Wadi Rum is one of the premium destinations for desert rock climbing, and arguably the most popular major climbing venue in Middle East. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a connection to T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and so is a fairly popular tourist destination in Jordan, though it was never crowded with tourists during our visit. In our climing of 7 days in total, we spotted climbers in only 1 occasion on the crag we went to, despite the fact all the crags we visited were the most popular ones in Wadi Rum.
The rock in Wadi Rum is, unsurprisingly, basically soft sandstone. My experience of climbing on soft sandstone was limited. Although I practically grew up as a rock climber on gritstone, which is technically sandstone, I well know hard sandstone like gritstone is very different from soft sandstone for trad climbing. In short, my limited experience of the latter, such as a Scottish sea stack Am Buachaille, reminds me of fear due to insecurity of gear and rock…
My friend Neil had planned to visit Wadi Rum in 2017 November for trad climbing, and I joined him in a rather short notice. I expected many things in this trip would be the first-time experience for me, including climate and culture. I looked forward to it. Let’s find out how it panned out.
1 Take 1: Warm up or not (Jebel Rum)
Our chosen first route is The Pillar of Wisdom in Jebel Rum. Jebel Rum is a mountain in the walking distance from Wadi Rum village, where we were based, and hence its logistic is the easiest. The route is 15-pitches long but only up to F5+, except for the short crux (F6a+A0 or F6b). We thought it would be nice and easy as the first route of our trip to get a grasp of how climbing in the area is like.
It turned out to be an underestimate, and we ended up in an epic…
We first found climbing was a little harder than the guidebook grade, mainly because of insecurity due to variable rock quality, that is, often poor. As a result, it took a wee longer than our optimistic estimate. But overall it was not too bad — until we faced the last 2 pitches…
Neil took the penultimate pitch, the supposed crux. The in-situ gear the guidebook mentioned to protect the hard section did not exist. Neil bravely committed to the sketchy move (British-tech 5c) with no gear to protect it. Seconding the pitch, I was thankful it had not been my turn to lead.
Above it, there was one more pitch. The guidebook did not give it a grade, and so we interpreted it as not much more than scramble. I set off leading the pitch. I did not find much gear and so ran out repeatedly. But I should be fine on ungraded scrambling terrain, which should be F3 or something at most. Or really?
High up on the route, 10 metres above the last runner, I got stuck. The easier ground, and hence belay, was in sight in only another 5 metres. However, the last move to get to that point was hard enough and insecure due to poor quality of rock, and the next move looked the same, but just steeper, that is, harder. Feeling desperate, I placed a skyhook on a little edge. A skyhook is more psychological than trustable at the best of times. In this case, where any edges on the wall were soft, it was far worse. Falling is not an option.
Now, I have to make a high step on the same edge, and the crux will be over a move or two later. I place my left foot on the edge, and attempt to slowly mantleshelf. The sensitive rubber sole on my left foot feels the rock edge, and as I transfer the weight, I feel the edge to disintegrate…
Fortunately, disintegration stops in sub-seconds. It is only a partial break. I successfully stand on it, and move upwards quickly. That was scary…
Neil came up seconding in no time. I bet he saw a pale face of mine.
Our original plan was to keep walking up to summit, but we were already late at 15:30 when we finished the route. The descent alone would take a couple of hours according to the guidebook, and the sunset time is 18:30. Clearly, there was no time left for us to summit. We started descending straightaway by ascending more first and traversing to the descent route. Our trouble began, though unknown to us, yet.
The first trouble was to identify where the descent route is and starts. In a maze of similar-looking sand domes, it was not obvious at all as we had optimistically assumed. It was only after an extensive search we found it, while we were aware of our wasted time. We scrambled it down, made our first abseil off the in-situ anchor at the steepest section, and kept scrambling and walking down.
Then we had a next and major trouble. Where is the next abseil point? We could not find it.
We occasionally found cairns. However, every time we tried to follow them, we eventually lost the next cairn after a couple of cairns, or a hundred metres or two. Sand domes around us looked benign at the first sight. But they seemed to drop vertically at the edge in every direction we searched for, except for the direction from which we had come.
Opportunities of abseil were there in some, though limited, places if we were to make our own anchors and to leave gear. However, blind abseil to unknown territory is really the last resort, because there would be no way back, once we committed. Instead, we must find the correct abseil point on the descent route, where we should find in-situ anchors.
