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Roy Richards and Chirri, his saluki-Labrador cross. Courtesy Keith Taylor
Roy Richards and Chirri, his saluki-Labrador cross. Courtesy Keith Taylor

UAE hiking enthusiast continues to inspire after his death

Roy Richards, who helped popularise the sport in the UAE, is continuing to inspire others, and his widow is vowing to continue his work.

Jebel Sumayni was Roy Richards's favourite mountain out of all the peaks he scaled in the UAE and Oman. But until the long-time Abu Dhabi resident began publicising it more than a decade ago, the name of this mountain just over the Oman border near Hatta would most likely have elicited a response of "Jebel where?"

Thanks to his efforts, the log book tucked away in the base of the summit cairn overflows with comments in English, Arabic, German, Mandarin, French and other languages used by those who were inspired to make an ascent using the information Richards posted on his website, www.chirri2000.com.

Among the comments is one from Richards himself dated 2010, when he scaled Jebel Sumayni for the umpteenth time with "a great group of climbers mad enough to follow me up here".

The date of this return is poignant because, by then, the lymphoma that had laid him low 11 years earlier was beginning to manifest itself again after many illness-free years. In June this year, Richards died of complications at the University College Hospital in London; he had still been aiming to return to Abu Dhabi, where he had spent most of his adult life, ascend more mountains like Jebel Sumayni and post more information on www.chirri2000.com.

Instead, his website serves as his wider legacy, reaching beyond the circle of friends mourning his passing.

The vast trail of information he left lies in stark contrast to what the UK native found when he arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1979 to work as a haematology lab technician. Reliable maps were difficult to obtain and many expatriates complained there was nothing to do. Undeterred, Richards went out and did it, then advised others how to follow in his boot steps.

For many years, his website, which he created in 2000, was the only source of information available for most of the trips he described. He provided not only rough maps and time estimates but also two additional ways to judge an ascent: the "Liz fear factor", which measured how scared his wife became, and the "Chirri dog factor", which noted how their dog, a saluki-Labrador cross, coped.

Richards' widow, Liz Sowinska, says the website exemplified who he was. "I am so proud of our website. Roy, Chirri and I lived for the adventures that Roy described in so much detail, but in his engaging, entertaining style," says Sowinska, a doctor at Corniche Hospital.

"We believed that he would return to live in Abu Dhabi soon. He would be the house husband and was going to spend time working on the website. He also wanted to get involved with environmental projects as he realised his local knowledge and expertise in marine matters [scuba diving and sailing] might be useful in such projects."

Roy's plans were thwarted when the lymphoma relapsed in 2008. Sowinska says she would like to keep the website going but "it will be a major challenge to try to update Roy's story for everyone who was inspired by him".

Keith Taylor, a friend of the couple in Abu Dhabi, says there was no doubt that Richards helped people discover the outdoors in the UAE, both through his website and through the trips he led for the Emirates Natural History Group.

"Chirri2000.com was way before anything else," Taylor says. "He encouraged people to get out and explore the mountains and he made use of the technology to help people share with each other."

Richards "grasped life with both hands," Taylor says. "He was very open minded and friendly with everyone, without prejudice. That was a strong characteristic of him and Liz."

Another friend, Andrew Bean, says that before chirri2000.com, there was effectively no information about most hikes in the UAE.

"He was often the first one to go out there and walk on these mountains and make it publicly available on the web," he says.

On his website, Richards attributed his motivations to a sense of curiosity and adventure that he had as a child growing up in London.

When it came to his favourite mountain, Jebel Sumayni, he wanted others to have some of the pioneering experiences.

"Be warned that I've deliberately limited the amount of detail in the climbing route to key landmarks so you can still have a bit of fun finding your own route between these," he wrote.

In a 2007 interview for an international backpacking podcast, Richards explained how he and his wife lived in Abu Dhabi but preferred to spend as much time as they could outside the city, despite the challenges of distance, summer temperatures and lack of water.

"Between us and the mountains, there's lots and lots of sand," he said. "We have to travel probably at least 100 miles before we get to any hills, which is where the best walking is.

"One of the biggest problems is taking so much water. I think I took six litres but I don't need much. Other people took 8 to 9 litres and that's 8 to 9kg straight away."

For all the obstacles standing in the way, Richards explained, it was always worth the effort to get to the outdoors.

"A lot of people like to hike", he said "but they don't know how to do it".

 

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