Muhammad, our Berber guide, threw down his pack outside the stone hut, jammed his ski poles into the snow and stepped free from his skis. "Tomorrow, if the weather is good," he said, "we will go for the summit."
The summit was the top of Jebel Toubkal - at 4,166 meters (13,667 feet), North Africa's highest peak and part of the High Atlas range that rises abruptly from the Moroccan plains and separates the Mediterranean littoral from the Sahara Desert. On a clear winter day, this range of snowy mountains provides a stark and beautiful backdrop for the medieval city of Marrakesh.
Mark Lorenzen, my skiing and kayaking partner from California, and I, had been with Muhammad for three days, first at the nearby ski resort of Oukaimeden - where we had practiced downhill technique on our narrow cross-country skis and acclimated ourselves to the high altitude. Now we were at one of the six sturdy French Alpine Club huts that are scattered throughout the Atlas range.
The French were the pioneers in climbing and skiing in the Atlas; several of the French Alpine Club huts there date back to 1922. In recent years, British skiers and climbers have begun to visit the region too, but among most North Americans the Atlas, and the Rif mountains in the far north of the country, are virtually unknown. Some, in fact, were incredulous when I said I was going to ski in Morocco.
"Skiing in North Africa? Isn't it all just desert?" a skiing friend asked. Actually the Atlas Mountains have a season that usually extends from December through March, with as much as three or more meters (over nine feet) of snow in higher areas - as we learned during our climb of Jebel Toubkal.
We quickly found out that our guide Muhammad Imzilen was a sterling skier, able to climb up steep slopes like a mountain goat and then head back down making short, "windshield wiper" turns that kept him in full control and prevented dangerous falls. He had trained in Switzerland as a climbing and skiing guide and not only spoke Berber, Arabic and French, but also Swiss-German and English.
We immediately took to Muhammad. He had a quick smile and the confident air of mountain men all over the world. And he, as if to show that he had accepted us too, invited us to join him for mint tea in the guides' cafe at Oukaimeden, a somewhat lopsided building where resort workers and Moroccan ski instructors gather after the lifts close each day.
At Oukaimeden we skied two days and rode most of its five T-bars and poma lifts, as well as the chair that lifts skiers more than 550 vertical meters (1,800 feet) to the top of Oukaimeden peak, from which you can see Marrakesh to the northwest and, more importantly for us, Toubkal to the southeast, the peak we hoped to climb.
We also got to know Madame Jeane Juvier, or "Madame Juju" at the Hotel de l'Angour. A resident of Morocco for more than 40 years, Madame Juju had come to Morocco from Brittany with her husband, a former army pilot and a member of the French Alpine Club. She helped him build the pleasant 14-room hotel and, after he died several years ago, stayed on to run it. "When I came here, there were only shepherds. We helped build this area, so I think this is my fate," she said with a smile.
At Oukaimeden, the biggest of all Morocco's downhill ski areas, the parking lot often fills with 800 cars and more than 20 large buses for weekend skiing. According to Alain Tassel, another former Brittany resident who serves as assistant manager of the hotel, 95 percent of the skiers are resident foreigners. But the number of Moroccans is beginning to grow.
After mastering the techniques of skiing downhill on narrow cross-country skis, Mark, Muhammad and I stuffed our skis, our gear and ourselves into a rented Renault and headed down the twisting road past Berber villages where the brown mud houses seemed to be stacked precariously on top of each other. We crossed over into the Mizane Valley, stopped in Asni to buy oranges and drove on up the road to Imlil, the village where Muhammad was born 27 years before and where his family had lived for many generations. Walnut trees shaded the village square and spread out through orchards that stretched up the valley. The snowy mountains rose thousands of meters above the town, where men played cards in the setting afternoon sun.
We dined that night with Muhammad, his brother and a fellow guide, on couscous, the national dish of Morocco. It was served by Muhammad's pretty wife on one large round platter that had five spoons set in a pile of cracked wheat heaped on lamb and stewed vegetables that had come from village gardens.
We slept in a guest room in Muhammad's house that night, where he had hung prints of Switzerland's famed Matterhorn and other peaks. A bright moon shone through the window when we went to sleep, but morning greeted us with clouds. As we ate breakfast and made one final check of our equipment, however, blue sky appeared.
Muhammad had warned us that no one had ever tried to climb Toubkal and ski down it with cross-country skis - and that he was dubious. But the fact that we would be the first to take on the mountain on "skinny skis," as they call cross-country skis in the United States, only made us more determined to use the equipment we had brought with us. Muhammad, however, stuck to conventional mountaineering skis, which are much like alpine skis and use heavy boots on a binding that lifts at the heel for going uphill.
Our skis were about half the width of his, longer and more difficult to turn, but much lighter. We had heavy cross-country ski boots, too, though they weighed less than his, and while we knew he would have much more control because his skis were wider and he could fasten his heel to the ski for descents, we were still confident we could handle the mountain.
So off we set, with our skis strapped to the sides of our packs. The Mizane Valley became more beautiful as it narrowed - a small Shangri La with a burbling brook flowing through it. The temperature was cool, the fields were green and the snow high above us a crystal white. Brightly dressed Berber women, working in the fields, looked away shyly as we passed.
