Climbing Mountains in Saudi Arabia
Driving fast and climbing high in a secret land
I saw Jabal Qarnayt from a distance, and I knew I had to climb it. It’s a high stone among the rugged peaks of Taif, Saudi Arabia. That’s all I know for certain. Topography data in Saudi Arabia is sketchy, there’s even disagreement about where the highest peak in the country is.
Jabal Qarnayt may be the second highest peak in the Hejaz range. Maybe not, but the tallest is nearby and a road was built over its summit, eliminating it as a point of interest. Jabal Qarnayt stands at around 2400m and rises roughly 500m from its surroundings.
It is made of a granitic stone tinted rose-yellow. The granitic extrusions in the Hejaz are said by geologists to have been created in what is known in the literature as an “island-arc environment.” In other words, the jagged peaks of Taif may have once risen out of the sea.
However, time and wind and rain have weathered the granite landscape literally to pieces. The valleys are filled with sand, and the slopes with enormous boulders. On some stones spectacular evidence of this process is visible.
To get to Jabal Qarnayt, you drive from Jeddah towards Mecca. If you are a non-Muslim you must be very careful to turn off before you get to the Haram zone, an area around Mecca and Medina only open to Muslims. The way is clearly marked, but Google will betray you.
The popular route to Taif is directly up the astounding western escarpment of the Hejaz via a divided four-lane highway. Its sides are populated by Hamadryas Baboons who will beg you for food, and the views are amazing but accompanied by plenty of traffic. Every family in Jeddah makes this trip a few times a year.
There is another road, known as Route 298, that is an absolute jewel by any standard. Two lanes, wide, smooth, studded with reflectors and featuring a meter of runoff space on either side, it is brilliantly devoid of traffic. I took the back road.
Route 298 winds from the foothills of the range up one side of a spectacular valley. On the far side of that valley a row of stunning peaks watched me wring every ounce of performance from a family sedan. This sweet, sticky river of tarmac cuts up and up, through great stacks of rock, past outrageous views, and finally up over a craggy summit that has been practically lopped in half to make way for this all conquering road.
Once at the top, the road cuts into an area south of Taif that has become a kind of tourist attraction, but on the day I visited it was shrouded in mist and populated only by lonesome Pakistanis and Yemanis standing next to camels who were all done up in flowers for visitors who never came.
Short blasts down more amazing roads brought me to the mountain which, when I came around the corner and saw it, caused an irrational stab of the brakes. I had to get out and gawk. It was huge and lit from behind by the afternoon sun. Its prominence seemed absurd from where I stood.
Once I got closer I saw that Jabal Qarnayt is in fact two distinct spires of rock separated by a narrow space where a boulder has lodged itself halfway down. Leading up to this dual peak, once the boulder and juniper strewn lower reaches have been ascended, is a vast slab of smooth stone that looks like it oozed from the base of the spires and hardened. It is slick and steep, so much so that it cannot be ascended easily.
Below the spires on the western side there is a saddle with another lower peak across it. When I reached the saddle after around an hour of hiking, I saw one of the strangest things I have ever laid eyes on and possibly the thing I expected least in that particular place. There was a white man in hiking boots eating an orange.
We stared at each other, confused. “What the hell are you doing here?” He said.
We had a good laugh. It turned out that he’d come from Jeddah to visit a friend who arrived moments later. They had conspired to climb that mountain at the same time I had.
After another hour or so of scrambling and a few somewhat technical sections, I reached the top. From there is an incredible view of the many peaks that await further exploration. However, only the lower spire is accessible by scramble, and the higher peak taunts a climber from above. It is separated from the lower spire by an impressive ravine that drops at least 50 meters into a tight crack.
On the descent, it became clear that serious equipment and skill would be required to summit the second spire. It is nearly shear, and the rock is heavily weathered in places. For any climbers in the region looking for a first ascent, this might be it.
On my return to Jeddah I took the back road and drove it even faster than before. In the dark. Downhill.