Part II - Ascent of Mount Uweinat - October
A desert expedition to the remotest
part of the Libyan desert set out from Cairo in October 2002
to research archaeological sites in the Western Desert. Our
leader was András Zboray and the team included 2 Hungarian,
2 German and 3 English, all drawn together by a common love
of desert travel. We had driven 1200 km south from Cairo
with two Toyotas, carrying all water and food for our 3 week
Today we started our big climb to the highest
peak in the Western Desert, Mt Uweinat. This great 6,200ft desert
sentinel marks the border of Egypt, Libya and Sudan.
Reveille at 05.00am, breakfast 05.30 and we left camp at 05.45am
The climbing team consisted of:
András, our Hungarian leader with a wealth of local knowledge,
insatiable in his search for Neolithic rock-art sites, energetic,
fit and an accomplished navigator.
Andy, the long-legged loner from Bavaria, experienced
mountain hiker, considerate, reliable and always sporting a
Bernhardt, also Bavarian, strong, desert hardened with
several solo desert walks to his credit, witty, mischievous
Hannah, English, tall and vivacious, unstoppable, unquenchable.
She climbed with precision and on reaching high places would
burst into song. A rollicking sense of humour and a great warm
Salama, a wiry Bedouin, ubiquitous, adventurous with
always a quick smile and the ability to conjure up a small fire
from scraps of blown grass, and make tea whenever required.
Myself, older than the rest, calling on reserves of long-forgotten
climbing skills, undaunted by the project before us but unrehearsed
for the sapping demands of the two-day climb.
We drove up Karkur Talh, the dried Sudanese
water course where we had made our base camp and set off on
foot up a small side wadi. We were each heavily laden with 9
litres of water, enough for two days, a little food, sleeping-bag
and one camera. The sunrise illuminated our route and we would
pause for a brief rest and water intermittently. We found bones
of long dead animals, lost migrating birds and horns of the
rare Waddan sheep that used to frequent these parts. There are
a few gazelle in the valleys, and foxes lower down, but little
else. Little black and white Mourning birds accompanied us up
the higher reaches, distinctive with their black caps and white
head and tail.
Now we were high up the mountain with still a long way to go.
Climbing the crenellated towers below
Salama made a fire and we had tea and a small snack of cheese
before moving on. The going was difficult, huge square boulders
blocked our route, scattered like confetti by some awesome forces
of nature long ago. We picked our way around them, squeezed
between them, stooped low under them.
We came at last to a high mountain valley and
crossed briefly into Libya. There were no border controls up
here, of course, in this wild and inaccessible place. To András's
delight we found more rock-art, this time featuring goats, less
common that the ubiquitous cows found in the valley far below.
Now it was 5pm and we had been walking and climbing
all day. We crossed the valley back into Sudan and came to a
small clearing guarded by soaring pinnacles of rocks, arranged
in order like giant Neolithic organ pipes. This was Uweinat's
defensive rampart, a great unscaleable defence guarding all
approaches to the summit.
12 hours after starting we camped in our mountain
clearing. As the sun went down the 'Sundowner' cocktail came
out of András's backpack, a Cognac valiantly hauled up the mountain
for this occasion.
Salama built a fire from dry brushwood, lit by a single match,
and we all supplied a single glass of our carefully monitored
water supply for the evening tea. Soon a desert loaf was baking
in the embers and we pooled our food and assembled a small feast
of Salami, cheese and dried fruit for the evening meal.
This must have been the first fire lit in this
mountain enclave for some 3000 years, The tall rocks stood silent
witness to our little party as the rising moon threw them into
sharp relief. We looked up at the stars and imagined a satellite
beaming down information of our presence.
"And tomorrow we shall be surrounded" said Andy "by three armies,
Egyptian, Sudanese and Libyan!" We all laughed…
I rolled out my sleeping bag on the sand - today
had been a long day and we were still 1800 ft below the summit.
Tomorrow would be longer still, but none of us had guessed just
Campfire and Cognac in our castellated
We arose before dawn, breakfasted and set off
to scale the rocky rampart. We came upon a picturesque mushroom-shaped
rock and on the underside we found a rare and charming cave-painting
depicting an embracing couple. What a wonderful, wild and secluded
place for a embrace!
We found a steep ascent at the end of the clearing
and scrambled between columns of rock lugging our heavy back
packs behind us. The shallow rise to the summit never appeared
and each section was as difficult as the last. There were steep
ravines to cross, giant boulders to circumnavigate, loose shale
to trip and slip on and false crest after false crest - and
still the summit remained far above. Our hopes for sunrise on
Uweinat were diminishing; this great mountain wasn't to be that
After one long last push across much broken ground
we climbed a mount and... there was the summit, there at last
was our goal and our prize; Uweinat was ours!
Here we viewed the desert vistas of three countries;
Egypt and the Gilf Kebir to the North, Sudan to the South and
Libya to the West. It was a spectacular end to a 16-hour climb.
