The dead goat doesn’t smell. It is too old for that. Desiccated to a mound of molting hair and skin thin leather it sits half buried in the sand. We contemplate each other. Neither of us is going anywhere.
It seems strange that a wolf or fox hasn’t found you fit to eat. I wonder what you died of? Lack of food or water? Disease? A fall from the cliff above? All seem possible. Which would get me first if I were left out here? Probably the silence would drive me mad some time after the water ran out. I’ve never been anywhere so quiet. No birds, no insets, no wind or running water. No people.
Today we climbed The Haj. Five pitches of perfectly protected crack from hands to body, followed by two easy rope lengths up a diagonal break to the last pitch, a slab protected by a prusik cord threaded behind a pinch in the sandstone.
The move past the thread seemed hard, but as always that’s because I was thinking handholds not footholds. If this was Stanage it would just be a case of: find a smear at knee height, stand on it, repeat. But at Stanage I wouldn’t be wearing a sack, or 200m off the ground.
The final moves were a joyful romp to a three metre wide ridge. We finished the water and coiled the ropes looking out towards the Saudi border. Robert had done the route before, so led the way across the hill looking for cairns and signs of rock worn by climbers or Bedouin hunters. He got lost for a while, but then a goat might get lost up here. Before falling to its death and half burial in the sands below.
Two days ago we did a new route, and it had taken us longer to find a way down from the summit than to get up the mountain. Working our way from shelf to shelf in rock shoes that crushed our toes. The descent finished with a short simultaneous abseil off a lump of rock; me down one side, Robert down the other.
Today we are luckier and have brought approach shoes, but it is still a complex business. Eventually we reach the sands and follow camel tracks back to our tents.
The goat says nothing, but I can hear something. The noise doesn’t break the silence. It seems to live on top of it. The land cruiser comes into view with Sabbah at the wheel to transport us away from the silence to the howling dogs, chickens, playing children and the call to prayers of Wadi Rum village.
The rest house is closed when we reach the village at nightfall. So we knock on the back windows to wake the staff. We are welcomed with a smile, a hot shower and a cooked meal. We are the only guests. The crises in Syria, the rise of ISIS, stabbings in Jerusalem and the bombing of a Russian plane over the Sinai has destroyed the tourist industry, keeping even the climbers away. These days we seem happier to run it out on unprotected routes back home than get on a plane heading East.
T.E. Lawrence passed this way during the First World War. Raising an army to take Damascus from the Ottomans. Inventing, then teaching the locals how to plant IEDs in the sand. Today Jordan seems an oasis of peace and safety surrounded by a boiling sea of hate.
We walk West then North scrambling over rocks of every colour from pink sandstone to black granite for an hour to a large cairn below a loose sandy wall. The scribbled notes in the routes book at the rest house spoke of good climbing on solid rock, so we head up Wonderland, taken by the name. Half way up the first pitch I’ve taken one turn too many and one rope is stuck. I tie it off to a cam and continue unprotected. Lucky I find a crack to feed with cams before having to pull over a bulge, grovel up a chimney and swing onto a ledge. The next five pitches are much better, but then something doesn’t feel right. The topo shows the route heading up a small corner then along a ramp. But there are many corners above and at least two ramps. I toss a coin in my head and aim for the higher. Up is always good. The rock is poor, the gear spaced and I know we are lost. I clip some beached cords, pull over a bulge to reach another old sling, this time clove hitched around a small flake glued by magic to the wall. This has to be right or why would there be these old pieces of tat? We both know the truth, but don’t want to voice it; don’t want to break the silence of a shared responsibility. I guessed wrong. I’ve been drawn by someone’s escape route into the middle of nowhere. Robert spends a while attempting to make the topo fit the rock around us but gives up and heads into the unknown across the wall, trying to make contact with the route. I follow leaving a sling around a thin pillar of sand as a back rope. Back on track the rock turns solid on the next pitch and apes up a steep wall on monster jugs and threads. We finally scramble to the top chastened by my incompetence, but the view is just too stunning for this to spoil the day, and besides, we still have to find a way off this thing.
