Wadi Rum in Jordan, sometimes called the Valley of the Moon, is home to a rock formation called the Pillar of Wisdom. Standing at 1,148 feet, the peak is exceptionally difficult to climb. But 35-year-old Leo Houlding of Cumbria, England, wasn’t deterred from making an attempt.
The location is iconic, and has been used as the backdrop for many Hollywood movies, including Rogue One, Lawrence of Arabia and The Martian. And the area is also famous as for attracting professional and amateur climbers. The earliest known ascents were completed by the local Bedouin people.
In modern times, climbers have rediscovered old tracks and routes across the area, and several books have been published on the subject. In fact, it has been an attraction for rock climbers since the 1980s. And the tall pillars are apparently riddled with canyons, which offer further opportunities to climb.
All of this caused Houlding to feel a deep attraction towards the area. “The spirit of adventure has just been innate within me since I was born,” he told the Daily Mail in May 2016. “Even when I was really little, I was always the kid that would climb highest in the trees. I just love being outside.”
“I grew up in the countryside, so I’d always be out playing in rivers, climbing trees, climbing over barbed wire fences,” he added. “And I’ve been super fortunate in that now it’s my job, and I get to go on really big boys’ hardcore adventures like this.”
To that end, Houlding and his father decided to climb a route in the valley. And the pair had such an amazing time that Houlding hoped one day to make the dangerous ascent solo. Fortunately, an offer later came up that meant he might have the chance to realize this ambition.
As part of the promotion for the PlayStation game Uncharted 4, Houlding was invited to join the “Conquer the Uncharted” campaign. When asked what he wanted to do, Houlding opted for the chance to climb the Pillar of Wisdom. And considering the game’s content, it made perfect sense.
The game features the story of Nathan Drake, a globe-trotting fortune hunter. As part of his adventures, he visits Scotland, Madagascar and the fictional pirate outpost Libertalia. And dramatic scenery such as that seen at Wadi Rum has played a big part in the Uncharted series’ success.
Although Houlding would be climbing solo – an incredible feat in itself – he added an extra challenge. He would also attempt a “free” climb – that is, without the aid of ropes. This meant that an already difficult ascent would be even more dangerous, especially given the sandstone edifice’s tendency to crumble.
Not that danger seems to bother Houlding much. As a matter of fact, he’s one of the pioneers of Para-Alpinism, a new sport that entails climbing mountains before parachuting from their peaks. So, perhaps a solo ascent of the Pillar of Wisdom would be a piece of cake in comparison.
But as Houlding was climbing the rock face, which is taller than the Eiffel Tower, he realised that doing a free climb might in fact be impossible. In light of the crumbling sandstone surface, he felt there was no way to avoid using ropes on some sections. Recognising the dangers that the ascent posed, he wasn’t about to risk his life for the climb.
“Rope-free climbing is an extremely serious game, it’s the ultimate extreme sport,” Houlding said in a video uploaded to YouTube in November 2016. “There’s no way you’re going to survive once you’re more than 25 meters up the route. You’ve got to be extremely cautious, you’ve got to be physically fit… and you’ve got to be extremely diligent.”
Even Houlding’s regular climbing partner Waldo Etherington said that he would be nervous about trying this kind of climb. In essence, it’s because the surface can’t be trusted. Most of the hand holds aren’t firm enough to put your whole weight on and even when using ropes, the ascent is still incredibly treacherous.
“To be out here in this ancient landscape, it really has an authentic feel to it. And connecting to that environment and being up there, up on that huge wall, it’s a lifetime accomplishment,” Houlding explained. But this daredevil isn’t entirely without fear.
“Pulling over the top, bearing in mind the last section is the very hardest section, was extremely scary,” he said. “And then there’s a perfectly flat top, and the view from the top is epic. It’s up there with the top ten views I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.”
Yet despite the incredible difficulty and the potentially deadly consequences of any error, Houlding managed to complete the ascent. And the extraordinary nature of his achievement wasn’t lost on him. ”World records can always be broken,” he said. “But first can never be taken away from you.”
Part of what drives Houlding to pursue his dreams is that he gets to visit places that the vast majority of us never will. In a world made smaller by planes and the internet, he considers people like himself – climbers, cavers and deep-sea divers – to be the last explorers. They’re able to go off the beaten track.
Climbing the Pillar of Wisdom clearly had a lasting effect on Houlding. As a matter of fact, he has acted as a guest guide for other visitors looking to ascend parts of Wadi Rum. However, rather than the Pillar, he has been helping other climbers with Jebel Rum, a less intense climb.
Sadly, while Houlding might have defied death during his climb, others in Wadi Rum have not always been so lucky. For instance, in 2014 three French climbers lost their lives to the region’s perilous terrain.
The Jordanian tourism minister later stated that these French tourists had attempted the climb without a guide. “It is very important for tourists to coordinate with the related authorities when planning adventures in the country, especially climbing,” he told the Jordan News Agency.