On we climbed, finally reaching the tiny village of Siddi Chamarouch where a small white mosque has been carved out of a cave. There we ate our lunch and drank more mint tea, the omnipresent drink throughout our trip.
An hour later, we had reached the snow and were wading through it - sometimes sinking to our knees - to reach the trail that we had apparently lost. After some climbing, we found it again and trudged on for another mile until we reached the point about 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) - where we could safely put on our skis without worrying about damaging them on the rocks.
We slipped them from the straps that held them to our packs and set about putting the adhesive climbing strips on their bottoms to aid our climb up the remaining 366 vertical meters (1,200 feet) to the Neltner hut - named after a famous French skier - that was our goal for the day. The strips, or "skins," which have synthetic hair on them, were once made of seal skin. They provided traction when we moved up hill, yet still allowed us to slide the ski forward without too much resistance.
The valley twisted and turned, each time offering a new vista of jagged peaks and white folds of snow. We found a stride and moved in rhythm with our breathing. Suddenly, up ahead, we heard voices and saw the first hut, and we quickened our pace to get to the refuge and rest.
Inside the stone hut, we were greeted by several French ski-mountaineers. They were skiing from hut to hut on their heavy mountaineering skis and expressed surprise when they saw we were on crosscountry skis.
At the hut, which could sleep more than 20 people on its two levels, we found gas stoves and a Berber caretaker who was also named Muhammad.
Morning broke clear but windy, with streamers of snow whipping out from the peaks that surrounded us. Muhammad took stock of the weather and said we could ski to another valley that day if the wind was a problem, but we told him we wanted to go for the top of Toubkal, which loomed some 600 meters (2,000 feet) above us.
Our packs were stripped down for the climb and we had only our lunches, emergency clothing, ice axes, crampons and cameras. We were on the snow before 9:00 a.m., trudging step by step toward the steep 180-meter wall (600 feet) that would be our first obstacle.
Muhammad was right. Our crosscountry skis made the going difficult, and we lacked the snow crampons that he had under his bindings allowing him to grip the snow and avoid sliding. But up we moved, trying to reach the first terrace that would give us some relief from the 45 degree slope.
Mark and Muhammad moved on ahead of me. The steel edges on my skis would not hold their position on the icy patches. I was slipping and didn't like it. As Muhammad reached for a rope to help me, he accidentally dropped his sunglasses, which fell to the snow and tumbled down the slope, picking up speed as they slid more than 120 meters (400 feet) to a small basin below. "No thanks," I told Muhammad, "if I fall I might pull you with me. I'll take my skis off and kick steps or cut them in the snow with my ice axe until we get to the rocks."
The plan worked and 20 minutes later we were off the precarious slope, and headed up another angled valley, but one that seemed flat in comparison to the first. Rainbows appeared where the wind whipped the snow past the sun and we pushed past crumbly black volcanic rock that forms much of the Toubkal Massif.
Another valley and 30 minutes later, we were looking up at another wall of snow, though not as steep as the first one. We climbed part way, putting one ski after another, stopping to eat chocolate and figs to restore our energy. We were doing well, Muhammad said.
Another 150 meters of ski climbing (500 feet) brought us to a barren ridge at an elevation of more than 4,200 meters (13,800 feet). The air was thin, but the two days of skiing at Oukaimeden had done its work. There was no altitude sickness. We felt great.
On we skied, leaving our skis behind some rocks when we came to the last few hundred meters of the mountain, where strong winds had blown away all the snow. We kept our ice axes in hand, using them to steady ourselves from the blasts of polar air.
Finally, four hours after we started, we were on top. It came almost as an anticlimax to the rough going at the start of the morning. We shook hands, clapped each other on the back, ate cheese and bread and took the obligatory photographs.
And then the storm came in, blowing snow vertically and chasing us from the high perch where we could see off to the Sahara in one direction and past Marrakesh in another. A few minutes before, the peaks in the High Atlas had sparkled in the sun. Now, they were disappearing in the blowing snow.
Down we stumbled, finding our skis and beginning a descent that took only a fraction of the time it did to climb Toubkal. Muhammad made his short parallel alpine turns, speeding across the flatter section of the hill and slowing down with short turns where it became steeper. Mark and I traversed the difficult pitches and made telemark turns - that graceful old-fashioned cross-country move in which one ski is pushed ahead of the other and is used to carve the turn.
At the last steep pitch, Mark and I chose to take off our skis and kick steps down the steepest sections. We watched in envy as Muhammad took on one of the more difficult chutes and skied it as if it were a bunny hill. Once past the ice, we put our skis back on and linked a few turns down to the hut, where Muhammad had already begun to brew mint tea. That night, the tajine stew tasted especially good. And we celebrated by opening a can of apricots.
"Well," said Muhammad, "I think you are the first people to climb the mountain on those ski de fond (cross-country skis). I congratulate you."
The next day, we hitched our packs up on our shoulders and began to ski down to Imlil. The ice and the unwieldy packs took their toll in spills and falls, but three hours later we were back at Siddi Chamar-ouch, out of the snow.
We collected our gear, bade goodbye to Muhammad and set out on the road back to Marrakesh, driving through lovely almond orchards blossoming in the February sun. But the mountain had the last word: as we glanced back, a great avalanche fell from the face of one of the peaks, sending up a huge cloud of white smoke into the sky.
Brian Clark covers international sports for Aramco World magazine.