The Stone of Exodus: Big-Wall First Ascents in Egypt's Ancient Sinai Desert

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Micah Rush laybacking the stunning 5.11 crack on P2 of The Sheikh (5.11c A0), Jebel Naja, Egypt.

Micah Rush laybacking the stunning 5.11 crack on P2 of The Sheikh (5.11c A0), Jebel Naja, Egypt.

I hung at a belay 500 feet above the stony soil of the Sinai mountains in Egypt, granite grit falling in my face. Above me, my friend Micah Rush kicked off crumbles of untouched stone while onsighting a dirty, flared layback crack. We were off route, circumnavigating what an earlier explorer had told us would be the crux pitch on a new line on the southwest face of Jebel Naja, a striking 1,400-foot monolith and one of the many hundreds of granite domes in this ancient land. Here, where God handed down the Ten Commandments to Moses, our goal was to get above the crux and then establish a rap anchor that would facilitate bolting and reconnaissance work.

We—Micah, Kyle Duba, Mark Jenkins, and I—had arrived in November 2017 with two goals: First, we wanted to repeat some of the existing climbs around Saint Catherine’s, a remote, 1,500-year-old Islamic town nestled at the base of Mount Sinai, a central hub for the area’s rock climbing and a pilgrimage site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Second, we wanted to do some exploratory climbing deep in the Sinai backcountry. While the Mount Sinai region has roughly 200 established routes from 5.7 to 5.12 on walls up to 1,500 feet, most of the area’s unique desert stone remains untouched.

The trip had come together thanks to Mark, whom I’d first met two months prior at the Lander Bar where I work as a bartender to support my climbing habit on the local limestone. Mark had come from the University of Wyoming in Laramie to give a guest lecture on the trials and tribulations of adventure reporting. While I served drinks to an eager audience, Mark spun yarns from various journeys—bicycling across Siberia, descending the Niger River, and ferreting out wild first ascents in Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon, filling in the details on stories he’s penned for National Geographic and Outside. Mark has a bravado that thrives on the kismet of travel. While recounting the chaos of landmine fields in Cambodia, his blue eyes lit up with cool certitude, framed by smile lines earned over a lifetime of adventure.

After the show, Mark and I chatted over a beer; as climbers do, we made loose plans to climb sometime. Then, five weeks later, I got a random text from Mark: “Thinking of a trip to Sinai to unclimbed granite. Interested?” Realizing we needed to leave right away (the season has a short window—with summer highs reaching 100 degrees and winter lows near freezing), we recruited Micah and Kyle, both climbing partners of mine. Micah, from Casper, Wyoming, is a husband, father, firefighter, AMGA-pinned guide, owner of Peak Rescue, and the founder of the 307 Bouldering series. He’s always been a beacon of inspiration, blending altruism with sharp wit, fond of saying things like “No frantic vibe, my dude!” as he did one day when I started to Elvis-leg on a runout. Duba, from Lander, is a professional photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor educator. He has a cool head, which, as I learned, would come in handy at a nerve-wracking checkpoint en route to the Sinai when our team was detained by a truckload of soldiers sporting AK-47s. “They’re just doing their job,” Duba had said, defusing our anxieties.

“Headache!” Micah yelled as he continued, pulling a fistful of vegetation from the layback and letting it fly. As I held the rope and voiced occasional encouragement, I looked out over a vast granite wilderness, a maze of 1,000-foot domes painted in orange, red, and tan pastels, animated by the rhythms of sunlight and shadow. Speckled across the valley floor was an occasional patch of green, a wild oasis lush with local flora—fig trees, myrrh shrubs, and wild mint. Beyond were sprawling fields of round boulders, sharp cactus, and coarse sand. The marriage of blue sky and sunbaked rock left a clean, clement smell in the air. Below, the only signs of human activity were camel trails left by Bedouins. Micah continued to purge dirt and debris from the crack; I deflected it with my helmet and gave a thumbs-up. He charged on, 900 feet of wall above and the desert silent below.

In the end, it wouldn’t be Egypt’s foreign (to me) culture that challenged me the most, but the climbing. Fresh off an autumn season of pocket-pulling at Wild Iris, I hadn’t been alpine or trad climbing in over a year, leaving me feeling rusty on this big-wall first ascent. It’s at that edge of discomfort, though, where we are forced to choose between the easy and the unknown, when we learn the most about ourselves. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I chewed on another mouthful of falling dirt Micah had dislodged.

