Masada

Background information:

Location: Dead Sea Region of Israel

Altitude: +30 feet (base of mountain is approximately 1,000 feet BELOW sea level)

Tidbits: Hot, Damn Hot

Time Zone: GMT +2 hours

Climbed: June 17, 2000

Trip Description and Travelogue-

I was told to climb Masada at 4:00am, so that I would be able to see the sunrise from the summit. I’m not that nostalgic a person, so I thought I’d leave a little later (7:00am) so that I could get some extra sleep. What I didn’t realize was that the reason you reach the summit by sunrise is so the heat won’t kill you on the way up.

I decided to stay in Jerusalem for a few days and make a trip to the Dead Sea region. Since I was going to climb Zugspitze in a few days, I was hoping to have an opportunity for a quick climb in the area. Masada was the obvious choice.

Masada is located about 2 ½ hours south of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea. There are several bus trips that go to this site each day, but few arrive early enough to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. I decided to drive. The roads to Masada are paved and well maintained. Along the way, you will pass through at least one Israeli army checkpoint. Basically, it will consist of 4 or 5 soldiers with machine guns. In most cases, as an American, you will be instantly waived through. When you arrive at the Dead Sea Region, it is a barren and desolate place. The sea itself, which is actually a very large inland lake, contains 30% salt, so nothing lives in the water. The Dead Sea is also the lowest place on the surface of the earth , with an altitude of 1,250’ below sea level. Because of the extra air due to the low altitude, it is more difficult to get a sunburn (put on sunscreen anyway).

The Judean Desert near Masada

When you arrive at the Dead Sea, you will follow the road south, toward Eliat. You will see warning signs on your left, instructing you to stay clear of the land bordering the Dead Sea at night (the opposite shore is controlled by Jordan). You will also pass several military patrols along the coast.

Road to Masada (heading south)- Dead Sea on left side

When you arrive at Masada (the exit is clearly marked), you will see a large Mesa, separated from the other mountains, standing alone on the desert plain. Parking is available at the trailhead. You have two options, the first is to take the cable car to the summit. The second is to walk the "Snake Path", which was the original (and only) route that ancient inhabitants took to get to the city. When the Zealots fled to Masada over a thousand years ago, a small group was able to defend the city against the Roman army for years. It was only when the Roman army constructed a huge earthen ramp to the summit, that the city finally fell. The Israeli’s view this as almost sacred ground and have sworn that "Masada will never fall again".

The snake path winds its way, through a series of switchbacks, up to the summit. Some dropoffs are steep. Josephus Flavius wrote of the snake path "…and one of these ways is called the Serpent, as resembling that animal in its narrowness and perpetual windings…and he that would walk along it must first go on one leg and then the other; there is also nothing but destruction in case your feet slip, for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind." The path is rather well maintained, and the chances of falling are slim.

At this time of year, the temperature was about 102 degrees at 8:00 in the morning. By the time I reached the summit (an hour and 15 minutes later…I was taken with heat-exhaustion on the way up), it was 109 degrees. Take twice the water you think you’ll need. There is ample free water available at the summit, but no food.

From the summit, you can see quite far into the Judean desert to the north, south, and west and the Dead Sea and Jordan to the east. At the base of the mountain you can still see the remnants of the eight Roman encampments that surrounded the mountain. There are interesting archeological ruins. My favorite was the huge underground cistern, that was about 50’ deep, 100’ wide, and 200’ long, and dug out of solid rock.

View from Snake Trail Climbing Masada (looking northeast)- Note rectangular Roman Army Camp ruins at base

Climbing down took about 35 minutes (I was still walking slowly from the heat). Along the way I was surprised to see a family of mountain Ibis (I didn’t think anything could live in this region). On the return drive, I took advantage of the Dead Sea and jumped in for a quick dip at one of the local beaches. It was far from refreshing (the water was about 90 degrees and burned like acid). The sensation of floating (you cannot sink) was interesting.

On the way back, I also stopped at an Oasis called Ein Gedi. This is a fascinating pace. A totally self-contained ecosystem, fed by a fresh-water river that flows out of the Judean desert. The plant and animal life around the river is lush. The river itself is beautiful, with pools (which you can swim in) and waterfalls along a long, steep path. I wish I had more time to explore this area, since there was quite an extensive trail system, but it was getting late and I was already dehydrated, so I called it a day.

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