James: November 8, 2016
Abdullah, he break your house!” a Jordanian boy told Abdullah Ali Al Zalabeyh, our 28-year-old host and the local fixer for climbers and trekkers in Jordan’s Wadi Rum. A second before, we’d heard the loud crash from the home’s living room, where we’d dropped our climbing gear to repack after our unplanned bivy atop the , an 1,100-foot 5.10b on Jebel Rum, the second highest peak in Jordan. Abdullah walked outside to see his Land Cruiser amidst the rubble that had been a new guest building. Abdullah’s father had mistaken forward for reverse on the gearshift.
Abdullah took it in stride: “What can I do? He’s my father,” he said.
On Halloween 2016, a small crew left office in Boulder, Colorado, for a 12-day trip to Jordan. Experience Jordan, the Jordan National Tourism department, hosted me, Kevin Corrigan, and Julie Ellison, plus Jessica Campbell, my friend from Leavenworth, Washington; Ben Hoiness, Julie’s Exum guide friend; and Andrew Burr, senior contributing photographer. Marwan Maayta, a Jordanian climber, toured us through the 34,000-square mile Muslim country. (It’s similar in size to Maine, but with fewer trees and more desert.).
Sited at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, most of the country’s $86 billion GDP comes from tourism. Tourists flock to the historical sites around the capital of Amman, to float in the Dead Sea, or to see the carved stone Nabataean buildings in Petra, three hours south of Amman. As climbers, we came to explore the sport climbing in the northern region, near the Syrian border, and to climb on the 1,000-plus-foot sandstone walls of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. Our 12-day trip was a whirlwind. Now, nine days in, we were decamped in Abdullah’s broken home.
Surveying the sprawl in the house—the random pile of gear and climber bodies worn haggard from sport climbing in Ajloun, gym climbing in Amman, bouldering by the Dead Sea, trad cragging in Wadi Rum, and then sleeping atop Jebel Rum—I felt unsure as to how to respond to the accident. So I put aside draws, a rope, and a tag line for Ben and I so we could climb Arnaud Petit’s 1,300-foot bolted 5.12b on Nassarani North’s east face, the first fully bolt-protected route in Wadi Rum, the next day. Through the window, I watched Abdullah survey the wreckage in his white robe, the red sandstone walls towering just beyond. Camels padded softly through Rum, a town of a thousand people and lots of concrete-block buildings.
“Well,” I said, thinking about the wreck, “here we are in Jordan.”
Kevin: November 1, 2016
“Syria, 35 kilometers. You want to go?” our driver joked.
Since we’d landed the night before, armed soldiers had inspected our rental van at the airport. We walked through a metal detector and X-rayed our bags to enter our hotel. We’d passed enormous Palestinian and Syrian refugee “camps” that looked like cities with permanent buildings and populations in the tens of thousands. Now, our driver gestured up at a highway sign. If we continued 30 minutes north, we’d reach Syria and its civil war, the deadliest conflict of this century.
“Let’s go!” I said.
Instead, the van turned west. We drove through bleak brown desert and clusters of identical white concrete buildings that gave way to rolling hills covered in green olive trees. We’d arrived in the Ajloun highlands, a serene forest reserve in the northwest. Our destination was the Ras Sabiq crag, just shy of the West Bank border. Our crew piled out at what looked like a random point on the highway and followed Marwan. The Visit Jordan officials had introduced him as “the best climber in Jordan.” The title was probably accurate and definitely embarrassed him. With long, beanie-covered hair, wire spectacles, and a skinny frame, Marwan would fit in at the Boulder Whole Foods. Though the cliff was not yet visible, he assured us this was Ras Sabiq, a small limestone crag with a dozen bolted lines from 5.10 to 5.13.
Marwan led us down a hill, past a goat herder’s tent, across a field of goat shit, and to a 30-meter wall. Our crew took turns working , a 5.13-.
“In between the jet lag, the goat shit, and the bad rock, we still found a good line of crimps and pockets up a slightly overhanging wall,” James recalls.
