Trading Antarctica for the Arabian Peninsula – Climbing to the Summit of Oman

Chirps at dawn, small desert birds flitting about and rustling the branches, then diving down into the green water pool. Burros braying and echoing off the cliffs. Coffee steaming. Natural sounds of a morning awakening.

To go up to the top of Oman, first we must go down, into the depths of another wadi. And even before that, we must fill up every vessel with water. We have dreams of camping out atop the highest accessible peak in Oman. Jabal Shams the mountain first to see the sun, hence its name. There is no water on top, or anywhere close. So the packs look much the same as ever, just weigh 8 kilos more.

Headed round a terrace, dodging a juniper tree or two.

The best thing about going to the top of Oman, is no matter how many ups and downs and sideways we do, in the end we will be at the top, and the day will finish there. We have some doubts about the distance, the day and the route, but if we just keep going, we will reach the top. A very simple goal.

That is the great thing about climbing up, to the top of any mountain, it is absolute.

Two Arab men greet us on our way down the trail, wandering up on a day hike from their village below. They have no packs, carry a small bottle of water tucked into their belts. They are encouraging and welcoming and offer us water, a sign of hospitality and kindness in the ever dryness of the desert. We haven’t seen anyone for two days so it is good to see some more people in the mountains.

Ascending the chain ladders leading to the upper terraces on Jabal Shams.

We follow the ultra-marathon trail down to avoid a trail-less traverse option, then up and up until the way ahead is blocked by cliffs and we are forced to the right, the trail ending abruptly at a set of chain ladders leading directly up the cliff. What fun, a mini-via ferrata in the midst of a hike. There is no safety cable however, just 10 meters of near vertical ladder it is best not to fall off of.

It is easier to grasp the chain with the hands and use the bolts that stick out for the feet. We ascend swaying with the weight of the packs, a step at a time. The chains finish a few meters too early, the final steps on sloping slabs, loose rock and sand underfoot, just when you least want to fall and tumble off back down the cliff.

It is hot in the sun, sweaty, perhaps even a bit gripping. We reach a shaded terrace and loop under the cliff, improbably skinny tracks leading around big drops and more loose rock, with cliffs below that don’t bear looking down from. We are climbers too we remind ourselves, good when the packs sway and underfoot the sand and shale shift and the air beneath the feet expands. At one point we shuttle packs, falling off the trail not the way to make it to the top of Oman.

Two years ago at this time I was driving the ever so large and fun snow machine across Union Glacier in Antarctica. Riding in front with me was a woman from Dubai – who had previously never seen snow until her visit to Antarctica.

Aboard the 19 passenger Tucker Snow Cat traversing the Union Glacier in Antarctica. A long ways from the desert, but the snow and the sand move the same, form many of the same patterns.

“It moves the same,” she said. “The snow and the sand blow across the earth and look the same.”

I certainly had never even considered that, the pairing of the Glacier and the desert, but now I’d found it was true. This year I had traded a season in Antarctica for a season in the desert, to discover it for myself. After seven expeditions to Antarctica, the desert was new, held magic I hadn’t imagined it would possess. As much as the lure of the ice, of climbing to the top of Antarctica and sking over the glaciers appealed, it was the difference of the desert environment, that led me into the mountains here. From living atop, skiing over and climbing up endless forms of water everywhere in Antarctica, to searching for even a small pool at the end of a long day in these dry mountains created a completely new adventure.

The terrace eased as we circled the summit cliffs guarding the top of the mountain. As we touched 2,800 meters and stepped into the shade, breezes blustered around. And we were even a touch more breathless, if this many meters could be considered altitude.

Ascending the 2nd chain ladder to the final ridge leading to the top of Jabal Shams.

The trail traversed far across the mountain, then up another 5 meters of chain, a simple abrupt step from a dead tree trunk perched against a cliff, to clutching a series of chains and bolts, before an un-glamourous crawl onto a terrace led to a small pass, a tiny stone hut, and an expansive view south.

Sleeping on the summit, sleeping on a top of a mountain in Oman? Perhaps a bit chilly, perhaps a bit windy, perhaps too many stars? But the moon had been expanding every night, a full one was in the offing. When we mentioned sleeping on top locals said “OOOh, too cold!” We had Mountain Equipment sleeping bags, they weighed little more than a kilo, but had so far proved even warmer than expected, so we weren’t really worried. It we just had a goat hair blanket, it may be different, but down should deal with even 3,000 meters of winter cold in the dessert.

Our sunrises had been glorious every single morning, our sunsets even more so. Perhaps being on the top of the country would be cool? So we shouldered the weighed down packs and set off up the final kilometer to the top, water sloshing heavily against our backs.

Black slabby rocks tiled the way to the summit, we wove up through twisted juniper with thick trunks and low lying branches. They hugged the earth like overgrown snowballs, formed into tight circles by the wind and the incessant sun, guarding themselves from the elements.

