Jebel Shayib

Jebel Shayib el Banat towers up outside the resort town of Hurghada and is the highest peak in mainland Egypt. Only the summits of the Sinai rise higher. Its rugged peak stands 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. Its climbing heyday was in the 1990s - as tourism was opening up in Hurghada - but even then, numbers rarely exceeded dozens in a year. Over the last two decades, the numbers of visitors have fallen sharply. Only a handful now attempt it. As much as anything, the biggest challenge has been getting reliable information and fixing logistics with the Bedouin. 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 - but it needs help to get there. Jebel Shayib is the highest point on the Red Sea Mountain Trail - a sister project of the Sinai Trail and Seven Summits Sinai Challenge - and it involves steep, exposed scrambles from beginning to end. The elevation gain is around 1500m, considerably more than any of the Seven Summits. Overall, it represents a step up from most summits in the Sinai - with the possible exception of Jebel Rimhan - and an ascent makes for an excellent addition to the Seven Summits Sinai Challenge. 

Shayib: what does it mean?

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 the 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. 

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 sometimes even to the jagged Hejaz ranges of Arabia. At night, the glow of distant Nile Valley towns looms over the desert and the lights of Hurghada and ocean liners heading towards the Suez Canal glimmer in the darkness. Great swathes of Egypt's Eastern Desert can be seen, including the foreboding plateaulands of El Jilf and the high, sharp summits of Jebel Gharib and Jebel Gattar, two of the most technically challenging mountains of Egypt. 

A quick history

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. 

How do I organise? 

Ascents of Jebel Shayib should be organised with a Bedouin tribe called the Maaza. It can only be climbed with Maaza guides and with backing of one of the Maaza Sheikhs. Everything can be arranged through the Red Sea Mountain Trail, whose operations are overseen by Sheikh Merayi Abu Musallem of the Maaza. Ascents of Jebel Shayib can be done over a single day by the fittest, most experienced hikers, but schedules of two days - with an overnight bivvy on the summit - are much better. Hikers will need to carry all their food, water and sleeping gear.