Mount Uweinat - Western Desert Autumn 2002

Part II - Ascent of Mount Uweinat
Mt Uweinat, desert sentinel, our great two-day climb

Mushroom rock on Mt Uweinat. Andras, Hannah, Salama

Part I - Dakhla Oasis to Karkur Talh
Wadi Karkur Talh and it's secrets - new cave paintings discovered.

Part III - Gilf Kebir and Wadi Sura
Cave of Swimmers - exploration in a forgotten world


Part II - Ascent of Mount Uweinat - October 2002

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 trip.

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 winning smile.
Bernhardt, also Bavarian, strong, desert hardened with several solo desert walks to his credit, witty, mischievous and fun.
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 heart.
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 the peak

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 3,000 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 1,800 ft below the summit. Tomorrow would be longer still, but none of us had guessed just how long!

Campfire and Cognac in our castellated upland valley

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 easily won.

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 way.

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 heading.

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 ebbing strength.

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 the same.

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, defiant…

© Kit Constable Maxwell

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