ECHOES IN THE DESERT

A group of climbers ex­plore the an­cient trails of Jor­dan’s Wadi Rum, dis­cov­er­ing Be­douin.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story & pho­tog­ra­phy by Paul Niel

I COULD HEAR THE DES­PER­A­TION. “Oh no !” said An­toine, as he hung spec­tac­u­larly, 15m above me. His right hand, rolled into a fist, was jammed into a five­cen­time­tre-deep crack, to­gether with his right foot. His full body weight dan­gled from those pre­car­i­ous holds, while with his left hand he was ur­gently try­ing to loosen a cam from the crack. “I just moved it a few cen­time­tres higher and now it's stuck,” he tried to apol­o­gise. A camelot, or cam for short, is a spring-loaded safety de­vice that climbers squeeze into small cracks to pro­tect against a fall. We only had a lim­ited num­ber with us and it was im­por­tant we got this one free. It was also the only safety that cur­rently pro­tected An­toine from fall­ing back down to our an­chor and pos­si­bly down the en­tire route. From my own, more se­cure perch, I could see the desert floor sev­eral hun­dred me­tres be­low us. “I guess there is not much we can do to help,” my wife Es­ther, shar­ing the an­chor with me, said drily. I could see the ten­sion in her face but we both trusted in An­toine's abil­i­ties. We had been climb­ing with him for more than two years. One of France's most pro­fi­cient alpin­ists, he has won the Pi­o­let D'OR, moun­taineer­ing's high­est award and climbed re­mote peaks in Patag­o­nia and Green­land. It had been his idea to join him on this trip, an ex­plo­ration of the scram­bling and climb­ing routes in Jor­dan's fa­mous Wadi Rum, a dra­matic sys­tem of val­leys in the South­ern Desert of Jor­dan. The min­utes passed with the faint noise of French curs­ing con­tin­u­ing un­til we heard a loud, “Ah yes, got it out”. With a few dy­namic moves he con­tin­ued up the crack over the last re­main­ing me­tres of wall and just a few mo­ments later we joined him at the top. I had vis­ited Wadi Rum once be­fore. In 2005 I em­barked on a road trip through the Mid­dle East, back when Syria was still safe to travel. Hav­ing to do it on the cheap, I rented a small car and ven­tured into the desert but soon got stuck in the desert sand. A party of Be­douin in a ram­shackle Land Rover pulled me out and of­fered to show me their home­land. I re­mem­ber walk­ing be­tween stun­ning bee­hives of lay­ered sand­stone, through nat­u­ral arches and up the face of dunes the colour of honey or blood de­pend­ing on the time of day. Even then the steep cliffs seemed to be an ob­vi­ous mag­net for climbers, but I hadn't the time to join them. Thir­teen years later, I was fi­nally back. To­gether with Es­ther and An­toine I was there to test our skills on an­cient climb­ing routes and en­joy Be­douin hospi­tal­ity. Wadi Rum has been in­hab­ited since pre­his­tory with dif­fer­ent cul­tures hav­ing left us rock paint­ings and pet­ro­glyphs – an­cient graf­fiti – daubed on the rock. Some of th­ese relics, along with tem­ples and other struc­tures, date back to the Na­bateans, a peo­ple that con­trolled wide ar­eas of the Ara­bian penin­sula un­til they were swal­lowed up by the Ro­man em­pire in 100BC. Their capital was long-lost Pe­tra, to­day Jor­dan's most fa­mous at­trac­tion, whose del­i­cate rock-cut tem­ples in rose sand­stone are an un­miss­able sight on any ex­plo­ration of the coun­try. Wadi Rum is best known for its con­nec­tion with the Bri­tish Army of­fi­cer, T. E. Lawrence, who passed through here sev­eral times dur­ing the Arab Re­volt in World War I. He fa­mously de­scribed his first im­pres­sions of Wadi Rum: “We looked up to the left to a long wall of rock,