That morning, while we tackled the central line on Jebel Naja, our teammates were 200 yards left, establishing a new route up the west side. A few years prior, a British climber named Dave Lucas had attempted the line we were on, turning around at the third pitch after encountering a 60-foot swath of blank face. Lucas runs an expedition guiding service out of the UK, and is currently writing a guidebook for the area. Since 2002, he has also been a primary first ascentionist around Saint Catherine’s, establishing dozens of routes on peaks such as Jebel Naja, Rabba, and Batta. When we’d reached out to him before our trip, he’d kindly shared his contacts for local guides and route beta, including a topo of the prime line, warning us about the third pitch.

The prolific Italian mountaineer Emilio Comici established the first documented routes here in the 1930s, including a first ascent on Mount Sinai in 1937. Since then, pioneers from around the globe have contributed. The majority of development occurred in the 1980s, due in part to Egypt’s famous peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which ushered in a prolonged period of relative calm throughout the often-turbulent region. Climbing-based tourism remained active through the 1990s and well into the 2000s, until the threat of terrorist groups—mainly ISIS—began to keep visitors away. Since 2011, in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, climbing-based tourism has dropped significantly. Nonetheless, resilient developers like Lucas continue to establish new routes.

We had put hours into analyzing maps and photos before deciding to focus our efforts on the line Lucas had tried. We’d made an initial reconnaissance three days prior, quickly confirming that the third pitch was indeed the crux, including hard face climbing, a six-foot roof, and very few holds. To suss the pitch, our strategy was to free the first two pitches of crack climbing, then pendulum 40 feet to a traverse that continued left to a belay. From there, Micah would lead a layback, which conveniently led to a stance above the third pitch. We’d set an anchor, rap into the crux, and install the necessary steel. Micah had been on course until he’d stumbled upon an unwelcoming local.

Rush sampling single-pitch cragging on Camel Love (5.11 X), with Mount Sinai behind him.

Rush sampling single-pitch cragging on Camel Love (5.11 X), with Mount Sinai behind him.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” yelled Micah from 60 feet up the flare. “There’s a freakin’ bat, dude! It’s in the crack, hissing at me and shit!”

“Whoa, that sucks, bud,” I said, then added: “What are you going to do about it?”

Micah grabbed a cam and started whacking at the wall: “Get out of here, you little gremlin! Go on—git!”

After a 10-minute battle, Micah’s winged adversary retreated into the crack and Micah forged onward. He set an anchor in a small dihedral and put me on belay. The 150-foot ropelength was stunning: A gorgeous layback angled toward one o’clock, uninterrupted for the duration. Still, I hurried—the blazing Sinai sun had heated the air to nearly 80 degrees, and by the time I retrieved the second cam I’d begun to grease, my feet sliding on friction smears, my hands pawing the sloping edge. The climbing was relentless, absolutely incredible, all the way to the deep layback jug on low-angle terrain 90 feet up that marked the end of the difficulties. When I reached the anchor, Micah and I were both grinning—until rockfall echoed across the canyon.

“Where’s that coming from?” I asked.

“Probably just Mark and Duba cleaning off the loose stuff,” replied Micah, referring to our teammates out exploring their own new line. The specter of rockfall was a constant concern in the Sinai mountains, with so much untrod granite, much of it friable.

By the time we were rappelling into the third pitch, the sun had moved straight overhead, radiating a dry heat magnified by the mass of granite. We hand-drilled three bolts then, tired and dehydrated, lowered to the belay ledge and put on our rock shoes. The clean rock forced hyper-technical moves into a powerful crimp section below the roof. The climbing was as difficult as it looked—attainable, but damn hard throughout. The desert, we would learn, does not give up its secrets so easily.

It had been a voyage to get here from Wyoming: three plane flights for 22 hours in the air, then an 8-hour drive. Our first morning in Cairo, we’d awoken to a downtown cloaked in smog so thick it dulled the sun. The heat was heavy and the traffic was chaotic, the sound of car horns constant. As we walked down the convoluted streets near our hotel, merchants emerged from the ether. It shocked our Wyoming sensibilities.

