‘One Life. Live it.’ tells of a climbing trip to the sandstone mecca of Wadi Rum in Jordan. It is certainly a magical place, but on this occasion I was also involved in a climbing accident that nearly killed me. This is the story.
My mate Al
My mate Al has a radical approach to superstitions. If Al sees a ladder he strides right under it. He dances carelessly over pavement cracks. He even waits until someone else is on the stairs just so he can cross their path. Al is hardcore and he’s lived to tell the tale, but I’ve lived by a far more wimpish code. I religiously pick up pennies and celebrate when I see a shooting star! I’m also a firm believer in the old nine lives theory despite it sitting rather uncomfortably with a love of all things adventure.
One Life. Live it.
I first lost a life back in 1985 when my friend Dave and I got avalanched in number 4 gully on our first winter trip to Scotland. Number two fell to an accident in Pembroke and a third to a close encounter with a croc on the Zambesi River. I wrote number four off when I got persuaded to paddle the River Ogwen in spate as my second river descent. Last, but certainly not least, life five was lost to a stupid end of a long day error in the Ecrins. I pulled 50 metres of rope across my belay sling and found it had almost completely melted through. By the time I realised I was attached to the mountain by just a few strands of thread.
I might be a total wuss about superstitions, but I’m pretty good at reasoning things out. So I’ve really had no problem justifying to myself that all these precious imaginary lives simply fell to bad decision making and stupid mistakes. It also still leaves me a reasonably healthy four lives in the bank. Or at least it did until my trip to Jordan……
Enroute to Jordan
The four of us boarded the plane in the dampness of Manchester and stepped off into the dry heat of early evening Amman. New smells, new language, a new culture – the way all great adventures start. Our hire car was delivered in suspicious circumstances by a shadowy figure in a dark corner of the airport and soon we were on our way.
We were forced into a decision to drive through the night because the hostel said our reservation had been lost. In truth I didn’t like the look of the place anyway. We stocked up on snacks and hit the road.
Neil, my best friend and the most enthusiastic person you will ever meet, kicked off the driving. Natalie, Neil’s partner and one of life’s great carers, sat next to him. Cal, my partner and emotional rock, lay on the back seat with her head in my lap.
Somehow Neil got us out of the city and when his head worryingly started bobbing forward I took over. Some time into my third can of Red Bull a small monkey darted in front of the headlights and went straight under the front wheels. The adrenaline surge ensured I didn’t need any more Red Bull but I drove on feeling sad about the needless loss of an innocent creature.
Wadi Rum sunrise
My spirits lifted with the rising sun and soon we were driving up the long desert road that leads to Wadi Rum village. I’ve been lucky enough to visit quite a few places, but the impact of this place is absolutely unique. Huge glowing sandstone domed towers rise from the flat expanse of the desert floor. Black Bedouin camel hair tents dot the horizon as camels amble around sedately. It really is a special place.
Fear of flying
Our first week passed in an adventurous blur and we got a selection of excellent climbs under our belts. ‘Fear of Flying’, ‘The Beauty’, ‘King’s Wall’ and ‘Rum Doodle’. Evocative names for awesome climbs. The sandstone is full on friable. The route descriptions can be sketchy and the rock loose. There’s also a feeling of isolation I haven’t normally felt in the mountains before. Wadi Rum isn’t for the faint hearted.
By the start of our second week we were keen to see somewhere new. We bartered with a local driver to get us to a venue on the other side of the mountains. The destination was a place called Barrah Canyon.
We collected as much food and water as we could and piled into the back of the ramshackle Landcruiser. We were ready for a pleasant meander through the desert but that wasn’t the reality. Our driver Suleiman obviously knew exactly where he was going, but some of the places he took that vehicle were miles outside my comfort zone.
Of course we made it and first impressions of Barrah Canyon didn’t disappoint. A vast cleft with towering walls silhouetted against the deep blue Jordanian sky. We pitched the tents in the shade of the canyon walls and shared some syrupy mint tea with Suleiman. He was keen to leave before dark and we arranged for a pick up in three days. The international language of hand signals left us hoping he understood.
There were a number of must do climbs on our list but straight after arriving I found myself drawn to an unclimbed crack line near the campsite. Some of the walls here are massive and I guesstimated the line could be up to 300 metres long. Starting it with nowhere near enough time to top out before dark defied logic. Then again, a lot of the decisions I made that day defied logic.
A lack of judgement
Neil and Natalie headed off to explore the canyon as I tied in below the route. “Don’t forget your helmet,” Neil shouted as they disappeared round the corner. What he didn’t realise was that Cal and I had decided to not wear helmets today. Why? I’ve absolutely no idea. We had used helmets on every other Jordan climb. It was clear the rock was unpredictably brittle. We knew it all yet still decided against. How was I to know that I would soon have sandstone blocks raining down on me? Another life lost and a decision I will never take again.
