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Climbing Mount Sinai (God's Stairmaster)

Retracing Moses' footsteps to witness the sunrise from the summit of Mount Sinai.

By Charmaine Noronha / March 11, 2010

The early morning light illuminates the rocky terrain near Mount Sinai in Egypt.

TRACY HOPTON/AP

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St. Catherine, Egypt

In the Bible, Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.

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He was the chosen one, and I am a mere mortal. Divine intervention seemed unlikely as I stood at the base of the mountain, chilled to the bone at 2 a.m., with only the faint light from a smattering of stars and sliver of moon on the dark rocky terrain.

I had decided to head to the fabled mountain peak while frolicking in the sun in the azure waters of the Red Sea, where the temperatures were warm and balmy. I would retrace Moses' footsteps on a hike to witness the sunrise from the summit. If Moses could do it, why couldn't I?

Chilly night

But once I arrived for this overnight trek, sleepless and in temperatures that felt like North American winter, I was not so sure.

Then out popped our guide, a sprightly young Egyptian man with a yellow-toothed grin. He was dressed in little more than a galabeya, the traditional long men's shirt, while I felt cold wearing almost all the clothing I brought with me on my trip, including a borrowed jacket and my woolliest socks from Canada, where I live.

His garment billowed in the wind as he led me and a group of travelers from around the world up to the summit.

The ascent begins

As we began our ascent up the 7,500-foot mountain (2,285 meters), I searched the black sky for a glimpse of our endpoint. The only thing visible to me was my vaporous breath and what appeared to be the shadows of camels lumbering up the mountain. I wondered for a moment if I was hallucinating.

We followed in step with our guide as he led us through the darkness, up the winding trail, over granite crags and slippery rocks. I am not religious, but the irony of the moment hit me: I had put all my faith in this man I had just met.

For others on the hike, the expedition had deep religious significance. The Bible says this is where God gave Moses two stone tablets inscribed with the commandments.

Moses received these laws after leading the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, a story that is retold during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins this year at sundown March 29. But Sinai is an important site for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and every night, hundreds of pilgrims make the climb.

God's Stairmaster

There are two routes for the 4.3-mile (7 km) round trip: The camel path, which was our route, or a steeper, more direct route of some 3,750 stairs to the top, sometimes referred to as "God's Stairmaster."

For me, the camel route was challenging enough. I could feel my heart pounding through layers of clothes, and the sweat trickling on my forehead felt like a fever chill. The Bible says Moses made two sojourns here to receive the tablets, spending 40 days on the mountain each time, but we would be up and down in 4 1/2 hours.

The sanctity of the hike was disrupted by scores of other hikers vying to reach the top quickly to mark their spot to watch the sunrise, and the constant calls of, "Camel ride, camel ride" from Egyptian entrepreneurs.

I preferred following the guide on foot rather than trusting a camel on the messy, pebbly trail.

To the summit

The hours rolled into each other. At about 5 a.m., the sky began its slow transformation, turning from black to shades of gray, our cue to get to the top, where the sun could be seen slowly rising. Our guide stopped short of the final ascent; we were to lead ourselves up the last 750 rocky steps to the summit.

As we climbed the last bit, stone silhouettes began to form in the distance. The summit appeared to be blanketed with mummified people tucked in sleeping bags and camel blankets. The wind was treacherous; my fingers were too frozen to unzip my sleeping bag.

I took my spot on a jagged piece of rock face, too cold to do much except pray for the warmth of the sun. My prayers were answered slowly as a dusty orange light filtered through the sky.

Hallelujah

As the sun came into view, a group of Romanian pilgrims broke into a hymn. Their booming voices provided an almost eerie soundtrack to the sunrise.

The rest of us stared quietly across the Sinai desert as the light began to cast a warm glow, unveiling rocky peaks all around us. The mountains turned crimson, gold and orange, and I felt my spirits lifting with the heat of the sun.

I almost expected the Romanians to start singing "Hallelujah." They did not, but I did, in my head.
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If You Go...

MOUNT SINAI, EGYPT: Mount Sinai can be reached from the Red Sea resort towns of Dahab and Sharm El Sheik (about 1.5 to 2 hours by car to the mountain).

TOURS: You can easily join or organize tours from either of these resort towns or hire a taxi to drive you out and wait for you (about $75 or 400-500 Egyptian pounds). If you don't go with a tour, you can hire a local guide when you arrive for a few U.S. dollars. Expeditions to Sinai can also be arranged from Israel.

TIPS: Most hikes take place in early afternoon to reach the peak for sunset, or more often, in early morning for sunrise, which means you will be jostling for place at the summit due to the sheer number of like-minded hikers. Bring a sleeping bag and/or blanket to keep warm at the summit and layer your clothing so you can easily add or remove items as you heat up and cool down. Wear trekking shoes if you can, as it is easy to lose your footing in the dark and on the rocky trail.

NEARBY ATTRACTION: St. Catherine's Monastery, at the base of the mountain, houses a pictorial story of Moses and a large bush that believers identify as the Burning Bush from the Bible.

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