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

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