Mount Sinai (Egypt)


By: Ron Hudson


0ne of the goals of our (me and Peg Davis) three week trip to Egypt was to get to the Sinai mountain area, do some hiking there, and climb the Egypt high point if possible. The rest of the trip was mainly as tourists-budget travelers. We were not on a commercial tour; we used Lonely Planet's Egypt guide religiously. So I'll give a brief summary of things we did before and after, then detail the mountain part. We also took a lot of photos for a slide show in the future. Starting out in Cairo, we spent a day at the Egyptian museum. Crowded, as much of Egypt is, but there are many thousands of antiquities, including the King Tut treasures -- the museum is very worthwhile. Also toured monuments and mosques and walked through a lot of the hustling, bustling, crowded and smoggy city. Next we spent a couple days at the pyramids, on the outskirts of Cairo. Best spot there - the tomb charnbe? inside Cheops Pyramid. The pyramid is 4500 years old and made of about 2 million 2-ton blocks. We migrated on south to Luxor on the train, watching 600 kin of Nile Valley scenery from the window. Then a couple days at Luxor and Valley of the Kings area. Got some exercise spending a full day walking between the tombs and monuments, rather than using a taxi or tour bus as the masses of tour groups did. Amazing full-color art on the walls inside the tombs. Then south on the train again to Aswan for more temples and ruins. We next joined nine other travelers on a felucca (traditional sailboat) cruise down the Nile. Very relaxing; although it was a slow and hot float all the second day with no breeze. More temples at Kom Ombo and Edfu then a minibus ride to Luxor again. A five-hour ride ($5 for a luxury bus) put us on the coast at Hurgada which is an overdeveloped beach resort area. Next a fast ferry ride across a rough Red Sea to Sharm-el-Sheik at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. After that a bus ride up the Gu o qa a coast a couple hours to Dahab, which is a very nice Red Sea diving and resort town. Here we had a new room for $12 which was 50 feet from the water, ate in lounge chairs on the sea front, and snorkeled at the reef 100'frorn shore. Beautiful and amazing underwater -- coral and fish every color of the rainbow.

Tours to Mt Sinai are organized at Dahab; so I asked a little; bought a decent map, and a guided trip was arranged for us to go up Gebel Katarina which is Egypt's high point at 2642 in or about 8700 feet. Gebel Musa, (Mt Moses) which the world considers to be Mt Sinai from description in the Bible (nobody knows for sure) is the mountaintop that many people (pilgrims, tourists, Egyptians, and hikers) ascend every day and night. It is 2285 in or about 7500 feet altitude. The star attraction for them is to see the sunrise or sunset from the top. So we took a minvan filled with other travelers and arrived in the St. Katerina (or El Malga) mountain town area at I AM after a two hour ride. The others were left at the trailhead start point for their hike to see the sunrise from the summit. We were dropped off at Sheik Musa's office/ house. He is a youngish guy who is supposedly the only guide/organizer/official for all treks and hikes in the area. I tried to get the best information I could about hiking there and permits, but who knows what the real regulations are. Everything in Egypt is negotiable. Anyway, "Sheik Moses" has a lucrative monopoly on organized trekking there. We stayed in his dorm used for trekking groups, nice because hotels there are all the expensive tour group motel type. After a few hours sleep we got up, paid our fee and surrendered our passports to Sheik Musa, and were introduced to our guide. The cost was 150 Egyptian ounds (LE), or about 45 US$ for the day of guiding the two of us. Probably too much considering that is a few weeks income for much of the Egyptian population. But there were two middlemen involved and I didn't feel in a bargaining mood because I had very little good information about the infrequently climbed highpoint. In Dahab I also had been told that the highpoint was a 12 hour trip and there was rough rock to negotiate. All part of the orchestration to claim the maximum tourist dollars, but such happens frequently in Egypt. And they probably did not have a lot of confidence in the ability of a white-bearded American. When I examined the map the peak appeared to be about 1000 m gain and around 8 km one way. That would normally be only a few hours round trip for a Sierra peakbagger.

We loaded bottled water and lunch in our packs and started at 6 AM, going through the uncrowded town and past its goats, donkeys, camels, and some irrigated tiny orchard trees. It was nice to see some trees and even a little water in the canyon we then followed; most of Egypt is barren. Away from the Nile at Luxor and Aswan there are zero plants; rainfall a tenth of an inch per year or less there. In the canyon we hiked up - Wadi El Arbain - there was an interesting grove of gnarled ancient olive trees encircled by an old, old, wall to keep goats and other animals out. Our guide was fit and knew the route. After 3 kin we started up switchbacks to another canyon (Wadi Shagg Musa) and onto a ridge toward the top. We could see Mt. Moses on the opposite side of the first canyon with the trees. There were some green bushes along the trail and gravelly mountainside; occasionally it even snows in the area.