sheer­ing in like a thou­sand-foot wave to­wards the mid­dle of the val­ley; whose other arc, to the right, was an op­pos­ing line of steep, red, bro­ken hills.” While it was camel's back in Lawrence's day, to­day 4WD ve­hi­cles are the usual beasts of bur­den, fer­ry­ing tourists about on day trips to the desert or up to the an­cient Na­bataean ru­ins of Pe­tra, just an hour's drive away. The high­est jebel, the Ara­bic term for moun­tain, is Jebel Rum, the sec­ond high­est moun­tain in Jor­dan. It tow­ers to more than 750m, dom­i­nat­ing Rum vil­lage, a typ­i­cal thread­barelook­ing desert set­tle­ment. De­spite Wadi Rum's bur­geon­ing tourism in­dus­try, no ho­tels have been built here. There are only one- or two-storey build­ings, and the roads are roamed by camels and old trucks that have seen many bet­ter days. Tourists opt in­stead for lux­ury camps out in the sands, drawn by the ro­mance of a night sky far beyond the taint of mod­ern street­lights. Lux­ury was def­i­nitely ab­sent from our ac­com­mo­da­tion. We shared a ba­sic room with a few other Aus­trian climbers. The toi­let, a hole in the ground, dou­bles as shower and the mos­qui­toes were al­most queu­ing up to take turns to show their pref­er­ence for Euro­pean blood. What was miss­ing in com­fort though was made up for by tra­di­tional desert hospi­tal­ity. The gra­cious­ness and bear­ing of the Be­douin lived on in Atayek, our host, who stood slim and tall in the door­way, wear­ing his tra­di­tional white dish­dasha with a red-and-white che­quered head­scarf. He has been help­ing climbers and tourists in the area for decades. He is also the fa­ther of six lovely girls who cause havoc around the premises, es­pe­cially when An­toine tried to teach them slack­lin­ing. We all fell on the home cook­ing of Atayek's wife with rel­ish: lab­neh – a kind of thick yo­ghurt –with flat­bread and za­atar, or herbs, for break­fast; roast chicken, chick­peas and rice for din­ner. It was enough to sat­isfy the hunger of even the most ex­hausted ad­ven­turer. “Take a good map, lots of peo­ple have got lost! And start very early.” Atayek was ex­cited that we are at­tempt­ing one of the old Be­douin routes, the West-east Tra­verse of Jebel Rum. For hun­dreds of years lo­cals have been ven­tur­ing deep into the jebel and most of those around Wadi Rum were first as­cended by Be­douins. While the steep walls can seem un­climbable, a com­bi­na­tion of skilled route-find­ing, brave scram­bling and per­se­ver­ance lead them to the top of th­ese nat­u­ral fortresses long be­fore the first western­ers ex­plored the re­gion. Equipped with a de­cent topo, lots of wa­ter and the nec­es­sary emer­gency kit, we got a lift to the start point with Atayek's brother. I asked him whether he has climbed the moun­tains him­self: “Yes, many times as a young man. It's very beau­ti­ful, but you need to be re­ally care­ful. Very easy to lose the way!” We soon re­alised the truth in his words. We as­cended be­tween mas­sive boul­ders, up a steep val­ley canyon cut into the huge Jebel Rum mas­sif. The mas­sif ex­tends around 15km north to south while its east-west tra­verse is around 6km. Most peo­ple at­tempt it as a two-day ad­ven­ture and camp at the top, but we planned to ex­plore it in a sin­gle day. Small ledges wan­der the faces up and down. Choos­ing right lead us higher, but the choice was not al­ways easy. It's as though we were in a gi­ant game of Snakes and Lad­ders, hop­ing