After three days in Cairo, marveling at the mystery of ancient pyramids, cursing at traffic, and recovering from jetlag, we boarded a hired van to Saint Catherine’s. Along the way, we passed through a dozen military checkpoints, often guarded by a pack of 18-year-old soldiers with AK-47s, grenades, and the occasional tank. These checkpoints were a constant reminder of Egypt’s tumultuous past—and present. In the wake of the revolution in 2011, Mohamed Morsi had become the country’s first democratically elected president. Once elected, however, he moved to grossly manipulate the constitution for executive power, in turn arousing angry protests. In 2013, he was overthrown in a military coup led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has ruled the country as a military state ever since. The new government has enforced oppressive civil and economic regulations, justifying them as necessary for the country’s security in its constant war against ISIS—though these draconian measures seem only to have made the country more vulnerable to Muslim extremism. Still, for all its turmoil, you’re much more likely to be shot in the United States than in Egypt—by a factor of 25 to one.

From Cairo, our journey took us across the Suez Canal and down the western coast of the Sinai Peninsula, avoiding the northern Sinai where ISIS is well established. The southern region—the climbing—supports a stable culture of Bedouin tribes, burdened by military occupation. As we moved east, mountains began to rise from the dunes, a vast spread of hazel domes undulating across the horizon. Saint Catherine’s sits nestled within, at the granite heart of the Sinai, the forging ground for our planet’s Abrahamic religions.

One major ethos shared by Judaism, Islam, and Christianity is the sanctity of the Ten Commandments, which has imbued the area surrounding Mount Sinai with intrinsic diversity. The Christian monastery of Saint Catherine’s, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes a mosque within its walls, was built around 550 CE, and has remained active ever since. It is protected under a covenant written by the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, which reads, “This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them … No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or carry anything from it … Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter.” This handwritten document now resides in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Kyle Elmquist gives it his all on the crux, third pitch (5.13b, unfreed) of The Sheikh.

Kyle Elmquist gives it his all on the crux, third pitch (5.13b, unfreed) of The Sheikh.

Nonetheless, modern terrorism has targeted Saint Catherine’s, with the most recent attack coming in April 2017, when ISIS gunmen attacked a military checkpoint, killing one policeman and injuring four others. Strife has long burdened the region. Due to its religious significance, Israel has contested the Sinai Peninsula since 1948. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel pushed Egyptian forces from the area and occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip for the following 12 years. This pendulum of violence swung to and fro throughout the 1970s, until the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979. The following three decades were relatively calm, until ISIS and other terrorist groups radicalized in the region following the Arab Spring in early 2011.

We arrived in late afternoon at Fox Camp, a peaceful if rustic hostel at the base of the cliffs, with an open terrace, garden, and olive groves. Stone-cobbled buildings have been masoned into the hillside, blurring the boundary between nature and infrastructure. Just past camp, talus fields give way to thousand-foot walls. We piled out of the van, unloaded our gear, and made haste for the high ground to start scouting potential routes on the cliffs above.

Before dawn the next day, we were already halfway up the talus on our way to Jebel Safsafa, a southeast-facing escarpment piercing 1,100 feet into the air. Duba and I climbed a pleasant 10-pitch 5.9 called Papa Giovanni; Mark and Micah, meanwhile, decided to establish a clean line straight up the center. The route yielded some of the best crack climbing on the cliff, including a difficult, chossy offwidth pitch that Micah onsighted and a scary chimney that Mark onsighted. The final pitch was 130 feet of runout jug climbing on glory huecos. They called their new route Muezzin Calling, 5.11-, 10 pitches, putting Team Wyoming on the Sinai roster. The following week, we repeated some of Dave Lucas’s classics and established a handful of first ascents in preparation for Jebel Naja.

On a rest day, we hiked six miles to the summit of Mount Sinai (7,497 feet) to watch the sun rise. Mark set the pace so we wouldn’t miss dawn. With 20 years on me, he can still leave me in the dust. There was a long period of peaceful silence as the sun crested the horizon to illuminate the sea of domes. It was surreal to contemplate how thousands of years of faith—not to mention many of the moral laws we live by—have been influenced by this mountain. As the desert leapt to life with golden light, I felt humbled and grateful that my passion for climbing had led me to this sacred place. On Mount Sinai, all forms of faith were equally respected, as evinced by the plethora of tourists of all stripes who shared our vantage.

After a week of climbing around Saint Catherine’s, we were ready for the backcountry. By this time, we had acclimated to the cultural current of southern Sinai. The Bedouin way is relaxed, best enjoyed with cigarettes and tea. As we headed out, our supplies for 10 days were strapped to two camels, emblazoned with ornamental blankets and knotted tassels that swung from their bridles. These enormous creatures can maneuver across technical terrain while carrying 200-plus pounds on either side of their hump. Wearing only light packs, we walked single file through a wide cradle of canyons, enfolded in steep granite walls and domes. Every couple of miles we’d come upon an oasis, where lush palm trees shade hidden watering holes. There, our Bedouin guide, Salim, would squat down, roll a cigarette, and start a small fire to boil tea.