Midway through the day, Eisa Muhmoud Dweekat arrived with lunch and made tea. Dweekat would be our guide for Ajloun. Middle-aged, with a bushy broom mustache and sporting polo shirts, he’s made a business of leading trekking tours and hosting visitors. He’s also an advocate for new trails and preservation in the region. He was proud of his friendship with Lina Annab, Jordan’s minister of tourism, and showed us photos from their hikes together. (His Facebook banner is a photo of her.) We’d eat and sleep at his home, and he’d provide logistics for the region (and make tea). Tea was a constant in Jordan. We never ventured into the woods without a kettle. All it took was a few dry twigs to start a fire, then we’d sip a hot mixture of 50 percent tea and 50 percent sugar.
After climbing, we went to Dweekat’s for dinner—and beheld one of the true manmade wonders of the earth: what I imagine must be Jordan’s longest couch. It spanned the length of Dweekat’s living room, rounded the corner, cleared the width of the room, rounded another corner, and continued to the hall. (Another couch filled the wall past the hallway.) In a straight line, the couch would have been 40 feet long. As Dweekat told me, he hosts large groups—hence the couch. As we attempted to measure its length using our bodies, Dweekat brought out Picture a cake, but made of chicken, rice, and vegetables, and flavored with dried yogurt. It’s prepared in an enormous wok-like pan, then flipped upside-down onto a serving platter. It was served with a dozen side dishes: hummus, eggplant, yogurt, olives, sausage. We ate enough calories in one meal to cover us for the rest of the trip.
The next day, we headed to Iraq al Dub, another crag in Ajloun. This breaking wave of pocketed limestone features multiple tiers, with 70 lines and the potential for hundreds. But development was on hold. The first bolts are missing, as are some anchors. Marwan explained that local goat-herder kids steal the hangers to put on their key chains. To combat this, locals are replacing vulnerable bolts with glue-ins, but only a few routes had been reequipped.
Back at Dweekat’s, I stood peeing into a Middle Eastern toilet, essentially a urinal laid horizontally into the floor. As I zipped my pants, a sharp pain popped from my collarbone. I threw off my jacket and ran out of the room. By dinner, my chest had a grapefruit-sized welt. I felt feverish. No one had any idea what it could be. Dweekat rubbed a garlic clove on the injury. He thought it was a bee sting. With throbbing pain on my chest, hot flashes, and a headache, I wondered if I should go to the hospital, but toughed it out for fear of sounding alarmist. The symptoms passed by morning.
Back in the States, I dug around online. I’d been stung by a scorpion. I’d left my jacket on the ground at Iraq al Dub, where the creature probably crawled into the insulation. Scorpions and snakes are common throughout Jordan, including the deathstalker, one of the world’s most dangerous scorpions. Their sting contains a potent neurotoxin, though it rarely kills healthy adults. Luckily, a milder scorpion stung me. Had it been a deathstalker, I’d have asked for that hospital ride.
James: November 3, 2016
We rallied up the dirt road to Sami’s Cliff in our rental van, tackling the steep grade. When we hit some rocks, the tires spun out. Eventually, we backed down to the base of the hill. We shouldered our packs and walked five minutes to the higher parking, where we met a half-dozen Jordanian climbers.
“There are maybe 20 people who climb outside,” Marwan told us. Most of Jordan’s climbers live in Amman and climb at the gym, Climbat, with walls up to 60 feet. The routes had been unchanged since their scissor lift broke two years ago. But the Jordanians seemed stoked to have other people to climb with. Marwan used to be the head route-setter but quit this year to transition into guiding. Although a few passing Europeans had bolted in Aljoun, Marwan and two other climbers—both named Abood—had done most of the bolting in northern Jordan.
The cliff, a 600-foot-long, 100-foot-tall wall of vertical limestone, featured a few dozen routes from 5.10 to upper 5.12. Ben and I warmed up hanging draws on the area classic, a 5.12a that wove up crimps on a vertical face above the olive trees. We spent the day climbing the fun, newly minted (read: still sharp) limestone routes; we guessed at the grades, helping Marwan know how hard the climbing was. Marwan and the Aboods had done little climbing outside of Jordan. The remote limestone in the north of the country was quite good. The climbs were well bolted and the rock featured solid tufas, pockets, and crimps, with other cliffs awaiting development on the surrounding hillsides.