I kissed Cal and chalked up. A final gear check, a quick ‘say it all’ glance at each other and I pulled onto the rock. Straight away it felt wrong and I should have stepped back down. I don’t really do stepping back down half as often as I should. It probably didn’t help that the first section was the sort of steep technical slab climbing I love and soon I had reached a small convex ledge at 10 metres.
The featureless rock below had not offered any gear placements and I was seriously intimidated by what lay ahead. I fumbled around with my gear and eventually managed to place a Rock 6 and a large cam. Then I took the cam out again. Why? I decided I would probably need it higher up. How was I to know that this single nut would soon be the only thing left to stop an 18 metre fall? Do I lose a life for that?
The rock steepened. I weakened.
The rock steepened. I weakened. It felt like the only way was up. More gear was needed but nothing would fit. I tried, moved up; tried again, moved up. Things just weren’t working out. Above me a large flute of rock enticed me with the promise of a rest. Even better, I was sure that cam would fit perfectly into the crack next to the flute. Let’s just go for it.
I leant back off the flake and just kept leaning. I have no idea at which point I realised that I was falling rather than leaning. Then again, many things about that fall don’t make sense. Did I slice my leg on the convex ledge? Where did all those grazes come from? Would this fall ever stop?
Well yes, I can answer that one. I came to a stop upside down with my face staring at the sand 1 metre below me. Each of my double ropes was coming from a different side of my harness and I was concertinaed between them. The breath ripped from my lungs by the stopping force. At least I had stopped. Unfortunately it wasn’t yet over.
I had heard a deep cracking noise as I leant on the flake and it turned out the whole piece of rock was coming down to join me. Amazingly, the freezer size block hit the ledge and shattered on the way down which undoubtedly saved my life. They still were intent on getting to earth though. Brick to breeze block size rained down and I was hanging upside down directly in their path. Several pieces hit my back and legs. Not a single piece hit my head.
Blood on the sand
As the rocks cascaded down I’d been aware of another sound that was strangely reminiscent of the squeal of the monkey as it disappeared under the car all that time ago. Cal was screaming. Cal’s hurt I thought. I twisted round to see Cal’s face contorted and afraid. But her fear was for me.
She had managed to run far enough to the side to hold my fall without me hitting the ground. Far enough to the side to miss the barrage of rocks. But not far enough so that she didn’t have to witness my fall and the blood falling on to the sand.
The returning silence
Neil and Natalie also heard the fall, the falling rocks, the screams and then the returning silence. They were well out of sight but knew we needed them now. By the time they arrived I was laying on the sand and Cal was hugging me close. Neil and Natalie are just the people you need at a time like this and I knew then it was going to be alright.
Natalie gently taped wound dressings to my knee, arms and hands while Neil ran to get help. But what help? An hour later we heard an engine and there was Neil. He had waved a wad of Jordanian Dinars at a passing 4×4 and soon we were heading to an unknown village where apparently there was a hospital.
Cold water and stitches
The ‘hospital’ turned out to be a single room with a white coated nurse and a bed. Neil was told to wait outside but he instinctively knew I needed him with me and pushed his way back into the room. Over the next 30 minutes I must have squeezed the life right out of Neil’s hand but he never complained. Cold water and stitches with no anaesthetic.
Neil reckoned he could have done a better job himself and I wish he had. Luckily we had brought painkillers and antibiotics, but I still had a badly infected leg by the time I got to a British hospital. Neil offered money to the nurse but she just smiled and shooed him away. A group of giggling children had gathered outside. Our driver had long gone. More of Neil’s bribes and soon we were heading back to camp.
Three hours later shock set in and I lay shivering inside my sleeping bag. Four hours and my back was in spasm, every movement agony and my breathing laboured and shallow. There were lots of whispered conversations between my friends that I couldn’t quite hear.
It turned out the others feared internal injuries but thankfully they told me nothing. There was enough to think about in my own little bubble of pain. I was worried and wanted to be at home but was a long way from it. Sleep didn’t come to me that night but I fell asleep in the breeze of the morning and slept for hours. The others packed. I slept. Suleiman arrived. He drove gently with me lying in the back of the flatbed. The kind of journey I had wanted on the way out and now got but couldn’t enjoy.
Rock Bridge of Burdah
We made a pre arranged stop at the famous Rock Bridge of Burdah. We had all planned to climb up to it but now three did and I didn’t. The others offered to skip it but why should they suffer for my misfortune? I slid under a shady overhang while Suleiman collected wood and made tea. I gave him the climbing ropes. After a fall like that I wouldn’t climb on them again but they would be useful to him for tying down his tent when the sandstorms came. We couldn’t share a common language but we connected.
