Late autumn last year, before winter loomed its dark hours, I received a message from my friend Tom Le Fanu. He asked me if I fancied and adventure trip, anywhere in the world, I send him my ready-made list of destination places. He replied saying he struggled getting past the first place on the list. It was Wadi Rum.
We've been back a couple of weeks now, and feeling glad that we got the trip done when we did and managed to scape the country before the world went into lock-dow. Now with enforced downtime, seems like a good time to reacquaint myself with the long lost art of blogging (who blogs anymore!). Despite Wadi Rum being a mainstream destination nowadays, it wasn't straight forward to find the detailed information I was after when planning our trip, so I thought I could do with writing my experience for the benefit of others.
The first thing to say is that you must go! For any self-respecting trad climber with a taste for adventure, climbing destinations don't come much better than this. With its easy access, quality climbing, stable weather and stunning scenery, it's a no-brainer. After a quick look online, anyone can be convinced that this is a place on earth that needs to be experienced.
Our journey started at Gatwick, where we flew direct to Aqaba, in the south of Jordan and on the very northern tip of the Gulf of Arabia. Flights were about £300, ours departed at 9am and gets you in Wadi Rum around 7pm that night. All very civilized. We booked to stay in Rum town with a well-known local called Atayek (email me if you want his details) and he arranged for a taxi to pick us up from the airport. If you fly into Aqaba you don't have to pay the tourist visa, but if you fly to Amman you do, and the taxi is way longer. Some other travellers find cheaper flight by connecting to different European hubs, but I don't it's worth the risk loosing your bags in transit.
We went for two weeks, which was great as gave us time to take some rest days in the desert, scope approaches and fail on routes. But I reckon 10 days is probably enough if you are organized and plan well. I think in 9 days climbing can do most of the classics in the list below and (if you skip Pillar of Wisdom). However, going for two weeks gives you the chance to visit Petra, if you are that way inclined.
In terms what time of the year to go, I'd say November or December would be the best. It would be chilly in the shade but it means you have a chance to do the routes in the sun. But the season goes from November to March. March was good as it was pleasant in the shade and not too cold at night and we avoided any snow (yes it does snow), but we had to do without doing Guerre Sainte which was blasted by the sun.
In terms of gear, it does get a beating, the sandstone is rough! We only brought one set of ropes, I think if they are in good nick and are not too thin, they will last you the trip no problem. If you do loose a rope, seek-out Atayek, he can lend you a spare. For climbing, crack gloves a pretty essential. As a rack, bring a double rack of cams, and maybe triples of red and a n.4 and a n.5. In addition a single set of wires and and RP's. Bring lots of extenders and slings. A visor is useful if you are climbing in the sun, it's pretty intense.
The climbing style is mostly cracks as is where the gear is. There are a few routes that are face climbs, but not many. The jams are generally bomber and with crack gloves you feel like a hero even if you are a crack punter like myself. We both climb in our Otakis as they seems to be the perfect shoe for this sort of thing, comfy and techy enough.
There are two options for accommodation, staying in town or staying in one of the desert camps, which are far nicer and way quieter. If you stay in a desert camp you will have to get 4x4 taxis everyday to take you climbing and to pick you up, and they are expensive. Unless you can find a deal that includes taxi rides, your stay will be considerably more expensive as the camps are geared for tourist. Expect to pay anything from 35JD to 50JD a day depending on how posh the camp is. Then you’ll have to barter for rides. Some camps won’t open for only two climbers staying as they have to be staffed.
So, these are the reasons why most climbers stay in Rum town, which is very noisy and run down. The noise is pretty overwhelming the first few days, expect to be awaken everyday at 5am by the muezzin and then from the cacophony of rooster encores, dogs barking and the general town coming alive. However, towards the end of the trip I was sleeping through the noise until 8am. There are benefits of staying in town, like access to shops, sharing info with other climbers and the accessibility to climbing. I struggled to find info on accommodation when planing the trip, so I went with a recommendation to stay at Atayek’s. But for the price of 25JD pp/pn I thought perhaps wasn’t the best value. That works out about £60 per room per couple, and you get bare mattress (no linen) on the floor of a bare Bedouin tent, access to toilets (expect to have to clean them yourself) and a night meal consisting of chicken and rice (usually lots of rice and not a lot of chicken). There seems to be a better option in town for around 15JD staying with Hamdan at his Bedouin Village Camp. But you will have to do your own research and shop around dealing with Bedouin hosts via whatsapp to get the accommodation pinned down.
