Hiking Mount Sinai

[February 2017]

The primary objective of my recent trip to Egypt was to learn to dive. I have also wanted to hike Mount Sinai since my trip to Israel in 2012 when I was so close, but no cigar. Mount Sinai, lovingly referred to as Moses Mountain, is where it is believed Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Logistics – Booking & What to Bring

Right next to H2O Divers is a small tourism office. Frank, my dive instructor, walked me in to ask for information. We were able to book for the same day. We opted for the sunrise hike. If you do this, you’ll be picked up in Dahab around 11pm, drive for about two hours, and then start your hike in the dark. It cost 150 EP each with return service to our villa.

It is worth noting that there are no tours to the mountain on Friday (departing Thursday night), so plan your week accordingly. Additionally, if you are diving, remember that you should not go to the mountain within 18 hours of your last dive due to the high altitude and risk of decompression sickness.

On the back of our receipt was a checklist of things to bring.

Passport – We were stopped for a passport check THREE times on the way.
Flashlight – Bring a proper one. My phone battery didn’t last long enough. One couple had a head lamp which seemed more practical.
Snacks and Water – You burn some serious calories on this hike.

What to Wear

When we told the folks at H2O Divers that we were planning on doing this, they warned us. “Take all the clothes you have.” I thought leggings under my jeans, 2 shirts, my wind breaker and a scarf would be enough. It wasn’t.

My Under Armour running shoes didn’t cut it either. The trail is rocky. Real rocky. The toes of my shoes are destroyed and the soles didn’t provide enough support. When I stepped on the wrong rock, I felt it. At least wear a proper tennis shoe rather than a running shoe. I don’t know what I was thinking. Oh yeah… I was thinking I wanted to pack light…

If I were to do it again, I’d pack my proper winter jacket, a hat, gloves, and better shoes. Additionally, pack extra clothes to change into at some point. Again and again I would recall my dad telling me, “I hope they are teaching you about hyperthermia in your hiking class,” back when I was living in Salzburg. “Make sure you have extra clothes with you so you can change into something dry as it gets colder.” Yes, Mount Sinai was freezing cold, but that doesn’t stop you from breaking a sweat.

The Hike

When we arrived at the Mt Sinai, we were bombarded by men selling hats, gloves, and ponchos. We could already see our breath in the cool mountain air. We each quickly used the toilet (2 EP, bring your own napkins or wet whips) then met our guide, Hussein.

First order of business? “Our group name is Moses.” I can’t begin to tell you how much it made me smile to hear him call, “MOSES!” as we approached each rest station. I couldn’t stop hearing his name being carried through the desert by the wind as it was in the old Ten Commandments movie.

You know how Dory sings, “Just keep swimming,” in Finding Nemo? That’s how I felt hiking in the dark. I couldn’t see how far we had left to go, so I kept thinking, “Just keep hiking.” The only indication we had of what was to come was the occasional caravan of flashlights above. I rotated between watching my feet and looking up at the stars. It isn’t every day you get to stand somewhere with absolutely zero light pollution.

I always say in regards to my hiking and swimming abilities, “I’m not fast, but I’ll get there.” The hike itself is 7 km each way. The last km is 750 rocky steps. Don’t image proper, stable stairs. I felt great for about the first half of the ascent, but my strength and enthusiasm took a turn when the battery in my phone died, thus leaving me without a flashlight. This made me feel pressured to maintain the same pace as someone else, which I was in no shape to do. Not to mention I was turning into an icicle. Luckily, Hussein took it upon himself to be my personal angel.

I think anyone of average health can hike Mount Sinai. I am overweight and haven’t been training in about a year, so it was tough for me, but I think it is a fairly moderate level hike.

I just about called it a day during the last trek before the stairs. Hussein told our group that the stairs had snow and ice on them and that if we didn’t feel comfortable, we could enjoy the sunrise from where we were. That sounded fine with me, but my group, lovely people that they were, encouraged me to keep going.

Hussein let me take his arm the rest of the way up. There were some others that stayed with us while others eagerly and energetically raced to the top to find the perfect spot to set up their cameras. As I slowly finished the climb, the mountains unveiled themselves from the darkness. I smiled as I admired their shape, size, and colors. I gazed upon the path that I’d climbed and the valleys down below that I couldn’t see in the dark, but then panicked at the thought of missing the sunrise if I didn’t hurry up.

I made it to the top just in time and Hussein found us a perfect spot to watch the sunrise away from the crowd. One group started to sing just before the sun made its daily debut, receiving a collective cheer from everyone who noticed it at exactly the same time.

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Hussein pointed out the cave where Moses was believed to spend 40 days. We admired the exterior of the church, and then began our descent. The way down almost seemed to take longer, perhaps because we could see how far we had to go and everyone was moving cautiously on the icy steps. Sure enough, I made one wrong move which took Hussein and I both down. I was mortified at the thought of hurting him, but he smiled and stood strong. My rump hurt, though, as did a spot on my back where I had hit the step behind me. Once we were finished with the steps, we were able to just walk and talk. We discussed photography, Bedouin tribes, faith, politics… He was interested in everything.

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When we were almost to the monastery, we stopped to wait for others from our group. As we waited, the sun thawed my body and soothed my aching muscles. I was so happy to sit that I almost fell asleep. When the others were within earshot, Hussein called for them to hurry and we continued to St. Catherine’s Monastery together.

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St. Catherine’s has a beautiful church (Orthodox, I believe), as well as a mosque. The grounds host Moses’ well and the Burning Bush. Some people drive all that way just for the monastery. Personally, I wouldn’t do so. It’s small and there isn’t much to see. I realize it’s a significant place for people of faith, but hiking Mount Sinai was physically and aesthetically rewarding. If your body is able, hike the mountain.

It wasn’t long after returning to the van that we all passed out. As we drove back to Dahab, I woke up for moments at a time to admire the view.

I highly recommend fitting this adventure into your trip. You’ll be tired at the end, but you’ll be thrilled you did it.

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