x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The rocky road to heaven

The great outdoors John Henzell follows an ancient shepherd's trail in Ras Al Khaimah, the UAE's most famous mountain route.

The Stairway to Heaven works its way up with a series of natural ledges.
The Stairway to Heaven works its way up with a series of natural ledges.

With every step we took upwards on the Stairway to Heaven, our admiration increased for the unknown Bedouins who created the UAE's most famous mountain route. Where we tried to remain calm while ascending narrow drystone staircases with a 300-metre drop to one side, they had to perch on the same cliff and place each rock to create this improbable route from Wadi Galilah in Ras al Khaimah to the high mountain villages located just over the border in Oman. Where we came prepared with sturdy hiking boots, they had traditionally done this route in sandals.

But we regained a tiny degree of credibility by facing a difficulty the originators of this route did not have: mobile phones. Nearly six hours after leaving the four-wheel drives at the bottom of the wadi, one of our group, Shawn, was just below the top of the route and was doing an airy traverse on polished holds above a yawning drop when his phone began to ring. I was even more impressed when he answered it.

"Yeah, hi," he said. "Ah, well, it's actually not really a good time for me to talk right now. Sure. OK, bye." Having mobile phone reception on every part of the route underscored the way old and new coexist on the Stairway to Heaven. Nobody seems entirely sure how long this route has existed, but it clearly dated back to a time when cars, roads and international borders were all abstract concepts compared to the task of getting from the villages in the bottom of the wadi to their counterparts in the mountains.

One thing that was certain from even a modest search for reports by others who had come this way, was that there have been nearly as many nightmares on this route as there are goats in Ras al Khaimah. The RAK police had even contemplated closing the Stairway to Heaven because of all the deaths and rescues that take place on it, with some blaming a four-wheel-drive guidebook to the region for citing it as a day out - albeit with warnings that it was a serious undertaking - when it should only be attempted by those with mountaineering experience.

Even one of the rock-climbing guides to the region described it as being "a five-star expedition with over 2,000 metres of ascent and descent [which] is not for the unfit, inexperienced or the fainthearted". Although I was going with the Abu Dhabi Alpine Club - a loose affiliation of mountaineers who describe themselves on their website as "earning money in a hot and sandy corner of the planet so we can spend more time in its high and frozen bits" - there remained a degree of trepidation that our Stairway to Heaven expedition might still turn into a Highway to Hell.

With this long history of problems in our minds, eight of us set off before dawn, almost as soon as it was light enough to see our way up the wadi bed. At first, the route had a distinctly New Zealand backcountry feel - like travelling up an untracked riverbed consisting of enormous boulders and beside walls of mud and stones seemingly held in place by force of habit rather than the laws of physics.

In New Zealand, though, there would be a river flowing and its absence here made our lives easier. There had been flash floods here a week before, which had left a legacy of boulders teetering precariously on plinths of mud and gravel, besides which we passed while silently praying to whichever deity worked for us that our passage would neither cause nor coincide with their collapse. The wadi headed straight towards the middle of the intimidating amphitheatre of cliffs, forming a T-junction at the base. Immediately ahead were the remains of terraced fields, a smattering of trees and some simple stone structures dating from the days when subsistence farming happened here, although off to one side was a blue plastic tarpaulin covering a cache of some kind that suggested it must still be used occasionally.

Immediately behind the village, there was a waterfall where water seeped and dripped from the recent rains, collecting in a series of modest pools below, and off to the right, a band of cliffs formed around a large dry waterfall. This was the improbable-looking descent route for those doing the circuit up Stairway to Heaven, across Jebel al Jais, the UAE's highest peak, and then down this easier-looking ridge.

Our route went up along a steep stream bed strewn with boulders, leading over a series of rock steps and then into an ugly-looking erosion gully consisting of yet more widow-maker rocks held in place by forces that were not immediately obvious. I was relieved to see a way to avoid this unpleasantness, keeping hard to the western side of the valley where a series of steep terraces threaded a route that skirted the gully.

The sudden increase in steepness was reflected in a corresponding drop in the amount of conversation, although that might also have been because we could now see the cliff line up which the Stairway to Heaven was located. At first glance, the cliffs looked almost sheer but when observed with a mountaineer's eye, there seemed to be a fairly obvious route following natural ledges. It was the next bit that looked a little sketchy.

However in the finest tradition of what I'd like to think was mountaineering confidence, but which I suspect was more accurately described as wilful stupidity, I figured that bit would become obvious once we reached it. From contact with others, I knew this was not necessarily certain. One person I'd emailed had made several unsuccessful trips in the previous few months. "I've been there three times now and I never made the whole trip in one day," he told me.

"We made it almost to the top but we wasted so much time searching for those stairs that we had to turn back from that point. "Sometimes it is not obvious where the next flight of the stairs is and it is crucially important to find it fast if you aim to complete the hike in one day. GPS [Global Positioning System] helps, but not with locating the stairs - too detailed." Another trip report came from an expat resident in the UAE who had been invited along by a friend without fully understanding what was in store.

He reported: "NEVER - NEVER - attempt this climb without someone who had done it before a few times, and is very knowledgeable of the area. It is easy to get lost. "It was not so easy. I was not fit, I did not carry enough water or food. Had it not been for my Austrian friend, I would have probably had to spend the night on the mountain until my body cooled off and I could climb down in the morning before the sun beat down on the route back."

At least this was good news for us, because the Abu Dhabi Alpine Club group featured not one, but two Austrian friends: Thomas and Katrin. Maybe it was the benefit of several decades of mountaineering experience between us, but I was surprised how logical the route's location was, in each case following what seemed to be the obvious line of least resistance. When there was no obvious natural way to surmount one of the lines of rock strata, a staircase would appear to take us to the next ledge.

The Bedouin stonemasons' skill was humbling to see and on each staircase, every single rock was absolutely solid despite the unknown amount of time since any maintenance. We made our way steadily upwards, following a series of ledges and the occasional staircase until we reached the point that had seemed sketchy from below, to find that up close it looked just as sketchy, but closer. After a couple of utterances of "Guys, I'm not sure about this ...", that was far enough for me. The route seemed OK going up but since we were coming down the same way, I bravely opted to wait and have a one-man meeting of the Abu Dhabi Wussies Club, instead.

Of the eight of us, three made it to the top, two others stopped about 50m below at the start of the polished and exposed traverse, which was where Shawn received his phone call from a friend inquiring about how the climb was going. The others down-climbed to my position - I took the comments about shaky "Elvis legs" as they arrived as a testament to how much more difficult it had been to descend with the unavoidable view of the 300m drop immediately below.

The way down was less intuitive than the ascent but thanks to the Austrian friend, we found our way back to the bottom of the lowest staircase and to the safety of the scree slope, where it was just a case of punishing our knees to return to the four-wheel drives and then find the nearest shop selling ice creams - another modern innovation that I'm sure the ancient Bedouins who created this route would have wholeheartedly endorsed.

jhenzell@thenational.ae