January 30, 2003
Hiking in the Negev
[Bethlehem, West Bank]
Although Bethlehem was under a 24-hour curfew, JZ and I walked
out of Beit Jala in the early hours of the morning to meet some
friends from Jerusalem. Our destination -- the awesome Negev Desert
for a day of hiking. We carried water, a travel guide, and cameras.
I forgot rope, sunscreen, and my hat.
The Negev isn't exactly
as I pictured it. I thought there would be more sand. Instead
it is the same rocky, rough dirt wilderness that you might see
on the way from Bethlehem to the Dead Sea. Most of the inhabitants
in the Negev are Bedouins, but it looks like they stay mainly
in one area rather than moving around. We saw a few camels grazing
JZ suggested a few sites
-- Ein Avdat Nature Park and the giant crater, Mitzpe Ramon. He
pulled out my Israel Rough Guide and read to us about the nature
park on the way:
...from here there is an even
steeper climb to the clifftop 50m up the sheer cliff face.
Those who hate heights or clambering up ladders on a vertical
cliff should turn back at the upper pools since you can't
change your mind halfway up. Sometimes it is difficult to
spot the next few steps but make sure you've identified them
before pushing onward...There are a couple of scary-looking
but safe vertical metal ladders. If you can keep your head
from spinning, the views from various points up the cliff
face are breathtaking...
this point I had sweaty palms and pretty much decided that I didn't
need any of the above. Vertical cliff ladders hanging over 1,000
ft drops don't appeal to me much. Someone in the car mentioned
"dangerous," and I silently agreed. Someone else mentioned
"fun," and I made a mental note to avoid this person
for the rest of the day.
hike was worse than it sounded in the travel guide. We climbed
over pools and spotted a few eagles flying majestically overhead.
Or maybe they were vultures waiting, I wasn't quite sure. Slowly
we edged our way up the side of the cliff. I spotted a sign "Caution:
Abyss." Now "abyss" is not a word you hear
every day. Well, not in polite conversation. And when I think
of an abyss, good feelings do not immediately spring to mind.
Peering over the slippery side I thought I saw a few bones --
and I made another mental note that my notions of an abyss were
and higher we climbed. The route was narrow enough for me to barely
get my backpack wedged between rocks. Some people suffer from
altitude sickness, and I think I must have a medical condition
too, because at certain altitudes, my knees start shaking. They
were shaking pretty good by the time we reached the ladder.
was bringing up the rear when I heard some shouting ahead. Everyone
stopped. At this point I had a vision of the vertical ladders
up the cliff face. I imagined someone reaching waaay over the
abyss to leap and barely grab at the ladder, swing over, pull
themselves up by their arms while their feet dangled over a 1,000
ft. drop. Maybe US Army Ranger training would not be as tough
as this darn ladder. I have a couple rules of thumb which have
kept me in good stead through my years -- (1) never pick up hitchhikers
outside a prison, and (2) never trust rusted vertical metal ladders
hanging over abysses.
could hear but not see those ahead of me maneuvering through the
ladder obstacle. I heard JZ give a yell when he had made it on
the ladder. He climbed rung over rung to the top and said it appeared
relatively safe. Then Ulrike and Ingrid gave it a go. (Did I mention
that the most fearless ones in our hiking/climbing expedition
were women?) They both made it over the abyss and onto the ladder.
They climbed to the top and gave me the thumbs-up. They yelled
back that it would have been easier had I remembered to bring
rope. Great. OK, so three people -- including two women -- had
made it. I wondered if their palms were sweating as much as mine
were. Because mine were sweating pretty bad. Leaping and grabbing
ladders with really sweaty palms might not work so well I thought.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my shaking knees.
the rock corner I looked up and saw the group high above, gazing
over the edge of the cliff. Separating me and them was a rusted
metal ladder swinging lazily back and forth over the abyss. Hmmm...I
wondered how many years had it been since someone had last climbed
this relic from the iron age? I think the Israelites wandered
in the desert here. Maybe Moses was the last on that ladder before
JZ. Hmmm...I know I weigh about 20 lbs more than JZ. I wonder
how much Moses weighed? I usually think of Moses as being fairly
good-sized. He must have gone about 210-230 lbs, right? He was
probably a heck of a climber. I mentally estimated the weights
of each of the two women. Yep, I've got to be heavier than either
of them. I remembered from my engineering classes at UVa that
there is something called "material fatigue." There
is something else called a "coefficient of safety."
I was pretty sure that this ladder had been designed without either
of them in mind.
smart thing to do at this point would have been to just sit down
and wait for helicopter rescue. I hear they can get a helicopter
close enough to send a guy down on a wire or a rope or something.
How much does that sort of thing cost? I'm not a adrenaline junkie
by nature. I don't take chances that might interfere with the
quality of the rest of my life. I don't BASE jump or street luge.
And I don't usually leap over abysses to grab at rickety ladders
slowly swinging in the breeze.
the others were growing impatient. I had the mayonnaise in my
backpack, and they were making sandwiches. I needed to lighten
my load, so I accidentally dropped a few bottles of water. They
tumbled a long time before I never heard them hit the bottom.
I always wonder if my mind will freeze in times of intense duress.
There was a lot I had to remember -- leap, catch, and hang on
like a wild monkey. I
cursed myself for not exercising more.
primal instinct took over. I leaped, caught, and held on like
a wild monkey. We swung over the abyss, the mayonnaise flew out
of my backpack, and I scrambled
up that rusty metal ladder like I was Moses. So
I think I'll take hiking in the Negev Desert over curfew in Bethlehem
view of the Negev Desert.
and Ulrike charting a path to the top. Ingrid adjusts her Walkman.
completed. Narrow walk ahead. Abyss to the right.
was more treacherous than it looks.
was more treacherous than she looks.
Ingrid and JZ hanging out on top. Abyss in the background.