Written by Alaa (aka Lols)

Snow covering St. Catherine and the Sinai mountains in 2009
Snow covering St. Catherine and the Sinai mountains in 2009

Today’s “Exclusive” comes in the midst of deep sorrow and grief over the death of four young Egyptian hikers atop Saint Catherine in Sinai after an alleged blizzard hit the mountain, rendering conditions difficult for the hikers to bear. Four lost their lives while four others remain hospitalized in serious condition. We at the Cairo Contra Team send out our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of the lost ones and may God have mercy on their souls. It is indeed a sad day.

It all started out with a group of thirteen young Egyptians visiting Sinai in an attempt to revive internal tourism in Egypt. Eight among those young hikers decided to go on a small hike nearby, guided by a friend of theirs while the rest chose to stay put and pass that hiking trip. However, weather conditions worsened and for the following three to five days, the eight were stranded and couldn’t find their way back. Their friends called in for rescue from their main camping site but that rescue came in very late.

It is important for me to mention that this piece of article was written to answer the most prominent questions on everyone’s mind about what could have happened to this young group and clear out the rumors that might be still circulating. However, we don’t have any facts or concrete information about what truly happened that caused this tragedy. I addressed two experienced hikers and tour guides on their views on the matter. So please read with caution and I would advise you all to not spread rumors or uncertified news related to this or any other incident for that matter for everyone’s sake.

Mohamed Ramadan, the last victim found
Mohamed Ramadan, the last victim found

What could have gone wrong?

According to Mr. Hisham Mady, an experienced hiker and tour guide, the conditions of the whole trip were unfavorable. “First of all, the small route that they took to Bab El Donia mountain usually requires a 2 night camping trip to reach the top.” Mr. Mady explains, “Second, trips like these are best done during warm weather but again, usually we don’t get to see that kind of extreme condition happen on St. Catherine during winter. Based on my experience, snow is little up there. Third, hikers or any trip organizer normally contact the National Weather Forecast Center to ask about weather conditions before taking on the mountain. Whether or not these eight young men and women did so, I’m afraid I don’t know.”

However, Mr. Yehia El Decken, Co-Founder of “The Weekend Trips”, a registered business responsible for organizing holiday tours and trips including hiking guides, disagrees with Mr. Mady. “Checking up on the weather to see if it’s okay to hike in it is important to do yes, but the weather still has some sort of unpredictability. Even if the hikers called in to ask about it, odds are the weather could have still been an obstacle. Weather forecasting is not efficient.”

When asked on what could have possibly went wrong, Mr. Mady stated that judging from the pictures he saw of the deceased hikers, they were not strongly prepared to face such drastic weather condition. ““From what they were wearing, it was too light for a winter hike in my opinion however; I saw that they had tents and sleeping bags. I know it’s too late to say that but an ideal solution would have been to warm themselves up in their sleeping bags, huddle close together so they could warm each other up and cover themselves under one of the tents. They could have also taken shelter against a rock so that the wind won’t blow them away or chill them out even more”.

Mr. El Decken, when asked what could have went wrong and what could have been done by the hikers to save themselves, he had this to say, “…from my own experience, three things could have gone wrong with the hike. One, the gear they could have been or were relying on to hike up the mountain, could have failed them against [the alleged] blizzard. Second, the tragedy could have occurred because of wrong planning from their parts. And third, the trip may have not been registered meaning that there was no formal approach to it.”

However, he stressed that any information about the incident should be treated as rumors until further investigation. “So far, nothing is concrete and no investigation has yet been made into the events so I can’t state facts, but rather personal evaluations.”

The Sinai mountains January 2013
The Sinai mountains January 2013

Search and rescue teams: are they available?

In dangerous and life threatening situations such as this, search and rescue teams are usually deployed to save the day but according to Mr. Mady, the Egyptian authorities are not prepared to deal with such conditions. “Unfortunately, our system treats these matters as “if you let them go, it will pass” so naturally, no effective measures are put into place”. On the matter of the alleged distress call made from the stranded hikers’ friends to the rescue authorities – in which the respondent said that an authorization for a rescue plane to come and save them takes 10 days in case a foreigner is not present within the group – Mr. Mady says it’s likely that such a response was received. He went on to add that helicopters could have easily spotted the hikers if deployed quickly and could have transported them to nearby medical facilities such as the ones located in Sharm El Sheikh, a city only 60 km away from St. Catherine.

