Beautiful but treacherous route demands experienced guides, fit hikers, patience and caution, say veterans of the UAE's top trail.
Warnings issued about popular hiking route
RAS AL KHAIMAH // Mountaineers have warned that the Stairway to Heaven hiking route is unrivalled in the Emirates when it comes to degree of difficulty, as a succession of recent accidents demonstrates.
The dangers were pointed out recently when the evacuation of a hiker who suffered a fractured leg took a full day to accomplish. Although the incident could have happened anywhere in the mountains, it raised concerns about the growing renown of the UAE's most popular, and most dangerous, route.
The trail takes an average of 10 to 12 hours to complete and its exposed cliffs, some of them hundreds of metres long, make it much more treacherous than others in the mountains.
It's daunting even for fit climbers comfortable with such exposure, who said less experienced hikers need to know what to expect.
"Stairway's virtually the only one that's well known and the reason is because people have had epics," said Brian Parry, the director of adventure activities at the outdoor adventure company Al Shaheen. "People get excited and start to take chances. If you're a novice you're making assumptions that it's going to be OK."
The route owes much of its popularity to being mentioned in the book UAE Off-Road Explorer. Although the guide carries a strong warning about the trek, some have questioned whether the route should be included at all as it is completely different to other hikes because of its demands.
"The main thing about Stairway is it should never even be in the book," said John Gregory, who has done the Stairway some 20 times and has hiked the RAK mountains since the mid-1980s. "It's a matter of common sense. The best word to use is that it's misleading. It's so different to anything else in the book and as a result many people have run into difficulties."
The editor of the book's last edition said its opinion of the route's challenges was clearly outlined in its pages, adding that the trail's growing notoriety was not due to its appearance in the guide.
"Issues are raised every time an unfortunate incident or accident occurs on the Stairway to Heaven route," who edited the last edition of UAE Off-Road, in an e-mail.
"We do include the Stairway to Heaven route in the UAE Off-Road Explorer and, as the bright red warnings on every page suggest, we certainly don't consider it comparable to many of the other far easier hikes contained in the guide," said Matt Warnock in an e-mail.
"The Stairway To Heaven route is well-known throughout the region and outdoor enthusiasts would discover and try the route anyway. By including the route in our guide books we can stress the difficulty and warn about the dangers, as well as providing vital advice."
The book states that it is essential for anyone doing the trail for the first time to do it with someone who knows the route inside out. "Only the most competent of hikers or climbers, with experienced guides, should try this stunning but dangerous route," it says.
Many mountain trails throughout the country are unmarked and hard to find, which can lead those unfamiliar with the routes to stray from them. Remote cliffs and valleys along the trail can also turn any rescue operation into a major undertaking and there are no official recovery teams in place.
"Mountaineering and walking here in the UAE can be very secluded," said Aiden Laffey, 38, who has 20 years of hiking and climbing experience. "There are no tracks like other countries and you can find yourself very much in the wilderness."
Mr Laffey has hiked the Stairway six times and it has taken him as long as 16 hours to complete. He has seen the trail grow in popularity over the last five years, a development he views with no little anxiety.
"There's a danger in it," he said. "It's just that accidents happen. It's as simple as that and the more people who go, the more accidents are going to happen. They can't be under any illusion that it's a hike they can do unless they're used to long days hiking."
Mr Laffey has taken matters into his own hands on more than one occasion, warning hikers about the Stairway and its demands. The fact that some of those warned ended up stranded for the night after getting lost was no consolation.
"You're really asking for trouble if you don't know the route," he said. "It's not uncommon for people to get stuck out and have a chilly night out and finish the walk the next day."
Mr Gregory recommended travelling in a group of at least three people so that if someone is injured, one person can stay the night with the victim whole the other one goes for help. If at all unsure of one's fitness or well-being, it is better to stop and turn around, he said.
Taking long walks like the Stairway in large groups can mean more delays due to people wanting to stop or to injury. Coming down can be much more difficult than going up, Mr Gregory cautioned.
While a tolerance for heights and a reasonable level of physical fitness are prerequisites for the trail, having a leader who knows its unmarked paths may be paramount when it comes to safety. Though the Stairway is easily accessed from the nearby roads, potential trekkers should not forget that it is a remote region where global positioning systems may not work.
"GPS points are not really a great deal of use if between you and the next GPS point there's a cliff face," Mr Gregory said.
"If somebody hasn't walked in the mountains here before, it certainly wouldn't be a good idea to send them on up a first walk. The mountains can be inhospitable."
In praise of volunteer rescuers
DUBAI // An Australian hiker is recovering after 10 days in hospital following a tumble on a guided hike of the Stairway to Heaven trail.
Cameron Brooks, 43, fractured his fibia and dislocated his tibia while trekking on the challenging route. He thanked volunteers who stayed with him through a chilly night before they put him in a stretcher and started a six-hour descent.
“If anything made the difference between that being a real epic and a little adventure, it was the fact that they stabilised me very quickly,” said Mr Brooks. “Had we not carried any of that equipment or had experience it could have been a very, very different outcome.”
“If you’re going to head into that terrain, don’t [go] lightly. I’d never been there before and that was why I chose to go with people who [had].”
Mr Brooks had his tibia pinned last Tuesday at Dubai’s Rashid Hospital. He was released this week and is now taking his first tentative steps. The hospital staff remarked on the good job of splinting done by the rescue team, an assessment heartily echoed by their patient.
“The people who rescued me did an amazing job,” said Mr Brooks. “They kept me informed every step of the way and there was really clear leadership every step of the way. They really did a fantastic effort to come out with no notice at all.”
* Anna Zacharias