The Citadels of Sinai Granite
The Sinai Peninsula is something very well known from ancient history to modern times. The Sinai lies on Egypt’s Eastern edge (in Africa) between the Mediterranean Sea (to the north) and Red Sea (to the south), sharing a border with Israel, Jordan and Saudia Arabia (to the West) forming a land bridge to Southwest Asia.
Frankly speaking – we all hear something about the Sinai, have read the articles and the Bible about Moses and other stories. War with Israel; conflicts; and religion--all that underlies the history of the inhabitants of Sinai. For the last 30 years the Peninsula has become a major tourist destination for outdoor recreation, hiking, diving in the many coral reefs and of course it’s rich biblical history.
The Sinai “half island” closely connects Africa with the Middle East. This half island is wedged between the Gulf of Suez to the west and the Gulf of Aqaba to the east. The charming landscape of this “half island” is truly the most beautiful place of Egypt. A desert plateau makes up the north, while the mountains of the south are built from the crystal rock and painted the whole spectrum of colours. Located here is the Silk Road, where merchants transferred their goods from the Far East to Egypt and farther.
Today, the Bedouins are the core population of modern Sinai. They move with a more settled style of life than in the past, but they religiously keep the old traditions. It is guaranteed that if you meet the Bedouins, you will be invited for a cup of tea near the fire, and a warm blanket will be on your shoulders.
How do we get to Sinai? I wondered. How will we find the mountains and the routes to climb?
It was a snowless winter in 2006 and all of the previous summer and autumn we, as all climbers do, trained hard and surfed the internet with the aim of learning about new lines and high peaks. Before the new year, I was surfing the Web, and found a site describing about 200 routes among the granite citadels, some 600 to 800 meters tall, in a place named St. Catherine.
St. Catherine is 225 km from Sharm El Sheikh and about 120 km from the seaside. The nearest towns are Dahab, the city of “freedom,” and Nuweiba, known as the city of “silence.” I found that most of the routes were established from 1977 to the late 80’s. British climbers had set up the last of the known routes, making about a dozen climbing expeditions to Sinai determined to find new lines.
They opened a new bouldering area called “Aragon” near Dahab, as well as set up about 25-35 sport routes near Dahab. Nowadays, they are working on a very detailed guidebook about the climbing at Sinai Half Island, which will include the sport routes, bouldering opportunities and new trad lines.
Let’s get back to the “X” territory. Before our online searches, we had no idea about the relief, lines, structure or categories of the mountains. The pictures on the web site showed only the old black-and-white photographs of the finger cracks and off-width sections that went in different directions. The most impressive were the citadels of solid granite and the vertical and off-vertical slopes. So, we packed our gear, grabbed the pigs and moved on.
St. Catherine is a little village surrounded by the mountains and hidden on all sides by the desert. The city is a religious centre and is secured by military troops and police. The city has several sectors: campsites, the centre (Monastery part), and the hotel section. You can find whatever you want! The prices will suit everyone, from the camps and hostels with only a bed, to the stylish five-star hotels.
We chose the “Fox” camp with amazing food near a campfire, strong coffee in the morning, and the white-toothed smiles of the Bedouins. Each day was different as we met travellers from all places. Some came to ascend Jebel Mussa (Mountain of Moses) to greet the sunrise; to speak with God and to find the way to their inner thoughts.
On a cold and pale morning, with only the strong coffee to warm and wake us, we went downtown. Early in the morning, you will stand for a while to buy some steaming bread or buy some “falafel”- the vegetarian roasted food that is cooked on a fire. Local kids “attack” travellers, asking for some “bakshish” – money or some candies. The village presents itself with all amenities and traditions, a typical Middle Eastern town. We expected what we saw the first time, but when we came for the second and third time and stayed for a couple of weeks, we became guests of this little town.
When we came to St. Catherine the first time, the new routes that we did were very hard. We climbed carefully, and because of the lack of Beta – where the climbs were, how to get there, what type of gear was needed - finding the best way kept tensions high. However, the routes are very interesting, serious climbs without any bolts. You would be lucky to find any bolts, fixed gear or any rappel anchors on the descents.
The climbing grades of two-thirds of the routes are mainly V+/VII+ by U.I.A.A. standards (many are harder). In the Yosemite Decimal System, this is from 5.10 to 5.13! You will find a sweet crack or an aid section, for sure! The rock is quite diverse. You can start climbing a finger crack, which becomes an off width, and finally turns into a roof of blocks with tiny cracks and sharp edges. The descriptions we had found of the routes are very old and sketchy, and were hard to follow. The grades of the hardest pitches, the quality of rock, and the quantity of the pitches didn’t coincide. And when you top-out, it could be the beginning of your journey, as finding the descent route is often difficult — in the dark it’s almost impossible — even by headlamp.
There are many places that could be bolted for multi-pitch routes, or multi-pitch sport routes. But the locals are not favourable to issuing bolting permits to anyone. So we climbed what we could and looked for projects. We travelled by camels through the desert and found an amazing “jebel” (mountain) with a couple of routes that begin with a huge off-width. The line was pretty hardcore (six or seven pitches, all near 5.12). We gave our new “baby” the name AAA — the first letter of each of our names.
The route is very logical, with good belay station points and solid rock. Most of the cracks on it are flaring, but the friction is good, so it makes up for it. This was the perfect route for us to learn more about crack climbing, because we have no chance to learn on our native rocks. Our rocks (mountains in Russia) have pockets, edges and flakes, but cracks (especially parallel ones) rarely can be found. The techniques used for crack climbing are very cool, but our joints afterwards were burning and we know we left some skin jammed into the holds!
The most exciting routes that I can remember were Passover on Jebel Farra (around V+/VI+, 14 pitches) a vertical off-width crack with an overhanging part at the top while changing corners. Penthouse (V/V+/A1) was like climbing through the “window” in the ceiling on the same Jebel. The route Klosterporn (V+/VI-/around 18 pitches) on Jebel Safsafa, was the real deal – aka hardcore trad climbing. There also was Direct Start (V+/VI+) with good friction, but without any holds on the slab; Diamond Depression (IV+/V+); Papa Jovany (V+), a classic route on Jebel Safsafa; our AAA (VI/VI+) 5.12-climbing on Jebel Batta; and many, many others.
Be sure to tape your hands, bring you’re A-game and be ready for the real journey of hardcore trad climbing in the middle of the desert on alpine climbing only seen in your dreams! When you first see this new place you will definitely be shocked by the granite citadels, and soon you will start to adapt to the climate, relief, and structure of the rock.
In these desert mountains, you will find yourself no more than a grain, a little shred of this world. When you finish the routes in the length of a day, look ahead for new dreams to come true, as the falling stars light up the dome of the sky. Several days later, when you enjoy a simple plate of Bedouin food and consume only a couple of litres of water a day — it will be enough for you, and you will ask yourself: Who am I?