x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hiking safety standards under study

Workshops held to set minimum standards for professional guides.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The local mountaineering community has begun a series of workshops to set minimum standards for professional guides and appropriate areas for them to work in, to cope with an increase in hiking tourism.

The talks, which started this week, follow a guided hike where 17 people trekked the challenging Stairway to Heaven route during RAK's worst rainstorm this year.

Some participants had limited hiking experience and many mountaineers felt the group was lucky that a fractured leg was the worst injury.

"There is no standard policy or regulation body in the UAE for what you must and mustn't have for taking people into the hills," said Brian Parry, the director of adventure activities at the outdoor adventure company Al Shaheen, which acts as a government consultant.

"In the UK and other parts of the world, most outdoor centres will sit together and have a set of agreed competencies. The UAE hasn't done that yet."

The UAE's lack of guide books and maps makes an experienced guide essential for hikers new to the Emirates. The surge in mountain tourism is expected to increase the need for better oversight and training.

"The commercial side is growing in the UAE, with lots of companies that have been working on a small scale with differing and independent standards, but the market is growing all the time," said Mr Parry. "People are looking for the next formality and it's something the government needs to work on as well."

Many countries do not required a specific qualification. There are UAE hikers who have spent decades on the mountains and guide friends regularly. Like professionals, they test their friends beforehand or turn them back if needed.

The lack of guidelines was not the only issue under discussion.

Barbara Couldrey, who has trekked in the mountains of Oman and the UAE since the late 1980s, took her friends on a six-hour walk before they did the Stairway to Heaven hike, and bemoaned the lack of formal recovery teams. Rescues are generally made by teams of volunteers and police.

"The trouble is if you get into trouble you're going to involve other people," she said. "The police kindly do a lot of rescues but I do feel we're leaning on those resources sometimes."

Prospective hikers should find guides with the appropriate qualification or relevant experience, said Denis Arkwright, a trail leader with 25 years of experience.

The British Standard Mountain Instructor Award, or its equivalent, would be necessary for the demanding Stairway to Heaven trail, he suggested.

Mr Arkwright recommends that a guide have a minimum of 20 full days in the Gulf mountains, including four or five in summer, in addition to experience abroad.

"It's an exciting time for mountaineering in general in the UAE," said Mr Arkwright. "It's in its infancy and let's hope we can put in place some minimal structures that will allow people to experience these wonderful hills in safety."

azacharias@thenational.ae