The Pillar of Wisdom – First sight
I stood in the sand looking up at a 350+m cliff, a giant sandstone buttress on the east side of Jebel Rum. It stands proudly, yet somehow discrete in this giant’s playground surrounded by sheer rock walls, splitter cracks and globes of rock carefully stacked atop one another. The many Sikhs (narrow canyons) that cut hundreds of feet deep into this already complex landscape render the entire mountain seemingly impassable.
My thoughts started to stray the moment Leo pointed out the route. The technical aspects of the shoot lay somehow forgotten as the reality of what Leo was setting out to do hit home.
We set out the following morning to begin filming and to free climb the route, primarily to clean any loose rock and to allow Leo to rehearse the moves.
We finished the filming at 4pm when Adrian, the cameraman, descended to the ground. This gave myself, Leo and Jas (Brittan’s ex manliest man) precisely three hours of daylight to climb 11 pitches.
Leo lead the way and as a trio, simul climbing the easier terrain, we reached the top just in time to see the orange sun casually drop out of sight on the opposite side of the desert valley and leave us in total darkness. Brilliant.
We had a photo of the descent map; a three inch by two inch drawing consisting of three features and a couple of dotted lines. Between the “barrier wall” and the “line of domes” what could possibly go wrong?
I switched on my head torch, which promptly lit up about five “lines of domes” and at least four “barrier walls”. I was just about to express my sincere gratitude of having such a wonderfully detailed map when Leo set off, leaping into the darkness like a foxhound and exclaiming, “it’s ok! I did this route some years ago with my dad”.
Now there are not many people that I would follow into said situation with such alacrity, but somehow Leo manages to inject enthusiasm into the spiciest of situations. He’s like some NASA built climbing robot designed specifically for route finding and adventure.
A near benighting
Unfortunately there’s no easy method for navigating what is ostensibly a Snakes and Ladders level in Super Mario land; especially in the dark with no compass. You simply have to narrow down the options by systematically exploring every option that is presented to you, frequently getting “cliffed out” hundreds of meters up and having to down climb what Leo refers to as “easy pitches” (yeah right!) Now combine this process with numerous, seemingly forgotten and sporadically placed cairns (small piles of stones placed by local Bedouin people to mark the way), and you’ve got yourself a very confusing and time-consuming night out.
At one point we had to climb into a tree from the top of an exposed arête half way down a canyon but as usual, Leo did find the way. We made it back to camp at about 3am, after what was probably the highlight adventure of the trip, knackered but still smiling.
Leo set off at around 11am with a disturbingly short and thin looking length of dynamic rope slung over his shoulder. The crux pitch was 350m high on the most exposed part of the climb. Leo was about to rope solo the route. 95% would be completely free solo (no rope) but thankfully he agreed to secure a safety rope for the hardest move given the fact that it was alarmingly loose and sandy.
Seeing a friend perform such a personal and dangerous feat for camera is a breathtakingly scary ordeal, but Leo’s adroit, almost mathematical style of climbing was reassuring. As me and Jas waited at the top, I distinctly remember hearing the sound of a slip and Leo’s voice exclaiming how sandy the holds were despite our rigorous cleaning. My heart thumped but at last he came into view, he scampered confidently up and over the summit pitch to our position sat down, and smiled. His sense of calm and fulfillment spread to all of us. Mat and Adrian filmed the sequence and then, cameras down, we headed to the summit camp to eat and chat with our Jordanian guides and friends. Going to sleep on the sand, on top of a mountain under the twinkling Arabian stars, with the last flames of a campfire dwindling away and the murmuring Arabic voices lulling us all to sleep is an experience that I shall never forget.