Kevin: November 4, 2016
We ran across the highway. Behind us was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth at 1,412 feet below sea level. Most tourists come to float in the salty waters and exfoliate with the mud. Spa after spa line the shores. But we went the opposite way, lugging crashpads up Wadi Mukhaires, a canyon, as the heat distorted the light above the rocks. Back home, I wouldn’t have bothered going out in these temps.
After rock-hopping up a small stream, we reached a large, helmet-shaped block. Huge walls of loose sandstone lined the canyon. We’d passed dozens of boulders and it was obvious where they came from, with other massive time bombs perched above. The stream gave the area the feeling of an oasis. The waters cut a streak of life through an otherwise barren desert landscape. Flowers bloomed. Palm trees and ferns leaned along the shores. Crabs scurried to safety as our shadows passed.
We had a peaceful day bouldering. After warming up on juggy huecos to a few delicate face moves, the crew tackled a pinchy, powerful roof problem: . Marwan said there’s plenty more to be developed—on the boulders we’d passed and farther up the canyon. And that’s just this one canyon; there are many more flowing into the Dead Sea out of the Kerak and Madaba mountains.
As our group worked the roof, Marwan built a fire and cooked a concoction of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, which we ate on pitas. Then, of course, tea. It was the best crag meal I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, the local flies thought so too.
The Dead Sea is so notorious for flies, due to the prominent use of natural fertilizers on nearby farms, that a 2016 headline read, “Could fly swarms be the tie that binds Israel and Jordan?” At one point, I kept my foot still and counted 30 flies on it. As Marwan said, “Yes, the flies can be pretty bad sometimes.”
With the swarms sucking away our motivation, we hiked downstream, climbing a few highballs en route back to the car.
As the sun set, we checked out an area by the Dead Sea. Burr had spotted the boulders on the drive in and deduced that, since the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, these must be the lowest boulders. Most of them were choss, but we did manage to find climbable rock. We threw lap after lap on for photos and bragging rights as the sun faded over the dark waters behind us.
James: November 6, 2016
“You can see the bullet holes,” Burr said, pointing at the enormous five-foot vase carved into the facade of the Treasury, a 100-foot high mausoleum in Petra. Petra, known as the Rose Red City because of the red sandstone it’s carved from, is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World—and so attracts a huge number of tourists. In circa 300 BC, the Nabataeans, a group of nomadic Arabs, built a city on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah close to regional trade routes. Using various water-collecting systems, dams, cisterns, and water conduits, the Nabataeans created an oasis, and a hub for commerce around southern Jordan. In the twentieth century, local Bedouins and foreign travelers shot at the sandstone urns carved into the side of the crypt, trying to break open a rumored cache of gold. The solid rock failed to supply treasure, but in later years, locals found a better way to profit from the sandstone carvings.
Around the site, local men and boys paint their eyes with mascara to attract attention. They hawk rides on camels, sell trinkets, and hustle postcards to the tourists. Petra flourished until around 663 AD, when an earthquake destroyed many of the buildings. It remained in ruins until the 1800s when European explorers “found” the area and popularized the attraction to such an extent that American movie director Steven Spielberg later filmed his 1989 outside the Treasury. Our crew sat in a small tent atop a cliff opposite, surveying the Treasury from our vantage. As we watched tourists filter in through the long canyon, the Siq, that leads to the site, I found myself without much to say. So I went with the obvious: “Here we are in Jordan.”
Kevin: November 8, 2016
“Seems like a lot of people get benighted up there,” read Mark Rafferty’s Mountain Project comment.
Had we seen it, we may have approached Wadi Rum’s with more caution. Instead, our guidebook’s description—a few sentences—made the descent sound like a simple walk-off.
In Wadi Rum, rock formations rise from the sandy floor like islands across the desert. If you’ve seen the movie , Wadi Rum played Mars. The Bedouin village of Rum only has one store, offering a remote feel and little infrastructure. During our trip, construction started on the first streetlights. We could see the town from the top of Jebel Rum, on top of . We could hear the call to prayer blare from speakers on the mosque. But that didn’t change the fact that we were hopelessly lost.
