Sunday, April 2, 2017

Free-climbing at Jebel Shams: not recommended, but I had an adventure

[In case you didn't know, Jebel Shams is Arabic for "Mountain of the Sun" and Jebel Shams happens to be the 2nd largest canyon in the world. It is a 2.5 hour drive from Muscat.].

On the weekend I almost climbed one of the moderately-difficult-rated climbing tracks down into the Jebel Shams canyon. I have to say almost, because I didn't make it all the way down. You see, we went down free climbing. That means, without safety gear. 
I'm told, not a lot of Muslim women do this, even with safety gear, at least not in abaya and headscarf, but, to be honest, I have never found abaya and headscarf to stop me from anything. They might make one have to be more careful and skillful, but they don't limit what I can or cannot do. People do that, culture does that...not my clothes or my beliefs. 

Anyways, this trail really does just need one guide, and a safety harness with clips to make it safe, and then the Tourism Ministry's rating for it does correctly apply. However, without safety gear it is definitely very high-intermediate or expert, as there are places you can fall to your death, and no places (points) for foot or hand grips in the rocks if you are short (like  me). I was told, by Canyon Tours and Adventures, who I did have to ring up for help in the end, as I did need safety gear to get myself off the mountain, that they didn't know of any female climbers doing it free-climbing. Good to know. So don't be like me. Use safety gear. Don't be a loser.

My husband, however, favors free-climbing, and so that's what we "crazily" attempted. This is how it all started:

"Did I ever take you to Jebel Shams?" my Omani husband asked me. "No," I said. "Have you ever gone before?" he asked me. "No," I said, This surprised him. "Why?" he asked. "I never wanted to," I shrugged. "Why?" he insisted to know. "It's not the world's biggest canyon and all the tourists do it, take pictures and stuff. That doesn't interest me." "So would you like to go camping on the beach instead?" he asked me. "No!" I insisted. "That would be boring. I want to climb." 

So he did that for me. So I love him, because not many Omani husbands give their wives credit for everything their women might be capable of, or dream of doing.

....Because I was going with my husband....I didn't hire a tour or guide company

If you are going without knowing the way, I do recommend hiring a guide. The best guide companies will only take 2 climbers per guide if your climbing level is beginner-to-moderate. I recommend the local Omani company Canyon Adventures & Tours because they're good, and local. Their phone number is (968) 9941 2660  and their facebook page is .

My husband knew the way, however, and remembered the trail as easy enough (he's taller than I am), saying it should only take 10-30 minutes maximum. 

As he knows my skill level, he really thought I could do it and knew how proud of myself I would be if I did manage to do it. Of course, he forgot I was shorter than him, which makes a world of difference with free climbing, since one has to take risky jumps to catch points. Going down on this specific trail there were two points that were high-level risk for me, both in the middle. 

However, I found the first two areas easy enough. I wasn't tired or using any real muscle strength.
It was exercise, but enjoyable still at my fitness and climbing skill level, which I'd say is beginner-towards moderate for climbing, intermediate for hiking.

Also, we went later in the day, starting the way down at 4:30 pm. It is better to go earlier, but since it would take 10-15 minutes ideally (times are for intermediate-expert free-climbers or lower-level climbers with safety gear). 

The light is more incredible at this time though. The backgrounds were like a Maxfield Parish painting.
I loved the aloe vera plants growing on the mountain side. Sorry, I didn't really take more photos, but in the rest areas of the climb down I did. I didn't take more photos because from then on I had no free hands or legs. I was well and truly climbing. (If I go again with safety gear I'll be able to stop and hang there to photograph the views and nature).

At the first of the two high-risk climbs spots (for me) I did find I could use all my arm strength to support myself to slide down on the metal cable to reach the peg footholds in the mountain, but I had my husband down below me to guide my feet, and a climbing glove to keep the sweat off the sliding hand. 
Without my husband's guidance I'd never know where to aim, and would likely just slide off into the abyss. It was a 4-5 second drop down from there. Also, if I didn't have the grip strength or had been too afraid, I also would have fallen. It was a dumb risk, but alhamdulilah, no issues. From there though, I knew it was a point of no return for me. I couldn't get back up for sure, as my husband would have to be behind me to get me the grips without safety gear, and me as lead climber, I would be too short to make the jump. Probably.