to land in the right place where a weak­ness in the rock would al­low progress. Quite reg­u­larly some boul­der or steep face blocked the way, but with per­se­ver­ance we snaked higher, all the while thank­ful for the over­cast sky and slight breeze which made the tem­per­a­tures bear­able. Our map proved re­ally use­ful and after four hours we stood atop Jebel Rum, marked by a huge Jor­da­nian flag painted on the rock. The panorama was breath­tak­ing: the bare bones of the land jut­ting up through the sand to bake in the blaz­ing sun. The oth­er­worldly air has led to Wadi Rum be­ing called the Val­ley of the Moon, though it has of­ten been the set­ting for movies set on far more ex­otic places than the Moon. In the dis­tance we could pick out Rum vil­lage, sep­a­rated from us by a sheer maze of ridges and val­leys. Our fix point was the Great Siq, a gi­ant ravine in the mas­sif which we needed to rap­pel down into and fol­low as our exit route. Scram­bling down steep slabs, the rough sand­stone al­most al­lowed for Spi­der­man-like fric­tion as we de­scended to a small tree-cov­ered spot that had al­most cer­tainly been used as a camp­site by lost souls be­fore. Small cairns of stones helped show the way, but not al­ways cor­rectly. Feel­ing close to home we started to get care­less. “This is the way!” pointed An­toine. “You sure? I think it's here,” re­sponded a doubt­ing Es­ther. Erring be­tween rock tow­ers we sud­denly stood at a big drop – the Great Siq. A sin­gle rope in­di­cated that some­body had rap­pelled down here be­fore. But it looked very flimsy and we all agreed that this path was our last re­sort. The search con­tin­ued. Luck­ily we had fol­lowed the ad­vice to start early and now we had the ben­e­fit of a few ex­tra hours be­fore night fell. Once dark there would be no easy exit from this maze. The route we were de­scend­ing was called Ham­mad's route, named after Mo­ham­mad Ham­mad. He found this route back in the 1960s, climb­ing up and down the steep canyon to the sum­mit bare­foot and with­out safety equip­ment. The crux is a 5.9 step that is best aided with a dead cyprus tree that he jammed into the crack, Be­douin-style. I was re­lieved that we had ropes to rap­pel down what he had climbed with­out any safety equip­ment. “I think I found it” shouted Es­ther, point­ing at some rock carv­ings. Whether th­ese were an­cient rock carv­ings or graf­fiti from more re­cent tourist vis­i­tors is hard to de­ci­pher. There was sim­i­lar graf­fiti all over Wadi Rum, suc­ces­sive cul­tures hav­ing left foot­prints for more than 2,500 years. They were also ex­cel­lent way­points as I could firmly match them up with our map. We were back on track and after a few ex­posed boul­ders, were on our first rap­pel, right by Ham­mad's cyprus. Be­hind us we could hear dis­tant voices – de­scend­ing climbers, fol­low­ing our route. Rap­pelling into the shad­owed hush of the Siq felt like de­scend­ing into a cathe­dral. The wa­ter has carved very tall over­hang­ing walls through the years and we were in awe of Mother Na­ture ca­pac­ity to de­light. Soon we were back in Rum vil­lage, after nine hours of scram­bling, crawl­ing and way-find­ing, where we bumped into the three climbers that had de­scended be­hind us. They had com­pleted an as­cent of Pil­lar of Wis­dom, an im­pos­ing 250m, stepped sand­stone tower that is to­day one of the most fa­mous climb­ing routes in the area. It was

only so-named in the 1980s, after Lawrence's book, Seven Pil­lars of Wis­dom, which he had penned in the after­math of World War I. While most of the jebel sum­mits were climbed by Be­douins long ago, no real climb­ing hap­pened in Wadi Rum un­til the mid 1980s. Then, fas­ci­nated by the rock for­ma­tions in the film Lawrence of Ara­bia which was filmed here, a group of Bri­tish climbers re­ceived per­mis­sion from the Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ment to ex­plore in 1984. When the group ar­rived, they were wel­comed into Rum, then a small set­tle­ment of tents, by the lo­cal Sheik and in­vited to his desert camp. They asked whether they could have some help find­ing some good climbs. The Sheikh agreed to the pro­posal, but as the Be­douin had climbed ev­ery­thing, he wanted to know why the Bri­tish needed all that equip­ment when the moun­tains had been climbed with no aids! The vis­i­tors quickly dis­cov­ered that their hosts were ex­cel­lent moun­taineers. They lived and trav­elled with the Be­douin for sev­eral months, nam­ing all the moun­tains, and climb­ing Jebel Rum by var­i­ous Be­douin routes. The lo­cals proved sly part­ners – they'd point out routes and let the Brits have a go – some­times not ex­plain­ing that the seem­ingly straight­for­ward route might re­quire a bivy or two. Over time, more and more routes have been added, most of them now ref­er­enced in an ex­cel­lent guide­book by Tony Howard, a mem­ber of that pi­o­neer­ing ex­pe­di­tion. The pil­lar had turned into a true epic for the ex­hausted Scots, it seemed: “We started at three in the morn­ing, the climb­ing was easy but com­ing down was the hard part, we got re­ally lost!” Hav­ing just com­pleted a very long route our­selves, we passed on the pil­lar and in­stead aimed for The Beauty – an aptly named route on West Face of Jebel Um Ejil to the east of Rum. Again fol­low­ing ex­posed Be­douin trails into the narrow gorges, we found a mag­nif­i­cent 200m wall, with a fan­tas­tic crack up the first two pitches. De­spite what at first can look to be hor­ren­dously soft and loose climb­ing routes, Wadi Rum sur­prises with some ex­cel­lent climb­ing but cer­tainly the qual­ity of the rock does add a touch of ‘spice' to the routes. The im­pos­ing crack was fol­lowed by some del­i­cate and bal­anced face climb­ing and rounded off with a bold and scary off-width crack which was too wide for most of our gear. An­toine took the lead and pushed higher, mov­ing el­e­gantly de­spite the mishap with a stuck cam and soon we were stand­ing on the fi­nal an­chor and scram­bling on­wards to our sec­ond sum­mit in Wadi Rum. Climb­ing in the area fol­lows the tra­di­tional climb­ing ethos, and even the use of chalk is some­times frowned upon by lo­cals. Fa­mously, the team who first as­cended Pil­lar of Wis­dom used only three bolts. Re­cently some sports climb­ing routes have been bolted – most fa­mously Ji­had (also known as La Guerre Sainte), a wild multi-pitch route on the east­ern side of Jebel Um Ishrin. This 400m desert beast was bolted by French climber Ar­naud Petit and graded at 5.12c. While Rum vil­lage can at times be dusty and noisy – busy with Land Rovers shut­tling tourists back and forth, es­pe­cially around sun­set – the true desert feel­ing is never far away. Next morn­ing Atayek drove us into the Bar­rah Canyon, flanked

