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“We know we’ll be catering to high achievers on these trips,” Leah Howe, the senior director of Equinox Explore, told me halfway through a six-mile trek across Morocco’s Ourika Valley. The next day we would begin a two-day hike up Mount Toubkal, which, at 13,671 feet, is the highest mountain in North Africa. Howe, who spent 15 years organizing once-in-a-lifetime trips for high-end clients at Butterfield & Robinson and five more producing FOMO-inducing fetes with celebrity party planner Bronson van Wyck, knows her way around type-A personalities—even when they’re midway up a mountain.
Equinox Explore launched last November, shortly after Equinox opened its first hotel, in New York City’s Hudson Yards, and provides an opportunity for adventure seekers to experience the luxury gym turned lifestyle brand’s specific blend of high-performance hospitality. The aim is to bring gym members together for fitness-minded outings in bucket-list locations across the globe—precision running in Florence, cycling in the Hudson Valley—with enough downtime to soak up the local flavor. “We picked Morocco as our first trip because it has this built-in wellness component in the culture, from the hammams to the food,” said Howe.
Not that this trip was going to be all strolls in the souk. My hiking CV was limited to mellow jaunts in the Hudson Valley or the canyons of Los Angeles. The packing list alone was intimidating: a hydration pack, altitude medicine, and a headlamp. But I was ready. Six weeks earlier, Equinox had set me up with a trainer to evaluate everything from my muscle-to-fat ratio to my hydration levels, so he could plan a workout regime accordingly. (The key would be building up endurance and core strength through several strenuous workout sessions per week.)
The first day of the hike, we met our four Berber guides in Aroumd, at the base of Mount Toubkal. They told us that this part would take five hours and end at the refuge, where we would spend the evening adjusting to the altitude. Trekking is not a sprint: I had heard somewhere that you’re supposed to walk at the speed of your heartbeat. As an impatient New Yorker, this was a hard concept. All morning I hoped our guides would pick up the pace. As we traveled past small Berber villages and clusters of grazing goats, nothing was feeling too strenuous. Howe kept reminding us to “just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” echoing a chant started by the guides. Three hours in, we arrived at lunch: a table brimming with bowls of tagine and couscous next to a gurgling brook.
Afterward, back on the trail, I started to feel the burn in my legs, adding and stripping layers of clothing as we moved through the mountain’s microclimates. I kept mentally repeating “just one foot in front of the other.” By the time we reached base camp, where Equinox had stocked the bathroom with Kiehl’s products for us, I was exhausted.
We began our final ascent at 4 a.m.: four hours straight up. In the dark we lined up like GoreTex-swaddled pilgrims. The only light was from our headlamps, which proved necessary for crossing a river to a pile of boulders in the pitch black. The day before we had been a chatty group ambling through the valley. This morning we were silent—save for quick gasps when trekkers lost their footing or fishtailed out on the loose dirt. The sun rose as we scrambled across rocks and clamped down on patches of ice that became more frequent the higher we went.
Adrenaline kicked in. I greedily sucked on my hydration pack. I stayed close to the guides. It was Ramadan, so they were hiking without food or water from sunup to sundown. I thought of that when I complained, or when one of them handed me a Twix. As we wound our way around the last climb, my heartbeat and breath quickened. The air was thinning out. One of the guides locked arms with me. “It’s only for a few minutes,” he assured.
And then we summited. It was a glorious moment to look down at the valley, the patchwork of rock, ice and red earth, and see how far we had come. Little did I know that the trek back down would be even harder, requiring core muscles every step of the way. But back in Marrakech at the sumptuous El Fenn hotel there would be a soaking tub and a thick, soft bed; the next day there would be shopping, a leisurely lunch, and yoga. For now, it was all about the triumph, and the view.
From $6,250; equinoxexplore.com.