Written by Liv Sansoz & Aurélie Gonin // Photography by Aurélie Gonin
There are destinations whose name alone conjures dreams in the mind. Wadi Rum, a desert valley in southern Jordan, is one of them. And some adventures arise spontaneously, born from friendship and a passion for adventure itself.
This adventure began with a conversation in a restaurant in Chamonix. I was there with my good friend Aurélie, a filmmaker and photographer, and I asked her a question that sealed the deal: ‘Zeb Roche and I are going to climb and fly in Jordan in November. We’ve been meaning to go for a long time, but the project kept getting postponed. Would you like to join us and document the trip?’ She did not need much convincing. I could practically see the famous images of Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones flicker in front of her eyes for just a moment before she blurted out, ‘Yes!’
And just like that, everything got going. Flights were booked the next day, gear and logistics organised the same week. We had just enough time to prepare a shoot that Aurélie said would be a real challenge. Climbing is a sport that can be filmed from below, but it looks much better when the camera is closer to the climbers, or even above them. Combine that with paragliding and there were even more variables to contend with.
‘It’s going to be my first time ascending or descending on a rope taking photos,’ Aurélie said. ‘I’ll need to be on the climbs myself, and fly from the top in a two-seater paraglider.’ Fortunately, Zeb is a paragliding instructor, and he took her for a tandem flight to practise take-off – before we all found ourselves doing this for real on a sandstone tower. Aurélie’s excitement grew as the departure date neared: ‘I couldn’t dream of having better friends for an adventure like this – mountaineering legends!’
In the weeks prior to departure, we made contact with a Bedouin couple named Ali and Alia, and they agreed to be our hosts for the duration of our stay. Combined with Aurélie’s training and some research into possible routes, we felt ready – or as ready as we were ever going to be.
Wadi Rum is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural and cultural richness, and the climbing there is very special, renowned throughout the world. Few routes are equipped with much fixed gear, so we carried nuts and cams for runners – really adventurous trad, although over the years climbers have equipped the belays for certain routes described in guidebooks, making their access less challenging. A lot of the routes are run out. Superb cracks, chimneys, offwidths, a little face climbing on small holds: Wadi Rum has it all. Although the holds are now quite solid on most of the classic routes, it’s different on new routes or lesser-climbed esoterica, where you are never safe from breaking something. It’s advanced climbers, with a good sense of observation and orientation, in addition to technical skills, who get the most out of Wadi Rum. You don’t need to be happy on 7a, but you definitely need to be a good all-rounder to be safe in this terrain.
What struck me most about the place was the beauty and variety of the rock. The textures, colours, and formations were a surprise every time, and the potential for new routes there is huge. Everywhere my eyes wandered I found myself fascinated. I never got tired of the views – nor the climbs.
Our introduction to the valley came the morning after our arrival, and what an introduction it was. The anticipation was palpable as the three of us crammed into the back of Ali’s four-by-four, which bounced along over the rough terrain. The desert surrounded us: an ocean of sand, sometimes white, sometimes red, dotted with gigantic towers of ochre sandstone. ‘It is so much bigger than I had imagined!’ Zeb exclaimed, ‘And it is beautiful.’
Crossing the Barrah Canyon, we started to spot the mythical routes that would occupy us for the following days. Then we arrived at a particularly aesthetic rock tower that was home to our initiation route. Our first climb, Le Bal des Chameaux, gave us a taste for climbing in Jordan: walls of abrasive and sometimes brittle rock, interspersed with long cracks tracing the route from one fascinating geological form to another, all in broad shades of ochre. What a pleasure to feel this element under our fingertips.
And it was no ordinary climbing. In addition to our usual technical gear, I was carrying my paraglider, Zeb a tandem wing, and Aurélie had all her filming equipment. Although Zeb and I had more experience, Aurélie carried herself well and soon learnt the word renfougne – to contort oneself inside cracks or chimneys (many of which were too narrow to climb with packs). After several pitches, we arrived at a relatively flat but small summit with sweeping views of the surrounding area.
Time to fly. In this terrain we couldn’t afford mistakes. Even on a seemingly harmless take-off, you must assess the rock formations and aerology, placing your wings in exactly the right spot. Although it was November, with soft conditions and no big thermals, we did not underestimate the risks. The tops of these massifs were not completely flat, but rather formed of many domes of varying sizes and heights. The trick was to pick the right dome for a safe take-off.
