The Most Terrifying Tiyul

by Brian on October 28, 2010

in A Parent in Israel,Travel

Plunging into the abyss

I am not generally considered a timid man. I have jumped out of an airplane (without it being part of a mandatory army exercise) and fondly recall my youth hurtling down the tallest of roller coasters. But I don’t plan to go back to Nahal Og any time soon. It was by far the most terrifying tiyul I have ever experienced.

Nahal Og is a gorgeous desert valley just west of the Dead Sea. You get to it by turning off the main Jerusalem-Jericho highway at Nabi Musa, then hike east towards the Almog kibbutz. The high canyon walls and jagged rock formations of the nahal (“riverbed” in Hebrew) are otherworldly; as clichéd as that may sound, it’s entirely accurate.

The highlight of this tiyul is the “ladders.” There are three sets of them. I imagined some sort of steps carved into the rock with a handrail to grasp, you know like a ladder.

Instead, these so-called ladders consist of metal brackets sunk into the stone, just big enough for a foot, plunging straight down into an bottomless abyss – probably not that far in reality, but since you can’t see where you’re going, the effect is the same. Perhaps if we had been climbing up the ladders rather than down it would have been less daunting but, alas, that was not our fate for this hike.

We were a group of 9 and the first 8 scaled the ladders calmly and competently. When it was my turn, though, I began to shake. Where was the next rung? I couldn’t look down – so I had to do it all by feel. Did I move my foot to the right or to the left? Where did I place my hands for optimal flexibility?

Had it not been for the step-by-step guidance, encouragement, and human safety net provided by Jay, one of the more experienced hikers in our group, I might have turned around and high tailed it out the way I came.

The first two ladders were tough, but the third was like an endless practical joke played on me by a sadistic mashup of nature and the macho trailblazers of the Israel park service.

At this point, there was no turning back. With my guide still assisting me, I began the final descent. Halfway through, my fear became too much for me. My heart was racing, my legs began to buckle and my palms beaded up with sweat. This was it. I was going to lose my grip and drop to my death in front of my wife and children. At least my will was in order – we’d taken care of that earlier this year.

As it is, of course, apparent by the words you’re reading, I made it to the canyon floor unscathed, with only my pride injured…but who cares about that, really, when you’re wondering whether it was really worth it being an atheist all those years?

We made it!

It was only another 20 minutes until we were at the kibbutz. Jay pulled out a flask of scotch. Not great, but I drank nonetheless. I’m not sure if it was celebratory high five…or a consolation prize for one hapless contestant on Survivor who has just been voted out.

As we headed back to the cars, I noticed a large sign spelling out some of the rules of the nature reserve – the usual litany of prohibitions: no littering, no camping or making a fire.

And then, at the very bottom of the sign was a single line of text: “it is recommended to hike up the canyon.“


Our 12-year-old son Aviv has written his own report about this tiyul. It’s much more optimistic and includes some fabulous pictures. Check it out on his special bar mitzvah blog.


I originally posted about my fear of ladders on the Israelity blog.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michele October 28, 2010 at 3:20 pm

You were very brave. Really.

2 Jay Bailey October 28, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Brian, I’m going to email you a picture — we did this hike 3 years ago, with a 4-year old. On that last ladder, I simply couldn’t let him go down alone, and there wasn’t room to carry him in front. So I hung him on my back (I needed both hands to hold on!) and told him to hang on for dear life. I tried to hunch forward to give him a little more horizontal back to lean on. Scariest minutes of my life, hands down. My brother went ahead and I kept yelling down to be ready to catch him in freefall…

3 Susan October 28, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Brian, thanks for reporting on this tiyul. Now that I’ve experienced it through you, I think I can safely say I’ll probably pass up going there in person!! 🙂

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