Modern climbing was brought to Wadi Rum in 1984. A British team—Tony Howard, Di Taylor, Al Baker, and Mick Shaw—saw Wadi Rum in and set out to climb there. Upon arriving, they learned that the Bedouins had been climbing these formations for hundreds of years without ropes or technical equipment. They set to work ticking the Bedouin routes and establishing new lines. The British team, later joined by French guides Wilfried Colonna and Bernard Domenech, returned year after year. Howard and Taylor wrote the guidebook, which is still being updated with new editions to this day. In recent years, climbers such as Arnaud Petit, Madeleine Sorkin, Chris Kalous, and Heidi Wirtz have all come to put up new lines. The area is most popular with Europeans, due to its proximity.
The most recent, 2010 edition of the Wadi Rum guidebook lists over 200 routes. The potential is infinite. Lines range from fourth-class scrambles to 5.14a. Most are multi-pitch trad routes with little fixed protection, though modern hard routes tend to be mixed. Single-pitch sport walls exist, but aren’t the reason you travel to Wadi Rum. The rock is soft sandstone—emphasis on We were warned about a team of three that died when their anchor pulled because they’d climbed too soon after a rain. At a moderate sport crag, my foothold exploded. My hands had been on a horizontal crack. Through pure dumb luck, I caught myself when my hands landed on an identical crack three feet below.
starts right at the edge of town. This area classic goes at 5.10b, but the grade is misleading. Of the 1,000 total feet, only 10 of them are 5.10. The other 990 feet go at 5.6. As you climb high above the desert, the otherworldly view gets even better. Down in the valley, the desert feels small, a stream of sand between cliffs. Up above, it becomes an ocean. Sand and rock extend as far as can be seen. Below the horizon, the world is shrouded in a red hue, contrasted against the bright-blue sky. The rock formations punch thousands of feet straight up, but with no human development for scale they appear immeasurable. The climb has variety. Some pitches are jug hauls. There’s a chimney. Two (unprotectable) traverses. The 10-foot crux, which is also the last 10 feet of the route, features scary friction moves—mercifully protected by a pin, the only fixed protection.
Our seven-person group climbed in three parties. We topped out at 5 p.m. after completing the route in eight pitches. Based on the guidebook description, we thought it would be an easy hike down, but we soon found ourselves lost in a maze of sucker cairns, cliffs, basins, slot canyons, and friction slabs, often with tremendous exposure. The sky changed to orange as the sun set. We moved a little faster each time we reversed course. Then night fell, and we only had three headlamps among us. Eventually, I announced that I was probably going to get hurt if we kept on running around the way we were. We found a corridor of rock with a dried-out tree to bivy near and set down our packs. We didn’t have any food, most of us were out of water, and we hadn’t brought anything warm.
We went off to seek firewood and found something even better. Stashed inside a bush, there were enough sleeping pads for everyone, and a handful of blankets too. We’d later learn that the Bedouins stash caches around the desert. These traditionally nomadic herdspeople are born climbers (though don’t have access to technical gear or training)—they begin scrambling fourth-class routes on these formations at a young age. Supplies are stashed so they can camp and hunt without carrying gear. Bedouins have been in Jordan since the fourteenth century. They live in goat-hair tents and make their livelihood by herding goats or camels. Our host Abdullah, a Bedouin, has his own house in town, but his parents still roam the desert. I asked how he knows where to find them. He said, “I see them every week. They tell me.”
Even with a fire and blankets, it was a long, cold, windy night. At dawn, we found ourselves wandering the basin atop Jebel Rum for three more hours. Ultimately, Burr went off on his own to the true summit and spotted the path down (one we’d dismissed the previous day). Burr makes a career out of doing sketchy shit to get photos, and even he reported a few too-close calls on his mission.
Once we were on the proper descent, we found it was nothing like what we’d thought. It wasn’t a walk-off. It was closer to canyoneering, involving scrambling, slot canyons, and eight rappels. We finished the last rap in time to see Abdullah working his way up to us via an exposed traverse on , the Bedouin path to the summit. He’d seen our headlamps the previous night and worried. He greeted us with oranges, cakes, and water, which we devoured. Then he made tea.
