Sun, souks - and snow! Sarah Barrell goes skiing in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains
It’s early morning in the snow-topped mountain town of Oukaïmeden and business is decidedly slow. It seems Celia, my skiing buddy, and I are a little late for a winter sports break in Morocco. Today there’s more sun than snow, so we’ve taken the chairlift – Africa’s highest – to the 10,688ft peak of Jebel Attar to recce the runs.
So far we appear to be the only potential skiers. A couple of Moroccan teenage girls in platform boots teeter off the lift for a gleeful photo op, dancing around on patches of ice to the tunes on their mobiles before hopping back on the chair for the panoramic ride down. We follow them, scanning the slopes for a descent with some decent snow cover. The pistes are empty, bar one snowboarder sitting below the lift.
Atlas Mountain High: Sarah hits the slopes with her ‘discounted’ equipment
‘Vous descendez?’ I yell. ‘Oui,’ he shouts back with a crazed smile, ‘Avec caméra!’ And off he shoots, a robust webcam clamped to the leading edge of his board, bouncing over some moguls, before moving out of sight. The edgy anticipation of making that first run is mounting, so Celia and I resolve to find a guide. We reach the base station before the boarder, and watch him feathering between the growing crowd of day trippers who have somehow managed to ascend the nursery slope by riding on donkeys supplied by enterprising villagers.
Half the Marrakech souk appears to have suddenly decamped to the mountains. We have to elbow through a confusion of camels and hawkers selling everything from Berber trinkets to peanut brittle. When we finally spot the boarder, I ask him if he’ll ride with us. He agrees, introducing himself as Nabil Hamdaoui, a 28-year old party planner from Marrakech who is, just for the sheer hell of it, making videos of his descents to upload onto YouTube. With another manic smile he shoots off to find us some equipment.
There’s a rental outfit in town next to our hotel, but Nabil deems the 10-minute walk a waste of riding time. He favours the vendors close to the slopes, which means any tweaks can be quickly executed using tools grabbed from the saddlebags of waiting camels. The range of kit lining the roadside (a gallery of Stormtrooper boots and ski suits so dated they’re almost vintage) suggests a lot of tweaks will be called for.
Haute cuisine: Les Roches Armed hotel in the High Atlas mountains
While our battered equipment is being screwed and buffed into shape, I spot a helicopter hovering overhead. Minutes later, donkeys and camels are scattering as the craft buzzes down next to some ramshackle herders’ huts on the hillside, disgorging what looks like an SAS crack team. But they’re not the military – just a six-strong party of identically-dressed French heli-skiers. They’ve been combing the back country behind the resort’s 12.5 miles of trails, in search of challenging terrain.
‘It’s incredible out there,’ one wide-eyed hunk reports. ‘Around Toubkal it’s completely untouched. There’s just so much to ski,’ he exclaims, referring to North Africa’s highest peak. Towering over the resort, its distinctive, jagged ridge is visible from Marrakech, less than two hours’ drive away. Thrilling as the heli-tour sounds, at £800 per person per day we decide to stick with Nabil. By haggling for us, he’s secured boots, poles and skis for Celia, plus a board, boots and gloves for me, for just £25 all-in. Add in the lift passes and we’ve spent just over £50 for a day on the slopes.
Once we get going, the ground is churned up, crusty and seriously hard-going in parts. ‘It’s ghetto powder, man,’ says Nabil with a grin. Keeping within his wake, we pick our way down. ‘Last weekend we had a huge dump of snow,’ he shouts. ‘We had some seriously bad-ass riders up here. I’ve been out most weekends since November. I even stayed a couple of nights in one of those herders’ huts,’ Nabil adds, pointing to the crumbling stone dwellings that surround the resort. ‘Never again – but it is Africa,’ he cries, flinging his arms out to take in the backdrop of red desert. ‘Just think, we’re skiing in Africa!’
Sleep in style at Hotel Les Deux Tours in Marrakech
We certainly are. Our trip started with a couple of dreamy days in Marrakech, cruising the souks and lounging in the shade of jasmine and orange trees in a pool villa at Les Deux Tours, a seductive hotel in the leafy La Palmeraie district. Once the bite had gone out of the sun, we explored the old town’s medina, getting lost in the maze of alleys before heading for drinks at La Mamounia, Marrakech’s grande dame art deco hotel.
The drive into the snow-capped mountains whisked us from this heady scene, through dusty, suburban streets into the green Atlas foothills, home to a string of argan farms. We stop for a bottle of skin-nourishing oil which, after a day on the slopes, proves to be a miracle cure for our sun-frazzled faces.
You won’t go far in Marrakech without seeing the Moroccan national flag (Kevin Foy/Rex Features)
Skiing at altitude may be hard on our complexions, but on the upside I ride all day without stopping for food, an apparent side effect of the thin air. Getting enough oxygen in my lungs, however, is near impossible. Even bending down to clip bindings leaves me breathless. But it’s all well worth the wheezing. At night, when the colourful caravan of day trippers returns to Marrakech, Celia and I scramble into the hills behind the deserted town to watch the crimson purple sunset roll out across the desert. Inside our hotel, Chez Juju, the ever attentive Mohammed delivers bowls of tagine, warm flatbread, salty olives and glasses of delicious Moroccan red wine.
For more traditional après-ski, however, we eventually return to Marrakech. The smoky, snake-charmer-led chaos of the main Djemaa el-Fna square seems even more intense after the relative quiet of the mountains. I jump when approached by a tattooist dispensing henna designs out of a syringe. Later, seeing the parade of prettily decorated feet on the flight home, I regret not getting it done. For a final treat, we make a beeline for a hammam, something the mountains sorely lack. The heat quickly soothes our ski-sore muscles. Amid the steam, breathless once more, I find I’m already missing Oukaïmeden’s thin air, sharp light and ‘ghetto’ snow. It isn’t the Alps, but we’ve had an adventure at a great price, and now I can say I’ve skied above the Sahara.
Spices of life: spend some time on the slopes then go shopping in the souks (Ray Roberts/Rex Features)
Lawrence of Morocco (020 7183 6401; lawrenceofmorocco.com) offers tailormade trips. A week’s holiday combining four nights at Les Deux Tours (les-deux-tours.com) in Marrakech with three at Chez Juju (hotelchezjuju.com) in Oukaïmeden costs from £790 per person, based on two sharing, including breakfast, flights and all transfers. Skiing in Morocco is possible from late November to early March, with January and February the most snow-sure months.
More alternative ski spots
Lebanon − some 28 miles from Beirut, Faraya Mzaar is the best equipped of the country’s sprinkling of ski resorts, with 50 miles of runs and a good party atmosphere (skileb.com).
India − Gulmarg is a high altitude Himalayan resort that’s already creating a buzz among adventurous skiers. Expect thin air, excellent powder and almost limitless off-piste runs (industours.co.uk).
Japan − three hours from Tokyo, Hakuba is a former Winter Olympic Games resort high in the Japanese Alps. Get ready for hot springs and some of the world’s best powder (insidejapantours.com).
Chile − snow junkies know: winter in the Alps, summer in the Andes. Head for Valle Nevado, a two-hour drive from Santiago (journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
New Zealand − offers excellent snow and a lively social scene centred around Queenstown (newzealandski.co.nz).