Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mount Sinai Summit Loop, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt


Distance: 5 miles (8 km)
Elevation: 5150 - 7497 feet (1570 - 2285 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Season: September - May


From Saint Catherines Monastery, you are looking up at the famous Mount Sinai, also known in Egypt as Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses). It is the 2nd highest peak in Egypt (7,497 feet), about 1,100 feet lower than the adjacent 8,600 foot Mount Catherine. For the few of you who don't know the most basic details of the bible, Mount Sinai was the place Moses supposedly recieved the tablet with the Ten Commandments. However, most biblical scholars now believe it actually happened on a different mountain, perhaps over in nearby Saudi Arabia.


For reasons that were unclear, we were not allowed to just go up and hike to the summit on our own; we had to be led by a local guide. But, the trail to the summit is quite obvious and there is not real chance to get lost. I suspect it was just to help support the local economy with tip money. The hike from the monastery to the summit takes about 2.5 hours along the gentle contours of the camel trail. Websites claim you can also hire a camel for the trek. We didn't see that option, but we also apparently were not there during the peak season. 

At the first pass before beginning the main ascent, there is a great view of the next valley

I read that most people either leave at 3am to catch the sunrise or 3pm to catch the sunset. One of the reasons is that it is too hot in the middle of the day, especially in summer. But, we left around 8am and had no problems, especially since it was December and pretty cool outside. Personally, I am glad we did it in the day because then I was able to see and photgraph the entire route, rather than doing half of it in the dark.

Looking up at the mountain you still must climb

The climb is moderately strenuous for the first 70% of the way and then become strenuous in the final 1000 foot approach to the summit. That last part was a killer.

Looking back into the valley from near the summit

Prior to coming here, I just assumed I'd see something ecologically similar to what we see in the deserts of North America; that the higher we got the more vegetation there would be. But, that was not the case at all. There was no vegetation anywhere...just barren brown granitic rock. I guess when you get only 1" of rain per year, increasing elevation for condensation does not matter if there are no clouds. Even for the rain that does fall, with humidity levels under 10%, it doesn't last long before evaporating away.


Upon reaching the summit, there is a spectacular panorama of starkly barren mountains and the Red Sea faintly visible on the distant horizon. At the summit is also a small Greek Orthodox Church and a small mosque. It is cool up there, especially in winter and even more so if there is a breeze.


After enjoying the view, it was time to head down the steep-side containing 3700 rocky steps called the "Steps of Repetence". About a 1000 feet down you come into a small basin containing a water containment wall, which supports about the only plants we saw anywhere, including some grass and a few 500-year old cypress trees. This wall was built hundreds of years ago to protect the monastery from flood damage. This Elijiah's Basin, where the 70 wise men apparently waited for Moses, while he went to the top to get the Ten Commandments.

Elijiah's Basin below

After leaving the basin, you enter a narrow slot canyon with a very steep drop. Soon you will see that way down below you is Saint Catherines Monastery and you are thinking, I am going down there?


But, yes, you will make it and when you are done you can sit down to enjoy some nice Bedouin tea and it will be all the worth it to see such a spectacular site of geologic and cultural significance.

Saint Catherines Monastery way below

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