As we journeyed deeper into the canyons, we passed through opium fields. Many locals had resorted to farming the opium poppy in the years following the Arab Spring. One kind farmer welcomed us on to his land, offering tea and shade to ease our midday exhaustion.With Salim translating, the farmer shared his life story, speaking in a low voice and gesturing with calloused hands. Before 2010, the primary occupation around St. Catherine’s was tourism, and the local Bedouins had enjoyed a stable economy guiding visitors. However, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, St. Catherine’s has been unable to fully recover, stifled by the vile cocktail of a corrupt government and the inflammatory presence of ISIS. In its absence, opium fields have offered a solution to the lingering unemployment.

Our journey through the canyonlands ended at Jebel Naja. Clean, broad, and steep, this massive mountain of anfractuous tan granite—its center galvanized by compact, superlative stone—rose high into the air. The vertical southwest face, our objective, had an intimidating demeanor: sheer, uncompromising, and in one spot seemingly blank.

* * *

After our long day of exploration, Micah and I returned to our oasis camp below Jebel Naja. Salim was boiling a kettle of tea next to a ground-level couch made of camel blankets and fallen palm trees. As we sat with our tea, Micah grabbed binoculars and scanned the wall for Mark and Duba. While glassing the stone, Micah spotted an ibex on the summit. For 20 minutes, we watched the beast lord over Jebel Naja. I interpreted the moment as a good sign.

Soon, it was dinnertime. Working fluidly, Salim mixed up flour, water, and salt for flatbread, kneading the dough on a steel lid salvaged from an oil barrel. It was nearly dark as Duba and Mark stumbled back into camp, covered in dirt and boasting big smiles.

“How’d it go, guys? Did you crush it or get crushed?” I asked.

“Both,” said Duba with a tired grin.

“It was great!” hollered Mark. “Pretty dirty and loose, but we got it done.”

“Nice job, guys! Good work,” Micah chimed in from the makeshift couch. “What did you call your route?”

Camel Dung,” Mark said with a tint of mischief.

At dinner, Salim pulled perfectly cooked flatbread from the embers with his bare hands, tore it into thick pieces, and placed these on our plates. The circle went silent while we ate, subdued by the Mediterranean fare of chicken stew, tomato-cucumber salad, rice, and hearty flatbread. After our feast, we laughed, drank tea, and joked into the night. This commensality felt timeless, as if five friends gathered around a fire in the Sinai wildlands marked a magical loophole in time.

Jebel Naja, showing the route line of The Sheikh (5.11c A0).

Jebel Naja, showing the route line of The Sheikh (5.11c A0).

Three days after Micah and I finished our bolt work, we prepared for our send. It was Thanksgiving Day, 2017. At 3:30 a.m., loud Arabic music started blaring, going on until Mark hollered from his tent, “What the hell is going on out there?” Salim had slept through his alarm, and was rubbing his eyes as he searched for his phone, its volume cranked to an absurd level. By the time he turned it off we were all awake, excited for the day. After breakfast, Salim unrolled his prayer mat for morning worship as we set out for Jebel Naja.

We navigated by headlamps and an early-morning moon, half crescent and waxing on the horizon. Duba jugged the fixed lines, always one step ahead to capture the experience on film. Micah started the first pitch, an unruly, shallow crack that precluded solid hand jams or gear placements. It was obnoxious, insecure, and one hell of a warm-up. Micah walked it nonetheless. He also led the second pitch, an offwidth layback that stretched for 80 feet until eventually the crack swallowed him whole. He squeezed sideways, his barrel chest and helmet nearly paralyzing upward movement. All we could see from the belay was an occasional arm appearing from the maw, followed by another appendage or his helmet. Eventually, Micah navigated past a truck-sized chockstone and up a sharp-cut dihedral to the belay. He ascended the first two pitches quickly, with Mark and I following on toprope, gaining 300 feet as a team before 8 a.m.

