Tony Howard, Jordan climbing pioneer, gives a roundup of recent climbing and trekking developments in Jordan.
Tony Howard, and his partner Di Taylor, discovered the climbing potential of Wadi Rum in south Jordan in 1984. Since then they have returned annually, always exploring further afield.
For climbers, Jordan is now synonymous with Wadi Rum, but in recent years other climbing areas have been discovered all over the country. In addition to around six hundred routes of all grades up to French 8a and lengths from single pitch to 500 metres on Rum’s sandstone walls, climbs can now be found around the country on granite, basalt, conglomerate, limestone – and yet more sandstone.
The granite and basalt are predominantly in the south, forming the harsh-looking mountains around Aqaba, Jordan’s Red Sea resort. A few easy (sometimes grade 3) scrambles have been done here to summits with good views over the Gulf and Sinai, but as you travel north the granite and its basalt intrusions, which criss-cross the mountains like snakes, begin to disappear beneath the sandstone. This is most obvious in Rum, where a granite pedestal supports the most westerly of Rum’s sandstone mountains, offering a few delicate single pitch climbs from 5 to 6b. Further to the northwest, the last real remnants of the igneous rocks are found as you descend the wild canyons that slice their way down from Petra’s famously colourful and contorted sandstone.
There is some impressive rock in this region. The canyons in the Jebel Mas’uda area to the south of Petra have some good-looking sandstone cliffs approaching 300 metres in height in an area difficult of access that would provide great wilderness climbs for anyone prepared to make the effort. The region was going to be in a protected Reserve, but due to pressure from the local Saidiyin Bedouin the plans have been dropped and the area remains open.
In the Petra Park itself, which extends well beyond the ancient city, a few quality climbs of between 100 to 250 metres have been done in canyons and on small summits on its periphery. They are away from the archaeological sites, on good-looking sandstone walls at grades from 5- to 6a, but the official line is, “No climbing”, which is a pity; the only reason given is “visitor safety”, which is hardly relevant in these fringe areas – unless they are worrying about the climbers, but climbers in Jordan should be competent enough to look after themselves.
Of course accidents can happen, and in Rum the Bedouin have always responded to calls for help, as have the helicopters of the Royal Jordanian Airforce. Efforts to train, qualify and equip local mountain rescue teams in Jordan to respond to calls are progressing, not only in Rum, but in Petra, the Dead Sea Canyons and elsewhere. Perhaps that will solve Petra’s climbing ban but for the moment, it’s getting worse and the Petra Park Authority seem to be in the process of banning independent trekking as well as climbing though whether or not anyone would ever be aware of climbers on Petra’s remote cliffs is another matter, but it’s unlikely.
Continuing north, there are some conglomerate climbs not far from the gaunt Crusader castle of Shobak, and above the Dana Reserve, on cliffs of around fifty metres. The routes are fully equipped, courtesy of French guide Wilf Colonna and Mohammad Hammad, a young Bedouin guide from Rum. Together with other French guides the same team have also been equipping sandstone sport climbs further north and down below sea level in the magnificent sandstone canyons above the Dead Sea where to fall is to have a warm bath in rivers of hot spring water – definitely different! Wadi Hasa, which is a two-day canyon trek, has received the most attention from climbers to date, approaching upstream from the southern end of the Dead Sea, but other clefts in Jordan’s Rift Valley such as Wadi Numeira are also being explored and I’m told, make a nice warm hideaway in winter – but check out the weather forecast first and beware of flash floods.
Also above the Dead Sea, not far from Kerak’s Crusader castle, an unusual sweep of limestone slabs as prickly as a hedgehog has provided the same team with routes of up to 200 metres mostly around grade 4 and 5, some of which are equipped. Other routes have been added by ourselves and an emerging group of Jordanian climbers based in Amman where there is now an international standard climbing wall, but the real limestone bonanza has been – and still is – in the north, in the forested hills and dales near the Arabic castle of Ajloun, less than two hours from the capital. The cliffs vary from ten to thirty metres in height, and there isn’t a polished hold in sight: the rock is pristine, immaculate and steep, frequently overhanging but with sufficient protectable routes to attract the ‘trad’ climber, though for the future it seems sport climbing will predominate on walls and roofs that generally offer little or no natural protection. Being of the trad persuasion however, all the climbs we have personally opened have followed the few natural lines.
We found Jordan’s first limestone cliff in the early 1990s with the help of Sami Sabat, one of our Amman friends, hence Sami’s Cliff, which is now well known and has around twenty routes. One of our first climbs here was The Red Lion, which follows a demanding 20 metre 6b crack line through bulging roofs, and is now very popular along with another half dozen or so easier routes of that period including Saladin’s Nose. This delightful 5+ arête was top roped due to lack of pro; along with a host of new routes on this excellent crag, it has now been professionally equipped, once again by Wilf Colonna, who is hoping to set an example of good practice in a country where sport climbing is a new activity. This is not a moment too soon as at least one of our climbs (Shivering Crack, a nice grade 5 on nearby Saqeb Cliff) has already had a home-made bolt fitted alongside the easily protectable crack. In the same area, Mahmud Cliff was another of our friend Sami’s early discoveries, once again allowing us to open a few natural lines before top roping the excellent and unprotectable 6b Rhapsody in Grey up the centre of the best face on the crag; this and other obvious lines will no doubt soon be equipped by Wilf or members of the Amman climbing community and not the ‘renegade’ that did the dirty deed at Saqeb as he has left the country.
