First published in issue 16.4 of The Ski Journal.
I CAME TO OUKAÏMEDEN in a morning cab from Marrakech. Rolling across nearly 50 miles of Moroccan desert, roaring camels sneered and spat on the shoulder of the dusty road. My skis were in a shoddy nylon bag, jutting from the very-open trunk of a car careening around red-earth switchbacks.
I’d be lying if I said that novelty wasn’t one of the compelling factors to going skiing in Africa in the first place. Oukaïmeden boasts the highest lift in Africa at 10,500 feet, but the operation only attracts day-trippers from Morocco’s bustling capital—who are eager to rent beat-up skis and boots from the local Berber people—and the odd novelty-ski-experience hunter. I fell into the latter category. I had an internal drive to put skis on each of the planet’s continents and Africa seemed the most esoteric—and an easy enough flight from my temporary base camp in Milan.
As we rose in elevation, a few of the mountainside communities we passed laid their laundry on the sunny slopes. The colors in the distant rows looked like frozen prayer groups kissing the ground. Smoke plumes exhaled from the odd kitchen. There were fuel stations along the winding road with petrol stored in two-liter Coca-Cola bottles that sat next to smelly inverted funnels. Lost in the landscape, I noticed grass blades bending under the weight of hard frost and then submerged in white as a crispness filled the air. It was a far cry from the souks and olive gardens around Marrakech’s chaotic metropolis. Sheepherding teenagers moved across the dirt road as we entered an isolated village at the base of the mountains.
After a night spent in the French Colonial haunts of Hôtel Chez Juju, I inhaled a bowl of coal-heated tagine and (with a burnt tongue) followed a group of Berbers and their mules to the first of two uploads. Beyond that, an infinite amount of bootpacks and fresh descents awaited.
Everyone on the mountain was in streetwear. Some, sans ticket, put coins in the lift operator’s hand. A cigarette dangled loosely from his mouth and he wore a pair of neon pink sunglasses on his deeply sun-etched face. Smiling, he pulled the cord on a strangely configured Poma that shot patrons off with a jerk.
The top of the first chairlift was the end of the line for most, who were content with the distance and aspect, but a second lift took the rest of us up to the end of the mechanized line. From there, a steady climb into the upper alpine revealed a desert panorama—a borderless horizon with olive and saffron groves in the impossible distance beyond. Underneath my swinging skis was over a foot of pure Moroccan velvet. I could still taste some tagine in my teeth.
Sometime after a lap through untapped chutes and my first bootpack, I turned uphill to see a shirtless Berber man running down the side of the mountain, his dirty work boots popping up from white room powder. There is a famous space observatory on Oukaïmeden. Maybe he was a scientist? A flannel tied around his waist, he was intermittently employing a controlled somersault to travel downhill. Determined not to be out-skied by a guy without skis, I did a quick slough test before accelerating with the quickening bounce of a kayaker, gunning it between two rock walls.
Skidding to a stop in the mud and rock at the base, I unclipped my boots underneath the trail map and began plotting the next day’s adventure. Drying out in the springtime sun, I heard the familiar “Assalamualaikum,” as a ski patroller who looked like an Arabic Michael Jordan approached me in a faded red one-piece. His name was Muhammad and he was curious about my center-mounted, twin-tipped skis, asking if his boots would fit into the bindings. When the shoe fit perfectly, I let him take my park skis out for a quick lap. Muhammad returned with a huge smile and shook my hand. He introduced me to his friends and we played a round of intercontinental charades, arranging to meet up the next morning for a deeper tour into the African backcountry. We drank tea as the sun went down, the whole mountain range rolled out in front of us.