Three hikers including a nun in jogging shoes caught up to us from behind and we found out they were from Poland, and they had hiked over after going up Gebel Musa. Thus we could have done our peak without guide and nobody would have cared. But I didn't know at the time. So we continued up the switchbacks and passed the tired Poles. The rock seemed to be a somewhat crumbly granite; little weathering with the sparse precipitation there. Ahead and above we saw the white walls of a small monastery or chapel we were told is on top. At a saddle along the way we took a rest; the guide had a smoke. He could understand English, but he was very quiet.

Eventually we got to a point 50 meters or so below the monastery, and he indicated he would stay and we could go up the last bit. The monastery on top was locked. We could see lots of barren mountains in the view from the top. The problem was there was another peak, with a small antenna only about 500 in south of the one we were on and it was certainly higher than us - by about 20 in- 30 in. The antenna with solar cells looked active and maintained. We saw various wire and debris but no closed fence. There was actually a dirt road to its summit; the map did show a track. We had read that the monastery was atop G. Katerina, the high point and shown so on the map. So why was the high point over there? I was ready to walk over there, but we decided to confront our guide that we understood we had paid to take us up the high point of Egypt. We went back to him and asked why he didn't take us over there. His sketchy answers were full of "unh unh" and "bad" and I continued to press him for the reason. I even offered him an extra 10 LE to take us but he didn't budge. He then indicated bombs and not allowable to go (Egyptians don't like say no). We asked if he had been up there before and he said yes. So by my peak bagger mentality, I was ticked off and felt wronged by not being told that it was not allowable for us to go on top the high point of Egypt. Then I decided to give my furning and sulking a little time and thought while having lunch. It seemed he couldn't see us, and that he would still be waiting while we walked over there anyway on our own, a 10 minute hike. So we started walking, but noticed other metal debris and even maybe a piece of an airplane. And barbed wire strewn around - the concertina type. But when I saw shell casings we developed a uncomfortable feeling that we were walking on no mans land. I was not peak crazed or enough of a mountain purist to continue against this risk. So, we turned around and agreed with him that he was right, and that we did not want to get blown up or go into a forbidden zone. It had been a war zone; a strategic location previously, but the monastery and trail area was apparently not involved and spared. And there had been a story about some hikers getting blown up by by buried explosives. With the army presence and many tourist police at all the main attractions, Egypt is trying its best to prevent terrorist attacks and protect visitors. We went to the highest accessible point in Egypt, anyway. After 1 1/2 hours on top, the hike back was easy downhill, and we got back to Sheik Musa to pick up our passports at about 1:30. It felt so nice in the mountain area because it was not hot or smoky. The temperature was just right; 50's at night and 70's day.

In fact, we felt so good and eager for hiking we decided to do G. Musa too that day. We walked through the town and down the highway the two miles to the St. Katherines Monastery, past a graveyard and various construction. Egypt is building a lot of infrastructure - roads, utilities, bridges. Also though, various projects seem to be just forgotten; money ran out or some lawsuit came about. and sit unfinished. We passed a graveyard and continued past the medieval fortress walls of the monastery. The monastery is about 1000 years old and only about 20 monks live there. It is open to the public only in the morning, so we weren't able to go in. We started up the 5 kin, 650 in gain climb at about 3 PM. Not many people were around at the bottom; the camels and their drivers were taking naps. After being refused to patronize their services, some drivers with camel follow groups up the mountain anyway. I wasn't sure whether to consider them like vultures in wait for a straggler or protectors for wasted tourists.

Anyway, this mountain, with a trail well worn into the rock had lots of people, including tea shops all the way to the top. The trail is gradual at first and steepens up to a saddle where we could see below a Bedouin encampment. The guides and camel drivers here were Bedouins, many with the characteristic headdress. There were bright colored tents apparently put up for summer quarters. The trail traversed under a cliff to another saddle where about four ancient cypresses, tall and narrow, grow. There is a camping area there for backpackers. Steep rocky stairs the last 300'. The view from the top was good. Lots of mountains around. A locked chapel and various tea shops on top. Little flat area. Most people stay part of the night to see the sunset or sunrise; it is a religious experience. We wanted to get back to town before dark. Lots of people -- about 200 people near the top as we went down. We asked and found the 3000? step staircase and took it. It was built by a monk centuries ago as penance, the story goes. We didn't notice its location while going up; it is hidden in a steep gully. Only an hour back down for us and we walked back to the village as it got dark. Tired after 16 miles and 5000' gain, we bought and ate a meal and went to bed for an early start for the bus to Cairo in the morning.

Our remaining two days in Cairo we spent seeing more of the tiny alleys with little shops that are the mainstay of the people's economy. Like a worker beating metal from a forge into tools. Peg and I spent time marveling and bargaining for souvenirs at the Khan el-Khalily bazaar. Went inside a new big mosque; a quiet refuge inside the big city. Saw more Egyptian Museum. Then goodby Egypt. It was great place to visit; so different from life here in the U.S., at least by seeing it as a budget traveler. Yet everything you need is there, it is safe; transportation, food and lodging are very cheap, and the people are mostly polite and well behaved. And all the culture and history. They love the visitors and the money they bring.

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