13 March 2010

There’s an old shepherd’s route known as Stairway to Heaven that links an Omani mountain village with the coast in what is now Ras al Khaimah.

It’s famous in the UAE and I’d been trying to organise a trip to do it for most of the time I’ve been here.

Finally the Abu Dhabi Alpine Club decided to go, for the day after Wadi Bih relay race in Musandam. Because there’s a long history of ‘mares on the route, we made a pre-dawn start.

Access had a distinctly New Zealand feel of several kilometres up a bouldery riverbed and then a freaking steep climb up loose rubble.

This was the view that greeted us.

We headed up into the valley, broke out left on ledges and occasional drystone staircases — source of the name of the route — for a rising traverse then picked up a broad ledge leading back right to the final ascent to the top, located at the lowest point on the scarp.

(For a full description of the route, we’ve done a how-to guide here.)

After two and a half hours of climbing we found the first staircase.

With unbelievable skill and even more cojones, the Omanis had created a series of stone stairways to overcome cliffs.

Shabroon Shabroon
The route tried to thread a series of ledges, almost all of which were avoidable, we discovered on the way down.

Shabroon Shabroon
The higher we got, the steeper the terrain became.

And then we came to the point in the pic above and right. Holy crap that’s exposed!

The route went across easily to the longest staircase in the system and then went pretty much straight up the cliff, with 300m of air under your heels.

I bailed at this point, taking up membership of the Abu Dhabi Wooses Club instead.

I wasn’t particularly worried about getting up but getting back down was worrying me.

Shabroon Shabroon
This was the biggest ladder on the route, about 20m with a huuuge yawning gap underneath.

The route became increasingly difficult with height, as well as the increased exposure.

The key was a traverse across a polished and insecure rock band to an easy ledge leading to the top. This was Rachel and Graeme on the route.

Shabroon Shabroon

And they’re a looooong way up!

This was the view close to the top.

Exposure, anyone?

Shabroon Shabroon
They downclimbed *very* slowly…

Back down the longest ladder, which was almost the last difficulty on the route.

By this time this type of ground seemed easy:

And then it was back along the ledges, occasionally counterintuitively going uphill.

Shabroon Shabroon
And then, thanks in no small part to Thomas’s memory of the start, we found the initial staircase.


Then it was time to punish the knees.

And back though 40 minutes of so of huge boulders and washed out creekbed to the cars.

It was an awesome 9.5 hour day with that satisfying tiredness that comes with mountaineering.

Even better, by the time we got down we found a bulldozer had come in to create a new exit track. And it was on to the ADNOC on Emirates Road for an ice cream then back to the flatness of the Dhabs.
But with the main part of Stairways to Heaven done, we soon had to come back for the “Roundtrip”…



< Sandstorm vs.Thunderstorm    Stairways to Heaven Roundtrip >


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