Climbing Mount Sinai

Monday, January 25, 2010

You have to give Moses some credit, because he was not a young man when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, at least not if you believe the pictures of him with the flowing white beard and all. Plus he had to come all the way down hauling a couple of stone tablets. I just had to haul myself and a light pack of extra clothes, snacks and water, and I was seriously huffing by the time I’d trudged to the top, 2,285 metres up, and back down again.

We have a new guide for Egypt, and we’re all thrilled. Ahmed is a young and enthusiastic Egyptian who gives us more information in 10 minutes than our Jordanian guide gave us in four days. Ahmed is FANTASTIC, and makes me realize exactly how crappy our Jordanian guy was. Always trying to please, Ahmed gave us a choice about the climb up Mount Sinai. We could either get up at about 3:00 am and climb through the pre-dawn hours to get to the summit in time to see the sunrise, or we could climb at about 2:00 pm and get there in time to see the sunset. Happily, the group agreed that the sunset option was better, a decision for which I am still profoundly grateful. Doing the climb in daylight and relatively warm(ish) temperatures was taxing enough. Having to do it in the middle of the night, in the dark, in the freezing cold would have been no fun at all. Luckily, the evening climb worked better with our schedule. It meant that the group of us who wanted to see the famous St. Catherine’s Monastery, home of the burning bush (yes, that burning bush) could go there in the morning, while those of us who wanted to go snorkeling in the Red Sea could do that. Later we’d meet at our hotel so the mountain trekkers could head out, and the lazy bastards who were not trekking could lounge about eating bon bons and napping.

I decided to skip the monastery, even though the LP calls it “unmissable” (apparently this isn’t strictly correct, because I missed it and lived to tell the tale). Instead I went snorkeling, and it was fantastic. The water was chilly, but not nearly as cold as we’d been lead to expect, and the sea life was the best yet. Spain’s snorkeling was fun because it was the first time I’d done it, though there wasn’t much to see. There was more to see in Zanzibar, but the water was a bit cloudy. In the Red Sea, near Dahab, the views were just great. We snorkeled around the top of a popular dive site called the Blue Hole, and it was just lovely. The water and the sky were both clear and blue, and we slipped easily into the sea right at the top of the Blue Hole.

Right away there was lots to see – schools of striped fish, coral reefs, anemones and plant life. The sun shone full on the face of the reef so you could see everything. And if you floated over the top of the deep area where the SCUBA divers were heading the sunlight streamed all around you almost like it was being poured into the water. It honestly looked like a Hollywood special effect. At one point I just floated there motionless, watching the light play through the water and feeling supremely content, when a big school of fish swam by right underneath me. Monastery be damned, the snorkeling was the right choice on that morning.

But back to the mountain. Ahmed hired us a local Bedouin guide named Nasr who purported to speak English, and who would be paid only if he delivered us all safely back down the mountain in five or six hours time. Nasr was an ok guy, but his English was limited (though miles better than my Arabic), and he seemed most concerned with getting us to slow down.

But back to the mountain. There are two routes up – the more gentle camel trail and the punishing 3,750 “Steps of Repentance”. Despite the fact that I’ve probably got lots to repent for by now, we took the camel trail. It started out as a gentle switchback trail that wound back and forth along the side of the mountain.

The camel trail, with camels. You could hire a camel to ride most of the way up, for about 90 Egyptian pounds (about $18)

The trail started out quite gently, but it became steeper and steeper the higher we got. The whole climb is supposed to take about three hours, and includes a very steep set of 750 steps at the end. Even if you ride a camel most of the way up, you still have to climb those 750 steps on your own. Luckily, there are a lot of small stalls along the way where locals will happily try to sell you souvenirs, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and Snickers bars.

