I was already deep in a wadi with three Omani guys drinking Turkish tall cans. I knew alcohol was not totally banned in the Sultanate of Oman, but I didn’t expect to get wasted on (expensive) cheap beer on my first night on the Arabian Peninsula. The five of us were destined to converge in Wadi Daykah, two hours south of Muscat. My friend Mathieu and I came to climb polished limestone walls while Jemel, Walid and Zair came to escape the capital city, their jobs, the firm braces of their culture and find a helluva a place to drink beer.
“This is our secret. We come every Friday. We usually bring a goat and Indonesian girls,” Zair explained. But this week they had a case of Turkish beer and little more than a few bags of corn snacks from the highway fuel station.
These Omanis, like all good Arabs cognizant of their bedu roots, made sure there was never an empty beer can in neither mine nor my friend’s hands for we were their guests. I imagined if I were sitting with real Bedouin lost in the density of the peninsula’s sand dunes, the beer might be replaced with bitter coffee and dates, but these characters were ‘sultan-made’, reared in Omani families whose lives improved dramatically post-1970 when the Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, set the nation on a path of modernization heavily subsidized by oil and gas profits.
As is often reported from Gulf States, these characters were crudely painted with brushstrokes of the pan-Arab malaise that is born out of boredom, Islamic frustration and nationalistic entitlement. Muscat, like Kuwait, Dubai and Doha has its share of dispassionate young men driving expensive sport cars spinning their tires in parking lots for no apparent reason. With the dissolution of tribal law and the creation of a modern state, peacetime has left Omani men wealthier but with nothing to do.
I put empty beer cans back into the cooler. Jemel looked at me strange, removed the cans and threw them into an aluminum pile steadily growing in the middle of the wadi—an Arabic word used to describe a river canyon that doesn’t run year round (also the word that has given us all those Guada-‘s in the Spanish-speaking world).
“The sultan of Qatar pays each people $2000 for a month. What for? What are they doing in Qatar?” Jemel wondered in garbled English.
To his detriment, Omanis are guaranteed just $300-$400 per month from their government, a small sum compared to their Kuwaiti and Qatari counterparts. Oman is not oil rich, but it’s not oil poor either. School and health care is free while gasoline and some utilities are subsidized. The Sultan has a reputation for being loved, but that’s not to say there weren’t protest ripples in these riotous revolutionary times.
My new Omani friends promised me they participated in the protests and promised a regime change soon. There are issues beyond expensive black market beer. Omanis are bound by law to marry Omanis, and marriage doesn’t come cheap. An Omani bride carries a price tag of $5,000 – $10,000. It is illegal to criticize or insult the Sultan and his government. And there are too many Saudis, they tell me. Nonetheless, during my two weeks in Oman the country was stable, the Omanis were friendly and the gas prices cheap, really cheap.
When the beer dried up and the wadi winds began to tear through the flames of our drift wood beer can fire, a few tallboys escaped the fire ring and sailed into the canyon’s windtunnel and beer can melodies were heard clinking on smoothly shaped river stones lining the wadi’s bed wall to wall.
“Fuck the environment,” Walid told us, maybe joking, maybe not.
That first night Oman was a strange place to be. While the country cannot depend wholly on oil for its future, tourism is slated to help ensure dollars continuing coming. Oman’s geography is the chief draw for tourists: wadis (like Daykah), craggy mountains, 2000 kilometers of coastline and plenty of sand dunes. And if the geography is ruined, if the water is soaked up by Muscat hotels and golf courses, if the wadis are transformed into landfills, those protest ripples may become waves.
I concluded that my hosts didn’t know what they wanted, but we had to climb the next day and our Arabian hangover was not going to help. We jumped into the back of Walid’s truck, hollered while we plowed through a shallow wadi pool and although the water soaked our clothes, our drunken spirits remained dry.
The next day we were back in Wadi Daykah. I accidentally left the topos (available at omanclimbing.com) back in Ethiopia, so we guessed grades and tested out our first taste of Omani limestone, sometimes referred to as exotic, sometimes sublime and always unique. Wadi Daykah, located two hours southeast of Muscat, holds some of the best sport climbing in the country. In the lower canyon steep 30-35m walls deliver polished pockets and windblown formations, all this in the shade after 2:30pm.
Every evening we returned to our camp after a dip in the wadi and a quick shower with water we fetched from the falaj or aqueducts built over 1000 years ago still in use to supply villagers and mosques with fresh water. Al Hayl may be a typical Omani village in that life emerges in the evenings when temperatures are cooler. Neighbors stroll out to the wadi, spend the weekends under the palm trees, wash their cars and eat dates. The site of two foreigners in a tent doesn’t puzzle them either. Sleeping in a tent is standard in Oman.
Before modernization, the bedu didn’t live in cities and have houses (which were later built with government money) and many didn’t even have tents. They slept under trees, carried a few cooking materials, dates, flour and butter and moved their camels to and from, grazing the beasts in the spots most recently rained upon. Today, when the Sultan tours the countryside making good on promises to far flung settlements, he sleeps in a royal tent surrounded by a small village of tents.
