Desert calling: exploring and climbing in Jordan

Climbing Destinations
February 13, 2021

As a reddish light flickers and dances with the curves of a cavernous wall rising steeply beside you, the trance-like sound of campfire crackling echoes and melts into the air. Through plumes of smoke, an unbearably infinite sky glitters with starlight above. Your eyes drift downward to examine your taped and mended hands, bitten by the efforts of the day.

A voice floats over warm coals, hearty and eloquent, interrupting the whisper of the wind: “It used to be that Bedouins do not ask your name for three days. When you arrive, you are guest, and you are welcome. After three days, you are more than guest: you are home.” A slender man, draped in a thick, dark-colored robe, leans forward from his cross-legged posture to lift a charred kettle from a pile of embers. If you hold out your glass cup, he will graciously pour you a third, or perhaps fourth round of sugary red tea.

Climbing often becomes more than the act itself. Whether you're lured by the challenge, the excitement, or even the fear, eventually you realize that the true rapture of climbing is something much deeper. When you seek the rock, you inevitably find a path that weaves its way through cultures, languages, and communities long before you step onto the first pitch in a new land.

One corner of the world that relatively few climbers have explored is the Middle East. Expansive and remote landscapes, ancient cultural heritage, and low tourism volume truly define the region as an exotic destination off-the-beaten-path.

Barrah Canyon shows exactly what climbing in Wadi Rum means: exploration in an harsh yet astonishing natural environment © Xander Bianchi

 

Jordan, located in the heart of the Southern Levant, has a deep history with climbing. Nomadic Bedouins have been scrambling the sandstone peaks of Wadi Rum for centuries, primarily for hunting ibex. Until the mid-1980s, they were the only humans who knew safe passage through the labyrinthine canyons. Around 1984, a group of English climbers arrived and began to develop hundreds of modern traditional routes to complement the numerous ‘Bedouin roads.’ Although a trickle of traffic has followed in the years since, the mythical Valley of the Moon remains largely undiscovered - which means one should have a modest flair for epics to venture here on their own. The virgin sandstone can be fragile, and it is quite easy to get lost among the maze of summit domes.

While visiting the Wadi Rum Protected Area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), you are in the famous hospitality of the Bedouins. Sabbah Atieq was one of the original guides for Tony Howard’s early explorations and is intimately connected with the emergence of modern climbing in Rum. Two of his sons, M’sallam and Sulieman, operate a rustic desert camp and welcome climbers to stay with them in the village. They could navigate the area blindfolded, and are invaluable guides to the walls with their knowledge and desert-borne Land Cruisers.


Above: Sulieman Sabbah and his trusty 4x4. © Nelson Klein
Bottom: Sulieman Sabbah taking a moment to connect with his camels © Xander Bianchi

The East Face Towers of Jebel Rum, which are within walking distance from the village, are a good place to get familiar with the bold, traditional climbing that defines the area. You can expect a mélange of multi-pitch routes that offer every flavor of cracks, iron-deposit face climbing, and sandy belay ledges, mostly in the 5b to 6c+ range of grades. The Pillar of Wisdom (6a+) is a classic 9-pitch route not to be missed, with a mind-bending descent that is nearly impossible to on-sight without a hand-drawn map from someone who’s done it before.

Across the valley to the east from Jebel Rum is a series of peaks split by slender canyons. Here, under Jebel Um Ishrin, you’ll find one of the best routes in Rum, called The Beauty (6b). The meandering approach through melting-candle-wax walls is half the adventure.

Deeper into the desert lies a small oasis of vegetation and goat herders. Amidst the rolling dunes nestled between vertical walls, Barrah Canyon offers a serene reprieve from the restless roosters and modest hustle of Rum village. Here, you’ll find a number of stellar routes, including a striking vertical crack system that marks the magical line known as Merlin’s Wand (6b).

Above: Kitty Calhoun leading the fourth pitch of The Beauty on Jebel Um Ishrin © Xander Bianchi
Bottom: Diana on one of the required rappels during a descent from the summit of Jebel Rum © Nelson Klein


The climbing community in Jordan is relatively small, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Be prepared to be welcomed as if you belong. It’s easy to meet locals at the climbing gym on the southwest side of Amman who will be glad to share sport climbing beta or rope up for an expedition in the desert. Look for Ali Hussein, one of the few up-and-coming local mountain guides.

Local climber and aspiring mountaineering guide Ali Hussein © Xander Bianchi


No matter where you are in the world, climbing is an opportunity for people from a mosaic of cultures, languages, and backgrounds to collectively push through the boundaries of fear, self-doubt, and physical challenge. These experiences have the power to not only foster personal growth and expand perspective, but also to create lifetime bonds. Climbing in the Middle East is a chance to uncover something new and profound - within the world and within ourselves

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