by the guides engaged by Equinox – was a breeze, a nine-hour breeze that first day, but still. At 10,000ft high, we took shelter in a rustic chalet refuge, removed our packs, changed out of our sweat-wicking Gore-Tex for woollen robes and settled into a tagine feast looking like a bunch of Berber Jedis.
After only a brief nap (a couple of hours), we rose, reapplied our high-tech trimmings, added headlamps and set out on the final stretch a little after 4.00am. Dawn broke far, far above us, revealing enormous waterfalls and impossibly deep ravines to either side. To keep my mood buoyant as we slipped and scudded across loose rocks and even snow patches, I huffed oxygen from a can, gobbled energy bars and drank about six litres of water. And then, like all trips that seem incredibly far away on a calendar, and all projects that cannot possibly ever be completed, we were suddenly done, at the top of Morocco, North Africa, and all of the Arab world, on Mount Toubkal, with a weird purple light (or maybe I was tripping) in a halo around us.
Early morning hike to Jebel Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains. Photograph by Mr Will Mayer, courtesy of Equinox
From the summit of Toubkal – from any summit, really – the surrounding terrain, in every direction, looks exotic, impossibly treacherous, foreign. And making it to the top does bring with it floods of euphoria, incredible good feeling for fellow climbers and a sense of accomplishment. Even the weather gods were smiling on us and the temperature rose to a comparatively balmy 5ºC, so we lingered there, crying, cheering, eating cheese, and for a while I thought about the way my body felt, about the hum and thrilling ache of real appetite, about how enjoyable and guilt-free the next great meal would be. Up there in the thinnish air, I thought about the work emails awaiting me at the bottom, piling to Atlas Mountains heights; and I thought about hurrying down the mountain, making it to Marrakech before sunset, for survival and for the ’Gram, in no particular order.
We talk an awful lot these days about experience being the new luxury, about adventure replacing decadence as a travel priority, and we aren’t wrong. Up there, on the summit of Toubkal, with the serotonin flooding my system, I decided that maybe I need a mountain, any mountain, in my future travels. Immediately post-Morocco I felt calmer, more accomplished, even better rested than I usually do after a week on the beach somewhere. And my memory of the trip, of the moment on the summit – not to mention its eventual dinner-party retellings, I’m sure – will remain as vivid as any lost weekend at the glorious Marrakech hotel El Fenn, say. My memory of the moment is more important to me than any souvenir I might have found down in the souk.