Climbing Mount Sinai: 200 miles from ISIS

by Lauren on February 14, 2018

Included in the cost of climbing Mount Sinai were an Egyptologist guide, a boxed meal, transportation, a Bedouin tribesman to lead us to the summit, and an armed police convoy. Wait, an armed police convoy?

This hike had to be interesting.

The Sinai Peninsula is an arid chunk of Egypt bridging the continents of Africa and Asia. On a map it resembles a guitar pick, though given its reputation as a hotbed of political activity, a shark fin might be the more appropriate analogy. According to our guide, one of the proposed origins of the name Sinai may have come from “shin” or “shen,” the Semitic word for tooth.

Sinai is home to many beautiful destinations including Sharm el Sheikh, a glistening resort area known for its coral reefs at the Red Sea’s edge. I was drawn to the area for more rugged reasons: Mount Sinai.

While Mount Sinai is not the highest mountain in Egypt (it’s second to Mount Katherine), her summit marks the spot of great biblical significance to Christians, Muslims and Jews. This was where God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. My reasons for climbing have been to push boundaries and pursue adventure. This time I wanted to step back and delve into a journey that millions of Pilgrims have made for very personal reasons.

The hike is traditionally done at night in order to enjoy the summit at sunrise. When we organized our tour, there was in a sandstorm in Cairo with substantial winds sweeping across the peninsula. The safest option was to postpone our climb until daylight hours.

We were advised to keep passports in hand for the three-hour journey through multiple checkpoints. And there were many checkpoints.

Military Checkpoint

When we were first told about the armed police convoy, I imagined traveling in a bulletproof car surrounded by a squadron of tanks. Each tank would be manned by a stern Commander and team, and there would be an air of gravity. I mean, I’ve seen Presidential motorcades, and they’re serious business!

But as we made it through the various checkpoints with little more than a head nod, I relaxed. The convoy bit of our trip amounted to a covered black truck — carrying several fierce-looking guys with semi-automatic weapons — accompanying our private van for a limited portion of our journey. As we would learn, the day’s checkpoint police were alerted first thing in the morning that two Americans were making their way through, and they simply made a check on their list as we passed by. Far less formal than what the Embassy may have stipulated.

Despite traveling without the armored tanks of my imagination, we made it safely to the base of the mountain.

Skyline: Mount Katherine and Mount Sinai

The hike begins near Saint Katherine’s monastery, an exquisite UNESCO world heritage site. Or so I heard. The monastery was closed the day we visited.

The trail is well-worn and dusty, and our Bedouin guide was a kind young man who accommodated our pace. We were invigorated by a cool breeze as we climbed upwards, occasionally glancing back to catch a view of the shrinking valley below.

Camel Trail

You can select either the Camel trail, a winding and dusty path which is fairly easy or the Steps of Penitence/Repentance trail. The Steps are steep but make for a shorter trail. Many climbers take the Camel trail up and the Steps on the way down. Either way, as you approach the summit, there are 750 stairs to test your mettle.

Mount Sinai Summit

If you summit at night, I’m told that jockeying for a prime spot is competitive. If you summit during the day as we did, then sit back and enjoy the sunshine. The quiet at the summit is blissful. You’ll encounter many friendly faces, some of whom are deceptively skilled at getting your attention.

Other things to consider:

Is it safe to go to Sinai? Northern Sinai has been a hotbed of terrorist activity as of late, and Sinai as a whole is volatile region. Sharm el Sheikh and Mount Sinai are several hundred miles to the south, and our hike was remarkably peaceful. But this is a personal choice. Do your research, follow your gut.

Day or night? Depends on how strongly you feel about climbing it the “traditional” way, and seeing the beautiful sunrise. I’ve heard this is an illuminating experience, and religiously significant to many. It’s a 1-3am start in the dark, and very crowded. You’ll need to bring a headlamp. We climbed during the day and had the sunny trail all to ourselves.

Winter or Summer? Summertime is the most popular time to climb, and most agreeable for a night-time ascent. Our winter climb was in January, when temperatures were in the 30-40s Fahrenheit and reached a comfortable 50-60s during the day.

How to organize: Our climb was arranged through our hotel in Sharm el Sheikh. This made it simple, but more pricey. It’s possible to take a bus from Cairo to Saint Katherine’s, but the ride is excruciatingly long (8 hours), and perhaps not the most restful option before a middle-of-the-night climb. The upside is the private van and Egyptologist guide to share his/her overview of the region.

Can you climb Mount Katherine? We were told it was “closed” due to security activity. However, our Bedouin guide said otherwise. I would recommended staying in the vicinity of Saint Katherine’s, and contacting a local about organizing one/both hikes. You must climb with a Bedouin. The tribesmen are highly informed and capable folks. The downside is that you’ll spend a longer period of time near the Monastery, an area that, while generally quiet, has seen its share of unfortunate events in recent history.

The harsh desert conditions and quiet of Mount Sinai were a welcome change from the bustle and noise of downtown Cairo. It’s a good feeling to be among a small wave of tourists that are visiting a lightly trafficked area, with the hope that others will follow as the security situation improves. While it’s not clear that will happen anytime soon, the beaches of Sharm el Sheikh were a worthwhile jump-off point and an alluring antidote to Sinai’s harshness.

Saint Katherine’s Monastery was founded in 527, so let that sink in, knowing that thousands have walked the same trail and stood gazing at the harsh desert landscape from the summit of Mount Sinai. It’s a volatile time in the region, and the tourism is more appreciated than ever. But you do take your chances in visiting this part of the world. If and when you make it there, take your time to breathe and really take in the experience.

And then head home.

South Sinai Landscape

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