Sole Man Coffee Shop (scheduled to be replaced by a Starbucks in April)

I climbed mostly with Emma and Fabio, two of the gang I’d walked around Petra with (Jammal left us in Aqaba to head for a skiing holiday in France. Jerk.) We figured that the camel trail part would be no big deal, and the 750 steps at the end would be a lot like the climb up to the monastery at Petra. In fact it was quite a bit more strenuous than we expected. The camel trail became steep enough to be an effort, and the steps were a real challenge. In fact, calling them “steps” is perhaps a bit generous. They were uneven and rough and sometimes non-existent. It wasn’t as hard as a marathon or anything like that, but I would equate it to a really hard track workout (Something like 10 x 800m intervals, for those who’ve had the pleasure). Add to that the fact that the temperature in the sun was quite warm, but it was quite cold in the shade, and the fact that I was sweating quite a bit, so it was really easy to get chilled from being wet at the same time you were being baked in the sun. I was constantly adding and removing layers of clothing to try and stay comfortable and dry, without much success.

But I did it. Fabio was the first to reach the top, and I was close behind. We made it in just under two hours, which makes me wonder how many cups of tea you’d have to stop and drink for it to take three hours.

Me, at the top of Mount Sinai, looking surprisingly fresh.

There’s really not a lot to see at the top – a small Greek Orthodox Church, a mosque, some random steps and rooms that were all closed off, and one of the Top Five Worst Toilets of the Trip. I’m not kidding, it was bad, and don’t forget I’ve been to Africa now and have seen some doozies. (Photo over at Flickr, but I figured I did not need to subject you to it here.)

Because we’d climbed so quickly we had about an hour to wait until sunset, so we sat around and tried to dry off and warm up. I put on all the extra layers of clothing I had, and we accosted some friendly Belgian ladies to take our picture.

Emma, me, Jessica, Fabio, Anna and Ron. And it was quite windy – that’s why my hair looks weird and big like that. And yes, I am obsessed with my hair these days. Get used to it.

Scholarly opinion among the real photographers in the groups was that the light would probably have been better at sunrise, but everyone was grateful we’d done the hike when we did. The closer it got to sunset, the more people arrived, though it was never really crowded. This was another advantage of doing the afternoon trek. Apparently most people prefer the sunrise, so there are a lot more people around for that. The LP says that in the busiest part of the year there can be up to 500 people at the summit, though I can’t imagine where they’d all stand; it’s really quite a modest spot.

Finally, the sun set and we all took loads of photos and then scurried off so we could make it down the nasty steps while there was still some lingering twilight.

My camera is really not smart enough to take great sunset pictures, but here’s one of the better ones, including a group of insanely fit Austrians who left us in the dust on the hike down.

The trip down was not bad. We all had flashlights or headlamps because it was completely dark by the time we made it down, which took about an hour and 45 minutes. And Ahmed was waiting for us at the bottom, bundled up and complaining about the cold that his skinny Egyptian body is not equipped to deal with. The whole trek really was quite an effort, and by the time we got into the warm bus for the short ride back to the hotel I was exhausted. Then there was a reasonable buffet supper back at the ranch, made memorable by the fact that the place actually had BEER for sale. It was an outrageous 30 Egyptian pounds for a bottle (about $6.00), but it was also the first time I’ve been able to have a beer with a meal since arriving in the Middle East, so I paid it grudgingly.

After supper I managed to stay awake long enough to clear my luggage off my bed and watch about 3 minutes of “Shaolin Soccer” on Fox Movies, originally in (I think) Chinese, but dubbed into English, with Arabic subtitles. I’m sure pulled up the covers and closed my eyes before 9:00 pm. It had been a long day.

As for Moses, I really hope that when he made it all the way down with those stone tablets someone was waiting for him with a beer, and I hope it didn’t cost him £30. I mean, really.


Unknown said...

Your hair looks great, expecially on top of that great big grin.

Happy trails...

Rob H.

Kathryn said...

My legs hurt just reading that post!
And - because I am that kind of person - I checked out the toilet photo. REALLY bad. Moses probably was disgusted too.

Lisa said...

I'm with Rob...the new "do" suits you - carefree and happy!!!

Marilyn said...

I'm jumping in with the group on the hair. I'm thinking it's got some volume happening there.
Keep the tale acoming, enjoying it on the cold side of earth.

Unknown said...

Great post!
Happy Birthday Pam! Must be Wednesday by now. :)

Anonymous said...

My working hypothesis after reading this is that hiking up "Mount" anything is more strenuous, and with nastier toilets, than the guidebooks indicate. Reminds me of my Mt Fuji experience.... :)

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