We toasted each other with the last of the Cognac, shook hands,
took photographs and left a visitor's note for posterity.
After a happy time embracing the spectacular solitude
of this magnificent peak, we began our descent. We planned to
come down a different wadi, and this is where our troubles began.
Our descent was barred by the perpendicular cliffs that defend
this summit from a frontal climb. We entered the crenulated
ramparts and inched our way down a steep ravine, barely a metre
wide and over 100 ft tall. At the end was a sheer drop 100 ft
down onto the valley floor.
Andy roped up and we lowered our backpacks and
then climbed down the perilous crevasse and finally out onto
the valley. The descent took an extra unplanned hour, but worse
was to come. Our little valley dropped off to a lower level,
and then another, and by 1.00pm we had made very little forward
progress. A second night on the mountain beckoned, but we were
already running low on water and now had very little food left.
We forwent our lunch break and toiled on through
the heat of the day. It was hot, over 100F, even at this altitude.
We were all using a lot of water and by 3.00pm we were still
mountain-bound, scrambling down precipitous shale which cut
the shoes, twisted ankles and set off little avalanches of sharp
stones down the one-in-one slope, to be dodged by those below.
5.00pm and we were now exhausted, dehydrated
and had only one hour of daylight left. We considered diverting
to Ain El-Brins, the tiny seeping spring we had located
earlier this week, but the diversion did not meet with much
enthusiasm, especially as the water there was almost undrinkable.
6.00pm and the light was failing - we were making
for the Northern side of the wadi Karkur Murr, but now
couldn't see the ravines, crevasses and falls that barred our
6.30pm and we donned our head torches and picked
our way over the broken ground, led only by our GPS navigator.
The GPS route was a straight line and took no account of the
tortuous terrain. We encountered one un-scalable obstacle after
another and had to climb again, then descend, to regain our
I popped a boiled sweet - but my saliva didn't
flow, and I might as well have sucked a stone. After a while
I spat it out…
Descending Uweinat into the first
valley below the peak
We stopped for a break on a rocky shelf. We shed
our backpacks and lay down on the ground, sleep almost overcoming
us. Little was said. One of us would arise after a few minutes,
and we would all haul ourselves to our feet, don packs and continue.
This was a dangerous time for tired ankles - our
feet would no longer respond to the terrain and we would inadvertently
step on a loose rock and stumble, each time wasting our fast
10.00pm and we had been walking, climbing, slithering
and scrambling for 16 hours. We still had several kilometres
of unknown and unseen terrain to cross. I had half a cup of
water left - I took a sip.
Mental concentration confined itself to placing
each foot in place, one after the other. Step by repetitive
step, we must achieve our journey's end…
We were now in the wadi, the terrain was flattening
out but broken with regular dry water falls. We would engage
'bottom gear' and slither down on our bottoms, backpacks scraping
along behind. We now didn't have a pair of un-torn trousers
between us, and mine were ripped from stem to stern.
At last we came to the GPS fix, a rock painting
that we had discovered several days earlier. Now we had a defined
goal, only another two kilometres to go.
The moon rose above the valley walls and gave
a limpid light to our waning head torches. We must have looked
a curious sight, five single disembodied lights, closely bunched
and worming their way through the darkness as if performing
some ceremonial ritual.
We walked on in silence, as if in a dream - and
then somebody muttered "…car…?" Sure enough, there at
the valley's end, the dim moonlight revealed the wonderful sight
of the camp Toyota.
Khalid and Saïd were astonished
to see us. They had kept their fire going until long after dark
and then had settled down for the night, believing we had done
We flopped down on the sand unable to speak for
elation, exhaustion and dehydration. We had been on our feet
for 18 hours and were mentally and physically spent.
Saïd brought us each a bottle - "Moya…
moya..", he said. What a great welcome it was, no finer
prize could match the gift of water at that time.
An hour later, now 1.00am, we were back at camp
explaining to an anxious and incredulous Magdi, András's wife,
the events of the last two days. We laughed a little before
crawling off to our tents. I made it half way across my sleeping
mat and fell into an unconscious slumber, fully clothed, that
dawn did not disturb.
* * *
I got up late, hobbled down, barefoot, for a breakfast
of rye bread and jam, and some strong coffee. I then appropriated
the comfort of a shady nook near my tent and spent an idle time
swatting flies off my blisters, scratches and abrasions. Eventually
I sprayed my wounds with insect repellent.
Author on Uweinat Peak
The others took a day off too, and even Hannah's
singing was muted that day…only the ever-active András ventured
out in the afternoon with Salama to examine a site.
Evening heralded the celebrationary 'Bagnold'
cocktail of whisky, rum and lime. A powerful combination but
one we felt we had deserved. The drink flowed as the sunset
turned from orange to red, then crimson - and we swapped happy
memories of our great climb.
We gazed up at Uweinat's castellated peak, now silhouetted on
the skyline, and Uweinat gazed back, impassive, expressionless,
©Kit Constable Maxwell