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Jebel Shayib: Roof of Egypt

Jebel Shayib el Banat is the highest peak in mainland Egypt. Only the summits of the Sinai tower higher. Its rugged peak rises 2187m, gazing over Egypt's Eastern Desert to the tabelands of the Nile Valley and across the Red Sea to the Sinai and Arabia. Jebel Shayib should be one of Egypt's most iconic mountains, but it is little-known and seldom climbed today. Jebel Shayib's climbing heyday was in the 1990s - as tourism was beginning to open up in Hurghada - but even then, numbers rarely exceeded dozens in a single year. Over the last two decades, the numbers of visitors to the mountain have fallen sharply. Only a handful now attempt it in a typical year. As much as anything, the biggest challenge for would-be climbers has been getting reliable information and fixing logistics with the Bedouin on the ground. Jebel Shayib can be a hub of Hurghada's adventure tourism industry - in the same way Mount Sinai is a hub of  mountain tourism in the Sinai - and we hope the Red Sea Mountain Trail encourages more hikers to climb it again. Ascending it in a single day is possible, but only for the fittest, most experienced hikers. Nowhere on the mountain is easy; there are steep, exposed scrambles, which would have to be negotiated quickly, on the way up and down over a single day. A better itinerary would be to take two days, one up, one down, sleeping on top overnight. 

Shayib: what does it mean? 

A quick history

Jebel Shayib el Banat is the long name. In short, it's  Jebel Shayib. Shayib is Arabic for old man and banat means girls. The name can be understood as the Old Man's Mountain or Old Man of the Girls. The Bedouin give different accounts over its etymology. Most agree it became known as Jebel Shayib because its light-coloured summit block resembled the silvery hair of an old man. The identity of the girls is less certain, but it may refer to two Bedouin sisters who it's said stayed near the bottom of the mountain, with one of them falling to her death over a precipitous waterfall. 

Jebel Shayib's high summit has long been a target for mountaineers. Legend has it a Bedouin woman called Selima was the first to reach the top, climbing it several centuries ago. A Bedouin-British team assembled by the Scotttish cartographer George W Murray made the first formally recorded ascent in the 20th century. Several others followed, including English author Leo Tregenza in the 1950s and American geographer Joseph Hobbs in the 1980s. A tin is buried in a cairn on the peak, recording the names of summiteers as far back as the 1990s. 

What will I see? 

Jebel Shayib is one of Egypt's great vantage points. On a clear day, views reach over the Red Sea to the Sinai and the Hejaz ranges of Arabia. The Nile Valley tablelands - in whose banks Egypt's Pharaohs were buried - are visible the other way. At night, the glow of Nile Valley towns looms over the desert and lights of ocean liners can be seen heading up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. At close quarters, every section of the Red Sea Mountain Trail can be seen from Jebel Shayib's summit. Immediately south is Jebel Um Anab, with its three pyramid-peaks. The winding course of Wadi Ghuza - dividing Jebel Abul Hassan from the highlands of Jebel Gattar - lies to the west. The Plain of Um Anfia sweeps north to Jebel Abu Dukhaan's black hillsides. To the east, the huge coastal plain slopes down to the sea.  

Which way should I go? 

Jebel Shayib can be climbed from every side, but some routes involve technical climbing. It's most challenging from the east, via the Abu Teen ravine. This involves short climbing pitches on dry waterfalls, which are best done roped. Jebel Shayib's classic ascent route starts from Wadi Abu Abid, on its south side. Half way up, it turns east into El Showug, a bouldery ravine leading up to the bottom of the summit block. Scrambling options are also found on Jebel Shayib's north side, starting in Wadi Abu Eren. The mountain has a twin-peaked summit, with the north peak the higher of the two. A short, vertical scramble leads through a crack to the summit. Overnight camps are traditionally made on the south summit, where an overhang gives good shelter from wind and rain. 


One day or two? 

What should I carry? 

Jebel Shayib is not a hike. It's a scrambling/ mountaineering ascent. Climbing in one day is possible for the fittest, fastest moving and most experienced climbers only. Getting to the top involves nearly 1500m of ascent from the start point. To climb in one day, an early 'alpine' start from Wadi Abu Abid is recommended and you should expect it to take 6 hours minimum to the top and a similar time back down. Climbing the mountain in two days is much more comfortable and a summit bivvy with sunset and sunrise views is a highlight of any climb. 

How hard is the scrambling? 

For a one day ascent, go as light as possible. Take water and food, especially high energy snacks, plus warm layers, a waterproof, a flashlight and a first aid kit at the minimum. Add a sleeping bag and a mat and a camping stove, to avoid depleting limited firewood on the summit, if climbing over two days. Temperatures can  go sub-zero on top so be sure your sleeping bag is warm enough. Also be sure you have enough water. Most hikers drink a minimum of five litres per day on Jebel Shayib. Scrambling is harder with a heavy bag so always try to go as light as possible.

How do I organise? 

Jebel Shayib falls at the more challenging end of the scrambling spectrum. Some steps are tricky and involve moving up ramshackle wooden branches and supports put in place by the Bedouin. Exposure is found in some places and a fall would have serious consequences, especially given complications around rescue. Carrying heavy bags makes scrambling more difficult and removing bags and passing them up may be the best option on some steps. We recommend Jebel Shayib only for the most experienced mountaineers with plenty of scrambling know-how. 

Ascents of Jebel Shayib should be organised through the organisation overseeing the Red Sea Mountain Trail. This will secure the Sheikh's permission for your climb and arrange Bedouin guides, food, water and 4x4s from Hurghada to the bottom of the mountain and back. It will be in charge of coordinating a rescue in the event of any emergency. Sometimes ascents of Jebel Shayib can be organised with as little notice as a day, but it's always best to see it as the serious undertaking it is and give yourself and the Bedouin as much time to prepare as possible.

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