As we moved up the wall, we put our energy to the task at hand: pitch three, the crux. It had kept me awake at night, visualizing and anticipating the moves, concerned that my performance would be the deciding factor for a free ascent. (Due to the combo of short days and climbing in a four-man team, we only had time for one redpoint attempt.) The sporty character of the pitch agreed with my strengths, so I stepped up. I climbed through the bottom well, balancing between sporadic crimps on the barren wall, maintaining a calm rhythm of breath above two small, mediocre gear placements that led to a 25-foot runout to the first bolt. Here, I began traversing left through a steep section, my left foot smeared to nothing as I committed to a subtle, sideways dyno into an undercling. From there I stood tall to clip the next bolt, took a deep breath, chalked up, and charged into the V8 crux.

It was a surreal moment: hundreds of feet above the Egyptian desert, biting a tiny crimp with my fingertips, exposed and free. I set my left foot high on a dime edge, wrenched down on two nasty crimps, and rocked my weight to spring for a finger bucket. As my hand hit the hold, my foot started skating. I unleashed a loud growl, wildly trying to reclaim tension. As if in slow motion, I watched the final grip slip away. I was devastated. There are failed projects that I live with as a climber, but this one was bigger than me. It felt like I’d let down our whole team.

“It’s alright, brother,” yelled Mark. “Solid effort.”

“Yeah, bud, that crux is savage. You did good,” shouted Micah.

There was no hiding it: We were all disappointed. Still, the Wyoming attitude endured, and we were quickly able to put this setback behind us. Mark led the next two pitches of 5.10+, moving quickly and easily through a hard section of wide cracks and chimneys. We regained a good pace, and by late afternoon were tackling the final pitches where an incredible 5.10 layback crack led to a clean face of golden rock, wildly exposed over the canyon.

After the final pitch, we stashed the gear and rushed for the top, 200 feet higher. There was a shared elation when we crested the summit, 1,400 feet above the oasis, on top of the Sinai skyline. It had been an epic challenge in an unknown land, one that had helped expand our understanding of the world and change us for the better.

Before our ascent, we had sat with Salim while he told us about growing up in the desert. He’d interlaced two fingers and explained, “The Bedouin people are like this—if there’s ever trouble we stick together.” It struck me in that moment how much we had in common, despite living very different lifestyles—I thought about putting my life on the line with three friends, and knew that if there was trouble we would stick together, just like the Bedouins.

We called the route The Sheikh, an honorable title for the chief of a tribe: 10 pitches, 5.11c A0 or, for the next team to come along and free it, 5.13b.

Mark Jenkins leading 5.9 wideness high on The Sheikh.

Mark Jenkins leading 5.9 wideness high on The Sheikh.

After our ascent, we returned to St. Catherine’s to learn the tragic news of an attack on a Sufi mosque in the northern Sinai, 150 miles away. It was the largest terrorist attack in Egypt’s history, with 305 people dying in a hail of gunfire. Our hearts sank into the sand; everyone was in shock. There was nothing but the cruel grievance and empty outrage that come in the wake of senseless tragedy. Such acts of calculated horror are all too commonplace today, from Egypt to Pittsburgh, and Myanmar to Las Vegas. In every case, the community suffers. For St. Catherine’s, terrorism has decimated the local tourism economy and led to a proliferating opium trade. In spite of these incidents, the Bedouin culture and the Sinai’s wild country remain eternal. The ongoing story of human resilience amidst the madness of modern life is one I was moved to witness.

Climbing had been the catalyst for our adventure, but in the end it was the experience of visiting somewhere new that mattered most. The ability to travel to a foreign continent for fun—to climb—is a privilege, one that should be used to promote a greater understanding of our shared humanity. This is the gift of travel: letting those experiences ultimately change your character. Climbing may be the vessel, but seeing the world from the top of Mount Sinai is the journey.

Sinai Travel Beta

  • Dahab, a city three hours east of St. Catherine’s on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, offers great restaurants, diving, and other tourist attractions. You should also hike Mount Sinai, a six-hour round-trip, and visit St. Catherine’s monastery. 
  • From Cairo to St. Catherine’s, travel 450 km either by bus or private car. This should cost no more than 800 Egyptian pounds ($60 US) per person.

  • Fox Camp, a hostel/restaurant, costs $8 a day per person, including breakfast and dinner.

  • Fox Camp can arrange guide services for around $30 a day to reach the backcountry. Hiring a guide not only supports the local economy, it’s also a necessary safety measure. A gratuity is expected.

  • More information: Check out Dave Lucas’s website (expeditionconsultancy.com) for beta, guidebooks, and maps.

Kyle Elmquist is a climber and writer based in Lander, Wyoming. He has climbed extensively in the United States and abroad, particularly Asia and Europe.