The Incredible Jabals of Wadi Rum — Photo courtesy of Arian Zwegers
Sharing borders with Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Jordan stands in the very center of the Middle East - a region which, for westerners, brings a lot of things to mind well ahead of rock climbing. Nevertheless, Jordan holds more than 350 long-established rock climbing routes in its beautiful, southern national park of Wadi Rum. Furthermore, Jordan has earned a reputation around the world for its openness to western visitors and relative modernity. Simply put, Jordanians are a welcoming and friendly bunch.
Wadi Rum, which stands scarcely north of Saudi Arabia, is an incredible expanse of rust-red sand punctuated with “jabals.” These huge, sandstone blobs rise out of the utterly bare desert, reaching heights in excess of 2000 feet. In the shade of these landforms live the tiny tribes of the Bedouin, an indigenous Arabian people. Visitors travelling through the sandy labyrinth of Wadi Rum will almost certainly encounter a Bedouin tent. Despite its extremely arid climate, this area has been inhabited for more than 10000 years.
As a climbing area, Wadi Rum underwent its major development during the 1970s and 80s. During that time, a group of core British climbers, including Treks & Climbs of Wadi Rum, Jordan author, Toni Howard, traveled to this “Valley of the Moon” and pioneered route after route in pure British fashion. (For those unfamiliar with British climbing ethics, this typically translates to bold!)
Everything about the climbing in Jordan is adventuresome. From the moment you leave the airport in Amman, you’ll recognize immediately that you’re no longer in Kansas, so to speak. Simply finding the bus, and riding it to Aqaba will surely give you plenty of stories to tell. But once you arrive at Wadi Rum, you’ll understand what the fuss is all about.
The rock climbs themselves are as long as 20 or even 30+ pitches. Because of the very soft nature of the sandstone, permanent fixtures like bolts and anchors are nearly impossible to place. So when you start a rock climb, you must be prepared to complete it - and this means bringing plenty of water. For, once you reach the top of a climb, you must follow (often conflicting and diverging) cairn trails to pick your way back down to the desert floor. Many times, this descent involves numerous, committing repels. And, to top it all off, the rock climbing guidebook was written and published back in 1987. Not one for long route descriptions, this book often allots only a half a page per 20-pitch route - including the ascent and descent!
A Rest-day Walk — Photo courtesy of Christine Balaz
Even though Jordan tends to be quite hot, and relatively liberal, it is still considered quite provocative to show much skin there - especially for women. The most comfortable clothing, both thermally and socially, is thin, breathable, and light-colored pants and long-sleeved shirts. A sun-blocking hat also comes in handy.
If your jetlag allows, do yourself a huge favor and pick up as many groceries as possible in a major city before heading to Wadi Rum. Though it is possible to buy convenience store-type food in this small village, you’ll be a much happier camper with a stockpile of urban groceries. Oh - and don’t forget a stove. We did, and ended up eating far too many cans of cold corned beef as our penalty.
The people of Jordan, particularly the city-dwelling folk, speak Arabic. You’ll hear the word “marħában” often - this means “hello.” “Thank you” is translated as “šákara.” Many, many people - especially those making a living from tourism speak some English. You’ll hear the greeting, “Welcome!” more times in Jordan than perhaps in the rest of your life.