Gebel Katharina is Egypt's highest mountain and named after a saint who was martyred to death in Alexandria. Angels carried her body to the top of this mountain. The monastery of Katharina claims to have her head and one arm. Fact is, that there is a chapel on top of this mountain, the roof of which shows many holes and the entrance is locked.
Starting point is the village El Malga (ca. 1500 m). A paved road leads here and the place has a several small restaurant. One of its largest and modern building is the school. It is customary to start the climb early (at 3.15 a.m. in our example). You need a torch, that can be rented, but I preferred my own which keeps my hands free while walking. We entered the the Wadi (valley) El Arbein, which is also the path you chose when climbing the Moses Mountain from behind. The first stretch of 45 minutes is rather flat and leads along many beduin housing. After Deir El Arbain (monastery of the 40 martyrs, no monks, used for other purposes, well maintained) cross the usually dry creek and start climbing the north flank of Gebel Katharina.
There is not much to see in the dark of the night, except that the path is steadily going up zigzagging. Unfortunately it was nearly new moon and I needed our electric light. When I turned it off for a few seconds a clear sky full of shining stars gave a lasting impression. At about 5 o'clock a faint shimmer of light showed in the east and soon we could turn of the lamp. The Moses Mountain watched us from the other side of the valley, but soon we looked down on it. We reached a saddle and observed 2 mountains with similar altitude. Both had their buildings: one had antennas coming out of its root and a rough road for 4 WD led to it from another valley. It must be Gebel Zugeir, 70 years ago an American institute did some astronomical research up there; today it looks rather military. Our building was reached in 15 minutes: it was a locked and dilapidated chapel.
From El Malgo (car park) to top 3.5 hours.
Map: South Sinai (Map of Attractions), Osiris Office, Cairo 1:250'000 with High Mountain Region 1:50'000.
Gebel Katharina is in the region of the Saint Katharina, you can start from a local hotel or start at midnight from a tourist center at the Gulf of Aqaba. No group travel is available for this mountain. I hired a driver and a guide and paid for me and my wife 200 Swiss francs (ca. $ 120) plus tip. (Prices as of March 2002). Car park at El Malga (restaurants, no hotel)
I recommend to buy the trip at a travel office at a fixed price which includes car and guide. This should include a car with a driver, who might meet you at the backside of the mountain. A beduin mountain guide is compulsory. The driver knows where to find him in the Katharina area. Your are not allowed to climb mountains without a guide. Each mountain has a fixed price. Anyway take your passport with you, since there are many check points along the road.
If you want to climb without a travel office, you can hire cars (minimum rate of three days). The gas is very cheap, 20% of European prices. Permits and guides can be obtained at the local Sheik at El Malga, who is kind of tourist mangager.
The roads are paved, and generally in good condition. Sudden holes can pose a problem for non-local drivers, if you drive at night at maximum speed. Speed limit is 80 km/h.
When To Climb
Spring and autumn seem to be the best seasons. In winter the Sinai mountains are white of snow and in summer it might get very warm. Even if the temperature is near 100°F (>35° C) at the sea side, it can be around freezing point on the mountain tops at 6 a.m. A northern wind of 3 Bf is quite common in the mountains at that time and is a sign of good weather. During the morning the wind disappears and heats up the rocks, in the afternoon the nice wind starts again and makes climbing pleasant. Southern winds may indicate a rising sand storm, which you should avoid. From far, such a storm shows gray clouds which you might erroneously welcome as rain. Often southern winds just disappear and leave an enormous heat in the afternoon.
Sunrises are cold and windy. If you have gloves, sweaters, wind jacket, warm and long trousers, solid hiking boots there is no problem at all.
Since there is normally no water available, 1.5 litres of liquid per mountain is recommended.
If you only want to climb mountains in the Sinai, you will find accommodation near the intersection below the monastery.
