Look out from the peaks of the High Atlas and you can just about see the Sahara Desert, thousands of meters below.
Arid and empty, it’s a beguiling sight. You could argue that it’s nature’s sacrifice, so that we might have a playground of pristine and remote ski slopes.
The Atlas Mountains, rising up in North Africa, have been a skiing curiosity for decades. Their mountainsides facing west are an avaricious collector of snow throughout winter – enough for a ski season to form between January and March.
Intrepid alpinists have strapped on their crampons in Morocco since the era of the French protectorate. Today it has Oukaimeden, a fully-functioning ski resort at 8,530 feet, the highest in the continent.
But with a boom in ski touring opening up the High Atlas, is one of Africa’s hidden gems experiencing a snow-born renaissance?
Fifty miles east of Marrakech lies Oukaimeden, Morocco’s most noteworthy ski resort.
With 20 runs and one chairlift it’s on the smaller side by Western standards, and comes with a few quirks. Most rental equipment can be politely described as “retro,” and if drag lifts are a bore you can always hitch a ride on a donkey.
However, this description undersells Oukaimeden. The skiable area – often disquietingly empty – tops out at 10,603 feet, 6 feet higher than Val Thorens, France, one of Europe’s most snow-sure destinations. Runs aren’t pisted as such, meaning virgin snow awaits, and the powder is crisp and dry. For the casual skier or adventurous beginner, a fun and unconventional day awaits.
More committed skiers look southeast. Imlil, two valleys and a large diversion away, is the gateway to the High Atlas, and a favorite jumping-off point for ski tours. Pathfinder Travels, Imlil Trek and Trek Morocco all either pass through the village or stay overnight on their way to mountaintop refuges.
Adrian Nordenborg of Pathfinder Travels describes these cabins as basic, with bunk beds and hearths and without many modern conveniences. However they serve a purpose in the unforgiving terrain.
“To reach our refuge we use mules to carry all our equipment, ski gear and food,” says Nordenborg. “From the hut you can explore all the surrounding peaks.”
“We work very closely with the Berber people,” he says, referring to the region’s indigenous communities. “They are the ones who know the mountains; where the tracks are. The paths between their villages are some of the routes we use when hiking.”
Indeed, many of the treks include homestays and dinner with Berber tribes, where “Berber whiskey,” mint tea with copious amounts of sugar, will always be on the menu.
With a belly full of couscous skiers can hunt out the best snow in couloirs beneath the highest peaks. The tallest of them all is Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa.
You can ski from the top, says Nordenborg, although he admits it can become quite windy at the summit, 13,671 feet up. To put that in context, Toubkal eclipses the Aiguille du Midi and the Vallee Blanche – one of the world’s premier off-piste runs – by over 1,000 feet.
Tough at the top
Given how remote Toubkal and neighboring peak Ouanoukrim are, avalanche training is a prerequisite on ski treks. Even if a tour remains incident free it’s tough on the body: each ski day hikers can expect to cover as many as 3,280 vertical feet between roughly 9,800 and 13,100 feet.
But there are other options in Morocco, should you really want to splurge.
Heliski Marrakech is the only heli-ski operator in Africa, offering drops at over 13,000 feet. Based 30 minutes from Marrakech in the lush Ourika Valley, the operator will take you from the luxurious Kasbah Agounsane to the snow in 25 minutes.
Ten miles north of Toubkal, the operator takes skiers to remote slopes high above the tourist village of Setti-Fatma, an area seldom visited by ski treks.
“We have just a few days of very bad weather in the Atlas Mountains, but when it’s snowing it snows a lot – we can have a meter of fresh snow a day,” says Heliski Marrakech founder Hervé Favre, describing the conditions.
How to: Ski in the High Atlas
“The snow changes very quickly in Africa because of the high temperatures… You can have powder skiing for one or two days, then it can suddenly turn to spring snow skiing.”
These conditions make for a perfect combination, says Favre. They will have snowboarders interested too, and Nordenborg says both snowsports are flourishing in Morocco.
Prices begin at $1,050 for a day’s heli-skiing, but you’ll be covering more vertical feet and have access to the steepest chutes and gnarliest runs you could hope for – and none of the legwork of getting to the top. For the 99%, ski tours from respected operators begin around the $1,600 mark for a week, flights not included.
“People are always looking for new destinations,” says Nordenborg, pitching Morocco as a great alternative. “The majority of skiers [here] are foreign, and many are ski touring.”
So is the industry growing?
“More and more people are finding a way to the Atlas Mountains to ski,” he says, “so the short answer is yes!”