The following account of the January 18, 2010 storm in Egypt was reported by the Associated Press on January 19, 2010:
Thirteen people are dead due to extreme floods caused by the worst rains in over 40 years on the Sinai Peninsula. Thunderstorms, torrential rains, and flooding have destroyed houses and infrastructure. Twenty-six electricity towers have collapsed due to the storm. Damage to homes, roads, and infrastructure continues to worsen. Electricity and telecommunication networks are destroyed. The rest of Egypt has received an entire year’s worth of rainfall within the past 24 hours.
According to A US National Guardsman on duty in Sinai “Locals told me that they think the last time it rained in the Sinai was 1993.”
The Day Before: January 18, 2010, Saint Catherine’s, Sinai Peninsula
My alarm sounds at 1:00 AM sharp for the previously planned climb up Mt. Sinai. At dinner last night, a freakishly rare downpour had turned the dining hall next to our mountainside cabins into indoor showers due to a roof not designed for any type of precipitation at all. We would surely cancel the hike, but our Egyptian guide Omar would call around 1:00 AM just to confirm.
In the middle of the night, the old fashioned phone in the cabin rings and Omar confirms the mountain is indeed closed due to the extremely unusual thunderstorm that was still crackling in the sky but now is only sprinkling light rain. As I climb back into the lumpy bed, the phone rings again. “The rain has stopped. Do you want to go? I found a guide who is willing to take you up the mountain” Omar explains.
Of course I agree to give it a shot and Omar’s at the door in 5 minutes to drive me to the trail head to meet my guide. I throw on my backpack full of camera gear and after a short drive, I meet Mahmoud, the 20 year-old guide brave enough to lead me to the summit. He’s probably never even seen rain before. As it turns out, not a single other climber would attempt the mountain on this dreary morning, when normally it would see 1000 climbers making the pilgrimage. Not one other.
As the two of us set off into the pitch-black moonless night, the rain lightly begins again. I’m in a North Face jacket and hiking pants, and I have deployed the rain cover over my camera backpack. In a moment of horror, I realize in my unexpected rush to meet Omar I had forgotten to pack some food. We traverse the slippery and jagged rocks under the glow of the lamp strapped around my forehead. Mahmoud needs to share my light because he doesn’t own a flashlight. I remember that I don’t even have a spare battery for it–what will we do if it dies? We reach a hut about a quarter of the way up the climb. We awaken the Bedouin man tending the hut, and I’m able to buy a juice and food from him. I’m saved!
We continue on. The weather worsens. We stop briefly in another hut, but I want to hurry on. Mahmoud is in disbelief over the rarity of the rain, which is now falling in buckets. The trail is turning into a river of reddish mud that we try to avoid at first, but soon each step lands us ankle deep in soaking mud. Our shoes and socks are at 100% saturation so it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. It’s ok, we are still warm from our hiking effort.
After a couple hours, we reach the first of the 1000 or so carved steps that lead to the summit of Mount Sinai. By this point, the steps are invisible having transformed into one rushing waterfall that we slowly climb, sometimes on all fours to maintain traction. All I can see in the distance is rain blowing horizontally under my headlamp’s beam. Then snow. Then hail.
Mahmoud raps on the door of the final hut of the climb, this one just a few minutes below the actual summit. A groggy Bedouin Nomad emerges and welcomes us into the hut constructed of makeshift boards and plywood, which somehow all holds together in the howling wind and heavy rain. Mahmoud tells me in broken English that we should stay here until things get better. I look around and see two or three bodies wrapped up in blankets on the lumpy floor. I have no idea who they are. I take a few pictures inside—after all I hauled up a pack of 30 pounds of camera gear, so I may as well make use of it somehow. Marbles of hail penetrate the gaps in the loose construction materials of the hut. After Mahmoud and the Bedouin man make some conversation about the storm, the nomad curiously picks up a large marble-sized chunk of hail and shows it to me. I try to teach him the word “hail,” but, confused by this, he insists on repeating “snow.” Mahmoud wraps himself tightly in blankets and falls asleep in no time. I think he is accustomed to living this way, minus the rain. I prop my head against my backpack, pull over a blanket and close my eyes.
Within minutes, the shivering begins. All my clothes are thoroughly soaked through and the temperature is below freezing and falling fast. It’s no warmer in here than outside. I begin to tremble uncontrollably and cover myself in a second blanket, then a third. They are of little help.
I stare through the gaps in the shelter, waiting for the first hint of daylight, while thinking how nice the dirty little cabin with the lumpy mattress down below sounds right now. This was supposed to be a nice warm hike to witness the purportedly amazing scene of the sunrise breaking over the mountains. But now I want off this hellish mountain ASAP. Still somehow, part of me is glad to be in yet another one of these adventures I always seem to find myself in.
I see a faint glow and hear the rain taper off a bit, so I shake Mahmoud who is wrapped like a mummy. “We need to go now” I say, gesturing to the rickety door. I thank the nomad tending the hut and we head back into the angry storm, suddenly being pelted by a downfall of more stinging hail. With no gloves, the feeling in my hands starts fading quickly. I fumble for the zippers on my jacket pockets but no longer feel my fingers at all. I manage to get the pockets open and reluctantly hike down treacherous trail with my hands dangerously locked inside my pockets. One slip and I’m doomed. The feeling begins to return as the two of us slide and stumble down the saturated terrain, often venturing off the trail in search of firmer ground.