Our caravan consisted of a two wheel drive rental car (Renault Logan 1.7L), a broken tent, two stoves, four ropes, a standard rack and flip flops. In an attempt to feel more bedu, I decided to forego sleeping in the tent and spend my 14 Arabian nights under the desert skies.
A ROCKY DESERT
Wadis like Wadi Daykah, slot canyons, limestone walls and even our beloved Jebel Misht were all cut into the Al Hajar mountain range, the second highest in Arabia. Wadi Tiwi, Shab, Bani Khalid and Auf drain mountain springs born in underground pools and rainwater into the sea, into the desert and on the western side of the peaks, into the Um al Samim or Mother of Poisons—a barren swathe of quicksand known by legend to suck herds of goats into its belly.
English explorer Wilfred Thesiger crossed Arabia’s great Empty Quarter (known in Arabic as Rub al’Khali) three times between 1945 and 1950. He was the first European to cross Oman and reach the infamous quicksands, writing:
“The ground, of white gypsum powder, was covered with a sand-sprinkled crust of salt, through which protruded occasional dead twigs of arad salt-bush. These scattered bushes marked the firm land; farther out, only a slight darkening of the surface indicated the bog below…We all disliked the idea of setting foot on it, but he [his Afar guide] assured us he knew a safe path which would save a long detour. For three hours, we moved forward a few feet at a time across the greasy surface, trying to hold up the slipping, slithering camels so that they should not fall down and split themselves. Often our weight broke through the surface crust of salt and then we waded through black clinging mud which stung the cuts and scratches on our legs. Incessantly, the half-bogged camels tried to stop, but we dragged and beat them forward, fearful lest, if they ceased to move, they would sink in too deep to get out again.” (Arabian Sands, 1959).
Thesiger traveled by camels flanked with dozens of bedu representing various tribes of the southern peninsula. He rode sometimes 60 days in row through sand dunes, drank brackish waters and survived on minimal amounts of food and camel’s milk.
Like Thesiger’s, our expedition had snags, modern problems, but nonetheless problems. On the first day in Wadi Daykah we foolishly drove the Renault’s front wheels deep into golf ball sized river stones in the middle of the wadi. We had to change the tire more than once. When the battery died, we were left stranded on a beach south of the city Sur. Thesiger’s first was crossing the empty quarter dressed as a bedu. Our first was driving a Renault two-wheel drive into Wadi Bani Auf.
Snake Canyon lies in the heart of the Wadi Bani Auf, a canyon that slices through the Al Hajars from Rustaq south towards Nizwa. No matter where you are getting your information, driving into this wadi requires a four wheel drive vehicle (we had none). And if you drive from North to South (we were not) then getting out of the deep canyon required ascending 900m up a windy series of switchbacks and rises that clamber underneath steep limestone walls.
We have no excuses for our foolishness AKA courage except that on the map provided by the rental company the road down the mountainside to the village of Haat is distinctly paved. At the top of the pass, the winds howled and a group of Omani students told us they would pray to Allah on our behalf. Before hesitation set in, we were off down the steep incline like a couple of fearless rental car drifters.
In the village of Haat locals made us sit down for tea (Arabs never drink standing up) and looked at the Renault with expressions encapsulated by incredulous eyes and toothy smiles. Still, we continued the plunge into the wadi. I tried to tell them that we had plans to turn the Renault around and charge up the pass in two day’s time. They laughed and told me to eat more dates.
The good news: we landed in a palm plantation next to a party of expat climbers from Muscat who had come for the weekend. Some of them had put up climbs in a slot canyon above the camp site and Snake Canyon was less than a kilometer away.
We ran the Snake, a six kilometer canyoning trek with no rappels yet plenty of jumps and deep pools that is now a well-known route in the Wadi Bani Auf for thrill-seekers. The route’s highlight comes in the form of a series of narrows no more than two meters wide and a 50 meter swim through a dark tunnel into more narrows and further pools. In the winter, water temperatures are frigid, air temperatures are chilly and the sun rarely hits the canyon floor which explained why we saw no one.
The guy sleeping on a cot near me on the terraced palm plantation was Larry Michenzi and he had a hand in recently bolting some of the newer routes at the La Gorgette crag located in Wadi Bani Auf. He’s one of dozens of climbers leaving their mark on Omani rock. The history of climbing in the sultanate stretches back more than thirty years. For the first ten years (1979-89) climbing activities were focused on Jebel Misht, the big wall motherload (which I’ll get to in a minute).
Thinking that some day in the distant future beyond the year 2000, people like us would actually come to Oman merely to climb, the Sultan sponsored the so-called Aventure Tourism Team in the winter of 1990. The team opened trad lines on the walls of Wadi Daykah, some of which we had climbed after our Turkish beer binge.
Development ceased until a few years later when local French guides Patrick Cabiro and Nathalie Hanriot bolted lines in Wadi Daykah, namely the quality routes of lower canyon. These two are credited with introducing sport climbing to Oman’s dolomite limestone and continued drilling bolts in La Gorgette, Wadi Adai and Hadash.
