Seven years ago I found myself in Wadi Rum, a vast desert in southern Jordan known for its towering sandstone walls and otherworldly beauty. I wasn’t a climber then, but a traveler with a budding appreciation for desert landscapes and an ongoing love affair with the rewards that can come with the personal discovery of travel. This year, knowing I would be visiting my partner in Germany, a friend who knew my longstanding desire to return to Wadi Rum to climb suggested that this might be the perfect time to go, as the flight would be short compared with flying from the states, an idea I’ll long be grateful to him for presenting.
I found myself pushing back making a commitment to the trip for health and financial reasons, wondering if my mind, body, and wallet were ready for a climbing trip like this. Diana, the one friend that responded to a post looking for a partner for Wadi Rum, was based in Spain and, suddenly, the idea of sampling some of Spain’s famous sport climbing instead seemed terribly manageable and infinitely more relaxing than getting scared way out in the desert and way off the ground.
But once the call had been made, the gears started turning to turn the trip into a reality and within short weeks the two of us, sleepless from overnight flights, arrived in Amman with packs swollen with gear. The three weeks we allotted for our trip, once preparations and transportation logistics were taken into account, would leave us two weeks of climbing time, weather permitting, so once we made it to the valley we both felt under pressure to make the most of the time we had in a place I could easily explore for months.
After hours searching the internet and networking with anyone we could access that might have info on routes and climbing beta, we had a haphazard collection of screenshots, sections of international guidebooks, and thirty year-old topos to point us toward the classic routes where we would begin our climbing. The east face of Jebel Rum, one of the largest faces with the densest concentration of quality routes, sat directly above the village and was an obvious place to start. French grades being commonplace, 6b (5.10d equivalent) seemed like the grade to be able to climb to enjoy the classics, with most of the classic routes featuring at least one crux at the grade. While I think of myself as confident at this difficulty and style of climbing, I could not overlook the sense of intimidation I was feeling as we prepared to head up our first climb.
Diana following a traverse on the east face of Jebel Rum
This shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise since I had experienced the same phenomenon a year before in Chile. Both trips began after some months of being away from this style of climbing. I started both trips in reasonable climbing shape, but with little or no recent experience of placing gear, climbing long pitches, making difficult moves hundreds of feet up, or doing so in a place where I was explicitly trying to avoid risking injury. But unlike my uneasiness starting up the wall in Chile the year before, this time I hadn’t anticipated the fear and hadn’t prepared myself for the sensations that I was now confronting, and it was a powerful experience to remember how profound those thoughts and sensations could be.
As happens nearly every time I climb, the great humbling proves itself to be one of the most reliable features of the sport, and likely the most gratifying, each move accompanied by spasms of self-doubt that seemed able to arrest any upward momentum. But moving upward in spite of those doubts, and not falling when I’d convinced myself that falling wasn’t an option, gave feelings of accomplishment akin to elation, and with each small success came the return of confidence so sorely missed.
Each day we sampled another classic, trying not to get ahead of ourselves as we dialed in our rope systems and teamwork together. Inferno; The Beauty; Flight of Fancy - each with its own rewards. Renewed confidence joined a growing knowledge of the local rock: when to trust edges not to crumble, and when to show caution moving into unknown territory. A break from the ropes found us on a traverse of Jebel Rum, the tallest feature around, with a beautiful bivy under the stars and new friends to explore with. The descent down Jebel Rum’s east face, known as Hammad’s Route, doubles as the ‘walk-off’ for many of the committed routes on the face, and we had decided to familiarize ourselves with it before attempting the longer routes that we wouldn’t be able to descend by rappel. Even with the information we had and four rested minds, the descent was far from trivial and we were happy to have as many hours of daylight as we did.
Katie arrives at the ledge after the seventh pitch of a classic crack climb
Once back to ropes and feeling good, even having adopted a third member to our rope-team temporarily, we started in on the next tier of routes with a few more pitches. The ninth pitch of our next route crossed a band of the worst rock I’ve ever climbed, requiring every ounce of confidence and finesse I could muster not to pull off holds or lose my head on lead. An 8-pitch crack climb and a gem of Rum’s offerings went down nicely, proving our suspicion that the French and English route developers were wizards on thin face climbing, but the crack climbing we found was marked by predictably soft grades.
It seemed that there had been a boom of climbing in Wadi Rum in the 80’s that filled an old guidebook, but now most traffic was restricted to the dozen or two classics that were, no doubt, well worth the time. But so much, it seemed, was waiting to be explored. The Bedouin ethic of self-reliance and minimalism in the desert served as a backdrop for that inspiration, and I couldn’t help thinking of the possibilities that more time could make possible in this place, whether of long climbs into forgotten territory high on the wall, or ultralight scrambles into deep and mysterious canyons. The sheer scale and complexity of the place has a powerful draw, one that will no doubt continue to do its work on me. Hopefully this time it doesn’t take me seven years to return again.
Katie and Diana follow a long slab pitch that I found a wonderful challenge to lead
Katie heads up a technical section of scrambling as Diana and Joe look on during our west-to-east traverse of Jebel Rum
Although Joe assured me he was just rubbing sleep from his eyes, I thought, if nothing less, that the photo captured how I might have been feeling at the time
High on the mountain, we look down on the zone known as 'Hammad's Domes' as another group of hikers continues their circuitous descent
Diana prepares to make a traverse on a classic route in a neighboring canyon where we camped and climbed for a few quiet days
The descent down the face of Jebel Rum is involved - a circuitous route scrambling down through Hammad's Domes, down a slot canyon with some down-climbing and rappelling, taking a few hours even if familiar with the route
Joe heads over the next feature near the summit of Jebel Rum as he heads toward Hammad's Domes and toward our descent
Our host, friend and local resource, Suleiman, standing by his trusty LandCruiser
Diana flakes the rope at the top of one of the most classic long routes, our last climb in Wadi Rum