Tears of joy
I looked around at the gorgeous expanse of desert and everything seemed so right. Recent memories flooded my mind. Only then did my tears start to flow. First little splashing droplets, then deep convulsing sobs. But not sorrow sobs. These were tears of joy. Tears of relief. Tears that looked forward to a great future. The happiest tears I have ever cried. The fall had stripped everything away and I was stronger than ever. One Life. Live it. I may only have one life left but its mine for the taking – you bet I’m going to live it.
WADI RUM FACTFILE
Please don’t let my accident account put you off. Jordan is a magical country and Wadi Rum is a fantastic place for both climbers and non climbers to visit. The following fact file will hopefully help anyone planning to visit.
Wadi Rum’s certainly been around a while. The granite and sandstone geological formations belong to the pre-Cambrian period of around 55 million years ago. It’s also been impressing people for a while. Evidence shows that pre-historic man was living there over 200,000 years ago.
Rather more recently the majesty of the place was brought to public attention when T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), famous for his part in the Arab uprising of 1916-18, started documenting his fascination with Wadi Rum in his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ published in 1922 (well worth reading before your visit).
The important bit of history from a climbing point of view came in 1984 when Di and Tony Howard made the first exploratory visit at the invitation of the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism. When they first visited only one climb was documented (although Bedouin had been scrambling over the peaks for centuries), but after several subsequent visits they wrote the first climbing guidebook in 1987 (Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum) and the potential of the place was officially out. The guidebook has been revised and expanded many times since.
Wadi Rum’s People
The Bedouin are the inhabitants of Wadi Rum. Many still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle grazing their sheep and goats for several months before moving to pastures new. Many Bedouin still live in the traditional black goats hair tents called ‘beit sha’ar’ (translates to ‘houses of hair’) which you will see dotted throughout the desert.
They are a proud and independent people who, if treated with respect, will reward your visit with friendliness and openness. We found them amazingly welcoming – we were invited into their tents for delicious sweet tea and enjoyed some life enhancing evenings sat with family groups under magical starry skies.
Wadi Rum is easy to access. Several airlines fly to Amman’s Alia International Airport and there is an international airport in Aqaba. In arriving in Amman many of the bus routes seem to go via Aqaba which is about 70 kms from Wadi Rum. If there’s a group of you it is certainly worth considering bartering a good taxi deal instead.
Once in Rum you don’t need a car because much of the climbing is within walking distance and if you want to access places like Barrah Canyon you can use local Bedouin 4×4 transport. If you want to travel to some of the other Jordan sights like the Dead Sea or Petra a hire car may be worth considering.
The options for accommodation in Wadi Rum have grown over the years and there is a selection of campsites and hotels for all budgets. There has been a big growth in desert camps. These used to be temporary tented sites but many now have permanent structures. Some local guides also rent rooms in their houses. There are loads of hotels available to suit all budgets if you are staying in Amman, Petra, Aqaba or any of the other tourist centres during you stay.
Rum village has a few small shops selling a limited range of basic provisions if you want to cook yourself. If you are travelling via Aqaba it could be better to stock up on provisions there. Of course you do have the far more relaxed option of eating the reasonably priced food in the local restaurants too.
September, early October, January, February and March are said to be the best times to visit for climbing. We went in April and it was hot but manageable – if you do decide to go in one of the hotter months leave a day or two at the start of your trip to get your body used to the heat and watch out for dehydration. Our Advice on Hyperthermia article might help.
Climbing in Wadi Rum does best suit climbers with a love for adventure and a head for friable sandstone. Don’t let my little tale of misadventure put you off though. In reality it is awesome climbing and should be on everyone’s must visit tick list.
There are climbs of all grades and types. Climbs that can be accessed in a few minute’s right through to some that require expedition style planning. Enjoy!
Your standard UK climbing rack will do the job but it’s worth having a good supply of medium to large cams and plenty of slings. It’s also a good idea to take plenty of abseil tat as some of the stuff you find in place will most likely have been seriously weakened by abrasion and U.V. Bolts are being used more often and you will also find abseil rings or chains on many of the most popular descents. Don’t forget your helmet too!
Loose fitting lightweight clothing rules. It’s important to respect local cultures by keeping legs and shoulders covered near Bedouin encampments but you can dress a little less restrictively near your own campsite. Approach shoes are fine for all the desert trekking you’re likely to be doing. It does get cold at night so don’t leave all your insulating clothing at home.
If you head out to camp in the desert you’ll need to take plenty of water. We took plenty of those wine box inner bags with us and we had plenty of capacity. It’s also a great excuse to guzzle plenty of wine before you go!