Mountain climbing for beginners

Imagine my surprise one afternoon at work in Egypt, when two backpackers who I had taught to dive a few weeks earlier turned up in front of me asking me to teach their Advanced course. We had got on really well so I was delighted to see them again and when it turned out none of us had climbed Mount Sinai yet we decided to go together.

Early start

We met at an entirely inhuman hour and made our way to the meeting place. After what seemed like forever in a minibus bumping through the Sinai desert and the armed police check points in the hazy pre-dawn we came to a place where a few other minibuses were parked. After a complicated discussion to ascertain that the driver planned to still be there when we got back, we walked towards St Catherine’s Monastery

St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai desert, Egypt

The monastery

Saint Catherine’s (or The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-trodden Mount of Sinai to give it it’s full name. Don’t worry I’ll stick to the shorter version) was built at the request of Emperor Justinian I. It is about 1500 years old and is one of the world’s oldest working monasteries. The chapel of the burning bush is enclosed within the monastery and the site is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The burning bush is huge and stubbornly grows even in this environment. I was glad it was impressive, rather than some pathetic looking shrub, given the distance we had come. It was a good start. We poked our noses around the parts of the monastery that we were allowed to with all the other visitors. It was hot and stuffy and we couldn’t wait to get up the mountain. Ah, except that we still had to climb it. The Egyptians must think all these tourists are mad.

We followed the low wall running along the side of the monastery wall which led past a lot of camel pooh and towards the start of the ascent. We passed a group of Egyptians with camels offering camel rides to the top of Mount Sinai. It was hot and the mountain looked even bigger close-up; if I didn’t have a deep disliking of camels (a direct result of leading too many camel-back dive safaris, don’t ask!) I might have been tempted. The path was wide and consisted of a gentle scree slope at the bottom. We chatted as we walked and came to a point where there was the occasional step. We could see more camels ahead and as we approached descending climbers warned us the camels didn’t actually go all the way to the top. It was a needless warning but kind nonetheless.

After a few hours and a lot of water we reached the stage at which we were fairly sure the camels must turn around. We were now making our way up winding, uneven and rocky steps. This is where it got seriously hard. It was quite cold and I put my jumper on. There was some snow on the ground. Snow!

Almost at the top of Mount Sinai, Egypt

The summit of Mount Sinai Suddenly we burst onto the summit. The final few steps seemed to conceal how close to the top we were. What a relief I thought, as I looked out over the view. Beneath me stood the silent and magnificent peaks in the centre of the Sinai peninsular. What a spot for Moses to be dishing out commandments. Though you have to wonder why he came all the way up here. For the views however, it was definitely worth the climb.

We climbed in February and we had opted to climb and descend Mount Sinai in the same day as overnighting at the summit would have been very cold, especially as we didn’t have sleeping bags or anything sensible like that. Staying to see sunrise from the peak is a very popular option and you are less likely to tumble down Mount Sinai on your descent than if you come for sunset.


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