Today there are over a dozen climbable crags in Oman and over 1000 quality routes of all grades, sport, traditional and even a guide to deep water soloing along Oman’s coastline. If you include Jebel Misht adventure climbing, Oman holds its own as a climbing destination. More than a dozen PDF mini-climbing guides are available at www.omanclimbing.com.
I’m not aware that Oman has any local climbers, but people like Larry and his friends help keep climbing options fresh and available to interested visitors. Other local expats, perhaps most notedly Geoff Hornby and Jakob Oberhauser, made hundreds of firsts ascents throughout Oman.
After cutting our hands on the Gorgette limestone’s gritty teeth, we began our journey to the foot of Jebel Misht. On the first climb out of the wadi the Renault was thwarted and dashed our hopes. Luckily a local and dozens of kids came to rescue. We threaded an old climbing rope through the two front windows below the mirrors, and the old man’s Isuzu charged forward. But he wouldn’t take us to the top of the pass for less than $150, so we pushed our luck and gained another 400m in elevation when another steep incline made the Renault spin like a whirling dervish. After an hour of sun and dust, an oversized truck took the Renault by the climbing rope reigns and we were whisked to the top of the pass. The sheer elation of being out of the Wadi brought a celebration of shwarmas and Mountain Dews.
Below Jebel Misht a series of tombs spread out along ancient human migration routes. The tombs—meticulously piled limestone blocks—are over 3000 years old. Tourists drive to the village of Al Ayn for the best preserved tombs in the area and marvel at Jebel Misht poised and majestic in the background’s setting sun.
The Misht caught the eye of French mountaineer Raymond Renaud in 1979 (the year I was born) who came to the Hajar Mountains to set up a mountain expedition fitting for the day. Renaud aimed for the longest line—the nose of the Misht—nearly 900m of climbing and scrambling on top of a 500m vertical approach. His team set up gear and food depots on the enormous ridge in the middle of the line that was later dubbed ‘The French Pillar’. Renaud rated the hardest pitch at 6b+. During 20 days the French team ascended and descended fixed ropes, plotted the siege, and even paid a helicopter to drop supplies halfway up the wall. Finally they conquered the Misht and the Sultan was beside himself. A helicopter picked them up from the mountain’s summit and transported them to one of the Sultan’s palaces. In their hasty departure to party with the Sultan, they left several fixed ropes as well as a metal container with empty rusted-out cans of food on the wall.
Misht—meaning comb in Arabic—didn’t see further action until ’83 when climbers climbed the southwest corner. From the Comb’s main summit, the colossal wall stretches 500m east and west, offering varying degrees of verticality, tower features and face climbing.
The original line up the main summit was first repeated in ’93. A team of three climbers found a few bolts from an earlier failed attempt. This time the Misht surrendered in less than three days. No palace banquet though.
After ’99 the Jebel’s reputation took off and thanks to magazine articles, European teams were climbing new lines left and right of the French Pillar, but in a much more aesthetic style: no fixed gear, no trace. By then, climbers had realized the benefit of waking up early and climbing light and fast.
In the 2007 PDF guide, the author writes about the original French Pillar route:
“There is some historical aura to the climb that sets it apart, with attempts and failures dating back to 1979, evidenced by remnants of bleached fixed ropes and rusty pitons. Despite that, the number of successful ascents remains single-digit and in-a-day ascents to date possibly only two. So it remains a mostly-untrodden – and BIG – adventure.”
Exaggerations aside, in recent history, gifted adventure climbers like Pat Littlejohn conquered the French Pillar and opened Icarus, a more challenging line next door that has not been repeated.
Finally, in 2002 Oberhauser and Hornby teamed up to climb the central spur direct, marking the first true one-day ascent of the Misht’s highest wall. A year later, a German team established Make Love Not War, 7a—the hardest and only bolted route on the Misht.
Few climbers bivouac on the wall nowadays. And why would they? With lighter and better gear, it’s hard to judge the original team who spent three weeks mapping out their ascent. I have never climbed 1000m before, so I was understandably nervous.
We woke up at 330 a.m. and hiked to the Misht. Around 5:45 a.m. I set off climbing by the glow of the dawn. After 200m of the route’s most complicated climbing, we arrived at the heart, a 100m orange-reddish section of the wall shaped like a gigantic heart. From below, the heart looks soft and inviting. Up close, the heart is a jagged, bloodthirsty natural occurring contrivance of finger-torture.
We unroped and scrambled our way up the ridge where the original party had left gear and food supplies. The ridge rises over 200m to the headwall. After climbing through the final 300m—simul-climbing the first half and guessing the line for the second half—we arrived to the summit ten hours after placing the first cam.
I wondered why the Sultan hadn’t sent a helicopter, and we began the 2.5 hour descent straight down the backside of the mountain. Night had covered the sky by the time we arrived to the Renault. Back at base camp nothing had changed except our relationship to the Misht. I knew our adventure in Oman had come to an end and I grappled with what to do next.