Thou shall not...

Trip Start Oct 24, 2010
Trip End May 10, 2011

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The pilgrimage to mighty Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine's Monastery started bright and early, at least for us. We were still on Dahab time, also known as "no schedule, no problem". A minibus arrived at 8am to pick us up from Inmo. We hopped on board with a fellow Inmo guest, Armen, and drove to meet the rest of the team. Together, we would attempt to summit Sinai's most famous peak in under 3hrs. The team included:

Pieter: A South African computer technician, he specializes in repelling from heights that would make a mountain goat shake. His climbing experience includes guiding an expedition of high school friends up Cape Town's Table Mountain;

Alex and Clair: Germans currently living in Israel, they specialize in tying climbing knots that would make a sailor's head spin. Their climbing experience includes scaling a radio tower during Oktoberfest just because they were dared to do it;

Armen: Devout German windsurfer and most senior of the group. His specialties are too numerous to list, however rumor has it that he once climbed Mt. Everest wearing only shorts, a tee-shirt and Teva sandals;

Becky: aka Dirty South, an American architect turned belly dancer, she specializies in finding the closest snack shop on any mountain. She has an innate ability to sniff out a Snickers Bar (or any other form of chocolate) like a blood hound sniffs out a trail. Her climbing experience includes summiting Malaysian Borneo's Mt. Kinabalu in the dark with the assistance of only a head lamp and feeble rations of fruit-to-go bars;

Stefano: aka Big Baby, a Canadian lawyer turned unemployed Egyptian beach bum, he specializes in swimming great distances in short periods of time. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with climbing a mountain and he proved to be dead weight. His climbing experience includes summiting Monte Gemma, one of Italy's most feared peaks, when he was only 13.

This was the team the great Allah had chosen to conquer the sacred summit of the Middle East. We were focused, determined and ready for what the desert peaks would throw our way. But first, we had to do our tourist duty and visit St. Catherine's Monastery, the hallowed site of the famous Burning Bush. Inside the monastery walls, the holy shrubbery lies in wait, preparing for the day it may burn and speak again.

Bedouin law decrees that all groups must have a local guide when touring the grounds of St. Catherine's Monastery. Upon entry, a guide is randomly assigned to each group. Luckily for us, we were matched up with a 17 year old guide (who looked like he was actually 13) named Mohammed (everyone here is named Mohammed, for the record). Mohammed was a guide in the the most sparse sense of the word. He lead us 100m to the entrance of the monastery and said, "You go in... I meet you here." Just like that, we were on our own to decipher the monastery's rich history...with absolutely zero accuracy. We tried to mix in with other, more reputable and expensive tour groups and get some idea what we were looking at. None of the other guides spoke English, but we could deduce the following tidbits: The Greek Orthodox monastery is very old. It was built over the site of the burning bush. The bush spoke to Moses,  prompting him to say "Let my people go!". The holy bush was then moved behind the church, where it now sits overgrown and conveniently close to a big red fire extinguisher...just in case... I'm serious. Really. Look at the photo.

After a quick thirty minute tour, we focused our eyes on the prize, Mt. Sinai's summit. There, above the clouds, Moses had received the Ten Commandments...

Our team, now dubbed the "Sinai Scalers" by the locals, slowly and methodically moved our way up the groomed path leading through the valley. Switchbacks twisted ahead as we approached the foot of the mountain. Mohammed explained solemnly that the snack shops (now conveniently located en masse by the side of the path) were only going to dwindle as we ascended. He warned us that we could go almost 1km without seeing a refreshing soda, chewy chocolate bar or hot cup-o-noodles. I shot a quick, panicked glance to Dirty South, my fearless wife. She nodded with the weight of responsibility, knowing that we would all turn to her when the time came for a desperate pit stop.

About three quarters of the way into our ascent, a small giggle came from the back of the group. I wondered if a small Bedouin child was following us, possibly preparing to pickpocket the crew. But then I turned to see Pieter playing gleefully in a patch of snow, the icy spot protected from the hot Sinai sun in a crater of shade. Pieter looked up and said excitedly, "This is the first time I have ever seen snow!" He began to roll up a pathetic snow ball, as any rational human would do upon encountering snow for the first time. He threw it in our direction. The poorly packed snowball fell considerably short of the target, but it delighted him nonetheless. I was not going to hold the 'girly' throw and meager snowball against him. It was his first snow ball toss - ever. And to be honest, Pieter's expression of innocent, unbridled joy was the closest thing to divinity we witnessed that day.

Around 500 vertical meters short of the summit, the well groomed path unexpectedly ended. We had arrived at Elijah's Basin. The waters from this spring are believed to have healing powers. We did not have the luxury to stop and have a drink because the mountain weather was changing fast. From the corner of my eye I could see bright fluffy clouds like giant, happy cotton balls creep into the bright blue sky. Oh no.

The final push to the summit consisted of a grueling 750 step climb up a staircase that had been built out of sturdy flat rocks (called the Steps of Repentance, and believe me, our glutes and hammies were repentin'!). This final stretch only had one snack cafe and three toilets. A sad little donkey brayed, the foreboding whinny ringing in our wind-chilled ears. We would have to ration water if we were ever going to make it.

Then, finally, we triumphantly reached the 2285m high peak! The hallowed ground offered stunning panoramas. It was serene with no sign of human activity at the summit...except, a fully functional Greek orthodox monastery, 3 snack shops, and some ratty blankets and mattresses in case you wanted to take a nap. We remained quiet, waiting, hoping, praying even. And then...was it really? Yes! Yes! We remained quiet, listening intently. the distance a voice. Several voices...proclaiming the new Ten Commandments! The voices grew louder...Coffee! Tea! Snickers! Mars Bar! Hot Chocolate! Donkey Ride! Blanket! Mattress! Souvenirs! Camel Taxi! All ten edicts delivered in distinct, holy prose. In an act of piety, Becky quickly purchased and devoured an overpriced Snickers Bar, muttering through chewy bites, "Amen!"

After some personal reflection and relaxation, we gathered our things and prepared for the exhausting descent. On our way down we ran into a young couple, also nearing the summit. This was our only encounter with other climbers. Very few brave souls seemed daring enough to test their legs on this arduous climb. This young family also had surprising accessories - three small kids. The first, a 5 year old girl with pigtails, climbed with a smile on her face despite the fact that her short legs could barely scale the tall stone steps. The other children were strapped into backpacks carried by their nimble parents. The adults, burdened by the weight of the small humans hanging from them, weren't even breaking a sweat. We seethed with jealously, but then remembered, "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's fitness".

At the bottom of the valley we turned and looked up at the mountain we had just conquered.  We felt a sense of accomplishment, knowing that we would be part of an elite group of ten-thousand climbers that had successfully ascended the mighty mount. We said our goodbyes to Mohammed, and ten different men and boys simultaneously turned around (I told you, everyone is named Mohammed). We boarded our chartered minibus and rode away into the dusty landscape. It would be hours before we reached the Red Sea coastline of Dahab. Today we ventured to the top of the mountains....tomorrow we would journey to the bottom of the sea...

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