Mount Sinai I: Night Vision

Left to right: Tau; Olivia; Niva and husband; yours truly. Behind us, moon and stars set over the shoulder of Mt. Sinai. The trick to this shot is to set a long exposure that still uses the flash, with enough of a delay to let me get into the frame. Click the picture for a larger version. 2005:04:25 04:44:37

The Minnesota crew is busy this week hosting the spring meeting of the American Astronomical Society. It's a fair bet that gamma ray bursts will crash the party, but besides that I expect the usual scuttlebutt about NASA's funding adventures and where oh where is that second-year WMAP data? Let them be advised that juicy astronomy gossip is always welcome in the comments.

Since I've got nothing so exciting going down this week, it's a good time to rummage through the photo archive. This will be the first of a series of such posts covering the trip to Mt. Sinai last month.

The traditional way to see Mt. Sinai is as a predawn climb, so as to experience sunrise from the summit. For $20 a piece a local fellow (who I gather does mostly this) picked up the lot of us at Habiba around 1 AM. By "the lot of us" I mean myself, my dorm-mate Olivia, postdoc from her lab Tau, and an Israeli couple also staying on the beach there. And by 1 AM I mean 1 o'clock Sinai Standard Time, about 1:30 or so. Not a problem, as the drive is long and uneventful. For a couple of hours we variously dozed and watched the stars as we sped up into the mountains by moonlight.

The valley hike is well-lit by a full moon, but once we made it up onto the mountain's flank it was dark going. To the left, the fuzzy black is the shadow of Mt. Sinai; the sharp-edged black is the rocks marking the edge of the trail. I think the lights in the valley are Bedouin camps where they keep camels. Click the picture for a larger version. 2005:04:25 05:03:32

After passing various Egyptian checkpoints where our visas were inspected, our entry fees paid, and our driver generally hassled, we were dropped rather unceremoniously at a trailhead. Not being able to, precisely speaking, see the trail, we hired a young Bedouin to guide us up. Waste of money. His guidance consisted of walking in our general vicinity, and once our eyes adapted to the dark the trail is well marked, if rather easy to stumble on. I wouldn't want to try this hike on a moonless night, though.

The reason our night vision hadn't yet kicked in is that the trail begins at the feet of the fortresslike Santa Katarina monastary, which appears to have recently redone the ancient battlement lights in a tasteful sodium vapour glare. They can't actually be that bright, since the light doesn't diffuse much past the immediate vicinity, but when setting off down a rocky path two hours before dawn, it's enough. Passing it under these conditions leaves a fragmentary impression of towering walls and dark bulk looming somewhere above. It could have been the size of a brownstone or of the Old City for all we could make out.

Visually, the hike begins as a moonscape, then, as the stars slide by above and the moon casts the barren mountainscapes in marbled gray. Otherwise it is an aural experience. The shuffling and snorting of camels carries on the breeze whistling lightly over bare rocks. The breath in my throat and my boots on the gravel as we clomped up and up and up. The murmur and rumour in the air reminded me that the solitude was illusory, that the mountainside was brimming with the hushed voices of other travelers making the same trek.

Then the sunrise begins.

With perhaps an hour remaining until the sun rises, dawn breaks over the mountains to the east, and perhaps fifty kilometers or so beyond to the mist of the Red Sea and the dust of the Saudi desert. As usual, click for a larger version. 2005:04:25 05:34:04


I see the head of Scorpius poking over the mountains.

You've taken some gorgeous pictures here.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on May 31, 2005 9:41 PM.

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