Monday, March 24, 2014

Climbing in Wadi Rum

My last time in the desert was in 2005, when I spent a couple of weeks in the Red Rocks in the US. It was also spring, the flowers were blooming, and the climbing was new and good to me. Desert remained a fascinating place, and I have been wishing to go to another desert, Wadi Rum, for some years since. Finally, although with a few difficulties, it worked out this year.

Wadi Rum village

Wadi means a valley in Arabic, thus the Rum village is situated in the middle of a valley between several impressive walls to its sides, with both better or worse rock depending on color and the erosion patterns. Getting there involves flying to either Amman or Tel Aviv, then taking the bus or taxi to Eilat/Aqaba, and then another taxi to Wadi Rum (25JD). The ride already gives some idea of things to come. 

Wadi Rum at night

The village is rather poor, resembling many other third-world countries, with children chasing travelers practicing the recently learnt "hello" and asking for spare dinars. Religion keeps people in check - whereas alcohol is not allowed, tobacco is highly used and overused. The local saying has it that smoking is good for the heart. Cars have replaced camels as the most efficient transportation system in the desert, Toyota enjoying the lion's market share of this market.

Toyota, the new camel

Several routes are popular with the climbers here, the biggest challenge being the loose and friable sandstone. The quality of the rock is very variable, so one has to decide all the time which holds to take and which ones to avoid. It is also dangerous to climb after the rain, as rock becomes softer and protection does not hold. I hear in sandstone areas in Germany it is illegal to climb for at least a day after the rain. Similarly in Red Rocks the saying was to wait at least 3 days after a heavy rainfall.

Approaching the Beauty

Unfortunately for us, this March was unusually rainy, with over 10mm falling in only two days we were there whereas the monthly average for March is around 5mm...We had to wait out some days and do other touristy things while it rained - and even snowed - around us in the desert. That explains the green colors surrounding some pictures. But finally the sun came out and climbing did happen.

Still approaching the Beauty

The Beauty is a duly famous route not only for the climbing, but also for a wonderful and tricky approach to the route. The route finding is not always trivial, and takes you through intricate labyrinths of slot canyons inside the sacred mountain. It is nice enough to make mistakes of the route finding fun and exciting experiences of their own.

When finally reached, the wall is very impressive, with the best rock of the trip for us. Every piece of protection looked solid and inspired confidence, not the usual with Wadi Rum climbing.

Up the perfect rock of the first pitch of the Beauty

Varied crack-climbing went from pleasant on the first pitch, to awkward on the second, to this perfect crack on the last.

 The last pitch of the Beauty

In the Wadi Rum village we stayed with Ali Hamad, who provided us with bed and board, and took care of our travel needs around the desert. While his wife cooked us all possible variations of rice, he drove us with an easy hand to the Barrah canyon and the Nassrani wall. Good place to stay if you are not willing to rough it in the Rest House.

Ali driving through the desert

Barragh canyon is popular with climbers due to the relatively good rock, and we enjoyed climbing the Star of Abu Judaida there as well as the first pitches of the Merlin's Wand. Crack climbing skills are very useful on both.

 Close to the top of the Star of Abu Judaida

The highlight of the trip for us was the Guerre Sainte, or the Jihad route, going up the Eastern Nassrani Wall - in the middle-left of the picture below, close to the black streak (that becomes a waterfall in case of rain) on top of the white wall. Opened by Arnaud Petit, it is a face-climbing jewel of the desert, with relatively solid rock and bolt protection all the way up.

Nassrani Wall

Bolt protection does not mean relaxed climbing though, especially on the seventh pitch, which has a sling and two bolts protecting the crux lower down, and another two bolts and a couple of slings for the remaining 30 meters...

 Up the Jihad

 Climb or go home pitch, Jihad

The route is gorgeous though, with hanging belays most of the way, and vertical to close to overhanging climbing. Only the rock quality could be better, although the last three 7a+/7b pitches have perfect rock and great protection, very welcome after the first 8 pitches involving more fear about the gear and rock. Colors and ambiance are hard to beat.

 Up on Jihad

Overall, an interesting destination, with several things to offer for both culturally inspired travelers as well as sensation seekers. A lot of care is recommended though, as rock quality remains the biggest issue for the area, and especially for weak-headed climbers like me it is hard not to get scared on most routes, whatever the grade.

Rainbow over the desert

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Old Cities of the Middle East - Petra

Another visit, another old city - this one not inhabited anymore, but still shining with its thousand colors in the morning and afternoon sun of the desert. Petra, the most visited attraction of Jordan, is definitely on par with other old sights of human civilizations such as Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat, or the pyramids in Egypt.