More recently, in 2009, we were invited by the Al Ayoun Community – a group of villages tucked away in a limestone rimmed valley just north of Ajloun – to explore their area for its trekking and climbing potential in the hope of attracting visitors to enhance their economy, which is dependent for the most part on olives and fruit. We were given the use of what, one day, may be the community’s eco-lodge, whilst the local people provided transport and wonderful meals using local produce: olives, hummus, home grown veg and fruit, honey, herbs and other food gathered in the hills, and excellent home-baked unleavened taboun bread. Anyone who has a home-stay or meal here will find it unforgettable!
How we had missed the area in the past I have no idea, but it’s a wonderful place and has kept us busy during two springtime visits. Trekking over it’s forested hills and through its deep, cliff-rimmed and flower-filled valleys has been a joy, documenting around twenty great walks, often in the company of local people, whilst at the same time discovering new cliffs and even finding Jordan’s only known pothole to date – hidden in a forest and found by chance, the bottom of it’s thirty metre shaft is blocked by debris but who knows what a team of caving enthusiasts might find.
The crags are another matter, their white razor edged limestone walls, perched between blue skies and evergreen oak forests are just asking to be climbed, though as in Ajloun over the hill to the south, natural lines are limited. We have nevertheless been able to add routes on all but one cliff, which rises like a tsunami out of the trees, twenty metres high and capped throughout by a horizontal six metre roof – not much hope there! Opposite, across a wooded gorge, is the cliff of Araq Damaj, a couple of hundred metres long, and almost all vertical or overhanging but with a handful of nice trad lines where the angle eases including The Fickle Finger at grade 5 and The Pillar at 5+. A kilometre south, below the recently discovered remains of the 6th century church of Mar Elyas, is the more amenable crag of Khalet Hemed also with half a dozen routes, again around grade 5, the nicest being Eisa’s Debut, a delightfully pocketed wall of perfect rock and the first climb of a friend from the villages.
Heading north from Araq Damaj and directly above the villages, a number of cliffs dot the valley rim for five kilometres along the 800 metre contour. All can be visited in a day by following a natural limestone terrace. The most westerly is Araq el Areadh, which has some of the sharpest rock in the area, hence Cheesegrater and its neighbour, The Jabberwok, with its “claws that catch and teeth that bite”, respectively 5 and 6a. Just across the road, the next cliff is Araq Smeidah, the large cave-overhang of which was reputedly once home to a hermit. This cliff is almost unremittingly steep but we have climbed one line to date, the delightful Fun in the Sun, another star quality grade 5. Continuing east along the terrace, the next cliff of Araq Shamasiyyat (The Sunnyside Cliff) lives up to its name and though little more than fifty metres long already has three routes, English Breakfast, 5, being the first to be done, up an unmissable crack, whilst the enjoyable Oak Tree Corner, 4+, is on its left and the steep juggy Hanging Groove finishes on rounded prickly holds to its right at 5+.
Still heading along the hillside, the next two cliffs are more broken, with only one climb to date, then the great cliff of Al Warda al Hamra (The Rose Red Crag) appears round the corner above thickly forested slopes which plunge steeply down into the head of the valley. Three or four hundred metres long and up to thirty metres high, the cliff is generally steep and uncompromising, full of bulges and red walls. Trad lines are few, but there are some cracks, one of which we sampled whilst exploring a potential ‘Panoramic Trail’ along the crag tops. It gave us our First Taste, at grade 5; pleasant enough, and great scenery as always, but much more remains to be done on this challenging and extensive cliff.
The last crag to be explored to date is even longer - maybe more than four hundred metres - and up to 25 metres high. We first saw it in spring 2009 whilst on our last bit of trekking exploration for that year, down the splendid twenty kilometre forest and gorge of Wadi Sirin; the trees of this seemingly almost forgotten valley are often so densely interwoven that the only way on is along the dry stream bed, which itself is overhung by the forest, forming a tunnel of greenery. It was the last day of our 2010 visit before we had chance to return to locate the first of the many cliffs we had seen both alongside the riverbed and on the valley rim. Happily we found a small lane passing close to the cliff top and giving easy access, but at first sight the cliff had little to offer in the way of trad routes amongst its bulging walls, though we couldn’t resist Temptation – an obvious grade 5 finger crack which finished with good jug pulling on its headwall before we packed our bags and headed for Amman.
So much to be done, and such little time to do it… there are many more routes to be climbed; most will need equipping, but trad lines still remain to be discovered. Not only that, but the walks and treks are in beautiful country, some finishing at the Greek ruins of Pella or the Islamic Castle of Ajloun. Others pass by Neolithic dolmens and the ruins of Byzantine churches – and the weather is superb in spring and autumn, as warm and welcoming as the hospitality of the local people. If you are planning a trip to Rum, why not save a few days to visit Ayoun, it’s worth it.
A new guide to the northern climbing and trekking area is due for publication in time for spring 2012:
Treks, Climbs & Caves in Al Ayoun, Di Taylor & Tony Howard, Vertebrate Publishing, also available in Jordan
Other guides to Jordan:
Jordan – Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs & Canyons, 2008, Di Taylor & Tony Howard, Cicerone Press
Treks & Climbs in Wadi Rum, 2009, Tony Howard, Cicerone Press
Trekking & Canyoning in the Jordanian Dead Sea Rift, 2000, Itai Haviv, Desert Breeze
The Rough Guide to Jordan, Mathew Teller, Rough Guides, next edition 2012
All visitors to Al Ayoun needing further information, accommodation, guides or help with transport are requested to contact the following in advance of their visit:
For trekking in Al Ayoun, contact:
For trekking and climbing in Al Ayoun contact:
Wilf Colonna and the Desert Guides
Other useful websites
Climbat, the Amman Climbing Wall
RSCN (Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature)
And, of course, the authors: www.nomadstravel.co.uk
All grades in this article are French.