Zeb, with the precise expertise of someone who has flown from the highest summits of the seven continents, took a few minutes to assess the situation. ‘The terrain is cramped, but it falls steeply – a good thing – so if we have a little wind to properly inflate the wing we can take off from here and enjoy the descent.’ Although I had flown from many different places in my life, I felt reassured by Zeb’s knowledge and experience, and from Aurélie’s expression I knew that she felt the same. The climbing may have been well below my limit, but with flying there are always unknowns. And Aurélie was completely new to this. I felt the pressure for everything to go well, and a background tension grew as I tried not to think about what might happen if it did not.
Following Zeb’s advice, I spread out my wing on the dusty rock surface to prepare for take-off. There was not much room for preparing the paraglider before jumping into the void. A light breeze from the south touched my cheek, but a few gusts from behind unnerved me – far from perfect. The ground at our feet was less than ideal, too. Small flakes were catching at my lines. Would this prevent us from lifting our wings properly? I found myself only 2m from the edge. It would be worse for Zeb with his much bigger tandem wing.
I caught Aurélie’s eye for a moment – she looked worried now. ‘I have never done such a take-off,’ I admitted with a smile to her, ‘and it stresses me out, scares me a little.’ I did not voice this out loud to make her more worried, but to give form to the anxiety, remind us all that a little fear can be a good thing, that it shouldn’t be hidden away. Sometimes it helps to sharpen the decision-making process.
We had to wait for a proper face wind, but with Zeb by my side, and 100 per cent focused, I took off like I had never taken off before. And it was glorious. Soon enough, I could hear whoops of joy from Zeb and Aurélie in the tandem glider behind me. Our first climb and flight had been a success. And the tone of our trip was set.
Back down at the valley floor, a man sitting in the shade of his tent had seen our flight. He invited us eagerly in to share a cup of tea, strong and very sweet – our introduction to Bedouin hospitality, and the first of many positive interactions with people who had seen us fly overhead. These nomadic desert people have a tradition of welcoming and helping people in the desert. Soon enough, Ali came back in his vehicle to pick us up and take us back to his camp, where we would be staying for some of our time in Jordan.
We soon learnt that the Bedouin have set up sites in the desert with small traditional tents surrounding a communal living space. Here travellers can warm themselves around a fire – nights are cold in the desert – and share the local cuisine, mainly based on houmous, shrak (pita bread), chicken, and rice. As we entered the camp, I was struck by how its construction respected the style of traditional nomadic life while being more comfortable than I had expected. Solar panels provided a few hours of electricity. There were even reservoirs with fresh water – a precious resource in this arid place. The Bedouin have benefited from the development of tourism, but they also try to preserve the authenticity of their way of life.
The climbing highlight of our time in Wadi Rum came in a route called La Guerre Sainte: ‘The Holy War’, an arrow-straight route of 400m and 12 pitches on the vertical wall of the Nassrani North summit. Our plan was to climb this more difficult route without paragliders. Rain all night dampened spirits and resolve, and I was not psyched to climb knowing that the sandstone would be more fragile now – bolts would be weaker, and we would run the risk of breaking holds. But Zeb was less worried. After two pitches, we could see that the rock above was dry, and between us we decided to keep going. Pitch after pitch I got the flow back and enjoyed the rest of the route all the way to the top. This magnificent climb seemed to get better with every pitch, some of which had thrilling technical moments, and while Aurélie stayed on the ground watching us through her long lens I enjoyed sharing the emotions of this wall with Zeb.
As we descended, I found myself thinking that it had been a long time since I had climbed such a satisfying route in such a special place.
Combining flight with climbing is quite simply magical. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction of flying next to the rock face you have just climbed, looking down on the village of Rum before landing at its entrance. Then being welcomed home by the Bedouin and their children, who had been pointing up at us in the sky a few moments before. We spent half our time in the village – a noisy and lively place filled with dogs, chickens, and camels – and got to know the people there, many of whom were curious about our adventures.
Walid, the 20-year-old son of Ali and Alia, had watched us fly several times and could hardly stop asking us about it. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could help him fly before we have to head home?’ I mentioned to Zeb, and this planted the seed of an idea.
Together, we climbed a large dune with the tandem glider. As soon as Walid figured out what was going on, his excitement could barely be contained, although he shook his head steadfastly when Zeb asked him to put on a helmet. ‘My turban will be just as protective!’ he insisted. Cries of joy echoed over the desert of Wadi Rum when they took off into a steady headwind, and I will always treasure the memory of Walid flying in his kamis (traditional Bedouin dress), long legs in his white trousers hanging beneath the canopy and a smile of pure happiness on his face.
First published in Sidetracked Volume 26