View on al-Khazneh

The first sighting of Petra's treasures comes from the Al-Siq slot canyon, one of the old access roads to the city - obviously easily protected. Nabateans chose Petra as their capital for its strategic positioning, but also a rather hidden location in the labyrinth of the sandstone towers. Romans managed to conquer Petra, as well as Jerusalem, and the city started to decline since then. It was lost for many centuries in the sand until a Swiss traveler stumbled upon it again in 1812 and reminded the Europeans of its history.

Al-Khazneh in all its beauty

Petra is an interesting melting pot of cultures and peoples, today as well as yesterday. Greek and Roman architecture had a clear influence on how the temples of Arab gods and the tombs of the gentry should look like. At the same time, the local multicolored sandstone set its own rules of shapes and carving. The city is also an example of ingenuity for water preservation, Nabateans creating an oasis in the desert by building countless canals and cisterns to store water from the rare rains in their mountains. We actually had the opportunity to see Petra wet and to walk through the Al-Siq half-flooded.

Royal tombs (wet)

Today, a few Bedouins seem to live in the caves around Petra, offering donkey and camel rides to the tourists, as well as some tea to the tired ramblers. Usually subdued and dark, once in while it is possible to see a sign of the wild, a sign of power and pride in the corner of their eyes. But then, they lower their heads again, and say "welcome to Jordan".


Standing at the top of the mountain near the Monastery, one can see all the way to the West Bank and Gasa, ancient prosperous port, deadly zone today. Only imagination can help visualize what has been, what might have been. Reality is different, the ruins are silent, and the children of Nabateans ramble the desert lands in poverty, Toyotas substituting the camels, tourists substituting the spice trade.

The blue columbs of the Byzantine church

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Old Cities of the Middle East - Jerusalem

When travelling through the Middle East, Jerusalem is an interesting experience to say the least. The highlights of Israel include great food and pleasant climate. We ate the best humus ever in the old city, as well as enjoyed incredible vegetarian meals in Tel Aviv. The low-lights include all the armed men and women walking the streets with big guns and few years of experience to justify the responsible use of these guns. That's the price to pay for "coming back home," but the societal impact of having every young member of the society spend three years in the army (two years for women) might not be only positive I imagine.

Coming back to Jerusalem, this famously disputed piece of land is curious to say the least. We entered the old town through the Damascus gate, and ended up in a big souk. A city divided into four quarters, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian, is full of smells, merchants, tourists, and religious people. The old city has a very high concentration of religious buildings - churches intermingling with mosques and synagogues. Impressive how the co-habitation has been at all possible in such close proximity here for many years, sad on the other hand that the real peace has not been found by so many deeply religious people. Jerusalem is "too close to god" for its own good, as said our tour guide. 

Dome of the Rock

The most beautiful building in Jerusalem, also said to be one of the oldest buildings of the Muslim architecture still standing, is the Dome of the Rock, above. It was the king Herod (although of disputed Nabatean origin) who built the esplanade to improve Jewish Second Temple and make it worth the admiration of the whole region if not the entire Roman Empire. After the destruction of the Temple, all three religions (Jewish, Christian, Mulslim) kept calling their own different sacred places of the city, but especially the Temple Mount and the Olive Mount.

 Women in front of the Dome of the Rock

The Western Wall, the base of Herod's esplanade for the Second Temple, has emerged over time as a sacred place for the Jewish people, where one can get closer to god, leave him a wish to realize, complain about the past, or dream about the future. The present is special though, with the left side of the Wall only accessible to men, and the right side reserved to women, supposedly based on the distinctions made in a synagogue. Apparently, it is better to talk to god in company of the same sex...

 The Western Wall

Today, since the last Intifada, the entrance of the Dome of the Rock has been prohibited to non-Muslims, another sad sign of the times, although living side by side, no agreement has been reached in this saintly city.

Children playing ball

Still, children kick the ball - however they are already separated by the quarters, Muslims playing with their own, Jewish keeping to themselves. 

The worst impression of Jerusalem we got while driving Eastwards to the Dead Sea through the West Bank. In the distance, one could barely see the Palestinian territories, separated by a wall, a religion, by economic sanctions. Remembering my earlier visit to Osventsim, the question remains - have we learnt anything? Will we ever learn? 

Monday, March 03, 2014

The day I did not send Energia Positiva

There are projects, and sends, and more projects. And then there are the 'no sends.' Those are the painful experiences of almost doing it, of having it all click but for a small little detail, but for a small glitch in the system. I used to think it was about "being ready", having the route dialed, having done the homework, having put in the right amount of hours. But we learn, as I tell my students, times change, things evolve, and what if not human is it to learn from one's own experience and mistakes? Now it all appears much more random, much more about luck, a turn of the Fortuna wheal to the right (or left) direction, as Ignatius J. Reilly used to loudly prophesize. Plans are one thing, reality is something else entirely. 

