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Asia, Jordan, Unexplored Mountains of Wadi Rum, 1984

Unexplored Mountains of Wadi Rum, 1984. If Wadi Rum means anything to anyone, it probably conjures up visions of Lawrence of Arabia, for it was from there in that remote region of desert mountains that he based his raids on the Turks and Aqaba. Since then little has changed. Di Taylor, Mick Shaw, Alan Baker and I were fortunate to be the first climbers invited by Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism to assess the region’s potential for mountaineering and trekking and we spent five weeks there during October and November 1984. It is a singularly impressive area of about 500 square miles of desert and mountains with red, yellow and purple sandstone towers and walls rising steeply and windworn into arabesque loops and whorls with tier upon tier of overlapping slabs melting into space. These walls start from the desert at 900 to 1000 metres and are capped with huge domes of smooth white sandstone leading to summits of 1500 to 1700 metres. The two highest, facing each other across Wadi Rum, are Jebel Rum (1754 metres, 5760 feet), Jordan’s highest mountain, and Jebel Um’ishrin, only one metre lower. Further east across Wadi Um’ishrin are the pyramidal peaks of the Barrakhs, whilst to the south dozens of smaller domes of white sandstone rise like petrified cumulus clouds for 200 to 300 metres from the sands, giving shorter enjoyable climbs. Immediately south of Wadi Rum, Jebel A1 Kharza’li squats over the desert, split by a giant ravine on its north side and fronted by 300 metres of gently overhanging rock to its west. Despite what appears to be very unstable and suspect rock, most of the summits have been climbed by the Bedouin. The most notable of the unclimbed peaks is Nassrani (1560 metres, 5118 feet). Its giant twin-topped dome has vertical 600-metre-high walls on every side, most of them blank or crossed by row upon row of overhangs like bracket fungi. Our one probing route on this peak up a rather horrendous cleft ended in a couloir with a few bushes beyond which was nothing. We were amazed to find that the Bedouin go up to this point, barefoot, solo, to collect these very shrubs for camel food, often with a gun and the spoils of their hunting trips slung over their shoulders. We also followed a few other Bedouin hunters’ routes up the peaks of Wadi Rum. Our first attempt on one such route ended in an impromptu bivouac on the descent with neither equipment nor water. This was our first experience of the complexity of these peaks, in particular Jebel Rum. Its routes to the summit, gaining only 700 to 800 metres of altitude can be measured in kilometres as the peak is slashed by barrier walls and ravines or siqs running the full width of the summit plateau and often crossable at only one point which is rarely easy to find. We spent two fascinating days on the north plateau, reaching many of its small domes with incredible views of the desert and standing in awe on the edge of unknown canyons 300 meters deep, or on the lip of the Great Siq which bisects the mountain just north of the summit, where it drops into the “Pit”: a hole in the heart of the mountain 100 metres deep and wide, vanishing finally through a giant arch beneath which the early-morning sun was streaming in. The route to the east dome of Jebel Rum would be a classic Grade IV+ anywhere, over 1500 metres of climbing up slabs and cracks, split at halfway by a devious descent into and out of a narrow ravine and emerging onto the summit domes through a unique cave where the slabs disappear beneath a 30-metre roof and the side walls converge from a width of 30 metres to an exit cleft one metre high and wide. When we did finally reach the summit of Jebel Rum, we followed another Bedouin route up from the southeast edge of the Great Siq and wandered over the high domes and hidden little deserts, home of the ibex, to the final ridge. Due to the unexpected length and the complexity of route-finding we made two bivouacs. Here we also learned not to place too much trust in abseil pegs. One fell out whilst being used, though fortunately the climber was standing on a ledge, sorting the ropes; another peg was removed by hand after being used for an abseil on an earlier reconnaissance of the route! As one gets familiar with the rock, its idiosyncrasies become increasingly acceptable and we had an unforgettable five weeks, spending almost every day in the mountains, climbing or exploring their canyons, some of which make amazing treks through the heart of the massifs. We hardly scratched the surface, discovering far more canyons, peaks and potential routes than we could ever hope to visit or climb. The opportunity for exploration and first ascents (or first recorded ascents) of easy or middle-grade routes is immense. The possibility of making high-standard free and aid routes also exists. Our ascent of a 1000-metre Grade V merely points the way, whilst our reconnaissance of the 700-metre vertical east wall of Jebel Rum involved very severe moves and aid-climbing on nuts; it is another indication of what may be possible for future expeditions. The Bedouin themselves also contributed equally to the depth of our experiences. We were welcomed at their desert camps and invited to their feasts. Wadi Rum’s mountains, deserts and people have much to offer. Go there and be prepared for a mountain experience the like of which you probably have never had before.

Tony Howard, Alpine Climbing Group