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“But Miss Rachel, that would be like commiting suicide!”

Rachel, as is her wont, had just shared with one of her young violin students her plans to join the Abu Dhabi Alpine Club’s weekend of deep water soloing and a night ascent of Jebel Qihwi. The student feared for Rachel’s safety, or at least for her ability to continue to provide private music lessons.

It was a fairly common reaction in the UAE to anything adventurous. To us, though, it was just our way of staying sane in the sandpit and we headed off towards Dibba, undissuaded by fears of mortal peril*.

(* Sheikh Zayed Road on a Thursday night excluded, of course.)

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We hired a dhow and a speedboat for the day. Just over half of us were novitiates to the sport of deep water soloing, which involves heading out on a dhow to a section of rock undercut by the sea then climbing it without ropes. If you fall, you have the warm and salty embrace of the Indian Ocean, renders landing painless.

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In some ways it’s the purest form of climbing: just the athleticism of moving over rock without any of the usual ancillary concerns about rope management, gear pulling or injuring anything other than your ego.

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By September, the heat of the long hot summer had finally begun to dissipate and it was the perfect season for DWS, as the sport’s known. The water, the temperature of which always lags behind the atmospheric conditions, was probably at its warmest point of the year but the air temperature was in the pleasant mid 30s instead of the enervating mid 40s.

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It was also time when hiking became feasible once again, although only by night and not yet by day. I’d last been on Jebel Qihwi in May, determined to sneak one final hiking trip before the heat became too much. It had been pleasant hiking up in the dusk and then by torchlight but by the time I returned to the car at 8am the next morning, it was already baking hot and I’d run out of water.

Putting the message out about the trip involved the usual expat palaver in which dozens expressed interest, 18 confirmed, four dropped out for legitimate reasons in the last few days and then only 12 of the 14 remaining participants showed up at Dibba. After 100+ emails arranging it all, including trying to adjust to the shifting sands of the changing visa rules to cross from the UAE into Oman at Dibba, I was itching to stop organising and start doing.

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Our first stop was to the northern end of Zighy Bay, where a route called Conga Line ticked all the boxes: it was a fairly easy introduction, being mostly French grade 4 with a grade 6 sting in the tail at the end, and because it was a traverse with easy access, all 12 of us could all be on it at the same time.

The shelter of a headland protected us from the light swell and made it easy for us to transfer from the dhow to a small speedboat which deposited us onto a rock lapped by the waves. We headed to the left, initially traversing a steep and then overhanging section which was liberally provided with big and positive holds.

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“Is this a bad time to say I’ve never been rockclimbing?” Satish quipped as he set off. Like most, he cantered across the traverse then struggled where the climb went straight up, following a strenuous line for which the crux move was use of a blocky edge which was just enough to keep you in balance as you reached up for higher holds.

Most of us (IE me) swam in attempting this, but that was no hardship because the water must have been over 30 degrees and provided a cruisy landing, despite the lingering suspicion from conventional rockclimbing that almost any fall inevitably involves some form of pain or discomfort.

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The fallen had the option of getting back in the speedboat, which sat just offshore, but we enjoyed the bouyancy of the ocean and our new front-row seat in which we could watch the others attempting the various problems of the traverse.

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Nadine, Pike, Walid and Nicky were the (literal) rock stars, all of them struggling with the final few metres of the route, a tricky descending traverse that involved an undercling of such simian nature that the animalistic grunts of Pike seemed entirely in keeping with the route.

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After a couple of hours of this, in which our efforts on the rock provided entertainment to the 10 or so tourist dhows that motored into the bay, we moved on to a sea stack at another site called Gen’s Cave a couple of inlets further up the coast.

This was a different beast entirely, being a line that went straight up from the tide line and which only a handful of us could be on at any one time. It was also exposed to the swell, which had the speedboat driver understandably hesitant as he pulled up close enough for Pike, Nicky, Nizar and Nadine to jump from the bow to the Mother Of All Jugs.Image

Only a handful could be on, but that was fine because only a handful wanted to! There was a grunty (literally, in Pike’s case) move through an overhang to a rest, followed by thin and steep climbing to a point about 10m high.

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Everyone fell, often multiple times and facing a tough effort to get back onto the sea stack, before Pike was able to send it.

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He celebrated with an impressive leap from his high point, maybe 10m or so above the sea. The rest of us demurred, in part because there was a flock of small but stinging jellyfish in the area just below the waterline.

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We returned to Dibba port, with a subgroup of Jen, Walid and Pike having a second round with Conga Line on the way back. The others headed back to Dubai and Abu Dhabi but Rachel, Graeme, Jean-Marc, Satish, Tyrone and I headed instead up Wadi Kham al Shamis for our night hike of Jebel Qihwi under a partial moon.

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All of us but Jean-Marc had done this before, although the experiences were not always happy ones. Graeme and Rachel had taken five-plus hours on the route, having to carry the gear (make up bag, mirror etc) of a woman who was clearly more accustomed to Jumeirah Beach Walk than to hiking in Oman. Satish and Tyrone had made two previous ascents, occasionally finding themselves scrambling up steep wadis when they strayed off route.

I’d done this by night but that had been via the high route, which followed a donkey track to a farm then following the essentially trackless, undulating and occasionally scrambly ridge until the final ascent to the summit. I’d come back via the low route, a much better and faster path that traversed under the bluffs, but had not done this section by night. What could go wrong?

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It was still warm — about 34degC/92degF — as we headed off from the car at 6.50pm, just as it became fully dark. (Today was, after all, the equinox) At first the path was good and easy to follow by the light of the moon but as it began to traverse rocky gullies and ribs, it became more indistinct and most of us resorted to head torches to try to find the path, or at least cairns suggesting the path.

At one point we were briefly flummoxed, only for Graeme to have the inspired idea to turn off all our headtorches: sure enough, in the moonlight the path shone out on the other side of a small wadi. There were a few more sections where we had to hunt for the trail but with five pairs of eyes looking, it never took long for us to get back on track, especially since we already knew roughly where it went.

After a final steep climb up to just below the summit block, where there was an improbably flat and welcoming shelf on which dozens could have easily camped in comfort. Despite the day of DWS, we’d obviously been in the mood to stretch our legs and the first of us reached the shelf two hours and 35 minutes after leaving the car — half the time most of us had taken on previous occasions.

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It was actually chilly — a rare and appealing natural phenomenon for us sandpit dwellers who stick around through the summer — and we gathered scrub wood for a small bonfire, beside which we ate a late dinner before retreating to our sleeping bags.

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We had intended to make an early start the next day (some of us were due back in Abu Dhabi at lunchtime to plan a bareboat yachting trip to the Seychelles at Eid) but the travails of the previous day meant we didn’t wake until it was fully light at 5.50am.

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Soon after the sun rose through the coastal haze, we picked our way the few metres up to the summit block, where a cleft in the rock allowed an improbable route to the summit.

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There was a chockstone blocking access and we all tried various methods of tackling this, ranging from inching up the wall by pressing the back against one side and the feet against the other to others grunting their way up to the point where a thank-god hold could be reached.

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The route then headed through a cave to emerge onto the summit knoll, where we took a group picture in the golden rays of the rising sun.

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It was 6.30am.

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We were supposed to be in Abu Dhabi at midday so we retraced our steps to our packs at the campsite, which we reached 10 minutes later, then cantered down the slopes on the low path.

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Just under two and a half hours after being on a 1780m summit, we were back at the cars and began the drive back to the UAE, with tales from a truly fantastic weekend with which Rachel would be able to terrify her young proteges.

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