I start thinking of every movie and drawing I’ve seen of Moses climbing down this same trail—isn’t there always a ferocious storm on the mountain? If this Moses guy can descend in the rain carrying two 100 pound tablets, this should be no problem for me with nothing more than my backpack. At the bottom of the carved steps we are finally protected a bit from the howling wind and hail, and I smile, knowing that we are going to make it down and I won’t need to have a single finger amputated from frostbite! After reaching the valley, the sun pokes out through the clouds and the desert begins to warm. The sun has never felt so good. I even take out my camera to take pictures of the sharp rocky mountainside which I’m finally seeing from a distance for the first time. We survived.
With the cell phone network taken out by the storm, I finally reach Omar who comes to retrieve my soaked and battered carcass. He exclaims that he’s never in his entire life seen a storm like this in Egypt. The storm has passed and we check out Saint Catherine’s Monastery, but I’m ready to get off this peninsula and back to Cairo–the rest of Egypt is so much more interesting than this place. Cairo is now a nine hour drive away, since rumor has it that the more direct road across the desert is flooded.
As we depart Saint Catherine’s, a very odd thing happens—a police officer climbs in our van for the long trip to Cairo. It is part of Egypt’s anti-terrorism effort to have cops randomly take rides with tour groups. With our new unexpected passenger, we all cram into the tiny minivan and head about an hour out to the eastern Sinai coast, the opposite direction of our final destination.
We screech to a halt. An enormous impassible makeshift river is flowing over the roadway, thanks to this freak storm. Cell phone service was dead all morning, and when it comes to life, Omar goes to work making calls. All three roads back to the Suez Canal are blocked by floods. The small airport is also closed. We are trapped. Lovely.
We head to a hotel in the nearby town of Nuweiba on the gulf just above the Red Sea with a beautiful beach and a view of the Saudi Arabia coast right across the water. We wait for hours for news on the roads. Our new buddy the police officer paces around on the beach, not knowing what to do. He asks me in every bit of English he can muster if we are going to stay here tonight. I shrug my shoulders. Finally, we have no choice but to check into the hotel and rearrange our flight out of Egypt. The internet is dead, ATMs flash out-of-service messages, and TV is out. Thankfully we do have electricity. I don’t know when I will make it home. We managed to select the worst possible day in probably known history to visit the Sinai Peninsula, not to mention that I somehow agreed to the climb up that mountain for a front-row view of the storm. But I’m alive and nothing else seems to matter at this point.
January 19, 2010, Sinai Peninsula
The next morning we have time to kill in Nuweiba while anxiously awaiting any word on the road conditions. I swim way out in the warm Gulf of Aqaba, about 1/5th of the way to Saudi Arabia it seems like at one point. The tropical fish in the azure water are incredible. Huge puffy cumulus clouds contrast against the blue sky. Omar learns that cars are getting through in the bad section of road that is still flooded up the coast, so we find our police officer buddy, who had slept in a nearby police station, and hit the road.
We pull into the only gas station in town, with a single, rusty old pump and several cars all trying to get at it at once. No one lines up around here, they just try to get to the front of the line. We accelerate for it, but so did a pickup truck launching itself in reverse. Thud! The pickup collides with our minivan with a tremendous jolt. After all is resolved by loud shouting of Egyptian Arabic, we are on our way.
The roads are in dismal condition. The pavement is barely visible in many places, as we traverse through dirt, boulders, standing water, and chunks of missing roadway, often swerving sharply. At one point, our driver locks up the brakes to avoid a damaged shift of pavement in the road, but it was too late–we hit it hard enough to launch luggage all over the van. After two hours, we reach the spot of concern. Big rigs are lined up for a mile on the road. We speed around them and get within view of the muddied and damaged roadway. Cars honk and pile inches apart to fight for the single narrow passageway carved across the mud. But one of our two drivers has an idea–he gets out and starts rearranging boulders off to the side of the main passageway. He jumps back in, the other driver throws the steering wheel to the left and floors it. After fishtailing wildly through the mud, we emerge on the other side! YES! But just as soon as we celebrate the victorious crossing, a police officer holds up his hand and tells us to line up for some inspection with 100 other cars that just made it across. Just before my smile turns to despair, I remember who we have on board–our own police officer! He flashes ID and we are waved through. We’re free!
We continue on the eight hour drive across the desert, navigating through knee-deep water, and witnessing the destruction left behind. Big rig trucks are turned over on their sides after sections of roadway have collapsed under their weight. Water stands everywhere in a desert that is not accustomed to it. At nightfall, we pass back under the Suez Canal. It’s so nice to be back in Africa again, which seems much more civilized now that the nightmarish continent of Asia now behind us. One of our drivers hands me a sandwich he bought at a roadside stop. Omar translates: “He thanks you for protecting him on the journey.” I ask Omar if this was an adventure for him. He thinks for a moment. “A challenge” he laughs.