Between heaven and earth in the Sinai

During the second day of our trek across the Sinai, we walked up a wide-open wadi that was hemmed in by steep granite walls. We moved fast over the flat sand and stopping only for tea breaks with the Bedouin guides and a quick lunch cooked over a small fire. As we moved through the wadi, the gray-brown mountains marched past and our footsteps crunched in the gravel and we fell into a fast rhythm and covered a lot of ground. By the time we dropped our packs against the western wall of the wadi, the sun was getting low in the sky and we had covered something close to 30 kilometers.

While we were walking, our companion Ben had mentioned that it might be fun to climb the sawtooth ridge that overlooked the eastern wall of the wadi and see if we could get any views out across the Red Sea to the mountains of Saudi Arabia. It seemed like a good idea to me, and as the Bedouin guides tended the camels and started building a fire for cooking dinner, I decided to go up and take a look. As an afterthought I grabbed my daypack and threw in a few items in case I thought spending the night up there alone would be a good idea: a plastic groundsheet, my sleeping pad, my sleeping bag, and a water bottle. I crossed the wide wadi with my bag on my shoulder and my sandals on my feet and then began climbing.

I don’t know exactly how high the ridgeline was — maybe a couple hundred feet — but it was steep and the granite was a hard, fractured type that came loose in my hands and clattered down the mountainside as I climbed. From time to time I looked back down to the camp below, and when I was most of the way up I saw Ben and Evan crossing the wadi as well. Before too long I could hear them scrambling up along different routes.

This was the first time in the trip that we began to realize what a beating our equipment would take from the Sinai’s sharp-edged rocks. I had hiked all day in sandals, which hadn’t been a problem in the soft-bottomed wadi, but now on the rugged mountainside, I had to be a lot more careful. Behind me, Ben was climbing up in some camp sandals he’d brought, and encountered trouble when one of them completely came apart as he climbed. He kept going, though, and basically made it up and back with one bare foot. Evan was the best-equipped, with proper leather boots, but even those got torn up from the razor-edged rocks; for most of the rest of the trip, he protected the toes of his boots with silver duct tape.

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From the top, the view of the sunset over the wadi and the mountains beyond was amazing, but the view east was a bit disappointing — all we saw was another rock wall that rose up higher than where we were standing. “In the morning it might be fun to come back and climb that one,” Ben said. “We could probably catch a good view of the sunrise from up there.”

The thing about Ben is that he is completely obsessed with the mountains of the Sinai. I find mountains fascinating too, maybe because I grew up in northern Indiana, where the horizons were completely flat and even a small hill seemed like an oddity. But what I took as an idle comment from Ben was actually the seed of a serious plan, and the first of many similar plans he spontaneously made in the course of our trek. In night camps we would sit around fires and lean back against blanket-covered camel saddles and he would look out across the dim, jagged landscape and point out peak after peak, calling them all by their Arabic names and enumerating the ones he had already climbed and the ones he dreamed of climbing. 

So I didn’t realize it yet, but he was dead serious about doing a sunrise scramble, not only up the mountain that had just destroyed his sandals, but up the higher one that now faced us to the east. I said something noncommittal about it because I had other plans on my mind.

Before the others had arrived, I had picked my way along the ridgeline and found sort of a saddle where there was a level spot between two rocky crests. It was a little way down on the east side, hidden from the wadi in the small canyon between the two ridges. It had taken a little while, but I had moved a few dozen big rocks to create a mostly-flat, person-shaped space on a bed of hard ground. I had spread out my sheet, pad, and sleeping bag, and thus committed myself to a night alone on the mountain before scrambling back up to the ridgeline to meet Evan and Ben.

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The sun went down and we climbed back into the wadi and the cold night descended. We sat around the fire to eat and talk. When the small fire died, we lit candles and put them in cut-off water bottles. It was the kind of night that lends itself to stories of ghosts and spirits and stars. We hung on the latter topic for awhile; Ben had brought along a copy of an academic article describing Bedouin star-lore, and our guides told us about the names of different stars and constellations, and how they could be used as signs to mark different seasons. When certain ones rose in certain places, they signaled the beginnings of different harvest times, or the times when the wadis might flood, and when travelers slept in places like this at their own peril.

