What seems to be a lifetime ago in 2006, I got the unbelievable opportunity of a lifetime to go and work in the Sultanate of Oman. I’d not really heard of it as such before, and in honesty, I was just after a job in adventure that wasn’t in the UK. Not sure if the promise of driving in the desert was more appealing or the actual adventure, but either way, I’d thrown everything I had in to my covering letter and CV.
So arriving with little knowledge of the serious adventures available, we were given a grand tour of all the popular locations, Wadi Bani Awf, Jebel Shams, Wadi Shab, Wadi Tiwi, Sur, Nizwa, and many more. None of which I’d head of before, but with up to 3,000m mountains it had illustrated the potential of this relatively untapped source of adventure in this somewhat unheard of corner of Arabia. It was sad this beautiful country had been overlooked by so many tourists, probably due to the other headlines, which contribute to a negative view of the Arabian Peninsula.
So what adventures did I get up to? Well, take your pick, for most there is an adventure for everyone, but there was a serious amount of off-piste walking, and adventuring as adventure tourism is still very much in it’s infancy.
The difficulty with adventure in a country that is in it’s infancy of tourism is information, it’s either very much out of date, poor quality, near impossible to find or it just doesn’t exist yet. Caving though, I managed to find and old survey of some of the caves on Selma Plateau, and they looked awesome. However, with a lack of enthusiasm to explore these, I wasn’t likely to get chance during this season, but I was given the chance to recce and explore Majilis Al Jinns. If you’ve never heard of this place, it is immense, it was the 8th largest cavern in the world back in 2006-07 I believe, but could have been pushed down the rankings by now.
The only way to access it back then was by abseil through a slot in the roof, which looks very unassuming from the top. There are two other holes that enter the cave, which are far more obvious, but aren’t as easy to access with ropes and equipment. One of them having been accessed twice that I know of by base jumpers, Leo Houlding and Felix Baumgauter. Chris Sharma and Stefan Glowacz also climbed out via this hole some time back.
So back to reality, I got the opportunity to recce the cavern with work, and as such was given the information by my colleague Justin that, it was 165m abseil and also 165m jumar back out, i.e. I would use climbing equipment to ascend the rope back out. This is not simple or easy at all I might add. We arrived to take part in our little adventure, Justin, me and a chap called Wani, and Omani from a rescue team in Muscat, basically a machine.
Entering the initial slot, there was nothing to really be worried, about the walls are fairly close, and scale is easy to judge. When you enter the cavern itself though, scale goes out the window, I can only compare it to feeling like a money spider suspended from your living room ceiling. The place was massive, it was exhilarating, terrifying and intimidating. Looking around me, it was horrid to not be able to orientate myself properly on the rope, I just had to continue the abseil.
Reaching the bottom, I did begin to wonder how I would ever ascend that rope back to the ceiling, which was now just pin prick of light, via the faint web like cord suspended, which was my life line back top civilisation.
The cave looked arid, yet magical, a place very few people have visited in the world. Looking round, the climber began to emerge, and I started to see opportunities. Unlike Chris & Stefan above, I found another entrance more appealing to climb. I was just sad that this opportunity never arose whilst I was out there.
Getting out of this cavern was some of the hardest work I have ever done. Initially it started out relatively repetitive, but manageable. Then as I possibly got to about the 60m mark there was definite temperature change from the surface of the cool cavern. Every so often there would be a new thermal layer, and by the time I could start to see the detail on the rock above, I was pouring with sweat. It took me 45min to ascend the rope, me and Justin have no clue how Wani did it in 25min. As I say, what a machine.
I only ever got to return once more for the base camp setup and management of the Red Bull event with Felix Baumgauter, which was amazing. Though in honesty, I would still love to return and have a go at the climbing.
A plethora of ridge lines adorn the mountainscape, many unclimbed, but with Nizwa Towers on the doorstep to Nizwa itself, I was unsure. But regardless it was too inviting not to be climbed. On a day off on 16th October 2006, I headed off on my own for a solo traverse of the ridge, I was unbelievably excited. When soloing it does attract worry in friends, family and even people you don’t know, but my colleague Justin was especially worried. We’d agreed, as to appease his worrisome nature, that I would be in touch every hour to confirm I was present and correct.
I arrived and immediately got cracking, this was my first major outing on my own in the country, and unfortunately my only one. I made light work of the initial ascent, just loving the route-finding nature that the route presented. I saw no trace of litter or other impact on the ridge, it did feel like I was the first person every to ascend this jagged skyline towering over Nizwa.
Eventually I was met with a tricky section. The rock, usually, was extremely sharp and angular for limestone, but that is just due to the arid nature of the country, mostly eroded by condensation as opposed to rain. But for some reason in places it was extremely smooth and dusty. I can only imagine this is due to rockfall, where pieces of rock have come away due to being bonded together with a sediment that over time gets washed away. Anyway, the slab was only 5m high, but provided the crux, or difficulty of the ridge, probably about a British 4b grade, and I had to do it in my approach shoes.
Not back to wondrous grade II-ish scrambling, I was just loving it, I really didn’t want it to end, but eventually it did. Looking back over my achievement of 5 hours of scrambling, I just couldn’t imagine that’d be beaten any time soon for adventure and fun. I rang Justin to let him know I was on my descent, and was without injury or consequence to this point and would ring again at the vehicle. As I hung up the phone and popped it back away, I took one step and immediately fell face first down a scree slope, every thought popped in to my head. I just couldn’t believe after all that climbing my concentration had lapsed now. I came to a halt, and looked at my palms, they were in some state of disrepair where I’d used them as brakes to halt my speedy descent. I was just thankful, that it was short-lived.
With every adventure I take now, the lessons learnt from this one are taken in to anything else I choose to do. I don’t usually need to be told twice.
More adventures in The Jewel of Arabia Part 2.