Three hundred feet up the wall I weighted my toes on dime-sized sandstone edges. I was reminded of my ballet days on pointe — the pain was torturous. The black rubber on my climbing shoes burned my swollen toes in the harsh desert sun. My finger skin was already thin and sweating on the small crimps. I was here again– at the crux– and I needed to focus not on the discomfort, but on the movement: get the left foot up on the small pocket, crimp the tiny edges with all my might, and pounce my left hand to the finishing jug.
In January 2019, Heather Weidner, Jeremiah Watt and I walked side by side through the Jordanian Desert towards our objective: Jebel Rum, a 600-meter sandstone wall that juts vertically from the martian landscape. Our path led us just beyond the limits of Wadi Rum and we made the final steps towards the base of the wall. I had a twinge of doubt in my gut; were we ready for the challenge? A few days earlier, a Czech climber that we met recommended that we go check out a route of his called Rock Empire. At the base of the route, we scanned the enormous sandstone face trying to imagine the line the route would take up such a steep piece of rock.
There was an awkward silence while we looked at the runout nature of the first pitch; each of us hoping that the other would volunteer to lead. Without hesitation, Heather tied in, racked up and started climbing. She was attentive as she made her way up the pitch hoping Inshallah (god willing) that no holds would break. She carefully floated to the anchor without hesitation or struggle. The next pitch the topo labelled as 5.12c R, and the thought of climbing that hard, high above my protection on such brittle rock made my stomach turn. Trying to be brave, I tentatively engaged the climb, teetered past the technical crux, I stared at the boltless swath of rock above me with no anchor in sight. Using my best “mountain sense” or whatever that means, I followed the path of least resistance, eventually peered around a bulge and saw the anchor, still desperately far away. I slowly committed to the crumbling holds, and gingerly tiptoed through the final sequence to the safety of the anchor.
Pitch four was the crux. At 5.13, it had the potential to send us retreating back down the wall with our tails firmly tucked. Once again, without hesitation, Heather quested off onto the blank looking face above. As she crept along, the wall revealed dozens of small one and two finger pockets.
This incredible passage of features provided just enough holds to make free climbing possible. Heather’s upward progress slowed to a stop as she reached the crux immediately below the anchor. She shook out and contemplated the sequence for a solid ten minutes and eventually committed to a sequence that had her peeling off the thin holds. After a short rest, Heather sorted out the cryptic beta and climbed to the anchor. As she belayed me up, she shouted encouragement and key beta that allowed me to send the pitch first try! The pitch was no longer a question mark.
Heather gave one last effort on the pitch in the encroaching darkness. She came within millimetres of snatching the finish jug, but wasn’t able to see her feet in the fading light and slipped off. We called it a day, rapped back to the ground, and picked our way home through the convoluted streets with a heartwarming escort from some stray dogs.
After a rest day of exploring the ancient streets of Petra we commuted back to the Jebel Rum with our usual K-9 escorts in tow.
To save time, Heather and I opted to mini traxion the first three pitches on our fixed ropes so that she could have a shot of sending the crux before the sun hit the wall. Our attempt was futile, and as Heather began climbing the temps rose into the high 70s. On the black sandstone, what was already a ridiculously thin pitch of climbing felt nearly impossible. Heather had to completely rethink how she would climb the crux of the pitch, her previous sequence being too friction dependent for the hot day. After a while of trying every sequence imaginable, she found one that might work. I lowered her back to the bottom of the pitch and she fired it off right away, letting out an animalistic banshee scream as she latched the final jug. As she belayed me up, I couldn’t turn off the voice in the back of my head doubting my ability to send in the heat. My toes felt as if they were being broiled in an oven, yet I had to stand on minuscule edges and stuff them into small pockets. As soon as I entered the crux, my doubt became reality, and I melted off the holds, screaming in pain and frustration. The pitch I had done with relative ease a couple of days prior now felt out of the question. With some relentless positivity from Heather, I refined my sequence a little, ignored the self-doubt, lowered down and confidently sent the pitch.
Each subsequent pitch, regardless of the grade, had some element of spice to it.
Whether it be route-finding, perilous choss, or terrifying runouts. The only 5.10 pitch on the route turned out to be one of the most terrifying leads of my life. Every move felt like climbing an overhanging sandcastle with extremely high consequences should you blow it. Legendary climber Arnaud Petit describes the experience nicely “The sandstone is sometimes more sand than stone… You are obliged to learn to use your whole body so as not to break a hold. It’s more than climbing on your feet.” The closer we got to the summit, fatigue set in, and the more automated our actions became. Climb, haul the bag, belay, off belay, swap the rack, repeat. Every so often we would be lured out of our habitual cycle by the call to prayer playing loudly from the mosque in the village far below.