The next day we walk East from the village across the desert and tunnel deep into the mountain. We follow a series of chasms to the black wall of The Beauty. The first pitch is up a perfect 30m layback Indian Creek might be proud of. The crack then gets a little less continuous, but still well protected, for two pitches, to end at a belay below a steep slab. Two in-situ pegs protect the crux moves, leaving just the final off width pitch. If you have climbed something like Generator Crack in Yosemite, or brought both a size 5 and 6 cam then this pitch will feel Hard Severe (5.7). Otherwise you will just have to trust me that the crux is the first move off the ledge, then it’s an easy layback.
The thought of another night of howling dogs drives us back out into the desert. We camp under the truly improbable line of Merlin’s Wand. A five pitch crack rising out of the sand. An hour after being abandoned by Sabbah the sky has turned black, two days of rain has started and we are trapped. The gold metal poles of Robert’s tent had become play things for the dogs in the village and his tent destroyed, so he gets to bivvy in a damp cave. With tales ringing in his head of Bedouin drowning in flash floods, he moves to a higher cave on the second night, and I get to poke my head out my tent every few hours to watch the rising tide and vomit into the sand from a mystery bug. Meanwhile The Wand and all the other cracks, corners and depressions on the faces around us explode into waterfalls, the silence finally broken.
- Wadi Rum is in Jordan. It is a truly spectacular place to climb and walk.
- The exchange rate is approximately 1 JD to the UK pound.
- The closest airport is Aqaba. Wadi Rum is about an hour by taxi from Aqaba – which will cost between 20 and 30 JD. Make sure the taxi driver knows you want Wadi Rum village, not just the park entrance. Depending on the time of day, you might have to pay a fee to enter the park.
- From the capital Amman, it is around four hours by taxi, however Amman to Aqaba is only 40 minutes by internal flight and flights are surprisingly cheap.
- The climbing season is November to April. Spring has the advantage of a carpet of flowers, less rain and longer days, but it will be getting warm.
- The base of the routes are at 1000m above sea level, the tops up to 750m higher.
- Most popular routes are in the VS (5.8) to E3 (5.11a) range and five to twelve pitches, but there are also shorter and much harder stuff to be had, and a lifetime of new routing. The rock is sandstone and varies between bomber and your worst nightmare. However by sticking to the classic routes, good rock and good protection can easily be found by any competent team.
- In winter it can be below freezing in the valleys at night and can snow on the tops; with wind chill added in, benightment can be serious, especially if you got wet.
- Although there are some bolted routes, some short routes and others with bolted abseil descents, the longer trad adventure climbs, many of which will take you to a summit, are the main attraction. These often have complex descents with benightment a real possibility, so consider taking synthetic belay jackets and a bothy bag together with abseil tat and a knife. If a storm hits descent may well be impossible until the rain stops as the slabs will be awash with water and the gullies will become rivers.
- The locals rely on tourism and will arrange transport to the base of the routes and a return lift. If you need help, walk into the back streets of the village and look for a sign above a house saying Jordan Tracks and ask for Salleem.
- The only guidebook is Tony Howard’s Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum which is rather old, however it works fine and there is rumour of a new select guide.
- Alongside the technical rock climbs there are what are commonly called Bedouin routes. These are long scrambles to the summits or traverses across the summits. A rope and light rack can be advisable on these, in part because you might get lost, but also because some of the modern ones involve abseiling. The existence of these routes makes the area surprisingly good for a mixed group as long as all are competent.
Burdah North Ridge – a 1.5km scramble
The Thamudic Route – 3km, mostly scrambling
Rum Doddle – 9 pitches, HS (5.7)
Hamund’s Route – 6 roped pitches up to VS (5.8), but 2km long
The Eye of Allah – 8 pitches plus scrambling, VS (5.8)
The Haj – 9 pitches, HVS (5.9)
Black Magic – 10 pitches, HVS (5.9)
Pillar of Wisdom – mostly HVS (5.9) with one pitch of E2 (5.10c) and a long descent
The Beauty – 6 pitches, E1 (5.10b)
Merlin’s Wand – 5 pitches, E1 (5.10b)
The Star of Abu Judaidah – 8 pitches, E2 (5.10c)
Flight of Fancy – 6 pitches, E2 (5.10c)
Inferno – 5 pitches, E2 (5.10c)
Catfish Corner – 3 pitches, E3 (5.11a)
Inshallah Factor – 15 pitches, E3 (5.11a), but the crux can be aided
Lionheart, E3 (5.11a)
Words by David Coley; photos by Robert Durran and David Coley.