RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 38 Number 3 Article 6
October 2001

A Right Rum Experience

It’s early June and its just got hot. While most people head of for Latakia, those in the know head south, to a place where not just the sun is hotter, but the action is even hotter. To find out what this means and, I hope, to get a feeling of why Mountaineers climb mountains.... read on.

Nigel Drury and myself decided to have a weekend of scrambling and walking in Wadi Rum. We drove down from Damascus on a Thursday evening and by 11.00 pm we had the tent up and were sipping the first of a cool beer or two... or three. It was 1 pm before we looked at the watch and decided it was time for bed. A little late, since we planned to be “up and at em” by 05.30 am... uuuuuggghhhh. Who’s idea was this anyway?

After an all too short nap, we broke camp, had a quick cup of coffee and by 6.45 am we were slogging up a scree slope towards the entrance of a huge canyon that cuts deep into the side of Jebel Rum. We were both trying to persuade our legs and for that matter the rest of our body to wake up. However after such a rude awakening it takes time before the body decides it is happy. Until such time, the pain in your legs and head is its way of letting you know it is not yet happy.

The good news was that we were at least in the shade. The sun probably wouldn’t hit us until we had finished the climb and were on the summit plateaux of Jebel Rum. All part of our cunning plan. Nigel had done the route before. He said he “kinda” knew the way. We at first climbed too high, courtesy of myself, and ended up on a ledge some 30m above the canyon floor. We did not wish to re-trace our steps and more to the point to loose a 100m of altitude. So using a short length of climbing rope we managed to descend to the wadi floor. We were then back in the bottom of the huge canyon. The way on was not as one would expect; to follow the canyon further up and into the mountain. It was quite the contrary. “Its up there” said Nigel pointing up the sheer cliffs, “along that ledge, up and around the corner and then sort of up a bit more, right a bit, up a bit and so on... er... I think”.

Since there were only two of us we could move very quickly and an hour later, after following the tiny ledge, we emerged out of the canyon onto the side of the mountain. We could look straight down the huge cliffs we had just scramble up, and even further below we could see the car, the only spec of white in this Martian landscape. Although the scramble was exposed in places, it was in fact easier than I had imagined. It was 8.30 a.m. Nigel commented that on his previous trip they had stopped here for lunch, so we were doing OK. We continued up the sloping rocks of the canyon wall and soon emerged out of the shadowy void, where we stepped into a new landscape, the summit plateau of the jebel.

The lower section of the mountain is made of red sand stone. It is this rock and its geological weathering over time that has produced the spectacular red dunes in the dessert landscape below. However the top of the jebel is capped with a few hundred metres thickness of pure white sandstone. This has been carved and cut into a square maze of tiny canyons. About 1km in the distance we could see the summit ridge of the jebel, but getting there took a further ¾ hr. By now we had become very good at spotting cairns, those tiny piles of stones used to mark the path.

However in this maze even if you saw one in the distance, only a hundred metres away, to get to it was not always so easy. On several occasions we were stopped in our tracks when the canyon we were following just stopped and it was impossible to climb out, or having climbed onto the ridge in between two canyons, we were stopped when our ridge was cut cross by another small canyon. Finally we arrived at the base of the summit peak. Having been in the sun, we took a rest in some shade. We then worked our way up the summit slabs of rock and a ½hr later we were on top. It was 10.15 a.m.

The views from the summit cannot be described by words. Considering all my years of mountaineering, I can say that Wadi Rum is a very special place. I felt humbled to be there. It puts things in perspective when you look out over such a huge landscape of towering rock mountains and flat dessert plains; untouched by man. Since we had made the top in such good time we decided to stay and soak up the scenery. One thing that did surprise us was that it was incredibly windy on top, there was no evidence of sand storms on the valley floors below, or for as far in any direction as we could see. But here up at an altitude of 1,800m it was blowing a gale. The great thing about June in Jordan, as opposed to June in the Alps or Scotland, was that it is was still very warm. After contemplating our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, we started the descent.

