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An audio postcard from the mountains of Morocco

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The High Atlas Mountains run through central Morocco. They house some of the wildest, most remote places in North Africa. NPR correspondent Brian Mann dreamed for years of trekking there. This winter he finally got the chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEBBLES CRUNCHING)

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When we set off on foot from a tiny mountain town called Imlil, it's still early. The sky is purple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

MANN: It's just all rock and crag and sharp, blue shadows.

CONNOR HOLDSWORTH: But it's good.

MANN: The first challenge is a five-hour trek to a base camp at about 10,000 feet on the shoulder of Toubkal. That's the highest summit in Morocco. I picked my way over the rocky path behind a team of mules, their colorful red and blue saddles packed with climbing gear and food.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)

MANN: I first came to Morocco when I was 20 years old 38 years ago. I could see these mountains in the distance with their snowy peaks and wanted to see them so badly and just wanted to come here. But I didn't have the equipment or the experience to do it safely, so I never made the trip until now.

For me, this trek would still be impossible except for two men, my guides.

OMAR IYIDAR: I do this work as guides eight years old now.

MANN: That's Omar Iyidar. His family are Berbers, and they've been climbing here for generations.

IYIDAR: Like, grandfather and my father also, my uncles. So I am really lucky.

MANN: Iyidar wears a bright red turban and a face scarf against the blowing dust. His partner and fellow guide is Connor Holdsworth from Scotland, who's been climbing in the High Atlas Mountains for 11 years.

HOLDSWORTH: It's a really nice mix of, like, wildness and remoteness.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

MANN: The sun finally breaks over the peaks as we climb through a forest of juniper trees. The Berber people have lived in the Toubkal Valley for thousands of years, planting orchards and herding goats. But as we climb, forest gives way to boulder fields, red rock and growing signs of winter.

There are shelves of ice, just kind of one curtain after another.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

IYIDAR: Hello.

MANN: At dusk, we finally reached the climber's hut. It feels sort of like an outpost on the moon. Bright lights glow from the windows.

(CROSSTALK)

MANN: Inside, climbers from all over the world eat and gossip and prep their gear. It's cozy and warm. But in the night, while we're sleeping, the world outside changes.

HOLDSWORTH: We woke up to a bit of, like, surprise snow, like icing sugar being put on a piece of French toast.

MANN: It's polar white as we set off, going higher on Toubkal, the wind so fierce we need goggles to see. At one point, it nearly knocks me down.

At this high, it's just as barren as can be. There's scree and snow as far as I can see.

After hours of picking our way over stone and ice, we reach a saddle between two gothic spires. Iyidar looks out and grins.

IYIDAR: There are other mountains, but the first mountain you should be doing is Toubkal, the highest peak. It's beautiful.

MANN: Yeah.

HOLDSWORTH: We are so high up, we could see the curvature of the Earth.

MANN: Connor Holdsworth points to the Sahara desert glimmering in the distance.

HOLDSWORTH: We look one way, and all we can see are mountains. We look the other way. We could see the desert. It's just awesome. It's really incredible.

MANN: It took me decades to get here. So I just sit for a while, bundled in my parka, feeling a breathless kind of joy as I watch the light and snow sweep over towers of rock. Brian Mann, NPR News, in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZQQRT SONG, "QLT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.