The clock was ticking. Under dry and clear sky in desert at a low latitude of Jordan, the sun goes down rather quickly. Before long it set compleltely.
We frantically scrambled up and down, traversing right and left, everywhere in the dark, relying on head torches. To make the matter worse, the battery of Neil’s was weak from the beginning, and was getting gradually depleted.
At last at around 9pm, we gave up. We were getting nowhere in the dark, sometimes visiting the same places repeatedly. We were very tired, having been on the mountain for 13 hours, mostly in heat.
We found a flat-ish and sandy spot and bivourced. We had no extra clothes — we had already worn everything we had, which was not much, while the temperature was plummeting rapidly since sunset. Of course we had no bivving kit. Each of us had one rope to use as an improvised carpet and blanket, and shoes and chalk-bag as a pillow. Our small rucksacks gave a tiny boost for leg insulation. But that was it. Cold night was inevitable…
1.3 Day 2
We get up at half 5 at dawn in the following morning, after not much sleep. We are cold and hungry. Neil kindly shares his last cereal bar with me. I have no food left.
However, we can not waste time. The most serious problem is water. We do not have much water left. There is no natural water source in the middle of a desert mountain.
We of course were aware water is vital in desert. Even in November, it still is very hot under direct sun during day in Wadi Rum, and the air is bone-dry. Not knowing how much water would be suffice in our first route, each of us brought a fair amount for the climb — we were prepared. However, immediately after finishing the route in the late afternoon the previous day, Neil realised he had brought too much, and threw most of the water, before starting our descent, expecting it would be quick and easy.
Now, crying over spilled milk, or abandoned water, is no use. We must start moving as soon as it becomes bright enough to be able to see. Later it becomes, hotter it becomes, and more serious the problem of shortage of water becomes.
So did we. Under sunlight, route-finding was definitely easier, if comparatively, and we found the descent route eventually. After long scrambling down and four separate pitches of abseiling with still tricky route-finding in between, we got down and returned to the village at 11:30 to our great relief.
Looking back at it, it is safe to say even the luckiest people could not have found the way in the dark, considering how tricky route-finding was even under daylight. We had to go up and down, right and left, in many places to search for the right descent route, and it still took over 5 hours for us to descend on the second day, despite the fact we had descended partially the previous day. The guidebook time of a couple of hours for descent is clearly only for those who know the route very well.
2 Take 2: Let’s take it easy (Barrah Canyon)
Our first climb was supposed to be a warm up. But it ended up in an epic.
So, our chosen second climb was a shorter and less serious one, Les Rumeurs De La Pluie in Barrah Canyon. We arranged a transport by 4WD to go to and back from the crag. It is 4 pitches of climbing up to F5+, followed by scrambling to reach the summit.
The line was strking. Though rock quality was varied again, climbing was pretty steady and it offered plenty of gear — up to the third pitch, as it turned out.
In contrast to up to the third pitch, which follows a major corner, the fourth pitch was on the face and the line was not obvious. We saw two pieces of in-situ gear, though in apparently separate lines. Which was the correct one?
Anyway it is only F5. I started to lead the pitch. I found although the grade of F5 might be right, the rock was very soft and gear was poor and sparse. My foot again found disintgrating edge at one stage, while climbing up, which Neil too heard the noise of. I was terryfied…
I eventually got into a serious position of a no-fall zone with the next move looking steeper and insecure. The last few moves had been too bad to consider reversing. I committed to the move, praying the rock edge would hold.
It did. I beach-whaled to a niche above, and constructed the belay. Lack of in-situ belay must mean either I was off route or the belay was further up. I had no idea.
The wall above the niche looked climbable and short. However, the rock is very soft. One of the smaller cams I had placed for the belay just came out while belaying, because the surface of the crack where it was placed crumbled down. After Neil came up, we unanimously agreed it would not be worth pressing on, and abseiled back down to the bottom from there.
Although it had been meant to be an easy day, it turned out to be another lesson of Wadi Rum climbing.