I almost had it - I worked on my overhanging climbing for some time, I put in my hours in Rodellar, I sent a 7b there last summer, and a 7b+ last autumn, and finally managed to do my first 7c in that style in Gran Boveda. Proud as it might be, I tried for a 7c+ in Bruixes - and what better line than Energia Positiva, the queen of the sector in my lingering eyes? It has everything, a jamming start, a no-hands rest, a hard dynamic boulder move, than overhanging jug-fest to another boulder problem, another rest, the final slab trick on a vertical tufa, another rest, and a final roof. I tried it some years ago, I remember spending almost a whole day to get up it the first time, with Ville patiently belaying, and me using the cheat stick for ever and ever to get to the anchor, all the time wondering about those long white spaces between the bolts. Could I connect the dots? Could I fly? Would I dare? 

In those days my optimism was untainted by ugly experiences of injuries and my rebelling body refusing to follow strict orders. But many things resist us in life, even though we might want them very much, even though we might be ready to sacrifice everything, to give our best, we still can fail. And so we do.

And so it went with Energia, I tried it for some time, then winter passed, other projects came along, and I remained away, busy with other endeavors. My left shoulder got injured, cooling down my climbing ambitions for some time, but like a frog swimming in slowly heating milk, I kept pushing against the current, trying to change the laws of nature, trying to make my body work as planned, as ordered, as prescribed. It did so patiently for some time. One year after my injury I was back to the overhanging terrain, and I was ready for Energia Positiva once more.

I managed to do Occident first, to establish the 7c grade in Bruixes, and then moved on to the next line, Energia. Beautiful, it still was. Inspiring, it shone its light over the valley, all the way to France, driving me closer, calling my name, murmuring enchantments and offering promises of infinite glory. So I came, and I tried, and I tried again. First, I fell on the first boulder crux, and fell again. Then, I fell on the second crux, and fell again. Then, I went all the way to the tufa. I did not fall there - my vertical climbing skills took over, and the slab was done with quickly. But that last roof...oh, roofs. That's another sheet of my climbing history that remains to be filled. Roofs are definitely not for me. They are scary, they are big, they inspire only fear and hate. 

I considered abandoning the route because of this roof. I spent several days trying the move on top rope because I could not dare do it on lead. My demons were hard at work. A roof, the cherry on the cake, at the meter 34 of a 35-meter route, what devil had the idea to put it there? What evil force made the holds so small? Probably the same one that made it also possible to jam my fingers in the crack below, to position myself well enough to go again with the right hand, to grab the second hold up while having a slight drop knee with my right foot on that precise spot, marked with black shoe rubber, longing witness of many passages of other small people like me. Then, go left with the left hand, get the crimp, breeze. Then move the right hand further right, get the left hand on the same hold (don't forget to keep the feet well below), then get the right foot on the right ticked hold, move the right hand right again, get the left foot up on the roof on friction, and do the last move. 7 moves in total from the last clip to the anchor. I repeated them in my head for several virtual sends, for several weeks in a row. I actually discovered the way to do the move several months into the project, as I used to get to the roof so tired I had no positive energy to even try it. But I did figure it out. There was nothing else left but do it.

I got to the roof three times. On my second arrival to the roof I found the fifth knee bar on the route. I knew: when I will have five knee-bars, it will be enough rests to be able to do the route. It was the trick on Occident, and it would be the same on Energia. 

Then on Friday, when preparing to drive again to Bruixes, I woke up in the morning and started coughing. It was not an anodyne cough, but the cough sending forbearance signals for its master, the flu. And the flu came quick behind, in full force. I managed to get to the roof one more time, and then fell again. It was not to be. 

Unfortunately, climbing during flu was not the best idea I ever had - and I paid the price. My right shoulder started to feel strange during this same period of time, and continued going haywire since then. It is time again to forget the overhangs, to forget some dreams, and start (again) finding new ones.

While Energia stays out there, I take it easy, try to learn from my own mistakes, try to remember what shoulder rehabilitation is about, and in the meantime go exploring my new backyard in France. Maybe new projects - maybe on vertical ground this time - await me there?

A storm brewing over the Gorges du Tarn

Beautiful rock of Gorges de la Dourbie

Castle in Gorges de l'Aveyron

And one more, a view on Gorges de Lot from St. Gery

All pictures courtesy of Jonas.