Climbing the Great Pyramid With Japanese Know-How
The Great Pyamids of Giza
For nearly 5,000 years, the Great Pyramids of Egypt have instilled wonder and awe in mankind. In the last half a dozen centuries, they have also become a tempting lure for many to climb them - especially the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Pyramid climbing has been a temptation ever since the limestone casing of the Great Pyramid collapsed from an earthquake during the Middle Ages. Among some of the more famous climbers of the past was Mark Twain. He climbed up to the top in the mid-Nineteenth Century or rather he was dragged and carried up to the top by enterprising locals for a small bit of baksheesh (tip money). Financially and physically, Twain came off better than modern British author Graham Hancock.
Hancock, the author of Fingerprints of the Gods, believes that a very ancient civilization pre-dating the Egyptians built the pyramids on the Giza Plain long before Cheops, or Khufu, as the Ancient Egyptians called him, was even born. Unlike Twain, Hancock had to climb the Pyramid under his own steam while paying out close to $300 in bribes.
A view from the Sphinx’s Temple
Pyramid climbing had been permissible up to the 1980s until Egyptian authorities forbade it following the deaths of several climbers. Despite the ban, the Great Pyramid is still climbed periodically as author Hancock had done, generally in the dead of night. Sometimes guards are bribed and guides hired to show intrepid climbers the way up. Other climbers prefer to forgo paying unnecessary bribes and find ways of avoiding opportunistic guards.
Interestingly enough, the leading nationality of these thrifty nocturnal climbers are the Japanese. Young Japanese travelers in Egypt have made Pyramid Climbing virtually a profession. They even have a handwritten book about how to do it in one of the hotels in Cairo.
Never Give Up! is the Japanese climber’s motto for surmounting the Pyramid, or as it is written in their book: Never Up Give!
Me at the Pyramids months earlier never dreaming sometime later I’d be clinging to the side of one of them in the dark
The temptation to climb the Great Pyramid proved too great even for me to ignore despite my academic background in historical preservation and, more importantly, my fear of heights. I had climbed pyramids in Mexico and a minor pyramid or two in Egypt but Cheops just laughed at me. After all, what were these pitiful things compared to the Great Pyramid?
At 450 feet (135 meters), the Great Pyramid is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you’re clinging to the side of it for dear life in the dark, 200 feet up and a sneeze would send you tumbling to the ground in a broken bloody heap.
Before going, I diligently consulted the Japanese book for the necessary information. The book was a compilation of various personal accounts and advice from successful climbers written in both Japanese and English. In addition there were detailed maps on how to sneak into the area and which side to climb.
Sakkara Dave: Pyramid Climber - no, I didn’t climb this one
Around three in the morning, I and another American, Greg, sneaked onto the pyramid grounds. We had both taught English in Egypt for nearly a year and decided we had to climb the pyramid before we left.
We went crouching and darting about like ninjas amongst the shadows trying to avoid the guards. We climbed up one of the small pyramids supposedly made for Cheops’ Queens to see where the guards were posted. From there, we watched the guards walk back and forth taking note of their positions before climbing back down. We were prepared to make our ascent but unfortunately, the guards had other plans.
Our ninja skills must have been a wee bit rusty because the guards caught us. They harassed us at first with threats of jail and fines but they soon softened up and asked for a friendly bribe. In the end, they let us go once they realized we didn’t have any money to bribe them with and that arresting us would require them to actually work. The guards weren’t paid enough to do actual work so they escorted us out.
Greg, a friend, and myself before our fateful journey
We waved goodbye to them, walked out of sight, then sneaked back in. This time we skirted wide around the Great Pyramid running along the open area between the Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre/Khephren. We were horribly exposed but somehow the gods that protect fools were with us and no one saw us.
The Japanese book had listed the southwest corner of the pyramid as the safest place to climb. Here the pyramid resembled a high-stepped staircase of steady, firm blocks. It makes for easy climbing but we made the mistake of scaling straight up the middle of the west side rather than the corner. We didn’t take the corner because we were afraid of being spotted again. Instead we nearly ended up as bloody spots at the bottom of the pyramid.
Though amusing, Greg’s Dying Legionnaire impression didn’t impress the guards
The west side was steep and crumbly. There was nowhere for us to stop and rest. It was tricky business climbing as our feet kept slipping out from underneath us and our hands kept losing their grip from time to time. Our only comfort was that we had promised each other if one of us should fall to our horrible gory demise, we would not scream out during our death plunge so as to give away the other.
We eventually achieved the summit in about half an hour. At the top of the pyramid was a small flat area the size of a Japanese apartment where several people could sit. It was also large enough for several thousand mosquitoes to gather and dine on weary climbers. I took my shoes and socks off and soon found my feet covered with mosquitoes.
From our vantage point, we could see the lights of Cairo twinkling in the near distance. The city practically squats at the pyramid’s doorstop like an obstinate Jehovah Witness who refuses to take no for an answer. One day I fear Cairo may completely surround the pyramids and swallow them up whole.
We were not there long when three Japanese climbers suddenly popped up. They had taken the proper route so they were more relaxed both physically and mentally. They had been able to rest along the way and they didn’t have to get reacquainted with their religious faith as we did when we implored what powers that be not to let us fall.
We took each other’s pictures then waited for the sunrise together. Unfortunately my pictures were later stolen along with the camera they were in along with the bag the camera was in by some junky thief in London. But that’s another story.
For years the silent Sphinx has watched bemusedly as mortals have tried sneaking past it to climb the Great Pyramid at night.
The pollution of Cairo looked beautiful in the morning light; unfortunately it blocked out any sunrise. The sky just got lighter and lighter but the sun didn’t show till 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. and by then we were long gone.
Kheprhen’s Pyramid loomed massively near us while the Sphinx looked like no more than a week-old kitten with a genetic defect resembling an Egyptian Pharoah’s head. Behind us the desert stretched into the nothingness of sand. In front of us the Giza Plain stretched into the Pizza Hut that was directly across the street.
When we decided we had fed the mosquitoes enough, we descended. We got caught again but this is the normal procedure at this stage of the venture. Fortunately it wasn’t the same group as before. That might have damaged the friendly relations which Greg and I had worked so hard in establishing with the first group.
A view of the Desert Wasteland with the Step-Pyramid of Sakkara in the background
They took us to a guard station and made us sit there for an hour. Eventually the captain came out to question us. He asked me where I heard that I could climb the pyramid. I told him in a book. He asked which book. “Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad,” I told him. I neglected to inform him the book was over 130 years out of date.
When he asked the Japanese their nationality, I was surprised when they said “Thai.” I later learned that every climber from the “Land of the Rising Sun” goes up the pyramid Japanese but comes down Thai or some other Asian nationality whose country doesn’t have the economical means to sustain its citizenry in paying off large bribes. Typically, Japanese are favorite targets of Egyptian hustlers, guards, and touts who like to relieve them of large amounts of money.
Disappointed with the “Thai-ness” of his three Asian detainees, the captain left. After sitting around for another half hour, we finally just got up and left as well. The guards made minimal protests to our departure. They go through this little routine just about every morning so they were not too concerned. We were confidant they wouldn’t shoot us but, just in case, I bravely made sure Greg and the Japanese were blocking me from the guards’ line of fire as we walked away.
Sunset at the Pyramids