Daniela Village (hotel)
Zetona Camping (tents to rent)
Morganland Camping (rooms and restaurant)
El Raha Hotel
The airport is not open!! (March 2002)
If you want to combine a water sport with climbing, I recommend Dahab
, which is 1.5 driving hours away on the Gulf of Aqaba. Dahab has many nice hotels on the beach, hospital, taxies, etc. Due to a steady breeze it is excellent for wind surfing (beaufort 2-3). It has also an Internet Café, but the emails I sent never arrived. The next international airport is 150 km south at Sharm El Sheik, bigger and noisier than Dahab, but too far away for one day climbs in the Katharina region.
We stayed in a nice hotel in Dabar on the Gulf of Aqaba. After early dinner we went immediately to bed, after taking a light sleeping pill. The concierge should wake us at 11.45 p.m. At midnight my wife woke up and wondered why nobody called the phone. We hurried out of bed, grasped our packed rucksack and went to the hall. Our driver was there. The lunch package was also ready. But where are the 3 large water bottles that I insisted on? 5 minutes later the tourist manager arrived and brought us these bottles with 4.5 litter of water.
Now let us go! In the car we discovered a 4th person. Who is he? Chauffeur: the translator. Indeed he spoke German quite well, although he has never been to Europe. Just learnt it at school in Cairo. The vehicle was a new little bus and I had ample room to rest horizontally. After a little more than one hour we reached the checkpoint below the Katharina monastery to pick up our beduin guide. In addition to that, some paper work was done by our chauffeur and needed our passports. After another 15 minutes we left for El Malga, the starting point of our climb.
In single file, the beduin, translator, my wife and me headed for Deir El Arbein. Still climbing along the path to Moses Mountain
, the guide suddenly stopped, left the path, went down over rocks to the valley, climbed up steeply on the other side and finally reached the trail to Katharina mountain. I got mad and shouted at him: "The only thing I ask from you is finding the way in the dark!". No reply. But he understood. He increased the speed as to show me, that his advantages are concentrated in his legs and that he is fitter than his 60 and 70 years old guests. While my wife in her light gym boots followed just 2 feet behind him whatever speed he choose, I kept with my solid hiking boots my steady pace behind this group of three. After 20 minutes I saw the lights above me coming to a halt. Our translator tried to keep pace, failed and lay exhausted on the ground. Passing them 3 minutes later, I told her "come on, let's go to the top, the guide can take care of him". It was bitter cold and I was not in the mood to stop, but my wife with her female helper syndrome felt sorry for the guy who had no rucksack, just wearing a sweater, in one hand the lamp, in the other a bottle of water. She gave him her wind jacket and asked him to wait until we were back.
When we reached the saddle 150 m below the summit, the sun rose and the solid granite shimmered in wonderful red. My wife could not resist climbing directly to the top on this excellent rock. I did not dare due to my metal hips and preferred the path.
On the summit the wind blew and the guide froze. He hid behind a rock and waited for the descent. He carried only a flash light and a bottle of water. No rucksack, no food, no sweater, just the cloth of the beduin, which is very practical. It serves as a sweater, as a sun protection and as a mouth protector in a sand storm. He wore plastic sneakers. I changed my shirt, put on a woolen sweater, a wind jacket and a cap; my wife put her down jacket. We felt warm and comfortable, studied the surroundings and shot some pictures. My wife felt sorry for the hungry guide and gave him some food. As a mean old guy, I disagreed and would not mind seeing a young guy hungry who is too lazy to carry a rucksack. But she taught me about the difference in culture and about "in Rome do as...".
What are the guides good for? Good question. You are not allowed to climb without them, this is an employment policy. In case of accident, he could not help, he carries nothing with him. But he could run down for getting help. Probably you could get a connection with a mobile phone, if you choose a place where you can see the road down in the valley. If you run out of water he might find the next source. He can pose for SummitPost pictures.
On our descent we found our friend and translator at the same place as we left him, trembling of cold, although the sun shone. He joined us and felt warm after a few minutes.
Two days later I found out why our beduin took the wrong way at Deir El Arbain, where beduins live. He was stationed near the Katharina monastery to guide people to the Gebel Musa
, which costs a fee of E£ 35 per person payable to the Sheik.
The Gebel Katharina costs E$ 80. So the guide pretended that we climbed the Gebel Musa. It is also possible, that our guide had no right at all to lead us to the Gebel Katharina.