Japanese Strategies for Climbing the Great Pyramids
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 (Khufu). Pyramid climbing is a temptation ever since the limestone casing of the Great Pyramid collapsed from an earthquake during the Middle Ages. Climbing had been permissible up until the 1980s when it was forbidden following the deaths of several climbers.
Despite the ban, the Great Pyramid is still climbed periodically, generally in the dead of night. Sometimes guards are bribed and guides hired to show intrepid climbers the way up. Other climbers prefer to forego paying unnecessary bribes and find ways of avoiding opportunistic guards. Interestingly enough, the leading nationality of these thrifty nocturnal climbers are the Japanese. The 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!”
The temptation to climb 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 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 properly 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 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. 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/Chephren. 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, so instead we nearly ended up as bloody spots at the bottom of the pyramid. 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 another 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.
We were not there long when three Japanese climbers suddenly popped up. We took each other’s pictures then waited for the sunrise together.
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 or 10 and by then we were long gone.
Sunset at the pyramids
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 to establish with the first group.
They took us to a guard station and made us sit there for an hour. The captain 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 in relieving large amounts of money from them.
Disappointed with the “Thais” of his three Asian detainees, the captain left. After sitting around for another half hour, we finally just got up and left. 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.