Probably is not a good thing in free climbing. 
Anyways, after that was another rest point, and I was laughing (normally) still.

Another easier stretch came up, and I did fine. I bruised my knee and took a risky jump, but it wasn't frightening because there was room for failure there. There was enough space to likely catch one's self before going off the mountain.

Then came another narrow rest area. We were almost down, and it was the last part of the climb. Unfortunately for me, next up was another high risk spot. 

I could feel from my first attempt that the first peg for a foothold was too far for me. So I went back up, and my husband and I discussed it. I couldn't go back up though without safety gear. It would be just as risky that way, so I decided to try to brave it, but admittedly, I knew I wasn't likely to succeed.

I went down, following my husband's lead, but the rock face was such that he couldn't be my foothold if I truly went for the only real point on the rock. I was just too short. So I was clinging there trying to logically work out a way to do it, but there was no logical way. There was only a high risk jump that had only two outcomes. There was....make the jump and laugh like a mad woman........or fall. 

It was a 3 second drop clear down.

I tried, I really did, hanging there with just two points, my hands, connecting, and my feet just hanging there out in the open air below. 

Like that, the world spins away, and then spins up. I'm not afraid of heights really, but I am quite adverse to the idea of falling. I'm scared of being broken and dashed, for sure. And I don't like the idea of maybe taking others with me, if they dumbly tried to catch me. They'd only dislocate their arm and not save me, or fall with me. There was no catching me from that fall, if I missed the point. 

"You can do this, I know you can," my husband was saying below me.

With safety gear, yes, yes I could, I know I could. But without, it wasn't worth the risk. I know what I can't do, and I couldn't do that. Probably not, anyways.

Probably not is even worse than probably, when free climbing, turns out.

"I'm going to die," I assured him. "I'm going to die, ya Allah," I said, making fervent dua I still had the strength to climb back up. So my husband was my point (he saves my life literally at this moment that means) to get me back up, and it takes all my arm strength to get back up. 

I almost didn't, but I did, and that was the last of me. Then I was done for the day. 

I was too shaken. I literally could not control my hands. So I was laughing, and angry, and all that mess that adrenaline makes one. {P.S if you scare easy, make sure someone packs some orange juice; Omanis think Pocari sweat and Snickers are best but they're not}.

My husband got me an apple, and he called Canyon Adventures and Tours, we assured them we were fine for the night, had water, and lots of firewood, and food. They agreed to come "rescue" us in the morning. They knew exactly where we were.
Then we got some firewood together and found a solid rock between us and the cliff's edge, and decided we'd sleep there, edged against that rock so we wouldn't just roll off in our sleep.

We had a fire. Cooked a can of beans that we ate with throwing knives for our spoons, and made qhahwa (Omani coffee). Watched the stars. 

The stars were beautiful. I saw five shooting stars in the space of an hour.
We decided it was the kind of adventure that only the two of us could understand the fun of. Being stuck on a cliff, sleeping under the open sky. We were fine, and happy then. So we slept. Got cold, Got the fire burning more again. Slept again. Funny how sleep out doors in open air is always better than sleep in a bed, how two-four hours is like sleeping 8 hours at home.

We watched the sun come up but didn't take photos because we had low battery.

Then in the morning around 8 a.m. the safety gear came down and we went up. 

I totally felt like a loser, but the guys from Canyon didn't make anything of it, and were super kind. Even I am dressed like a local women and local Omani ladies don't do the kind of stuff. They even carried water down for us. Usually they take groups of 15, 2 people per guide. 

With the safety gear, the climb was actually fun again for me, even as tired and strained as my muscles already were, and how jittery I was from the day before. 

I told my husband I do want to try it again. Not this week, not this month, but again one day, with safety gear. With safety gear it isn't hard for me, and for sure I could finish it.

One way or another, I'm thankful I did try it, because it meant I got to learn my limits (which were not my courage, fitness, common sense, or daring in the end) but my height, and upper body strength and conditioning. I'm still thankful my husband thinks I am the kind of woman who can do these things, even if he thinks I am taller than I am;).

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