We descended via Sheik Hamdans Route. This route went across the summit plateau and then down into another huge canyon. After about 1hr, we stood at the top of “the Siq”. This is a huge gash that cut deep into the Jebel. If you imagine the mountain as a huge cake, then it was as if someone had cut a thin slab out of that cake. The walls were sheer and the bottom of the canyon several hundred metres below. I knew from reading the guide book that the route followed a steeply inclined natural ledge down the left hand cliff to the base of the canyon. As a mountaineer you have a feeling for what these descriptions mean and pretty much what to expect.

But every now and then… you stand at the top (or bottom) of a cliff and wonder just how it is possible that a path goes up or down there. This was after all a scramble and not a rock climb. Well there was a ledge descending into this void and a few white arrows painted on the rock (pointing up, since the route was marked for ascent and not descent) to add some tangible proof that the route was indeed down here.

We scrambled down the ledge, which was in places several metres wide and in other parts 20cm wide. In one spot we had to climb a few metres down using the trunk of a large juniper tree, it was hard to see just how it was actually stuck to the cliff side. But since it had lived in this spot for several hundreds of years and had not been removed by violent winds and storms I decided it would hold my weight. We then came to a place where our ledge made an abrupt step down, vertically down for about 10 metres. This spot was the crux of the route and called the “chimney”. This was literally because you had to descend a crack between the main cliff face and the slab of rock that formed the ledge.

The dimensions of the crack were as if one were descending a household chimney, hence the name. I went first and as a regular caver I actually found this “fun”. We used our small rope to lower down the rucksacks and then Nigel followed. We then continued down easier ground to the floor of the canyon. By now it was very hot and it was too uncomfortable to enjoy our surroundings, so we made our way quickly down the canyon. Where the canyon exited from the Jebel massif we turned left and followed a ledge back round to join up with the original canyon we had climbed up.

The last ¾hr of the walk was a painful descent down the scree slopes back to the car.

At 1.15 pm we were sat in what little shade the car offered and could at last rest. It had been a great adventure. We looked back up towards Jebel Rum, and despite being able to see where our route had taken us, it still seemed impossible that a route could penetrate such a fortress of sheer sandstone cliffs and canyons.

We then drove to the Rum Guest House for a few well earned beers, all part of our re-hydration programme! We then drove round to the back of Jebel Um Eijl. We set up camp in the entrance of Zernouk el Daber (Canyon of the Hyena), ready to start on the next days walk. We had decided that rather than head for another summit, we would have a leisurely walk around Jebel Um Ejil. We would cross the mountain using Zernouk el Daber, abseiling the 40m down into Bahr Al Kharazeh (canyon of the sea Stones) and return through the mountain using Rakabat Canyon.

That evening we decided to walk up the canyon to the pass to check the condition of the belay that we would use for the descent. That way if we needed additional equipment we would know what to take the next day. We returned to our desert camp and had a fine meal, courtesy of Elvira, washed down with Lebanese wine, followed by cherries and rounded off with some fine cigars and a wee dram.

The following morning we had another early start. At 07.15 hrs we were back at the abseil point. The ropes were rigged and I threw them out into the void. We then had a very pleasant abseil down into Al Kharazeh canyon. After pulling the ropes down behind us we scrambled the last few meters down to the canyon floor. Thereafter we followed the canyon towards Wadi Rum. However we did not descend to the valley floor, but instead traversed along a series of ledges round the side of the Jebel into another series of canyons that would lead us back through the mountain again. After a few hours of pleasant scrambling and walking we arrived in Rakabat Canyon, which we descended to finally emerge back on the same side of the Jebel as we had begun. All that remained was to walk ½hr through the desert back to the car. Another fine excursion to round of the weekend.

I was happy that the Wadi Rum area had at last been given the status of a National Park, this way it will definitely get protected and managed so that future generations can see nature at its best.

Paul Saville

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