3 Take 3: Let’s take it easier… (Burdah Rock Bridge)
Wadi Rum desert rock accommodates some eye-catching structures. Our host and driver Mr S introduced us with Burdah Rock Bridge, an arch structure on the summit ridge of Burdah. The East Face of Burdah provides some medium-length rock routes. We chose the route Orange Sunshine on it, 10 pitches of 400m of mostly easy climbing up to F5. Then we would descend, crossing the Rock Bridge, to the other side of the mountain, where we would be picked up.
The experiene in the previous 2 routes had maybe upset me. In one of the earlier pitches, I went off-route near the top, hence missed the belay, without realising. In that section, though neither climbing nor gear had looked too bad from below, I realised it was serious when a hold disintegrated in my hand. The rock was highly untrustable… Though worried, I managed to climb up, and made a belay. Then I needed to abseil down for 10 metres to go back to the route proper, where Neil had stopped in his seconding. Before I started abseiling, while making double-checks, I realised I had not clipped the main rope to the abseil anchor… What a stupid close call. The rock was scary enough, but I made it (far) worse…
Composing myself after the abseil, I (and Neil) carried on and in a good pace — until reaching the bottom of the last head wall. We could not figure out the line on the head wall. Everywhere looked too steep for the supposed grade, and the vague topo and guidebook description were not of much help. Neil eventually picked up and started to lead a likely line of least resistance. Climbing did not look too bad from below. But the rock quality did. Neil did not place much gear — perhaps there wasn’t much. He shouted at me
Watch me! repeatedly.
Eventually he decided to give up, and climbed back down with another couple of
Watch me calls. Apparently, rock had been disintegrating under his hands and feet. There was virtually no gear — what few runners he had placed were all psychological. It sounded like a pure horror…
We searched for a solid enough structure, and abseiled from there for 2 pitches. We then traversed to the right, soloed the easiest line to the summit ridge and Rock Bridge, and rushed to descend to the other side. We were later than the arranged pick-up time.
Wadi Rum rock does not give in easily…
4 Take 4: Easiest day (East Face Towers)
After 3 routes of trouble of one way or another, we decided to take an easy day to climb short routes (3-pitch routes) with short approach in East Face Towers in Jebel Rum. East Face Towers are clearly visible and in easy walking distance from the village. No confusion in route-finding. The descent is a fuss-free abseil off the in-situ anchor from the top of a tower.
And the day went as planned! We enjoyed two straightforward routes, up to F6a (British E1). Wadi Rum rock was felt friendly at last.
5 Take 5: Best route (The Beauty)
We once had a chance to chat with a local guide, and one of the routes he mentioned was The Beauty in Jebel um Ejil. He had never done the route to the finish, because the crux pitch high up is an offwidth and requires a Friend No.5 to protect, which he did not have. I have one! Then, why not give it a go?
We found the route lived up to its name: The Beauty.
The first pitch was a superb corner crack (F5). Above, the cracks with mixture of various sizes (up to F6) lead to the meat of the route, the offwidth P5 (F5+/6a).
I took the pitch. It was a proper, aka gnarly, offwidth pitch, and turned out to be poorly protected even with Friends No.5 and 4 (No.6 is required to protect well, though the English guidebook tells to take a just No.4…). Like every other offwidth route, I thought I would give up while leading. But I managed to pluck up the will to continue, and made it cleanly, exhausted. It was a good feeling!
We abseiled down after P5 (without continuing scrambling to the summit) and descended with no trouble. This was the best route in Wadi Rum among those we climbed in this trip.
6 Take 6: Last climb (Purple Haze)
Our next route is Purple Haze in Jebel Khush Khashah. It is 10 pitches of mountain climbing up to F5. Though we were capable of climbing harder technical grade, we did not have, or had lost by that time, a strong desire to push the grade in this trip. Anyway, we expected 10 pitches of sandstone mountain climbing would be a good enough challenge.
And we were right. It was an entertaining climb — neither too had nor boringly easy. The rock quality was varied as usual, but overall was not too bad. We topped out in good time with no major trouble. The descent involved sketchy friction-dependent scrambling as usual, in addition to many abseil pitches, but overall was not too bad.
Maybe we have got accustomed to Wadi Rum climbing.
7 Epilogue of Wadi Rum climbing
After our last climb, we accepted an offer of Wadi Rum desert day-tour by Mr S (with a fee, of course) the following and our last day in Wadi Rum, including an easy hike followed by a picnic. We left Wadi Rum in the early morning the day after, visited Petra and Dead Sea, before leaving Jordan the day after.
