Climbing Sinai: Hiking The World’s Second Most Famous Mountain
Monday, January 17, 2011
Trek along for a hike up the biblical Mount Sinai for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch the sun rise from the second most famous mountain in the world.
By Matt Scott
In almost any other country Gebel Musa, which many believe to be the legendary Mount Sinai, would have a chairlift to the summit, a panoramic viewing restaurant and a multitude of gift shops; perhaps selling Burning Bush snow globes and the Ten Commandments paperweights, but as this is Egypt, things are a little different.
To reach this biblical mountain I’m crammed into a small taxi with seven other backpackers, taking the two-hour journey from the laid back, Red Sea resort of Dahab; where ex-kibbutzniks and weary travelers go to relax. I am both the former and latter.
After a little bargaining with the driver he agrees to wait for us until the morning so we pay him half the money he is owed before setting off from the small car park close to St Catherine’s Monastery, where the Burning Bush still grows strong.
There are two routes to the summit. The first involves climbing 3,750 steps, which range in height from a few inches to over a foot; an effort going up or down, my guidebook tells me. After a brief discussion with my fellow passengers we opt for the second option: a gradual path that snakes its way to the summit over the course of a few miles.
It’s just past 11 p.m. A sliver of the moon is high in the sky and the mountaintops, reaching over 7,000 feet, are silhouetted against a black, star-filled sky. The eight of us walk towards the only path that is visible from where we are and head off into the blackness of the mountains. We can see torchlight on the hill to our right but our own lights do little to illuminate our path, except to confirm that we are still on level ground.
It is only a few minutes into the walk before we hear a shout from behind us.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” an Egyptian man shouts as he runs towards us.
“What you think he wants to sell?” I hear someone ask. Hardly a moment passes in Egypt without someone trying to sell gifts, tours, guides or other services and I wonder what this man will offer.
“Wrong path, wrong path,” he tells us as he approaches.
Looking around, none of us can see further than a few meters. Shining our torches shows that there is only rocks and dirt to our left and right.
“I show you right path.”
We all stay silent waiting for the next line.
“Backshish,” he says, meaning a small tip.
We all delve into our especially reserved backshish pockets, where we keep a few small notes for such occasions.
“Five pound each.”
There are murmurs from the group. “That’s what I already gave you” someone shouts.
“Five more,” he replies.
We all look around again and are reminded we have little choice.
There are more murmurs as the correct money exchanges hands.
The man gestures for us to follow him and after only five meters from where we had been standing, just out of the reach of our torches, the man points to a junction.
“Good path,” he says.
We move onto the path without a word and continue our climb, wondering if men wait at every turn for the opportunity to guide lost visitors.
The path climbs steadily and the group soon begins to break up, only the beams of torches indicate their presence. Despite temperatures of almost 86 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, I find myself getting cold on the climb and dig into my bag for another top. Knowing that the desert can be cold at night I have brought all my warm clothes, however, as it’s summer this extends to just a pair of pants and a jumper. I walk faster to keep warm.
The path switches back as I walk higher. The night seems to have gotten darker now and the mountains are no longer silhouetted against the sky. I am walking in a black bubble, seeing noting except the torch light in front of me that indicates I am still on the path, or a least a path.
After an hour or so I see a small light on the hill to my right and as I follow the path, see it leads to a small tent, selling tea and snacks. I poke my head in and see some of the walkers from the taxi. Wrapped in scarves and hats they are clearly more prepared than I was.
I buy a sweet tea from the man tending a small stove in the corner and join the others. Everyone has a similar story: Erica and Maurtiza from Sweden has been on a kibbutz for three months and wanted a break in Dahab. Jonathan is from Germany and has been traveling Egypt for a month. Sara is with her boyfriend from Denmark. “He’s up a head somewhere” she explains, indicating she is not enjoying the temperature.
“The last thing I expected from Egypt was to be cold,” Erica says. We all laugh in agreement as the man in the corner looks on deadpan, as if he hears it every night. As we finish the last of our tea and leave the tent he calls after us: “enjoy the cold.”
As we reach higher ground the gradual path becomes steeper and less pronounced. We meet other walkers standing in the dark and waving their torches wondering if they have taken a wrong turn. Only the presence of torchlight up ahead confirms we may be on the right track.
A few steep steps and a scramble between rocks and we see the light of another small tent in the distance. Close by, the silhouette of a building, the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, indicates we have reached the summit.
The tent at the summit is packed with frozen walkers hugging cups of tea (the price of which seems to grow according to the height above sea level). I squeeze in next to Jonathan and the two Swedish girls, glad of the warmth, but within minutes we are asked to leave to make way for other patrons. I buy another tea in the hope of staying only to be told, “Bring cup back,” as the patron waves me to the door and after I have paid my money. My initial idea of staying in the tent until sunrise was obviously not going to work.
It is only 2 a.m. and the summit of Mt Sinai is already crowded, so we wonder around to find a place for our sleeping bags and soon appear to have found a deserted area. As I settle my head down on a rock, the smell that tells me we have in fact walked into the latrine area; I try to ignore the softness underfoot as we rapidly make my way back to the crowds.
Just below the chapel is a level area of land and we climb down to discover a small cave in which we can settle down for the night. It is deserted and as a cold breeze blows across the summit, the four of us are huddle together as close as possible. The night is long as we shiver with every breeze.
Just as I begin to think I will shiver my teeth loose, the first glimpse of dark red light develops over the mountain. The black peaks of the mountains ahead of us rise jaggedly against the glowing, slowly-changing palette of the sky.
I nudge the others and the sound of teeth chattering stops briefly as we let out a communal sigh of relief. We rearrange out huddle so we all have a good view and shiver until the dark red band stretches across the horizon. The sky turns from black to dark blue, then to a lighter shade as the colors of dawn reflect in the few clouds that are on the far horizon.
Minutes later the valley bathes in light and the bleak desert mountains become visible for the first time. Rock and sand disappear into the distance in a series of jagged mountains and a sigh of relief comes as the sun finally edges above the horizon and my face can feel the warmth. A small Chinese choir standing just above us begin to sing as a series of camera flashes go off across the summit.
I stare at the desert scenery for just a few more minutes before I move away from Jonathan, whom I realize has been huddled against me. We exchange a little blank look before he says, “you didn’t do a very good job of keeping me warm.” We share a laugh and a last look across the mountains of Sinai before we begin our descent, via the steps. Within minutes, we are sweating with the heat of the morning sun.
About the Author
Matt Scott has spent the majority of his adult life traveling and working abroad. His writing and photos have appeared in publications around the world, both online and in print. He also interns for the online travel site Matador Travel. Originally from the U.K., he currently lives in Paris where he works as a trip leader for an active travel company.