However according to the Head of the Crisis Management Unit in Southern Sinai (who was reached by telephone on a talk show to answer questions about the crisis), because of the rocky nature of the slopes and mountains in that area, choppers wouldn’t have been able to get to them. As for the matter of a rescue team on foot, the head of the unit added that they couldn’t risk it with the alleged weather conditions so they had to wait it out till the blizzard cleared for a proper rescue to be made. On that matter, Mr. El Decken, said that with a proper leader and a proper registered guide, things could have worked out better than it is right now and he’s relating the possibility of having an unregistered guide with the group to the tragedy that struck. As for the rescue missions, Mr. El Decken added, “I am unaware of any search and rescue departments within the government’s body nor run by any institutions and to my knowledge, there is no code or procedure involving rescue missions.” I asked him about whether having a foreigner is a “necessity” for rescue crews to be sent; he strongly denied such allegations basing it only on rumors.

According to news allocated on the matter, Bedouins of Sinai played a huge part in rescuing the four survivors. Mr. El Decken says that usually with registered trips and hikes, Bedouins are notified of who’s passing through their “home” and that if this trip was in fact unregistered and the members failed to notify them, then rescuing the eight was doomed from the start, “If the group passed by the proper tribe, to let them know of their presence, then the probability of a faster rescue could have likely occurred.” He went on to add that despite what’s being widely shown as an enmity between the Egyptian Authorities and the Bedouins, if ever a rescue were to happen, coordination between the two parties usually forms, “[…] more out of sympathy than a code or law obliging them to cooperate”, he said. Media sources confirmed that the Bedouins who were able to rescue the four survivors were actually working with the government.

The late Hagar
The late Hagar Shalaby

Preventive measures:

Mr. Mady weighed in on how this tragedy could have been avoided, “Communication is very difficult – if non-existent – on the mountains. Usually, in these situations, a satellite phone comes in handy and is very effective. Unfortunately, they’re banned in our country and to get one, you’ll have to get a permit to do so.” He advised young hikers to always stay on track and follow the road that they’re walking on. ‘…one of the main reasons rescue was near impossible that with the storm and everything, the hikers lost their track. Always stay on track.”

He went on adding that the government, as well as anyone who wishes to organize such hikes, has a huge responsibility to ensure their safety, “I think the most important thing the government could do is set up an info bureau for tourists and hikers. At that bureau, the group of hikers could register themselves and notify the authorities that there are people hiking up there. They could get all the info they need on the nature of the roads they’re taking, where to go, where not to go, if there are any dangerous cliffs or animals they should watch out for. That way if God forbid something happens up there, the authorities – through that bureau – would have all the necessary info to save the situation.” He also had this to say, “It would be best if the guides were known to this bureau and registered as a licensed hiker guide that way, the authorities would be in the know of who’s who and what their capabilities are.”

As for Mr. El Decken, he highly recommends future hikers to always sign up on a trip with a registered entity that follows procedures, and that they should check the profile history of those organizing their adventure for a more secure trip, “Always register with a known and registered organization that has a guide(s) who knows what they’re doing.” He also mentioned the importance of notifying the Bedouins as well as the authorities that there is a trip atop those mountains.

From all of us at Cairo Contra, again we send out our prayers to the family and friends of the deceased and pray for the safe return of those who survived that ordeal. Please be safe and always take precautions in anything that you do, read or say because you never know when the tables might turn.

We pray that God may bless and have mercy on the souls of Hagar Shalaby, Khaled Sabaei, Ahmed Abdel-Azim, and Mohamed Ramadan, may they all rest in peace. We also pray for the safe recovery of Yosra Mounir,Maha EL-Aswad, Ihab Qotb, and Mahmoud Farouk. Please don’t forget them in your prayers; they need it the most now.