"Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar." I strained to hear Mohammed tell me I was on belay over the call to prayer emanating from the minarets of Rum Village far below. Nancy and I were climbing Goldfinger, a classic route on the East Face of Jebel Rum, one of the most prominent sandstone rock formations in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan. At that instant, hanging from the belay station three pitches up, looking down upon an ancient Nabataean temple and across a vast desert leading all the way to the Red Sea, I knew I was forever under the spell of “the Rum”.
For centuries, the local Bedouin have clambered up and over these rocks in search of spring water, medicinal plants, and on the hunt for food. We proudly talk about our rich climbing history in the US, with the likes of Beckey, Kor, Robbins, and Chouinard pushing the envelope in the 50s and 60s. Although endeavours utterly worthy of respect and admiration, this history seems almost quaint when staring at inscriptions dating back to 400 BC high up the vertical rock face on Jebel Rum.
As we only had one day to spend in the desert, Nancy and I teamed up with Mohammed Hammad, one of the only two professional guides in the area, in the hopes of getting a quick lay of the land and feel for the rock to plan future climbing expeditions. Mohammed is the son of Hammad, one of the legendary Bedouin climbers of Wadi Rum. Many of the routes in Tony Howard’s guidebook are named after Hammad, including the not to be missed classic route up and across to the summit of Jebel Rum, climbed for centuries in only sandals and without rope.
Arriving at Mohammed’s house in Rum Village, we were quickly welcomed into the sparsely furnished sitting room. Careful to sit on the floor cushions with our feet beneath us so as not to offend, we discussed possible routes and gear. Nancy and I had brought only what was easily packable- a harness, belay device, and climbing shoes. Grabbing his brother for help, Mohammed scrounged up all the extra gear he could find, including a five sizes too big foam bike helmet for me and loaned his only climbing helmet to Nancy, electing instead to don the hattah or traditional head scarf as his protection of choice.
Wadi Rum strictly follows the traditional climbing ethos, where even the use of chalk is frowned upon by locals. However, many of the rappel routes, particularly on Jebel Rum, are being bolted in conjunction with the Jordan Tourism Board for safety reasons, and sport specific crags or routes are continuously being developed just outside of the Wadi Rum Protected Area.
Opportunities abound for natural protection and the often changing quality of the sandstone adds to the regions charm. Routes range in difficulty from the truly adventurous scramble, to the most difficult finger cracks and overhangs, with all route ratings following the European standard. The normal climbing season is October to early May, as the summers are much too hot. The winters can be downright cold and the days short, but some people still brave these volatile conditions to climb.
Goldfinger (5.9, 4-5 pitches) is a beautiful route following the obvious crack system on the finger shaped towers clinging to the East Face of Jebel Rum. Located just minutes from town, the climb begins with a scramble up to the white rock band and the start of the crack system. The third pitch is the crux, a delightfully fun chimney demanding you inch your way up while pushing and pulling on opposing sides.
Topping out atop a sandstone tower halfway across the world, you may ask yourself why go so far to climb when abundant desert test pieces exist so close to home? Sure, I could simply head to Red Rocks or Joshua Tree to tick routes off my list, but climbing is so much more for me. It’s all in the experience, breathing air thick with history, feeling unfamiliar rock beneath my fingers, and sharing a rope with someone who feels that joy as much as I do, telling stories over a cup of tea or beer at the end of the day.
A big smile crossed my face when despite our obvious cultural differences, Mohammed began to grab gear straight from my harness. Climbing truly is a universal language that brings us closer together.
As T.E. Lawrence wrote in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.'" Wadi Rum, I will be back.
Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum, Jordan by Tony Howard: Back in 1984, British climber Tony Howard was the first to document many of the climbs in the area, since creating three editions of this singular guidebook. After speaking with Mohammed, the book gives you a great overall sense of the area but many people have gotten lost or off route with the somewhat dated beta. A brand new guidebook is in the works by French climber Wilf Colonna with input from Philippe Brass. The duo are hoping to have this out by the end of 2013 or early 2014. I personally can not wait for this one.
Bedouin Guides: Mohammed's site with logistical information on climbing and other adventures to be had in Wadi Rum.
Climbing And Trekking In Wadi Rum Protected Area: Map of Wadi Rum climbing areas and further information.