on three sides by walls so steep that we could drive right up to the start of the climb­ing routes. The driv­ers on scenic tourist drives know this too and while we were pre­par­ing for our climb of Mer­lins Wand, a jeep roared up. It was a group of teenagers from Shen­zhen who were vis­i­bly baf­fled that we were climbers from Hong Kong. After the in­evitable self­ies, we fi­nally got into the ver­ti­cal, though our moves were fre­quently com­mented on from be­low with screams of “You are crazy!” Once the tourist jeeps de­parted, the soli­tude of the desert en­gulfed us. Back down on the val­ley floor, we watched the rock slide from or­ange to deep­est red as the sun set. We col­lected some fire­wood and built a fire, lay­ing out our sleep­ing bags for our own night un­der the stars, our arms aching from climb­ing. As I lay back I won­dered when I had ever seen so many stars. At such mo­ments it was tempt­ing to think lit­tle has changed since the times of T.E Lawrence. The Be­douin are a ma­jor rea­son for that. They re­tain their highly pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and still have own­er­ship of much of the land, pro­tect­ing it from over-ambitious lux­ury de­vel­op­ments. It keeps alive the al­lure of the desert as a place of soli­tude and ad­ven­ture. After sev­eral days of tough climb­ing we were clearly tired, but we wanted one more route. The sky­line above our camp­site was marked by an ir­re­sistible steep pyra­mid – the north sum­mit of Jebel Bar­rah. Here we made some dar­ing ex­posed scram­bles to a field of large slabs just be­low the fi­nal sum­mit. Again a weak­ness in the rock al­lowed a sur­pris­ingly straight­for­ward way to the sum­mit from where we could over­look much of Wadi Rum. It was our last day and my gaze drifted out to the in­fin­ity of the hori­zon. Camels roamed in the val­ley be­low but oth­er­wise to­tal si­lence en­veloped the sur­real land­scape. In the heat of the mid­day sun, I un­der­stood why T.E. Lawrence de­scribed this place as, “Vast, echo­ing and God-like.” A land­scape, in­her­ently hos­tile and alien but mesmerisingly beau­ti­ful. Like so many be­fore us, the desert had caught us in its spell.

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SHIPS OF THE DESERT Camels are to­day pri­mar­ily for tourists only: the Be­douin pre­fer the con­ve­nience and speed of a 4WD.

ON PA­TROL The steep, ex­posed slabs of Jebel Bar­rah.

NESTED DOMES Look­ing out over the sun-baked sand and crags of Wadi Rum.

SCRAM­BLED LINES Find­ing the right route on Be­douin trails can be tricky.

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