Photographer and climber Mike Hutton recalls his adventures in the granite mountains of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula
Leaving behind the coastal monstrosity known as Sharm el Sheikh, we drove through the night into the heart of the Sinai desert. As we approached the small town of St. Catherine's, giant granite peaks glistened above us in the moonlight. Exhausted from travel, I collapsed into sleep dreaming of desert adventures.
Halfway up the still-uncompleted route on the 450m west face of Jebel Naga, Sinai
Dawn broke the following day to an eerie silence, and the call to prayer usually encountered in these regions was strangely muffled. I crawled out from under my rug and tiptoed across the sandy floor to the doorway. The mountains had been cloaked by the first significant snowfall in ten years. Fragrant smoke filled the air as the local Bedouin huddled for warmth by crackling fires of eucalyptus. We taught school children to build their first - and perhaps last - Bedouin snowmen whilst camels struggled to stay upright on a surface they were quite unaccustomed too.
Making tea on an open fire in St. Catherine's
The gods that guard the sacred monastery town of St Catherine's didn’t want us on their territory, or so we were told. Founded in the 6th Century and located at the foot of Mount Sinai itself, the monastery here is one of the oldest in the Christian world. Despite the setback caused by the snow, we got to witness a once in a lifetime experience, and it brought us closer to the Bedouin people. By next morning, the force of the snowstorm had diminished just enough for us to take a different route out to the desert. The camels were loaded with water, chickens, rice, and vegetables and soon we were venturing out into the wilderness. Our aim was to reach a cave by dusk that only the Bedouin knew the whereabouts of.
First light breaks on the impressive 300 metre east face of Gulp on Jebel Umma H Shaur
Once we reached the cave, we built a raging fire to see us through the long desert night. Our friendly guides recounted tales of lost treasure; as more whiskey was drunk the stories became more ridiculous. The next day I rose before dawn and went in search of an unclimbed peak I’d read about. After an hour I reached an unnamed col close to the peak of Jebel Umma H Shaur, just as the 300 metre east face of the Gulp caught the first rays of light, and the granite suddenly turned to gold against the inky blue sky.
I raced back to the camp in time for breakfast keen to share my experience with the rest of the team. Later that week they put up a stunning new route on the very same wall I had set my eyes on. By the second day we witnessed one of the biggest melts the desert had seen in years. The desert canyons home to the aromatic herb gardens so cherished by the Bedouin were soon filled with miniature waterfalls.
Sunrise across the moonscape of Sinai's granite mountains from the summit of Jebel Umma H Shaur
Later that week, we left the security of our cave and headed for the fertile gardens below Jebel Naga to set up camp for the rest of the trip. On a solo bouldering mission early one morning, I spotted an unclimbed line of cracks and flakes up one of the large granite domes behind our camp. Most of the cracks were continuous but sometimes they closed up; venturing into the unknown on these sheets of open granite, devoid of protection, seemed hard to justify given that the only means of rescue here was by camel.
A St. Catherine's local raises a glass of tea
We arrived back in St. Catherine's energised from many nights spent under the clear desert skies. Whilst out in the desert, one of the Bedouin had talked of a Belgian artist who had plastered blue paint over many of the boulders in the region, which was now known as the Blue Desert.
A local Bedouin travels by camel: these animals remain the defacto means of transport in this remote area of Sinai
The call of the desert was strong and we returned the following year on a mission to climb the mighty 450m wall on the west face of Jebel Naga. My companion Martin recounted his previous attempt at the shorter northwest face. Unfortunately they didn’t make the summit until after nightfall, and got lost in the complex canyons on the descent. A day later they arrived, exhausted, back at the camp.
A wildly colourful field of opium poppies near St. Catherine's; opium is a key cash crop in the area
Our plan was to travel to the remote village of Abu Seila and then hike through the canyons to the base of the cliff. Soon the desert floor was ablaze with carpets of opium poppies. It was peak opium season and a couple of gardeners were utilising a complex series of plastic pipes to irrigate their crop. We were invited to join them for a well-earned cup tea. Tensions soon eased and a young man smiled at us through a black set of teeth as he poured water from a rusty petrol can into a pot on the fire.
Making tea on an open fire, Bedouin-style
Keen to reach our camp before nightfall, we gulped down the sugary liquid and said our goodbyes. The next day, as we climbed the early pitches in the cool morning air, we soon realised the route was going to be tougher than we had anticipated and a decision was made to bail back to the camp, leaving some fixed lines in place for the following day. After reaching our high point the next day, we discovered an amazing splitter crack lay directly above us.
Taking a break from the attempt on the huge west face of Jebel Naga
After battling up this in the scorching afternoon sun we arrived at a section completely devoid of holds and gear. Our bodies were battered and bleeding by this stage, and with no obvious way up we were forced to retreat back to our camp in the valley, leaving the route up the centre of Jebel Naga’s pristine 1500 foot west face for another trip.
Descending from the high point on the team's attempt on the west face of Jebel Naga by abseil
Our decision to return to St Catherine's a day earlier turned out to be a good one as word got out that the Egyptian military had decided to raid the local opium gardens, and technically we weren’t supposed to be in the region at all. As we reached the dusty dirt road on the final approach to town, a series of Toyota Hilux pickups came racing past the entrance to the canyon. Thankfully this was merely a warning by the Bedouin that the army was on its way, and we needed to be clear of the area.
Making a first ascent of a multipitch line on Jebel Dahab: Sinai is an exploratory climbing paradise
Counting our good luck, we legged it through a different canyon and made it safely back to the village. It didn’t matter that the route on Jebel Naga had defeated us: we’d enjoyed every minute of our desert adventure, and saw it as an excuse to return to the wilderness of the Sinai mountains sometime soon.
The author bouldering under the gleaming walls of Jebel Dahab, Sinai
Editor's note: at the time of publication in December 2017, the United Kingdom Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to the South Sinai region (with the exception of the immediate area within the Sharm el Sheikh perimeter) due to the recent increase in criminal activity and continued terrorist attacks on police and security forces.
Mike Hutton is a professional climbing, travel and landscape photographer; you can find out more about his work on his Instagram page