Marrakech to Oukaïmeden: First Ski Turns in Africa

February 5, 2017 – 9:30 AM GMT

As we go through our final gear checks, Hamid pokes his head in to our room to let us know that our driver has arrived.  Yesterday we arranged a shuttle with Hamid to take us out to Oukaïmeden (pronounced Oo-came-den), the site of North Africa’s highest chairlift and one of two official “ski resorts” in Morocco. Oukaïmeden is about a two hour drive south of Marrakech.

Once outside the riad with packs and skis, the driver jokingly asks in French if we’re planning to start skinning from right outside the front door.  We all laugh and then walk a few minutes to get to the van. As we head south out of the city, the contrasts relative to our pending ski adventure are endless: we drive along palm-tree lined boulevards, pass  kids playing soccer on dirt fields, and listen to, presumably, the local Arabic pop hits on the radio, mixed in with some bad Taylor Swift covers.  When we get to the Ourika Valley, traffic slows, the road tilts upwards and gets a little bumpier, and we start to catch our first up-close glimpses of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.  Our excitement level rises with the elevation and the hairpin turns in the road.

By the time we get to the village of Oukaïmeden, we are sitting at a little over 2600 m above sea level – about 300 m higher than the top of Whistler.  Our driver drops us at the Refuge du Club Alpin Français, and we head inside to check in.  We are psyched to get our first turns in Africa, but our room isn’t ready yet, and we don’t really want to unpack and get changed in the lobby, so we decide to wander over to the base of the mountain to check out the scene.  Although we’re out of the city, the constant hassle of people trying to sell us something hasn’t gone away.  Before long one of the locals approaches to see if we need any rental ski equipment.

“I have parabolic skis”, he says.  Wow!  We politely decline, however, explaining in a mix of French and English that we brought our own gear.  “Will you leave your skis here when you are done?” the fellow asks. (Apparently most of their rental gear gets donated).  Again, we politely explain that, no, we won’t be leaving our gear here.  We kind of need it for a little while. Plus it’s expensive to replace.

The crowds at the bottom of the mountain are a sight to behold.  For many Moroccans, the concept of snow is a total novelty, and so children and grown-ups alike amuse themselves on sleds fashioned out of old skis, and many locals, some dressed in jeans and leather jackets, try their luck on a pair of rental skis from the top of one of the T-bars.  Everyone seems to be having a great time, while we’re doing our best to not get hit by people rocketing down the hill.

We have a quick lunch and then head back to the refuge to get changed into our ski gear.  The strange looks continue as we head towards the télésiège, decked from head to toe in flashy Gore-Tex and tinted goggles.  We definitely look out of place.  Because it’s after 1 PM we’re able to buy an afternoon lift ticket – for about 8 bucks each CDN.  The télésiège is at the far side of the mountain and so we walk over, declining several offers of mule rides along the way, and come around the corner to yet another sight to behold.  There is a massive line of people waiting to go up the lift, but the vast majority are simply going up to admire the views and then come straight back down.  We are relieved to see a shorter line to the side reserved for skiers, and quickly get in line.  The skiers in front of us, all locals, have their skis on despite the fact there is absolutely no snow at the chair lift loading point: the ski run ends about 10 feet away and most people seem to run out across the gravel track and then just side step into the lift line.  Evidently, the concept of core shots is a foreign one in Morocco.

We watch the skiers in front of us successfully load onto the chair with skis on, but we both refuse to do so, fearing even the slightest scratch to our skis. Before long it’s our turn to load and suddenly I am feeling very self-conscious.  I have skis and poles in one hand, a backpack in the other (as does Matt – plus he is fiddling with his camera) and we are about to get hit in the behind by one of those old-school double chairlifts that doesn’t slow down. In front of a crowd of 100 Moroccans.  What would the outcome be if the two hotshot skiers from Canada caused the lift to stop because they couldn’t get on properly?

Fortunately, no one will ever know the answer because we get on just like the regulars.  Ten minutes later the lift dumps us off at a little over 3200 m, and we have to run out of the way to avoid getting hit by the chair as it makes its way around and back down the mountain.  When the dust settles we look around and soak in the amazing views in all directions: north and west towards Marrakech and the plains leading to the Atlantic Ocean; south and east to the towering peaks of the High Atlas, including some that we hope to ski off of in the days ahead.

But unlike many others at the top of the hill, we didn’t ride the lift to admire the views. It’s finally time to ski in Africa.  There is actually enough snow at the top to put our skis on, so we clip in and traverse over to the top of the bowl that leads back down to the lift.  The feeling dropping in to the bowl is surreal, despite the fact I’m trying to hold an edge on the hard windblown slab at the top.  As we descend the snow quality improves:  it is firm (but no worse than say, Tremblant) and we can carve acceptable turns while avoiding the many rocks. The GoPros are on and we’re taking turns taking action photos and trying to capture every moment of this first run.  When we get to the bottom we are so excited that it could have been our first ski run ever. After a big high five I check my watch and we realize there is still time for one more lift ride up.  We ski back down to the lift, being careful to stop well before the gravel path, pop the skis off, and head back up the mountain to do it all over again.

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