Sunset from atop Jabal Shams.

A solitary plinth with a steel plate and surrounding destinations etched on it, marked the top. The gentle side we had climbed up ended abruptly in the cliffs we had circled around from below, so the view opened out at our feet. We could see far over to the W shaped mountain we had climbed through a week before. Looking over the mountains, the ridges and the plateaus, hovering above the evening haze seemed a very far way to walk. It was good we had come from there, were not going to there. Fifteen meters below the top we found a rock terrace to hide from the wind, threw down the pads and sleeping bags and camp was made.

A half hour later, tea in hand we returned to the top, the sun making its last dive into the far horizon. The sun was roaring with a million shades of burnt orange. The moon came up behind us. Only a light breeze blew and below on the dark rocky slabs, 2 burros kept us company, before they finished dinner and ducked under a large juniper tree for the night.

It was December 18th, the day I had made the first (and only it seems) ascent of a new route on Mount Vinson in Antarctica, climbing alone up the Rolex Ridge. It had been a 20 hour non-stop climb, squeezed into the tail end of my first season in Antarctica. It was a fortuitous day for fun climbs, big views and moments to remember.

Sleeping on top was already seeming a good idea and night hadn’t even come. As the sun burned out below us, we feasted on cream of corn soup, rice and tuna, sprinkled in a wide selection of our 6 spices and finished it all up with a mountain cake and an extra bar of Lindt dark chocolate with a hint of sea salt. It was almost Christmas after all.

The night was pleasantly cool, but our sleeping bags were well fluffed, so we slept comfy, stars now not just above us, but spread out below, around and over us. The moon threw shadows around the rocks and trees. Sleeping on top of the mountain was proving as rewarding as climbing it.

Morning coffee atop Jabal Shams.

As light touched the far horizon in the morning, the coffee was on and bubbling, the day already warm enough to throw on little more than light jacket and walk a minute to the exact summit. The sun rolled into sight, colors of evening orange replaced by the reds and pinks of morning. Haze filled the low valleys, the ridges stood black atop them, dinosaur backs of rocks running across the land. The sun awoke above that, the earth awakening in layers of color and light.

Sunrise with Jabal Shams shadow suspended in the horizon, and a full moon setting down into it.

Behind us, the peak created its own shadow, something I’d seen from the summit ridge on Everest, never imagining the desert would create the same phenomena. It was a touch of earthly magic, enhanced as the full moon sunk into it, framed by the dark shadow of the mountain. Desert breezes and a hot coffee made it a lot more enjoyable than the view around an oxygen mask and fogged goggles from the top of the world on Everest had been.

Morning haze in the valleys, the ridges rising above, the sun about to flood the earth from the top of Jabal Shams.

We shared our leftover breakfast with a few inquisitive goats and galloped off down the trail, all down, with a lodge booked for the night and a rest day in sight. The trail was well marked and well behaved, the packs emptied of our overnight water stash, our feet and legs happy after a full rest amongst the rocks at the top of Oman.

We dropped into the slabby rocks, the trail well marked, and we would actually see real people today. A solo trail runner from Bahrain, a few couples up for the day, maybe 10 people in total, the only day of 15 with any real humanity who were out hiking. We curved around an observatory that had sadly been placed on the real summit of Jabal Shams next door and fenced off, a summit with an extra 7 or so meters more elevation from what was publicly accessible.

Heading down from the summit of Jabal Shams, the upper canyon opens out and drops away into the first views of the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

Then we dropped around the top of what starts as a wadi, then widens into cliffs, and drops 1,000 of meters down into what is popularly known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia. Layers of golden cliffs ringed it, then red bands, before the depths in the deep shadows went dark and juniper trees tucked away in the depths.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, it had no river, only hidden deep shadows and wadis dropping down and down into the darkness. Our trail led along the rim, right along the rim, weaving amongst the juniper trees, following terraces and threading ancient tracks hugging the immense drop offs into the canyon.

Wandering down along the rim of the Grand Canyon of Arabia from the summit of Jabal Shams.

Maybe it was the lodge at the base, a real trail to follow, both trail markers and ultra marathon dots guiding us, but we were down before we expected, seeing real people, flopping on a real bed, taking a real shower.

Tomorrow was a rest day, our only rest day – a wash the sock day, a feast on food day, a not move an inch further than needed day. For from here we were going out onto some remote donkey tracks, some unused for 50 years, and where no villages existed, only high summer camps, and buried in the wadis, some hidden gardens were promised.

A welcome stop and rest day at the Sama Heights Resort at the base of Jabal Shams.

If we had been walking all day and into the night on our first 10 days, the next section sounded more remote, more challenging and less populated. An Antarctica of the desert.

Part 3 of the 15 day walk across the Hajar Mountain Traverse, Oman. Subscribe to the emails to read about our continued journey onto the heights and into the depths of the Traverse.