Climbing Mt. Sinai.
Mt. Sinai…”Moses Mountain” as it’s know locally…it’s about a 3 hour drive from Sharm El Sheikh and virtually all climbers do it to see the sunrise. So you leave at night. Around 8:00 PM the evening of 25 January we set out, driver, guide and the two climbers: Barbara, our newest Egypt sales consultant, and me. We dozed wherever possible on the trip following decent roads and through the blackest night. There was a tiny crescent moon and a million stars.
We had contracted for camels for the first two-thirds of the climb…had to get the full impact of both the available transport options: camel feet and our own. When we arrived around 11:00 PM we needed to wait a while. We’d set off around 1:00 AM, our departure timed such that our arrival at the summit would culminate with the sun’s first rays.
Expecting cold conditions we layered virtually everything in our luggage that was layerable. Barbara had donned 8 layers and I could only come up with 6: a weird conglomeration of t-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts and jacket. Her sweatshirt was hooded and she wisely donned thick socks…both proved to be invaluable. I turned my turtleneck collar all the way up, over the mouth and covering most of the ears. It would have to do.
The Bedouin camel boys came to collect us and we left the warmth of the van behind, along with our driver and guide both of whom would wait our return sometime in the morning. The adventure begins. We were paired with camels, light colored camels which was fortunate as it was so dark you could hardly see where to throw your leg for the mount. In the blackness the spectral glinting from the walls of St. Catherine’s Monastery should have called for eerie silence, BUT our climb was taking place during the 2 weeks of Egypt’s school vacation, and hordes of teenagers with energy to burn laughed, sang and joked all around us. No sleep for St. Catherine’s monks during the last part of January, I’m afraid.
But we soon left the noisy hordes behind, traveling the gradual slope of the trip’s first leg. The cold was biting, stinging and the only sounds were crunching camel feet on stones. My beast was in the lead, Barbara’s following and our 2 Bedouin guides bringing up the rear guard. We traveled up switchbacks with angles that got more acute the further up we went. I tried to keep one foot warm, and then the other, with the crossed leg posture favored by longtime camel riders. Even though barely 10 feet separated us, we were each in our own world of icy silence.
Around 3:00 AM we reached the rest hut, the end of the line for our transport and a chance to warm up and drink some tea. First Barbara, then I, was escorted to the “facilities,” given a flashlight to keep us safe from a wrong foot in the “long drop” and we did what we needed to do in record-breaking time. Back at the hut we gladly paid 10 Egyptian pounds to rent heavy gray Bedouin blankets and by huddling together under them we slowly regained feeling in the extremities. And reminded ourselves that this was another fun-filled adventure. But at that point, it was easier not to talk.
We would wait until 5:00 AM for the final trip up…either 1500 or 800 steps remained to the summit (I was never sure which). The hut filled gradually with 2 large groups, Christian pilgrims, one group American and the other South Korean, both in exceptional spirits. Their contagious enthusiasm, not to mention welcome body heat, warmed the hut and we all wished each other a successful climb.
So promptly at 5:00 we set off. Gratefully promising to return the blankets on the downward route we both folded and wrapped ourselves head to toe in “fragrant” well worn wool. Using one covered hand to keep the blanket closed and the other firmly gripped to a sturdy Bedouin arm we began the stone steps. I don’t know and never found out if it was 800 or 1,500…and I didn’t care because it felt like a thousand. Our escorts chain-smoked the entire way, while we had all we could do to draw consecutive breaths. Barbara and I are both Floridians, both sea level, thick air people and we could feel the atmosphere lose density as we climbed.
Up and up and up, each step an achievement, every 6-7 minutes a rest break required. The wind howled, the stars shone and we concentrated on planting each foot on terra firma. There have been accidents on the mountain; there is no “guard rail” and it’s definitely a “do this at your own risk” venture. Darting lights from our guides’ flashlights gave us a hint of where to put the next foot, strong hands guided us and we made excruciatingly slow progress up. At one of the final breaks before the summit our air gasps were silenced immediately by the sight of a shooting star…common on Moses Mountain. Common perhaps, but glorious nonetheless.
Right on schedule we hauled our way up the final steps just at 6:30 AM, just as the breaking rays illuminated a low-lying cloud. A river of pink fire surrounded the cloud, the sun rose higher, and never, never more beautifully did it break. More beautiful just wasn’t possible. In this atmosphere of thin air, perfect clarity, crystal cold and stark spectacle, the world begins each day newborn. We were privileged to share it…worth every single painful, freezing minute.
Recuperating with more tea, filled with self-congratulation we realized that we “ladies of a certain age” were the oldest climbers on the mountain by about 15 years. There’s a real sense of accomplishment in that! Noticing a stone plaque set at the highest point we read the simple inscription: “11” Gathering at once what MUST have been its meaning we laughed. It was of course the Eleventh Commandment, to wit: “Thou shalt tip thy guide GENEROUSLY.” And believe me, we did.
The walk down in warming sunlight was a piece of cake, stopping en route to return the life-saving blankets. We took the same route back that we did up as we had the sun the entire way. When we got to the bottom our guide informed us that it had been around –15 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature (NOT factoring in wind chill) on the mountain…we were happier knowing this after the fact. On Fridays the Monastery doesn’t open for tours until 11:00 AM but business called for us back in Sharm and we had to skip the tour. Besides, you have to leave something to see for the next visit
Some Climb Caveats: I would not recommend this climb to anyone over 60. And between 50 and 60 I would specify that climbers need to be in excellent shape. I would not recommend a cold winter night for climbing. Taking the camels partway saved wear and tear and I think is part of the adventure, but you cannot always count on them being available. Things to take along, even if you climb in the summer months: warm socks, excellent walking/hiking shoes, gloves, hat/scarf, sweater, jacket. Thin air at altitude (about 7,400 feet) can be a problem for some people. Bring 5 and 10 Egyptian pound notes for tea purchases along the way. Average tip per person for your Bedouin guide: 50 pounds.