This rather easy itinerary was not quite what we or certainly I had originally had in mind. In any climbing trips, I would rather want to go climbing, as long as the weather and my fitness permit. However, this trip turned out to be quite different from what I had expected.
I found desert rock climbing was rather terrifying with the quality of rock varied, or in other words generally poor. Feeling of rock disintegrating under a foot or hand is a horror. Not much assurance from gear, if there is any, is a terror. Even supposedly non-climbing sections, typically before or after a route, often involve friction-dependent (aka insecure) steep scrambling, and invoke a fear.
As we found on our first climb, although sand towers are not sharp and peaky like alpine peaks, the fact they do not have a narrow peak does not mean at all they are gentle. The walls are as steep as alpine rock, often vertical to overhanging, and often there is no easy way up or down. Mushroom Rock is a good example, featuring the walls of every directions steeply overhanging.
To make the matter worse, sandstone lacks of features, hence holds and gear. Featureless sandstone also means route-finding is often tricky, as every sand structure looks the same and is just rounded. Consequently, both or either of ascending and descendiing may not go as you would hope.
All in all, I found climbing on desert sandstone to be pretty demanding and rather stressful. That is the reason I did not feel a strong drive to push the grade. Then, when Neil suggested to accept the offer of a tour of desert with easy walking, instead of climbing, for our last day, I was happy to agree.
Another unique thing of this trip was that the cultural aspect turned out to be more memorable than climbing, which was unusual and had never happened to me, an obsessed climber, before in any of my climbing trips abroad. Initially, I had not been overly keen to spend a day for sightseeing (Petra etc) before leaving Jordan, which Neil suggested. However, by the time Neil finalised the itinerary during our stay in Wadi Rum, I had absolutely no objection. It was partly because I had been mentally tired, but also because I had found the culture in Jordan was interesting.
I admit I am not in a rush to go back to Wadi Rum for climbing. But this trip was certainly a very memorable one for me!
8 Jordanian cultural experience
I had had little to no first-hand experiences on the desert environment (climate) or Arabic, let alone Bedouin, cultures and life-styles. This trip was very interesting in that respect.
The most common but ignorant impression about the desert may be an endless lifeless field of soft sand except in oases, and under continous sunshine.
That was indeed the case in many places in Wadi Rum. Walking on such fields was tough, feet sinking deep with every step. Guidebooks warn sand is so deep in some specific places that powerful 4WDs are strongly advised to cross over. But some places are rocky, rather than sandy. Of course, that is why Wadi Rum is a premium climbing destination!
In that geography, people literally drive everywhere and anywhere as soon as they leave the edge of the village, where roads end abruptly to the open field. Accustomed to the feeling of vehicle driving on the road or track, I found it to be strange. In many places in desert I saw wheel tracks by previous cars. However there may not always be much reason to follow it strictly, because to follow a deep rut on soft sand may be a bad idea in some places as the tyres of your car would sink even further.
Both soft sand and snow are hard work to walk on. Nevertheless, sand is not like snow, which is usually solidified more after more traffic. Desert sand was different medium from anything else to the extent more than I had thought.
Typical desert scenery. The driver of our arranged transport in his 4WD did not turn up in time after our climb. We started to walk to the village, which would have taken 2 hours or so (but he eventually came up).
Camels are a common sight in Wadi Rum. Apparently pretty much all the camels belong to some one (of Bedouin).
Shortly after I had arrived in Wadi Rum, I noticed local people (Bedouin) casually use woods every day and night to make fire for heating of the place, water and food. I wondered where they got woods from, as I did not see much vegetation in and around the village and thought any plants must be in short supply and be valuable resources.
Days later, I found people just get out in the desert and collect woods. Although trees are scarce, the desert is vast, and so people can easily find enough (perhaps dead) woods in desert for their daily need. And any woods from dead trees must be bone dry, unlike those in places in wetter climate.
In the desert, I saw a much greater amount of vegetation of bushes and some trees as a whole than I had ignorantly thought. Desert of Wadi Rum is, though not friendly for big creatures like mamals, not a death world like Dead Sea, and accommodates plants. That is what Bedouins feed their cattle, too, in addition to using for their need as a fuel.