Eventually we all got up and turned on our headlamps and zipped up our fleeces and began the nighttime ritual of collecting our scattered items, getting everything in order for the night, and preparing in advance for the next morning’s departure. Evan and Ben and Julian all had their sleeping bags laid out in different places, and the guides stayed on the blankets already laid around the campfire area near the camels. 

I set out again across the wadi in my sandals, this time in the dark, and the world quickly narrowed into the circle of my light and the sound of my footsteps. I carefully retraced my route back up the series of ascents up the rock wall and along the ridgeline at the top, and finally reached the high point of the knife-edge where someone had built a rock cairn. In one direction, I could see my sleeping spot in the high, dark divide, barely visible in the weak beam of my light. In the other direction, I could see the lights of other headlamps in the wadi below. 

On an impulse, I thought I might see everything better if I turned off my light. I was sitting crouched on a single prominent rock next to the cairn on the ridge’s highest point, and in the few seconds before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I felt completely disoriented, and almost fell from where I was sitting. The moon had not come up yet, and the black rock below matched the black sky above, and for a little while it seemed like I was hanging in space, and I was afraid. I panicked a little and grabbed onto the solid rock below the cairn. I held onto it as my eyes adjusted and the scene around me began to resolve itself.

When I was a kid, my family and I used to take our summer vacations to a cabin up north that my grandfather had built with his brothers, out in the middle of the deep forest where there was no electricity and there were no nearby cities. One time I went out onto the lake alone in the middle of a moonless night and decided to lay down in the wet bottom of the rowboat and look at the stars, and when I did, I was frightened by a sky whose size and brilliance I had never really seen before.

I felt something similar now as I sat on the ridgeline, suspended between heaven and earth, watching the stars appear in their billions. Down below, the headlamps of the other hikers looked like stars as well, twinkling as they moved back and forth and changed directions in the darkness. The great belt of the Milky Way stretched east and west across the sky, while the sandy bed of the wadi below ran from north to south and shone white as it reflected the light of the stars. It seemed right to stay there for awhile, so I did, and when I went down and found my bed in the darkness on the other side of the ridge, I fell asleep quickly.

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The sky was still purple when I woke up and heard the sound of falling rocks. I rolled over and saw Ben making his way quickly over the lower ridge and then heading down toward the next one to the east. I sat up, took a drink of water, climbed out into the cold, put my sandals on, and left my things behind as I picked my way down the shadowed slope to follow him. We hit the bottom of the ravine and started upward without stopping. There was a certain exhilaration for me in climbing fast in the cold air and the dawn light, and I imagine Ben felt it too. We made it to the top quickly — only to find that there was yet another ridge. 

“We could climb that one too,” Ben said with a note of reservation.

“Maybe we should,” I said.

“Yallabina,” he said, and started down. Again we descended quickly to a deep ravine and then silently shifted gears into a fast ascent. As we scrambled the higher slope using our hands and feet, the black granite gave way to yellow sandstone that was weathered into strange shapes, and whose layers broke away in plate-shaped pieces. Up near the top the steps and layers got more and more horizontal, and finally flattened out completely. 

Then we saw the dawn just breaking over the Hejaz, and the Gulf of Aqaba glittering in the sunlight, and the lines of mountains rising up from the sea to meet us. We were at the highest point of the ridgeline, save for a knob of standstone that stood above the flat spot where we were standing. “Let’s climb up there and build a rujm,” Ben said, and we did: a modest rock cairn that might not last long, but which would at least give us the sense for the time being that we had done something, and would also connect us with the ancients who had crossed these same spaces and had left similar signs of their passing: cairns, tombs, altars, and pillars.

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The Sinai is not some empty space that has somehow remained unchanged since the times of Abraham and Moses and the Pharaohs and the Exodus and all the events that today give it such historical, legendary, and mythic significance. It is a place where people live, and where roads have been built, and where jets fly overhead. It is a place that can feel quite ordinary at certain times and in certain places. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing magical about hiking there.

But sometimes there is. In the mountainous interior of the Sinai, where most of the paved roads have not yet penetrated, and where few bother to venture except for the Bedouins who know the secrets that sustain desert life, beautiful and frightening moments of transcendence can present themselves to those who seek them. The cairn I helped build between heaven and earth, on the long trail from Ras Shetan to Jebel Musa, was by no means the first that marked such a moment, and I am sure it will not be the last.

Photos by Evan Bryant