After venturing deep into the Sinai desert in the dead of night, I lay down completely exhausted by travel and collapsed into a drug-induced coma. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, I awoke to the familiar sound of the ‘Call to Prayer’. I was about to witness a landscape that would captivate me for many years to come.
As I stumbled barefoot across the freezing sandy floor with my Bedouin blanket wrapped tightly around me there was an eerie silence in the air and every sound was muffled. There was a good scientific explanation for this; it had snowed heavily during the night. Snow in the desert a mere three hours from the scorching Red Sea – how could this be possible?
I was greeted by children eagerly building what was perhaps their first ever Bedouin snowman, in the middle of the football field. Camels struggled to stand whilst people huddled by fires of eucalyptus wood and drank tea in an attempt to ward off the bitter cold. The mountains that guarded the ancient monastery town of St Catherine were angry, and that signified an adventure in the making. Just how much climbing would feature in this trip was uncertain – and at this particular moment we would be lucky to get out of the front door, let alone trek into the middle of the desert.
That’s the great thing about an exploratory expedition. It forces you to quickly adapt to changing circumstances – and often the trip can end up going in a direction that you never would have imagined. The snow was actually the best thing that could have happened. It forced us to take our time. After exploring the town, it soon became clear the remarkable Jebeliya Bedouin tribe that occupied this neck of the Sinai were made of sturdy stuff and lived a basic life of survival rather than one of luxury. They were generous and just wanted to share their stories with someone who had time to listen.
By the next morning the ferocity of the snowstorm had relented sufficiently for us to take a different route into the hills. We loaded camels with dried meat, rice and blankets, and with our Bedouin friends headed out into the high mountains. The peaks of Jebel Safsafa, Fara, Rabba and Musa all glistened as the sun forced a melt like we had never seen before. The wadis – home to the Bedouins’ aromatic herb gardens – were soon to be replenished with moisture as the overflowing pools created waterfalls in the very creeks and canyons we were travelling in.
By dusk we had reached the base of the pink granite cliffs of Jebel Umma H Shaur and had built a roaring fire to see us through the long winter night in a secret cave known only to the Bedouins. As the whiskey flowed we listened to tales of kidnappings, gold caskets and ancient palaces. Dave spoke of a previous trip when the Bedouins had told him that a great chest of gold had been left many years ago on a ledge high up on one of the nearby red granite cliffs. His friend Mohammed had offered to accompany him in an attempt to rescue the gold. When they arrived, Mohammed pointed up to what resembled a box some 100m up the cliff face and insisted they abseil in from the summit. Unfortunately all they found was a box-shaped rock and no gold.
As I stumbled barefoot across the freezing sandy floor with my Bedouin blanket wrapped tightly around me there was an eerie silence in the air and every sound was muffled. There was a good scientific explanation for this; it had snowed heavily during the night.
As we scrambled over boulders, through wadis and down narrow-sided gorges, it was as if we had entered a forgotten world – but definitely not a world devoid of life, like some of the drier deserts I had visited. Hyrax, leopards, feral donkeys and mountain goats all coexisted in this delicate ecosystem.
The real treasure lay in the pristine crack line that turned out to be one of the best rock climbs in the area. Beyond the cliff of gold was rumoured to be an even grander wall going by the name of Jebel Naga. After a day’s trekking through groves of almonds, figs and pistachio we caught our first glimpse of this monstrosity of a mountain. Unfortunately for those present that was the last day of the trip and reluctantly I had to turn my back on this mystical peak.
Fast forward a year and we were back in St Catherine with a thirst for another adventure. The memories of the previous trip had haunted us all year long and I often dreamt of nights spent out under the big desert skies with our newfound Bedouin friends. As we huddled by a roaring fire, faces glowed with excitement and plans were made to follow a new route to the base of the cliff.
My friend Martin recounted an occasion when he and his girlfriend had tackled the shorter north-west face. Unfortunately they didn’t make the summit till after nightfall and got hideously lost in the complex maze of wadis with no water or food. A day later they arrived exhausted and traumatised back at the camp.
We decided our best option was to travel by jeep to a minor village on the edge of town, then trek through the wadis and canyons to the gardens at the bottom where we would set up our camp for a week. The camels and supplies would arrive that evening after taking a longer, less technical route round the back of the mountain. As we scrambled over boulders, through wadis and down narrow-sided gorges, it was as if we had entered a forgotten world – but definitely not a world devoid of life, like some of the drier deserts I had visited. Hyrax, leopards, feral donkeys and mountain goats all coexisted in this delicate ecosystem.
Soon the floor was littered with a carpet of opium poppies and our guide beckoned us all to a standstill. It was peak season; a couple of gardeners were watering their crop through a complex network of pipes in preparation for the first harvest. Soon we were beckoned to join the growers for a well-earned cup of tea. Tensions soon eased and a young man smiled at us through a set of very black teeth as he poured water from a rusty petrol can into the soot-stained pot on the fire. To my surprise, I was granted permission to take photos so long as I didn’t point the camera at anyone’s face.
Suitably revived with copious amounts of tea we pushed on through the multi-coloured gardens until we reached our camp for the night. Sleeping at the base of the routes meant we were ideally placed to scan for lines with binoculars and, in the event we never made the summit, there was always the opportunity to rappel back down to the security of our camp. Each day we would wake up from a great night’s sleep and build a roaring fire in order to prepare our fresh bread for the day. The Bedouins taught us many useful tricks for surviving the harsh desert conditions and it soon became apparent how connected they were with the environment they inhabited. Then, when our souls came alive, we would trek up to the big red cliff and tackle one of the many crack climbs.
The scorching crystalline granite was tough on the hands and gradually took its toll on our soft skin. Sometimes we would set off on a beautifully sculptured crack that petered out to nothing but a blank-looking slab devoid of any real protection apart from the odd skyhook. To push on and risk a big fall was not an option in this remote landscape and we had to think more about survival than our egos. There was no helicopter rescue and the nearest hospital was a day’s camel ride away, followed by a very uncomfortable four-hour taxi journey. Even if you made it alive to Sharm-el-sheikh hospital it couldn’t be guaranteed you would leave there alive; people had been known to bleed to death.
But what we loved about this existence was that every day was a new adventure. In the end it didn’t really matter if we made the summit so long as we enjoyed the climb.
Days of smashing our bodies into chimneys, clefts and cracks had taken their toll and our battered skin now longed for the soothing properties of the Red Sea in nearby Dahab. It was at this point that we reluctantly decided to return to St Catherine a day earlier than originally planned. This later turned out to be a very good decision. Unknown to us at the time, the Egyptian army had decided to raid the opium gardens and technically we weren’t supposed to be in the region at all, let alone climbing there. As we hit the dusty road on the final approach to town, a series of Toyota Hilux vehicles came racing past the entrance to the canyon. Luckily this was just a warning by the Bedouins that the army was on its way and we needed to be clear of the area.
Counting our blessings, we fled over the next mountain and took a different route back to town. Never a dull moment in the Sinai. Already the next trip is in the planning.
Mike Hutton is a professional Climbing, Travel and Landscape Photographer supplying images to the outdoor adventure industry. When he’s not in the UK Mike can be found travelling the globe on a quest for un-climbed rock. During the past 5 years he’s worked with The Expedition Consultancy to market trips to un-chartered territories such as The Sinai desert, Vietnam, Crimea and Sudan.