A local’s word, when we saw a more unhealthy-looking bunch of vegetation in an area, gave a hint how they survive in the super-dry weather.
It did not rain here in the last rainy period several months ago, and so the plants die.
Plants in desert have to survive with water from rain once a year or something, then. What a tough and hard life!
Our initial plan of accommodation in Wadi Rum was camping. In Wadi Rum, there are no western-style hotels or hostels, despite the fact it is a fairly popular tourist destination. It seems travellers take accommodation plans usually hosted by Bedouins. There was even an AirBnB. Those found on the Internet seemed to be far too expensive for us, as well as too luxurious for our need.
However, when we arrived at Wadi Rum, as soon as we got off the taxi we had taken, a local Bedouin guy talked to us, suggesting we would stay in his place with food inclusive. After some chat of negotiation about the conditions, including the fee, which was a bargain compared with accommodation found on the Internet, we decided to accept his offer. Our accommodation and food were sorted, suddenly and unexpectedly.
It turned out to be the best decision for us, and we were lucky! We had the most precious cultural experience. Besides, staying in a tent under scorching sun would have been a torture and sorting out food would have been a little problematic, troublesome, and likely more expensive.
8.2.1 Trips in the desert
Wadi Rum village is a major oasis in the desert and the home of Bedouin, where people live a modern cililised life with water, electricity, and broadband supplies etc. That was our base, where the house of our host Bedouin Mr S is.
A majority of climbing venues are somewhere out in the desert, except for a few major crags and mountains in waking distance from the village. Conveniently, Mr S provided us with a lift (with a fee) by his 4WD. Usually his children were our company whenever he drove.
Apparently health and safety regulation does not exist. Our usual seats were on the load-carrying platform back of his car, where benches were crudely fitted with no seatbelts. We found it is actually the standard in Wadi Rum. I had to cling to the frame hard in fear of being thrown out during drive on a rough terrain, while his kids were sitting casually next to us, sometimes fiddling with their smartphones with both hands.
In our desert-tour day trip, Mr S brought a rifle, hoping to shoot an ibex (or something similar) if he finds one, for a dinner. The gun was initially placed on the passenger seat, where his littlest kid was sitting, while driving. When we were passing a potential area of ibexes in the desert, he loaded a bullet, putting the gun on his laps, of which the muzzle was pointed outside out of the window, and carried on driving with a lighted cigarette in his hand. I was dumbfounded with his casual handling of a lethal weapon…
8.2.2 Life at home
Sitting around an open fireplace and passing time, especially during dinner, seems to be a tradition in Bedouin. Woods are the fuel. There is an outdoor fireplace at Mr S’s place in the village; carpets are laid down directly on sandy ground around the central fireplace and the whole is place under textile roof (like a big tent), except one wall fully open to the outside. People sit down on the carpet or even lie down to relax. The etiquette is you must take off shoes before going in.
Basically Bedouin people do not mind at all walking on sand with bare feet. Sand intrudes, inevitably, everywhere even inside houses, let alone on the carpet around fireplaces. The climate is very dry, and so is sand. Then, contrary to my initial instinctive impression, sand is perhaps reasonably hygienic, and near-constant contact with sand is not a big deal. Anyway sand does not stick to your body, unlike sand on the beach after swimming. That is a bit of revelation!
The staple food seems to be flat bread, which is always reheated directly on firebed in the fireplace. You do not mind tiny spots of charcoal on the surface of flat bread. Staple drink is tea, loads of cups of tea, with loads of sugar. Water is boiled in a sooty kettle put directly on the firebed. Be it at home or out in desert (for picnic, for example), Bedouins do the same. Perhaps it is a natural life style for nomads?
8.2.4 Desert camp
Some Bedouins live out in the desert in their own camps, looking after their livestock, and they move around from one place to another at times. In one of the return journey from the desert after a day’s climbing, Mr S suggested a night stay in one of the private Bedouin camps out in the desert (with a fee), rather than going back to his place as usual.
We accepted the offer, and that was amazing! We were treated with a hot meal served around the semi-open fireplace, similar to that in Mr S’s house in the village. We slept there on the carpet around the fireplace. One wall of the place was open to the outside, and the night sky was, as usual, clear. It was a memorable experience.