As the evening rolled away, Heather and I found ourselves simul-climbing the final easy pitches to the summit of the formation. We took a moment of reflection from the sandy summit plateau and listened to Salat al-maghrib: the call to prayer just after sunset. Throughout my travels, I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting in cheap economy seats on aeroplanes and dwelling in the loneliness of being impossibly far from home. I’ve got enough chossy adventure routes in Utah to last me many lifetimes. What’s the point of travelling thousands of miles to seek them elsewhere? Is it the adventure, the culture, and the opportunity to break away from my homogenized life of comfort and amenities? Maybe the reason is bigger than that.
It was already mid-morning and we were only on pitch three out of fourteen on Rock Empire, a 1,600-foot sandstone big wall jutting out from the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The crux pitch, a 13b vertical tech-masterpiece, was sequential, off-balance, and thin. We had worked on this pitch a couple of days earlier in the afternoon shade, and had figured out the beta — hoping of putting it all together in one big push. But today felt different. The direct sun was oppressive and everything felt slick and insecure. This was my last chance to redpoint this pitch — and ultimately the whole route. We were running out of time and I wanted Hayden, to have a chance for success.
It was my second attempt of the pitch that day and time slowed as I stared fiercely at the final jug. I lunged for it and let out an animalistic scream. The next thing I knew my left hand had latched the last big hold — YES! I clipped the anchors and put Hayden on belay. I felt confident he’d do it, as he’d flashed this pitch the other day when we were checking it out. However, today was much hotter, and he slipped off the small crimp just before reaching the jug. He screamed in frustration, and we talked a bit as he hung on the rope just below me.
“It’s okay, it’s hot today. You’ll do it. You have to try again.”
This was a partnership. Minutes earlier he had waited patiently for me to send the crux and I was happy to return the favour. I lowered him back down, he rested only five minutes then tried again. When Hayden got to the anchor after a heroic fight, we were absolutely giddy. There was one more 5.12c pitch then mostly 5.11 and 5.10 to the top. We now knew we had a real chance at sending the hardest wall climb either of us had ever done.
A few months prior, when Hayden asked me if I was interested in climbing with him in Wadi Rum, Jordan, I had a rush of excitement mixed with intimidation. I’d climbed quite a few multi-pitch routes before, but they were shorter and much easier than Rock Empire. The routes at Wadi Rum have a reputation for poor rock quality and run-out protection. The closest experience I’d had was climbing long routes in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. But being merely a stone’s throw from civilization in Las Vegas, it felt only mildly adventurous and overall comfortable. In Jordan, the element of adventure would be on a much grander scale, given it’s in the Middle East in the middle-of-nowhere, and these routes were MUCH bigger than anything I’d done before.
Hayden is extremely experienced with multi-pitch climbing. I felt anxious about committing to the trip — I didn’t want to hold him back. I’ve had my fair share of projecting hard single-pitch routes, but questing up big walls is a different game all together. It requires significant stamina — physically and mentally — rope management, reading the rock for the “choss-factor,” and route finding. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up.
But multi-pitch climbing is all about being a team player. If you’re not as strong in one element it’s okay. It’s about supporting each other along the way in order to get up the wall.
And so there we were, Hayden and I in Wadi Rum having just completed the hardest pitch of the big wall. It was surreal. We knew we could do the rest — we just had to persevere.
I started up pitch four — the last hard section — graded 5.12c. We knew this climb had some big run-outs, but I quickly found out this was unlike anything I’d experienced. The pitch only had four bolts in 35 meters! Each time I clipped a bolt I had an overwhelming sense of relief. The climbing wasn’t exceptionally difficult, but the rock quality was variable, which made the run-outs unnerving.
I gingerly placed my feet on harder-looking rock and tried to pull down (not out!) on my handholds, decreasing the chance I’d rip off a chunk of rock and take a massive fall. At the last twenty-five feet of unprotected traversing, I over-gripped the small crimps and let out a scream to get my feet up before easier terrain and with an overwhelming sense of relief — I was at the anchor!
Hayden and I continued to climb all day, with some exciting 5.11 and 5.10 pitches, and reached the summit just before dark. We hugged and yelled at the top, taking a moment to look out at the Bedouin town below. We began the long way down, rappelling in the dark, and with the soft glow of our headlamps all went quiet. I was exhausted but couldn’t take the smile off my face.
The last Call to Prayer of the day emanated from the loudspeaker in the valley below — a magical ending to our big adventure.
A small realization came to me on top of Rock Empire. Heather and I had just completed what had been a terrifying goal just a couple days prior. A goal that we could now log in our memories as an irreplaceable shared experience. Before descending, we watched the first stars populate the darkening sky, and as we sat there, I couldn’t help but to be compelled by the distance that one small dream had brought me. From my comfortable life of ease in Salt Lake City, all the way to the summit of Jebel Rum on a starry night in the Jordanian desert. In that moment, I was reminded of the importance of dreams; that they aren’t just ideas to work towards, dreams are needs.