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Wadi Rum Jamming

tom-contemplating

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 lay of the land, with the most popular routes plotted. Merlin and The Star are in Barrah Canyon. Jebel Khazali is in the south out of crop.

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.

East Face of Jebel Rum from the village. The highest concentration of routes is here, and not because is only 20min walk from the village, is because the rock is the hardest and therefore best. But it gets the sun until 12/1pm, which is a problem for the longer routes as most cruxes are low down and you will do them in the heat. So I'd say go in November to Feb for your best chance. We couldn't do Insallah or finish the Camel for that reason. We weren't too bothered about the Pillar of Wisdom
Expo climbing at it best

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.

Timo from Corsica showboating on Merlin, the busiest route in the whole Rum, and for a reason. It's very good. The two 6b extension by Arnaud Petit are out of character and not really worth doing. All pro is drilled tat and it's a bit of an eye-sore.
The view down to Jebel Khazali (right) from the top of Lionheart. This picture gives you an idea of bearings of the area. Out of frame on the left is Wadi Rum, approx 20min walk. Up left is the edge of Jebel Nassarani where Guerre Sainte (7b) is. You could walk there from town but it would take you 1.30h walking on soft sand, which is not great. You'd be better off with a 4x4 drive on a rest day to camp out at the bottom of the route for san early start. To drive to Khazali, the big Jebel up right takes about 20min. There's an amazing looking E5 crack there, straight out of Utah. The valley in the distant going up and left of the frame is where you go to Barrah Canyon, which takes about 40min drive.

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.

The fantastic first pitch of The Beauty
Sometimes you do wish you carried the n.5 cam with you

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.

The best thing about Wadi Rum is not being in Wadi Rum, but being out in the desert and taking it all in. It's a pretty magical place. This was on a rest day at Ali's camp, where we took a ride with him to the camp, spend the day exploring around Khazali, where the camp is, then had dinner there and drove back to Atayek's house.

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.

Atayek's house/camp in Rum. Atayek has built himself a reputation for hosting climbers because his Dad was the original bedouin who helped Tony Howard with the climbing back in the 80's. He's knowledgable of the climbing and has a n.5 cam in the house you can borrow for The Beauty so you don't have to pack it from home. He also has decent spare ropes in case you get yours stuck or damaged. The food was good as long as you liked chicken and rice. Breakfast is pita bread with jam, processed cheese and if you are lucky some eggs. I strongly recommend packing some porridge from home.
The unique charm of Rum. Most days are early starts and late finishes so the general run-down character doesn't really matter.

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.

Our camp in Barrah Canyon. By far the best experience in the whole trip, being camped out in the desert for three days, right under the routes. Shame there is only two classic routes there really. You could extend it to 4 days and have a go at Calum Muskett bolted F8a, or bring lots of cams and have a go at the unclimbed routes we found, but having so many more other classic routes to climb elsewhere in Rum it seem 3 days was enough.
Welcome company in the desert
Barrah Canyon
On our last day in Barrah Canyon our camel mates came over to our camp. They are just to used to tourists giving them food, and when we spotted the front legs tied-off then we realized they are not wild camels roaming free the desert, they are put there by the Bedouins to give the tourist they drive to the canyon the "authentic" desert experience. Still, I never had a camel joining me for breakfast before.
Collecting wood for the camp, as instructed by Atayek, in Barrah Canyon
Tom on the 6b open book corner pitch on The Star (of Abu Judadiah). Absolute class.
We took a rest day to wander around Barrah Canon, highly recommended
Waiting for Atayek to pick us up from Barrah Canyon, trying to get it all in for one last time. Calum's and Dan's crazy line in the backdrop.

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.

Despite following a plum straight crack, Merlin climb mostly on the side holds. But if you have crack gloves is just incredible to just jam the whole thing like we did, so much faster and you get into an incredible flow.
Wandering around the Jebel Khazali dunes
Exposure at its best

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.

The first pitch of The Beauty (6a ) is indeed a thing of beauty. I won the paper-rock-scissors on this one. Absolutely delightful.
Tom leading the hardest pitch we did all trip, the crux of The Camel on East Face of Jebel Rum. Despited the few bolts, still felt E5 to me. We had a 5am start but there was no escaping the sun. I tried leading this pitch in the sun and it was literally impossible. I came down and soon after a cloud came over just long enough to do it. I second it just finishing in the blaze and we bailed after that. I guess to climb the long routes in the East Face you either need a cool day (not many in mid-March), a cloudy day, or do it November to Feb. Worth noting that having a cam 4 really helps to protect the few moves above the hanging below, some fairly stout moves with a potential factor 2.
Mandatory shot of the traverse on Flight of Fancy

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.

Climbing the "fish scales" of the first pitch of "Lionheart". It's worth stringing together the first two pitches to make time as you have to wait until 9.30am before you can on the route, otherwise the crux 6c (E4) pitch corner is still in the sun and you don't want that. It's worth noting that on the last 6b pitch I really wished I had the cam 5 to protect the chimney. Lionheart is probably the most sustained route we did, and together with The Star and Merlin, are the three best "whole" routes we did in Rum.
Tom on the amazing 6b pitch Flight of fancy. Looks harder than it is, you can't see the great foot ledges from below. Great route to warm up on.
Me climbing the never ending, extremely fun, last pitch of Inferno (6a).
Luckily, The Beauty has an amazing offwidth last pitch as a reward for whoever doesn't lead the first pitch. Immaculate climbing. One n.4 and a n.5 cam are sufficient.
Last pitch of Lionheart (6a). We didn't bother with the last rambling F4 pitch as it's notorious for getting your ropes stuck. Pack your headtorches.
It's worth topping out to the summit of The Beauty.
Me climbing the perfect crack of Troubador (E3/4. East Face Jebel Rum) in a sandstorm. Dare I say, by far the best pitch in Wadi Rum. The rock is nothing like the rest of rum, really hard sandstone, almost grit-like.

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.

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