Adventure trekking in Oman

This is another “history” story from 2012 based on hazy memories of sun baked dusty days, scrambles and abseils, and ice cold nights. I hope sometime soon I can start creating new adventures (at least ones that don’t involve trying to juggle a 3 year old, 18 month old and 3 month old during COVID lockdown), but for now delving back to prior adventures brings me a mix of warm nostalgia and some wry amusement …

In 1998, I had undertaken an extended and at times precarious hike through Ladakh with Rob, a close friend from University. I returned having shed over 13kg, in a wheelchair, and subsequently spent the following weeks and months in and out of hospital recovering. That’s another story for another time!

Every now and then, feet get itchy and the need for an adventure kicks in. Rob had moved to India, so we scanned the map for somewhere mutually inconvenient where we could hunt out some wilderness. Oman it was. Rediscovering my original short email to Rob at the time captures the energy succinctly, reading simply: “Looking OPTIMAL based on latest research, should be awesome”. A dusty mountain range with minimal marked routes, a vast canyon, and a steep largely impenetrable North face ticked our boxes.

The first challenge was to find any form of guide or maps. With the only map available being more suited for navigating an aircraft, we were largely reduced to following written instructions from an out-of-print book, the wonderful “Adventure Trekking in Oman” by Anne Dale and Jerry Hadwin. I managed to trek Anne down online who kindly sent me one of her home stock of copies in the post!

Our goal? Summit the twin peaks of Jabal Shams from the South, descend to the North.

Rising majestically 2,000m from the wadi below. the description in the book provided unresistable attraction

“exceptionally challenging and dramatic … the steep north face offers no obvious way up; often some climbing is required and there is always interesting route finding …”

Combining with another route, we realised we could trek up the Oman “grand canyon”, connect up with a Via Ferrata to climb out of the canyon end, trek up to the peak, and then descend the perilous North face with a few abseils and sketchy downclimbs. A half day hitch-hike would then take us back to where we dropped the Landcruiser!

Armed with written description (designed to be used in the opposite direction), a handful of GPS coordinates, and vast amounts of water we headed off.

Rob on the first ridge having left our fantastic Landcruiser in the wadi floor much to the locals’ confusion
I can’t explain is why I thought white sunglasses were socially acceptable. That bag weighed a lot which I think was the point of the photo 🙂

The start of the route was superb. We let the wadi behind, climbing through irrigated areas before joining the ridge shown above. Once on the ridge the full power of the sun could be felt. We had a very structured approach to hydration and water preservation to combat the sun, consuming a measured volume on a 15 minute schedule. It was great to be back in the outdoors with a heavy bag on the back, but my main recollection was that every single step on the first day was uphill and our legs well and truly knew it.

The second day was a radical change. The route dropped into the canyon and traversed on a narrow path on the canyon wall. The further up you hiked, the deeper the canyon and steeper the walls.

At this point, most people turn around and retrace steps, but with the right kit you can climb up the back of the canyon. A steel cable has been attached to the rocks which you can clip yourself on to in order to provide security. However, if you do slip, you will fall until you hit the next bolt on the cable which can be several metres. Combined with a heavy backpack, this felt pretty precarious. I’ve done a lot of these routes (absent the heavy bag) in Italy and France plus have done a reasonable amount of trad and sport climbs, but kudos to Rob as a someone with limited experience of either sport who just cracked on with it.

If you can ever undertake the Canyon walk and combine it with the Via Ferrata, I highly recommend it. You exit close to a military base where you could in principle head down the road and connect with a car out. For us, this was an over night stay where we could restock with final water supplies before heading for the peak. Water was sparse, so we restocked when we could.

Rob filtering some water left in a puddle from the last rains. These puddles were few and far between, indeed the next water source we found was 1.5 days later in a deep vertical hole in a shadow, with a murky green hue…

A long but straightforward sweaty slog took us the to the top of the first peak, where we left our bags to ascend the second peak.

Most mistakes happen on the way down, and it was the steep North face that provided us with our main challenges. Navigating from a written description but in reverse creates complexity. Looking for a specifically shaped or colour boulder is easier if you are approaching it from the right direction. Sometimes it is invisible from the other direction so you have to descend, look back up the slope, and if the view is wrong then reascend and try again!

We camped a little below the peak, a wonderful spot with abundant dry wood. The night was brutally cold, so we dug a pit in front of the tent and rolled scorched stones from the fire into it to provide a rustic radiator.

This camping spot was truly superb, a natural flat spot nestled on steep barren slopes. Key tip for adventure hiking – proper single origin filter coffee

The route below was adventurous hiking at its finest. High up there is a long exposed slab to navigate, providing a good dose of adrenalin. Plenty of space for hands and feet but steep and exposed enough to focus the mind.

There is only one proper short section requiring an abseil. Combined with the slab and the via ferrata it’s an exceptional route.

Dropping in to the abseil. And hoping the dead tree has deep roots!

We actually expected to get down on this day, but navigation on the North face was harder than we thought. Each route we tried to descent inevitably became a dried out water course, covered with increasingly perilous gravel and pebbles and terminating in an abrubt vertical cliff face. Time after time I left the bag behind, scrambled down rocks, inched forwards and peered over the edge only to find another pure vertical drop.

It eventually emerged that the GPS coordinates were not quite tallying with the book which was published in 2001. Whether my GPS was out or the original coordinates were not quite right remains unclear, but we spent most of an afternoon searching for the single navigable route through the cliffs. In the later afternoon we traversed far further left than we had ventured before, finding a small wall creating a natural shelter for shepherds. We decided to make this a final campsite rather than pressing on for longer.

The route (described in reverse of course) stated that the “scoop is a delightful airy climb”. A little exploring at dusk absent a rucksack revealed that the airy scoop was right beneath us – it had just looked so unlikely as a route that we had dismissed it, but with some careful navigation and nerves it led down to a clearer path below. Comfortable in the knowledge we knew the way down, we settled in for the final night.

Looking back at the route. Not sure quite how we got down that but it was doable.

We finished off in the morning. Reaching the village was a highlight as we were once again greeted by fresh water, much needed after finishing our last supplies on the final descent.

A long hitch-hike / taxi got us back to the car where we returned to civisilation for a much needed cold beer and a little exploration of the coast. We did try and do another Via Feratta on an island off the coast. The start was unclear, and we ended up traversing sea cliffs trying to find the start of the wire. When we finally found it, a large sign declared it was closed due to salt damage. A less than ideal attempt to climb out followed which I won’t expand on!

Rob had to head off soon after, but I stayed a couple of days and headed back into the mountains for a final Via Ferrata adventure on an excellent (and open!) route that spans 3 canyons. High exposure combined with some stretches with minimal features made for a very physical couple of hours. If you do visit this, the first section works well with a pulley, I wouldn’t want to walk it without though you could potentially, but make sure you extend with a sling. I didn’t do that, and on reaching the other side of the first traverse was unable to unweight the pulley without hooking a leg and elbow over the upper wire, and then managed to drop the pulley only to catch it in mid air… not ideal!

Oman is sometimes looked at as a beach destination, but has so much more to offer. I’d love to return to explore the extensive caves at Majis al Jinn – an abseil through a small entry taking you to a vast canyon. Probably not going to happen right now but it’s on the list to do!

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