James: November 9, 2016
It wasn’t until the end of the trip that I realized the absence. Just before leaving Wadi Rum, I walked back into the house to use the bathroom. When I stepped inside, Abdullah’s wife was walking between rooms. We made eye contact and she backstepped quickly out of the hall. In strict Muslim families, a woman can bring shame to her household if a man other than a family member sees her uncovered by a burka. When we’d walked down the street in Rum, a woman went running into her backyard, and Abdullah’s wife, who we never saw, called him on his cell phone from 40 feet away to tell him that she’d finished preparing dinner for us all. There had been a distinct absence of women in public in rural areas of this traditional Muslim country.
Though women began voting in 1974 and Jordanian law allows them to work, for the most part in rural areas they remain at home taking care of families in a segregated and subjugated role. Abdullah explained to us that a father makes decisions for his girls, and then the husband and the wife’s in-laws make decisions for her once she’s married. Foreign women are treated differently. “With total respect,” Jess said. “But it was a little weird going out alone. Not that they’ll do anything, but it’s not really part of their culture seeing women by themselves.”
On our last night in Wadi Rum, we sat outside drinking tea and eating together. The Jordanians treated Julie and Jess as “honorary men” and weren’t offended by their lack of a burka. In Amman, the cultural norms relaxed and we saw women outside their homes. In the climbing community, the women wore casual clothes and were equals—the younger generation and urban residents seemed more socially liberal.
“I am going inside. I am alone outside, and my wife is alone inside,” Abdullah said later while we drank tea outside his house. He gave me the sense that Jordanians were stepping forward, seeing to the rights of women, moving with them through the segregation, whereas Americans, who’d elected a documented misogynist just one day earlier, were taking a decided step back. “We should be together,” he said.
The cultural differences faded from my mind the next morning, five pitches up Nassarani North’s east face on La Guerre Sainte. I sang: the lyrics to the famous Arabian singer Cheb Khaled’s French and Arabic song which had blasted on the radio as we’d driven through Jordan. Usually, bolted face climbing on jugs feels easy, but the strong Jordanian sun boiled the goat’s milk and oats in my stomach into a swirling mess. At 6 a.m., Abdullah had driven us a few miles into the middle of Tatooine, to Nassarani. Arnaud Petit, a world-class climber and route developer, established the 12-pitch in November 2000 and included it in his book , a guide to some of the best multi-pitch rock climbs in the world. When we’d booked the tickets to Jordan, I’d read Petit’s 2001 report: “This is an outstanding climb thanks to the special rock, the sandstone is sometimes more sand than rock, and the beautiful desert scenery. It’s like climbing on the moon!”
follows a line of huecos and sandstone crimps, epitomizing the more vertical terrain of Wadi Rum. Lower-angle splitters and corners shoot through the formations here, and the climbing feels like a mixture of Red Rock and Zion—but with greater commitment and worse rock. On our first day, we hiked to a two-pitch 5.11 corner sandwiched between two walls. That night, we climbed a two-pitch 5.10 at the base of a larger wall. The following day, we adventured up Jebel Rum, and now as three-day veterans of the desert, Ben and I tackled Wadi Rum’s 5.12 testpiece.
I looked up at Ben. I looked down at the slow-moving rope. I felt my stomach complain. I looked again at Ben, then at the rope, and felt my stomach gurgle some more. The third time I looked at Ben, I tied a knot 15 feet below the belay device, dropped my pants, and did what I needed to do.
Eventually, we climbed a few pitches higher, through the last 5.12 pitch. Ben sent but I failed. I’d like to blame the heat, my stomach, or fatigue from the unplanned bivy two nights before, but ultimately, I’d just failed. We rappelled, only a few hundred feet from the top.
Kevin: November 11, 2016
We woke up at our resort in Aqaba in southwest Jordan, just five minutes from the Saudi Arabian border. It was nice to sleep in a real bed, eat something besides maqluba, drink beer (Wadi Rum is more strictly Muslim than other parts of Jordan, and therefore alcohol is not sold), and use toilet paper. Our rooms looked out over the northern end of the Red Sea. After a hearty breakfast buffet, we rented snorkels and dove into the waters. Coral reefs and colorful schools of fish hid below the surface. Then, we lay on the beach. Jordan certainly has areas that are less developed, but it has luxury, too.