There was a couple of other families living next to their camps, beyond which there was just a vast desert. They keep many camels, goats and sheep. We had once seen the mistress of the camp in Mr S’s place in the village. He introduced her as one of his wives. I did not expect it… I had had a knowledge a man is allowed to have up to four wives in Islam, but the possibility was not in my mind.
The camp where we stayed is basically her place, and Mr S regularly visits her. She comes to the village, too, and seemed to be in good relationship with his other wife. Some children also live in the camp. They commute to school in the village every day, apparently.
8.2.5 Language and culture
Neither of Neil and I speak Arabic. But that was not a big trouble, because practically all the Bedouin people, including school-age children, speak English more or less, whereas ordinary Jordanian people do not. The primary reason for their bilingual skill is, as I heard, Bedouin schools are taught in English.
I understand Bedouin people are basically nomads in tradition and more or less merchants, trading over desert. I found Mr S, too, was a good business man; he tried to sell us various optional services like the overnight stay in the desert with fees at a spot-on rate, which were neither too cheap nor unreasonably expensive for us, and so we bought them and we were glad with what we got. I suppose English language must be important for merchant Bedouin people in this modern world and it makes perfect sense they are taught English at school from youth.
I had heard Bedouin people are friendly. I confirmed it. As a pinnacle example, when we were in a village shop and chatted with a random passer-by, he bought us a drink (soft drink, of course, it being in Arab) in the end of conversation and just left the place.
The primary religion in Wadi Rum and of Bedouins is Islam. There is a mosque in the village and Azan is heard at sunset etc. However, apart from adult women wearing scarves and apparent lack of alcohol in shops, there was nothing I could identify about their religion.
The gender roles seem to be more strictly defined for them than in the present UK. Cooking is definitely women’s role, for example. We did not see many women in the desert. While Bedouin men were generally friendly, (adult) women seemed to refrain talking to us male foreiners beyond necessity. I presume that is Bedouin’s culture, too. By contrast, the situation in urban areas in Jordan seemed more open. For example, I saw a big group of female Muslim teenagers likely in a school trip walking in Petra, and many women were selling goods in shops in cities.
Smartphones seem to be very popular in Bedouins, too. Women and even small children were using ones for just as frequently and continuously as Western people do. Although there is no signal in most places out in the desert, 3G is available in Wadi Rum village, which provides usable broad band. Like everywhere else, I anticipate that will be a game changer for even traditional Bedouins in the current and next generations.
8.2.6 Bedouin and climbing
A vast majority of modern classic rock-climbing routes in Wadi Rum were apparently first ascended by Westerners and are named in either English or French. However, there are some easy-grade classic routes called
Bedouin’s Route and alike.
Did Bedouins climb traditionally? I guess it is like everywhere else — the easiest ways to go over a mountain, perhaps to the other side, were taken by the locals and the most striking features like rock bridges were climbed centuries ago, as long as they are not too difficult.
In sandstone mountains in Wadi Rum, we often encountered moderately steep sections of rock before, after, or in between the main pitches of climbing. Though friction is generally not too bad on sandstone, its crumbling nature often gives a climber a sense of insecurity. However, it can be a different story for the locals, who used to those sandstone in their backyard desert in their entire lives. They may feel at home on them even in crudest trainers or sandals. Indeed Mr S said he had climbed a
Bedouin’s Route, even though he has no equipment or skill of proper rock-climbing.
The route Les Rumeurs De La Pluie we climbed involves steep scrambling to get to the bottom belay. Neither of us thought twice to change into climbing shoes to negotiate it. Sure enough, I then found it to be insecure even in climbing shoes, and would have set up a belay to protect if a beginner climber were to come up after me. Then, while I was belaying Neil on the first pitch, a Bedouin friend passed by, spotted us, and casually clambered up the scrambling section to greet me. His footwear was of course not suitable for climbing by anyone’s eyes. I was amazed. Clambering it was hard enough, but how would he get down? Well, he is a Bedouin, and so probably knows what sandstone is like intimately. It must be just a daily activity and not a big deal for him, being different from a wimpy climber like me, thought I. My respect!
After a few minutes of chat, he was to leave and asked me:
How can I get down?
Perhaps desert sandstone is hard and scary to climb for anyone after all…