The highest peaks are known for often having a sting in the tail, a final difficulty which threatens to thwart a successful ascent.

On Everest’s Nepalese side, there’s the Hillary Step between the south summit and the highest place on the planet. On the Tibetan side, there’s the Second Step that has to be surmounted on summit day.

On Aoraki-Mount Cook, there’s the all-too-active icefall known as the gunbarrels, followed by the treacherous mixed rock and ice of the summit rocks. On Aconcagua, there’s the energy-sapping Canaletta just below the top.

And on Jabal an-Nabi Shu’ayb, the highest peak on the Arabian peninsula, there are eight soldiers with AK-47s.

I should have expected this. After nearly a month in Yemen, seeing a Kalashnikov was about as noteworthy as the sight of a pigeon in Trafalgar Square.

And I knew that the Arabs, in as much as you can generalise about such things, tend not to harbour romantic notions about their highest peaks.

In the United Arab Emirates, nobody had even been sure which one was the UAE’s highest peak, and when I went on an exploratory trip into the mountains of Ras al Khaimah, I found one of the local sheikhs had built a summer home near the top. If he’d been home, this would have been a more insurmountable barrier than anything Hillary had encountered on Everest.


At least it was well established that Jabal an-Nabi Shu’ayb was Yemen’s highest. And I knew that for all of its pre-eminent height – at 3666m/12,030ft, it was a little lower than Aoraki – it was not exactly the Matterhorn of the Arabian peninsula.

Like Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, its ancient morphology meant the mountaineering challenges were minimal. I knew from Google Earth there was a road leading most, if not all, of the way to the summit. And I’d heard that the Yemen military had a radar station high on the mountain and I’d been advised by several people there was no way I’d get permission to climb it.

But with one full day left before I flew from Yemen back to Abu Dhabi, I figured it was worth at least making an attempt so I recruited Fouad, my driver on our tour through the Tihama region on the Red Sea, to take me to find out.

The mountain’s history should have been a warning for what was to follow, because this was a peak associated with biblical smiting. Jabal is the local transliteration of Jebel, the Arabic word for mountain. Nabi meant prophet and Shu’ayb was one of the holy messengers recognised by Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Back in the day, Shu’ayb had been sent by God to the people who lived east of Mount Sinai, the people of Midian and Ayka. The people of these lands were said to be especially notorious for cheating others through dishonest weights and measures. Shu’ayb warned them against such actions but they did not listen. Subsequently, both lands were destroyed by the wrath of God.

I was hoping for a slighty easier ride. And with all those Kalashnikovs around, I was not going to be in a very favourable position if some modern-day smiting was on the agenda.

Fouad and I drove out of Sana’a along the road towards the sea then turned off onto the side road leading up the mountain. When we spotted a soldier walking up the 10km access road, we stopped to give him a lift, in the hope of currying some favour and improving our karma.

But as we crested onto the shoulder of the mountain before the last 200 vertical metres to the summit, we could see a military installation ahead and some kind of radar device spinning around, scanning the horizon.

And between us and it, there was a roadblock with the aforementioned eight soldiers, one of whom we’d transported to this point.


I arranged for Fouad (who knew he’d get a US$20 bonus if I was successful) to translate for me. “I know the mountaintop is closed but after four weeks in your beautiful country, I have been impressed by Yemenis’ generosity and hospitality and wondered if I, who have come all the way from Australia to climb the highest peak in Arabia, might be allowed to briefly visit the summit?”

The soldiers indicated it was mafish mumkin. Impossible.

This was to be expected. Soldiers are not only not paid to think, but are paid to not think. Otherwise nobody in their right mind would follow an order to attack someone armed with guns and whose goal was to kill them. If you were paid to think and offered that scenario, you’d go: “Naaah” and head to the pub instead.

I asked to speak to the mudir, their commanding officer. But they said, as Fouad explained, that they would be in trouble even for calling their mudir. The kind of trouble was mimed by the soldiers by them crossing their wrists as if they were bound. No, they explained, they couldn’t even ask.

In other similar situations, I knew the solution was to wait. If there is a problem, I knew from the various times I’d travelled through developing nations, if you wait a solution will present itself. In India, a common tactic is to go to sleep, in the hope that the problem will have disappeared by the time you woke up.

We had tea, the soldiers visibly glad to be able to exercise the inherent Yemeni tendency of hospitality to strangers. We sat. We talked about other things.

But the answer never changed. Mafish mumkin, they said, crossing their wrists. I thanked each in turn then headed back down the valley with Fouad. “Mafish mushkallar,” I explained. No problem.

Fouad was philosophical at the rebuff, considering his translation skills were honed by the prospect of a bonus which was about a week’s wages for an average Yemeni.

“They were good guys,” he said. “They could have just told us to go back right at the start.”

And so ended my bid to reach Arabia’s highest peak.

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