The wind whipping up, we huddled around a fire in the very cave where my friend Mohammed had lived to the age of 12. We were climbing when I heard Mohammed and his companion murmur about Dahab – Arabic for gold. My ears pricked up. Climbing suddenly forgotten I leaned over and asked him what he was on about. He grinned sheepishly, and told me a Bedouin tale, hundreds of years old, passed down from generation to generation. The tale was long and intricate, but it oncluded in a box of gold being left on a ledge on a mountain “too steep to climb to, and too hidden to climb down to”.
Great story, but I assumed that they didn't know where the peak was. On the contrary, Mohammed explained. He claimed to know it very well, but without climbing equipment he couldn't reach the ledge. My head began to feel strange and fuzzy. I couldn't concentrate my eyes couldn't focus. Mohammed was still talking to me, his mouth moving, but I wasn't listening. I was dreaming.
Gold! I’m going to be rich. But will I have to share it? If it’s coins I could go down first and then hide them in my chalk bag. Curses, what if it’s cursed – I’ll be famous but dead. I bet we can’t get it out the country; I can’t just stick a bar of gold in my hand luggage. Well have to find it, bury it and leave a treasure map for my grandkids. It may have been taken already. Perhaps not, but we’ve got to go quickly, well smuggle it out somehow. God. What if the box was empty?
I could still feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke of the donkey shit fire we were cooking on, but I was on a different planet. I’d caught a bad case of gold fever.
The next day, after a fitful sleep, we packed our camels and set off – destination Gold Mountain. The mountain came into view and on every ledge my eyes could see a box laden with gold, covered in the dust and dirt from its hundreds of years of rest. Mohammed squinted, pointed to a ledge, and there it was – a box like object below a small bush. Wow.
We raced up the approach, scrambled up a boulder-filled gully to the right of the peak, and continued up past fragrant bushes of mint, oregano and other plants of varying medicinal properties. On the col we balanced our way along a thin ridge to gain the summit and set anchors for the abseil. I soon bullied my way to the front of the rope, to be the one who could descend onto the ledge and discover the gold. I was to be the one to open the box, to have this ancient treasure named after him.
As I slowly slid down the rope other thoughts skimmed my mind. Should I hide the treasure and tell the others there was nothing? Should I bring it back up to share equally? If karma does exist then surely it shouldn't be toyed with when dealing with ancient cursed Egyptian gold? Aren’t our guides the real owners anyway?
My feet landed on the ledge and heart-in-mouth I began to make my way to the bush. Damn, damn it’s just a rock, a rock. I frantically searched the ledge, something must be here, it was so inaccessible, the perfect hiding place. I peered under every rock expecting a tunnel entrance or a buried box. But half-an-hour later, shrill cries from the others enquiring if they were rich yet brought me back down to reality:
“There’s nothing.” I replied. And nothing there was, but rocks, dirt and a bat poo filled cave. Fred shouted down that perhaps the hoard of skeleton zombies destined to protect it had hidden their riches from us. This didn't improve my blackening mood. I felt deflated, hopes of opulence dashed. Turning to prusik back up the abseil line I faced a great corner crack that arrowed 50m back up to the summit. I lurched my way back up the ropes. As I did my dreams shifted from those of gold to those of cracks. This line was impeccable, if I could somehow reach this classic corner crack from the ground.
An hour later our despondent team trudged back to the valley floor and there at the foot of the pinnacle’s deep red granite eastern flank was a perfect hand crack rising 30m up into the slabs, walls and cracks above. Hell it’d never make me rich, but I suddenly cheered up, I had found my gold; an untouched, clean, natural, unforced line. Two hours later the route was in the bag, F.I.G. J.A.M. went at 130m of E2 (5a, 5a/b, 5b, 5c) and it is without doubt a new classic of the Sinai Desert. Everybody else had had an equally successful afternoon and the newly named Jebel Dahab now is the proud owner of five new routes.
I’m sure I’m not the only visitor to be overcome by treasure madness in the desert. Gold has been a part of the Sinai Peninsula for as long as people have inhabited it. The first recorded people to enter the interior of the Sinai were the Ancient Asiatics and Egyptians. A king wrote to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III: “ Let my brother send gold in great quantity, for in my brother’s land gold is as plentiful as dust.” Sadly since then the dust seems to have severely outnumbered the gold, but as we were finding, there were still plenty of riches for the taking.
In 1882, A. H. Keane wrote concerning Arabia Petræa: “The southern-most tip is made up of the massive volcanic highlands cut into huge cathedrals of stone watching over the wadis below. Here the land derives its grandeur and peculiar charm from the very nakedness of the rocky heights. In some of the wadis the hillsides are scored by countless seams of the brightest hues, their fantastic designs producing an indescribable pictorial effect. What is seemingly the mere outline of a distant landscape reflects a charming and almost magical vista as if the bare rocks were clothed with woods or vineyards, or their summits capped with eternal snows.”
And it is these huge granite cathedrals that I have been climbing on ever since. I’ve been organising expeditions, climbing, mapping and living in the Sinai for the last 16 years. Arguably I am now the most experienced and knowledgeable climbing guide in terms of rock climbing in the South Sinai Desert. Contact me if you want to become a part of compiling the first comprehensive climbing guidebook to the South Sinai Desert.