In the footsteps of the Bedouin

Wadi Rum is an extraordinary place…

We were awoken on the first morning of our trip by the sound of the call to prayer echoing all around. Then later Musalam, our Bedouin host brought us a breakfast of pitta and hummous, with sweet black tea served in small glasses. There was no furniture so we all eat sat cross-legged with the food laid out in front of us. We stepped outside and found camels and goats wandering the streets and many of the locals including Musalam our host were wearing full Bedouin dress. The imposing and dramatic sandstone walls on either side of the village glowed orange in the rising sun, and to the south all we could see was a vast expanse of endless desert. It was easy to see why it is also referred to as the valley of the moon. Wadi Rum is unlike anywhere I had ever been before and I couldn’t quite believe that I was in such an awe-inspiring place.

The Bedouin were the first to explore the mountains, climbing without ropes, climbing shoes or climbing equipment to hunt for Ibex or find honey. Some of the traditional Bedouin climbs date back thousands of years, but some are more modern. The Bedouin Roads as they are often known are usually technically easier, but often long and complex routes, that usually finish on a summit. So after a short scramble and an explore around the village on the first day, we decided that a Bedouin Road would be an ideal introduction to Wadi Rum.

So Amy, Carol, Ian and myself set off in Rijm Assaf (Assaf’s Steps) to the summit of Wadi Rum (Jordan’s second highest mountain). We left just after 8am, having been well within the time suggested by the guidebook for our scramble on the first day, we felt we had plenty of time for a 3-5 hour ascent and a 2-3 hour descent, even though it would get dark at about 6pm.

We geared up at the base of the first Bedouin step. A short section of climbing at around UK VS standard. The Bedouin build cairns underneath any difficult sections to help overcome them. But even with the cairn, and my modern climbing equipment I struggled to lead it with all the weight of gear and water in my rucksack.

The route weaved on upwards for a bit, and we switched back to moving ‘Alpine style’ and after a few detours we arrived at the base of the second Bedouin step which was overhanging and exposed but with good holds. Fortunately it was Carol’s turn to lead this time.

It felt like we had already been climbing for some time but I could see that we still had a lot of distance on the ridge to cover, so we moved as efficiently as we could snaking around the ridge to find the correct line. It was very hot, and so climbing at any pace was hard work.

We were very relieved when we finally reached the summit domes, where the sandstone changed to a smoother and paler rock and formed miles and miles of summit domes. The guidebook didn’t provide a very detailed description for how to get to the summit from the top of the route, but fortunately there were cairns that led across the summit plateau. The initial ridge was around 250 metres, but we still had over a kilometre of rock to reach the summit.

We followed the cairns for some distance up and over and round many of the domes until they reached a rock crevasse about a metre wide and then continued on the other side. The rock gash was so deep we couldn’t see the bottom, there was no way round and to make matters worse the rock was undercut on the far side and I wasn’t sure it would hold my weight. In normal circumstances I would shake with terror, possibly even cry and need vast amounts of coaxing before I could be persuaded to leap across any kind of chasm. But there was no option, and the sun was already getting low in the sky, so as soon as Carol had fixed a belay, I just went for it! I made it just fine and then set up a belay for the others to follow.

We continued on not really knowing if the cairns that we were following were even headed in the right direction until we reached a col and the cairns disappeared. There was no obvious way to go, descending the way we had come up would be very difficult, I had run out of water and it was getting late so we were all starting to feel quite worried. An unplanned Bivvy was looking increasingly likely. But after some careful checking of the guidebook, Carol found the guidebook describing a descent down slabs after the col, so on we went until the route reached the base of the North Ridge of Jebel Rum where it joined with the descent route Hammad’s Route.

We knew it would get dark soon and we didn’t have enough time to go to the Summit so we headed straight down. We followed more cairns, moving as quickly as we could as the route weaved over and around domes and even almost doubled back on itself a few times. The summit plateau is really complex, between the domes are canyons and rock crevasses which often can’t be seen until you are right on top of them, and some of the domes have really steep sides which you can’t get down so to descend we had to find our way around all the canyons and crevasses, so it was a lot like trying to find our way out of a maze. Sometimes the cairns would disappear and we would all have to spread out and search until we could find them again.

As we approached the Great Siq, a huge narrow canyon which splits the whole plateau in two, and which we had to descend through to reach Wadi Rum the sun started to set. By the time we got to the top of the final long abseil into the Siq it was pitch black. I went down first. Abseiling down the steep sided canyon into the darkness with every sound echoing around me was extremely foreboding and a little bit scary. But I made it to the bottom ok, shouted for the others to follow and scrambled on ahead down the Siq to see if I could find the way. The Siq was no more than a few metres wide and the steep sided walls were over a hundred metres high in places, and I had to scramble over luminious green rock pools in the bottom of the canyon. As soon as I found the ramp that lead out of the canyon I sat down and switched my headtorch off to wait for the others. The view of the night sky through the slot in the canyon above my head was breathtaking, thousands of stars carpeted the Sky. It was one of those special moments, when you realise that you are in a really incredible place!

When the others arrived we all lingered for a moment to admire the beauty of the Siq in the darkness and the night sky, before heading up the ramp. As magnificent as the Great Siq was in the dark, we all knew it was the one place that we really didn’t want to spend the night, as we didn’t want to risk being caught out there if it rained. We all relaxed slightly once the Great Siq was behind us, but we still had a fair distance to cover along a ridge and and down the flank into the gully before we would be down from the mountain.

The ridge narrowed after a while and became quite exposed. It was hard to tell in the dark how close you were to the edge, so we all roped up again and put Carol on belay to find the way ahead. Thereafter the route took many unexpected twists and turns, weaving around giant boulders and we even had to squeeze through a tiny gap underneath a boulder onto a very exposed ledge which we traversed along until the reached the end where a short but tricky downclimb lead us into the gully.

We arrived back around 10pm to find a very relieved but surprised Musalam. After it got dark, he hadn’t expected us to be able to find the way down and thought that we would have to spend the night on Jebel Rum. He brought hot sweet tea and food that was the best I had ever tasted.

My friend Amy summed it up really well when she said that sometimes the magic only happens when you are outside your comfort zone. We certainly all felt outside our comfort zone having to descend through such a complex route in the dark, but it turned out to be an amazing experience, the Great Siq was such a staggeringly beautiful and humbling place to be at night, and we all supported each other and worked together as a team to find our way down.

Series - Wadi Rum

  1. In the footsteps of the Bedouin
  2. The Traverse of Jebel Rum

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