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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 out over Egypt's Eastern Desert to the tabelands of the Nile Valley and across the Red Sea to the faraway summits of the Sinai and Arabia. Jebel Shayib deserves to be a more visible place in Egypt's tourism, but it remains 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. 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's St Katherine - and we hope the Red Sea Mountain Trail will raise a wider awareness about the mountain and encourage more hikers to climb it again. Ascending it in a single day is possible, but only for the fittest, most experienced hikers. Nowhere on Jebel Shayib is easy; there are virtually no paths, except for at the very beginning, on the approach, and it has 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 just Jebel Shayib. Shayib is Arabic for old man and banat means girls. The name can be translated 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, one of whom fell 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 out over the Red Sea to the Sinai and even the Hejaz ranges of Arabia around Jebel el Loz. The Nile Valley tablelands - in whose banks some of Egypt's most legendary Pharaohs were buried - are visible the other way. At night, the glow of Nile Valley towns looms over the distant desert and the lights of ocean liners heading up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal are visible too. Almost 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. The Plain of El Graygar connects to the Plain of Um Anfia and runs away to the south. To the east, the huge coastal plain of El Qa slopes down to the sea.  

Which way should I go? 

Jebel Shayib can be climbed from every side, but some routes involve technical rock climbing. Its most challenging route is from the east, via a steep, rocky ravine known as Abu Teen. This involves sustained scrambling and short, exposed rock climbing pitches on dry waterfalls, best done roped. Jebel Shayib's classic ascent route starts from Wadi Abu Abid, on its southern side. Half way up, it turns east into El Showug, a bouldery ravine with several exposed scrambling steps leads up to the bottom of the summit block. Another route leads up Jebel Shayib from Wadi Abu Eren on its northern side, ascending a steep gully which has loose, scree terrain in places. Another northern route exists up the mountain via Wadi Showug, starting from the Plain of Um Anfia, but with Um Anfia a lowland region it involves significantly more uphill this way. Jebel Shayib has a twin-peaked summit, with the northern peak the higher of the two. Its summit is accessed with a short, vertical scramble through a crack to its highest point. Overnight camps are made on the southern summit, where an overhang gives good shelter from the wind and rain. The Red Sea Mountain Trail has left a dry bag of emergency supplies on this summit, so leave anything here that will remain in good condition for the next hikers that you can. 

 

One day or two? 

What should I carry? 

Jebel Shayib is not a hike but a challenging scrambling and 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 and it will take a minimum of 6 hours minimum to the top and a similar time back down on the classic ascent route via Wadi Abu Abid. 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 using limited firewood on the summit, if climbing over two days. We recommend carrying safety gear for protecting scrambles on Jebel Shayib; with each hiker taking a harness, screw carabiner and descending device and the wider party carrying a 30m rope, 3 x 120cm and 3 x 240cm slings and some extra screw carabiners between them. 

How do I organise? 

Jebel Shayib is not easy; it involves scrambling at the high grades of the spectrum. Scrambling sections have good holds and easy routefinding, but they are often exposed and tricky when downclimbed. Some sections involve loose terrain where special care has to be taken on scrambles. The Red Sea Mountain Trail worked with climbers to install bolted anchor points, allowing scrambling sections on the main route to be protected with ropes if required. Always remember anchors can be damaged over time in the mountains, so check their integrity before using them.  

Ascents of Jebel Shayib should be organised through the tribal organisation overseeing the Red Sea Mountain Trail. This will secure the Sheikh's permission for your climb, also arranging Bedouin guides, food, water and 4x4s from Hurghada to the bottom of the mountain and back. Ascents of Jebel Shayib usually take a few days to organise so give as much notice as you can before the date of your intended climb. Bedouin of the Red Sea Mountain Trail will only guide hikers up Jebel Shayib if they have assess them over a shorter hike on the trail in the days before. 

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