The single best thing of Wadi Rum is to spend a few nights camped out in Barrah Canyon. The ride out there is 40min with a 4x4 and will cost you around £90 there and back, so make the most of it. If you can share it with another team even better as you can split the cost. We spend three days out there as there was only two routes that we wanted to do, Merlin and The Star. There’s a 7b tufa line bolted by Arnaud Petit called Drill Story that you could do as well, but it’s a fair trek from the camp. We took a morning ride on a rest day and spend the day exploring the canyon, which was great, away from the noise and wandering around in the desert. This is also a great chance to collect your firewood. Unless you bring a MSR petrol stove with you, you’ll have cook with fire and that’s what the bedouins tell to do. In fact, Atayek took all the firewood we collected left over back to his house. It seems unethical to us but it is their culture to sit by a fire and drink tea. Cooking with wood is easy enough, you soon get the hang of it. We borrowed big pots from Atayek which makes easier, my Alpkit cooking pot would have been ruined instantly. It helps to have clamps to deal with a hot pot. We really enjoyed the ritual of getting the fire going for dinner and breakfast, and there’s nothing like watching the stars with the fire crackling in the middle of the desert. Perhaps the most important element is to bring more water than you think you need, minimum 6ltrs each per day, but more like 8 if you can. The water in town is drinkable and won’t give you a funny gut, so collect bottles to fill or go to the shop to buy 6-packs.
It’s worth noting that if you plan to do Guerre Sainte you’d probably want to sleep at the bottom of the route, even if it’s just around the corner from Rum. So that would give you another night or two in the desert.
We booked an extra 23kg bag full of food and two small tents. Bringing your own food is something I did in Senja last year and it just works so well. Do an extensive shopping list with your mate and do a Aldi shop, likely is going to be around £100, but you'll save money at the other end and you'll have the food you want. In Wadi Rum you need to plan your food for climbing days, days in the desert and breakfast if you don't fancy the provided pita, processed cheese and hummous in a can. If you are vegetarian or vegan is a whole different ball game as I have no idea how you'd do it. For climbing days we planned bags of cashews (my fav climbing food), Bulk Powder protein bars, Aldi snack bars and Mars. For dessert food we had an assortment of ready cook sachets of rice and ready meals, beefed up with cous cous sachets and the magic ingredient that makes everything tasty, chorizo! For breakfast, in the village or in the desert, we packed a whole lot of Muesli, 2 or 3 bags of 1kg at least. Then wraps and bagels with peanut butter and jam (in plastic containers). Bring also a tub of powdered milk and instant coffee, although that can be bought there. Some useful ancillary items are the usual bog roll (remember this is a muslim country...), baby wipes, and sanitizer.
To get info about the routes we used the Rock Around the World guidebook that Theo Moore lend us. We didn’t use Tony Howards book once, as it’s quite hard to use. However, what we used the most was the stash of topos that Atayek keeps in the communal area. In particular the topos by Spanish legend Luis Alfonso (Luichy) were particularly accurate. Specially the approach topo to The Beauty was particularly useful. There are plenty more topos online if you are looking to beef up your trip with harder routes like “Glory” or some other Wilfred Colonna routes.
Now for the climbing. It’s fair to say that most climbers go to Rum and just do the classics, and that’s a smart thing to do as some of the rock around is just not great. A good reason to stick to the classics is that well travelled routes are more enjoyable and safer, they are usually clean and all friable holds have been cleaned. However if you like exploring, there's certainly a lot to go at. The Kurt Alberts and Bern Arnold 7b crack next to Lionheart would be a stellar challenge and so also would be "Tira la coda al diavolo" a Ragni di Lecco 7c. There also a bolted 8a called "Glory" but heard some criticisms about this route. But as far as the classics go this would be my list of recommendations:
- Troubadour - E3/4 (best single pitch, good to have three red cams)
- Flight of Fancy - E2/3 (great 6b corner pitch)
- The Camel - E5 (in the sun! n.4 cam useful)
- Inferno - E2 (Amazing last pitch)
- The Beauty - E2 (n.4 & n.5 cam needed)
- La Guerre Sainte - 7b (Fully bolted. In the sun!)
- Merlin - E1 (avoid top two 6b extension pitches)
- The Star - E2 on aid, E4 free (hard 6c peg-protected move)
- Lionheart - E3/4 (sustained)
- Insallah Factor - E4 (RP's needed)
- Pillar of Wisdom - E1 (involved descent)
And some to seek out:
Au Gres Du Vent (Jebel Khazali) - E5 (amazing looking crack)
We didn’t do Pillar of Wisdom as the route seemed to be all about the involved descent more than the climbing, hearing many stories of benightment. We also didn’t do Insallah Factor or Guerre Sainte as it was just too hot to climb in the sun, but there’s always one or two routes that get away. All the routes we did were world-class classics, but there some stand outs. As a whole route, Lionheart, The Star and Merlin seemed to be the best. But there were some individual pitches that just took your breath away. The 6c pitch in Trobadour, the 6b on Flight of Fancy, the 6a first pitch on The Beauty and the last 6a pitch of Inferno were some the best pitches I’ve ever climbed. The other route that looked as good was “Au gres du vent” by Christian Ravier on Khazali canyon. An immaculate E5 crack straight out of Indian Creek, but we ran out of time to give it a go. I won’t go into detail describing each route in detail as that would kill some of your own adventure, but I hope the pictures here will get you psyched to start planning your trip to Wadi Rum.
Thanks to Dan Arkle, Ali Kennedy, Javi and Marc Torralles for all the great beta. Thanks to Adam Brown for the big cams, and special thanks to Theo Moore and Anna Gileat for lending me the guidebooks and offering lots of last minute help. And thanks Tom for the amazing trip and his dry humour.