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Climbing the Egyptian pyramids – Japanese Style

For nearly 5,000 years, the Great Pyramids of Egypt have instilled wonder and awe in mankind. Some have been content to behold their construction in awe, wondering at the ingenuity of the past. Others can’t wait to climb the damn things.

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). Twain offered a persistent Egyptian $100 to dive off the top of the pyramid head first:

He pondered a moment, and would have done it, I think, but his mother arrived, then, and interfered. Her tears moved meI never can look upon the tears of woman with indifferenceand I said I would give her a hundred to jump off, too.

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 Twain did, though 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 source of national pride. 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!

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.

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 little 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 for bribes and that arresting us would require them to actually work. The guards weren’t paid enough for that and so they just escorted us out.

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 we got by unseen.

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 instead we opted to avoid the scrutiny of the guards by scaling straight up the middle of the west side.

This turned out to be something of a mistake. The west side was steep and crumbly and there was no way we could stop and rest without sliding back down. Our feet slipped out from beneath us on the crumbling stone and there was no way of getting a secure handhold. Our only comfort was our dubious promise not to scream if we fell, so that the other might yet attain glory, despite the cost of human life.

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 under attack.

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 and is oddly missing from all those pictures of the Pyramids that you see. I wondered if Cairo might one day 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 hadn’t been through the same degree of religious experience as us, imploring whatever powers that be to not 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.

The pollution of Cairo looked beautiful in the morning light but unfortunately 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.

As Kheprhen’s Pyramid loomed massively out of the twilight to the side and the Sphinx appeared as a kitten with a birth defect, we descended the slope, leaving a horizon of empty sands behind us.

Obviously, we were caught on the way back down. Luckily, they were different guards and so we weren’t obliged to spoil the friendships we’d made with the guards the night before.

We were taken to a guard station and made to sit on a bench for an hour or so. 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 informed him. I neglected to mention 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 who are less famous for being rich and hence being able to pay large bribes. Typically, Japanese are favorite targets of hustlers and touts all over Egypt.

Disappointed with the meager prospects before him, the captain got bored and left. After sitting around for another half hour, we finally just got up and left as well. The guards made a few minimal protests but we guessed that they went through this every morning. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t shoot us as we walked off but, just in case, I made sure Greg and the Japanese were blocking me from the guards’ line of fire as we walked away.

Dean Barrett

Dean Barrett is an author, playwright and master sinologist.