We headed back north to the Dead Sea, but this time we drove past the tributary where we’d bouldered before and parked at one of the many spas. We entered and partook in a massive lunch buffet, which included maqluba but also 10 different types of cake. Then we suited up and made a pilgrimage to the healing waters.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to float in the Dead Sea. With 33.7 percent salinity, the water makes you extremely buoyant. Standing up straight in deeper water, I found myself bobbing above the surface like a buoy. We were all giddy, experimenting with the zero-gravity-like pool. Jordan has no shortage of otherworldly experiences. We’d left Wadi Rum, an area that looks like a foreign planet, for the Dead Sea, a vast salt-water lake that makes you feel like you’re in outer space.
I hovered my way beach-ward to a massive bowl filled with thick gray mud. In every gift shop in Jordan, you can buy this mineral-rich mud—locals proclaim the health benefits of the calcium, iodine, potassium, and bromide, plus the mud’s salutary effect on the skin. I pulled handfuls out, coating my body from head to toe, healing and exfoliating maybe, but mostly just playing with mud. I waded back into the water, washing the mud off and returning it to whence it came.
In Jordan, we’d smoked hookas and played cards in sand-bottom tents. We’d ridden in the back of pickup trucks straight across the desert. We’d used bathrooms where toilet paper wasn’t the norm (don’t shake or eat with that hand!) nor were lightbulbs. We’d climbed single-pitch limestone routes near Syria, and long multi-pitch trad routes near Saudi Arabia. We heard the call to prayer from speakers five times a day. We’d seen the ruins of an ancient civilization. We’d been on the sets of both and . We’d sat on the country’s longest couch, and we’d climbed the world’s lowest boulder problem.
We all got quiet as we took in the sensations of the Dead Sea.
“Here we are in Jordan,” I said.
To reach Jordan from the US, fly Royal Jordanian Airlines from Chicago, New York, or Detroit (or Europe) into either Amman or Aqaba. From Amman, rent a car and drive north 90 minutes to the sport climbing in Ajloun, or three hours south to Wadi Rum. If flying into Aqaba, rent a car or take the bus (1 hour) to Wadi Rum.
While Jordan is climbable year-round, September through November and March through May offer the best temps and least amount of precipitation.
For the sport climbing in Ajloun, visit td-adventures.com/jordan-climbing-topo/. For climbing around Wadi Rum, buy a copy of the 2010 edition of Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum or scroll through various online trip reports for more current information.
Jordan is a Muslim country, and while the social mores are more liberal around Amman, plan on alcohol being unavailable elsewhere. Western women are treated as “honorary men.” Both sexes should wear modest clothing, particularly in rural areas like Wadi Rum.
A small corner store sells some staples in Wadi Rum, but it’s best to bring crag snacks with you from elsewhere. If you hire the Guides of Wadi Rum service (guidesofwadirum.com), they will provide food, showers, camping, limited Internet, and transportation to the bases of the formations. On a rest day, make sure to check out Petra, two hours north of Wadi Rum.
Five Ten Approach Pro
These slim, low-profile canvas approach shoes with a rubberized exoskeleton and Stealth C4 sole were perfect for the hot, technical approaches and descents in Wadi Rum. “These were comfortable and prevented me from falling off the countless sandstone domes atop Jebel Rum,” says Corrigan.
Outdoor Research La Paz Sun Hoody
“The desert taught me that being more covered can keep you cooler,” says Corrigan. He wore the La Paz, a UPF 50+ full-coverage, 10.3-ounce layer perfect for the Middle East’s unforgiving sun—and that does away with the constant need to reapply sunblock.
Katadyn Befree Water Filtration System 0.6L
During an overnight bivy, Corrigan was happy to have this “ultralight, flexible water bottle with built-in filter, which gave me comfort knowing I wouldn’t die of thirst.” Perfect for turning puddles into bomber hydration!
Black Diamond Camalot Ultralight
Save weight on Wadi Rum’s long trad routes with Ultralights. Weighing 25 percent less, the seven Ultralights substitute Dyneema cord for the cable core, and use sculpted cam lobes and smaller-diameter trigger wires.
Patagonia Men's RPS Rock Pants
“These protected from the sun and abrasion, and kept me warm while we shiver-bivied atop Jebel Rum,” says Corrigan. Patagonia’s lightest-weight climbing pants (11 oz) feature a hard-wearing synthetic blend and DWR finish, plus ample pockets.