Sloshing up Mount Sinai

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By David Abel | Globe Staff | 4/15/2011

MOUNT SINAI, Egypt – Well before the cutting winds and frigid rain made our bones feel like they were wrapped in ice, I persuaded my wife Jess, against her better judgment, that it made more sense to climb this hallowed ground at night rather than the day.

We were in the desert, among the driest places on the planet, and it seemed like it would become a magnifying glass for the sun during the day. Moreover, we were advised that the sunrise over the biblical land was like watching the almighty deliver the Ten Commandments all over again, or something like that.

With that image, an admittedly peculiar pull for a pair of nonbelievers, we took our seats in a crowded van for a late-night, two hour ride from Dahab, an old fishing village on the Red Sea that now attracts legions of backpackers. When we arrived at the foot of the mountain at 1 a.m., there were few stars to see and the moon was hidden by a wall of clouds.

Even more foreboding was the parking lot, which was crowded with scores of buses that unloaded hundreds of tourists who planned to make the climb at the same time. It was also where we met Nasser, our required Bedouin guide, who insisted we walk beside him and shout “Nasser’s group” every few minutes to ensure we didn’t lose him.

The hike began on a wide trail with a gradual ascent and a soft breeze. As the rock-strewn path wound around the 7,500-foot mountain, it narrowed and became increasingly steep, making it a challenge to share with all the others, especially the camel traffic. With only thin beams from our headlamps to guide us through the darkness, it was hard to spot the lumbering animals coming from both directions. On more than one occasion, a shout from Nasser kept me from being stomped.

About half way up, we stopped at the first teahouse, where we took shelter from the strengthening winds and donned hats and gloves. We had reached the point where the exertion no longer checked the dropping temperature.

The higher we climbed, the stronger the winds blew. We passed more teahouses, where the soup and tea beckoned, and saw camels resting on their knees and fellow climbers passed out.

At about 3 a.m. and still far from the summit, the cold wind brought an icy drizzle, fogging my glasses. The leisurely hike had become a test of endurance and ability to ward off fatigue.

We stopped at another teahouse an hour later and nobody in our small group seemed eager to leave. Half of us conked out and the rest huddled for warmth. Jess looked at me with anguish in her eyes.

Still, not wanting to miss daybreak, we pushed on to the hardest part of the climb – 750 uneven stones that make up the path known as the Steps of Repentance. As we ascended, the drizzle became a heavy rain, which turned the staircase into a waterfall, drenching our shoes and soaking through supposedly impermeable layers. Misery is a word that only approximates what we were feeling.

About an hour before dawn, we reached a plateau with more teahouses, where vendors barked at us to leave when they noticed we just wanted to stay dry. As we sat in one shelter, where everyone seemed to be shivering and dripping, we rented an old wool blanket that smelled like camel dung.

We were so cold and tired that the stench didn’t faze us, and we wrapped it around each other like it was a godsend. Then we passed out.

Moments later, which felt like eons, there was some commotion. Someone had seen a streak of light in the sky, and we scrambled out to make the final ascent.

We climbed the final set of slippery stairs slowly, still clinging to the blanket. The sky brightened but the rain persisted.

At the top, the girth of the clouds came into view. Through the mist, we saw a horizon etched by jagged boulders and the silhouettes of holy mountains, a stark panorama that spread for miles in every direction. It was a sight to behold, the kind of splendor that makes it easier to fathom religion.

But the awe was fleeting as the rain pelted us and the wind pierced our soggy blanket.

We waited for the sun as long as we could, but it never came. All we got was a damp light dabbed up by all the clouds.

Still, as we made the long walk down, we felt more than cold and regret. Even in the freezing rain, even with our minds clouded by fatigue, something more seeped through. It was, I would say in retrospect, a sense of the sacred.

David Abel can be reached at