It had a reputation, this hike.
“You fall and you will die.”
“Like climbing vertical stepping stones. Some stones very loose on the staircases. Most stones actually.”
“It’s not a hike at all, take a guide or you will never make it.”
Of course this only enthused us.
It had the reputation of being the hike to do in the United Arab Emirates, a country known for its malls, not its mountains.
We consoled ourselves, we were mountain guides after all, how hard could it be?
However, if you want your own read of a few epics and some worthwhile advice, perhaps a few of the stories here might capture your interest. Yes, for a climber, it can be described as a moderate scramble, if also frighteningly exposed.
For someone who likes a trail and isn’t experienced at desert mountains and navigation, yes, you could fall off and die. Just saying.
Not necessarily a “hike” for the faint hearted.
Being experienced in the ways of the desert after two years in Dubai, and a few weeks walking across the Hagar Mountains of Oman, we had a plan.
We would camp at the base to get up early and avoid the heat. The problem with that plan was it was so hot overnight we lay quietly sweating all night, next to a goat farm (goats aren’t known for sleeping a lot it seems) with the occasional loud braying of a neighboring donkey, to celebrate the midnight hour.
So pre-dawn we were up, the coffee bubbling, the running packs filled.
After all, we were climbing to heaven.
It was already too hot, we were sweating as we left camp. So much for our plan.
The wadi walking for the first two kilometers was civilized, some waking up time, some goats to shoo off the trail.
Not the most reliable of tracking, but Strava says this is where we went, how fast, or slow and how very high up we were
Above the rock walls rose, over 1,000 meters of vertical shutting out the sun and the sky. A faded arrow marked the turn off to the big circle. A civilized, safe and well packed trail led to the right.
We could come down that way, creating a big circular trek. But our route led up left through the cliffs, across the ridge and along the plateau in Oman. Then reaching the far side we would drop down another ridge, and follow a well worn track that came down on the right.
The trail disappeared and we ascended up steep, unconsolidated scree.
We followed a meandering Wikiloc trail, like many here, of dubious value, better known for just causing more trouble than really showing the way.
The GPS, the cliffs, the thin exposed terraces all precluded much accuracy, only indicating at some point, the route perhaps went a certain way – then again, whoever went this way was perhaps lost as well?
At the head of the scree, cliffs rose vertically, a horizontal terrace led thinly left, then up, then right. An occasional cairn indicated the route, some well placed, some just enough off route to confuse. A 100 meters higher a thin terrace led across an abyss below, the exposure was already evident.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was not enough time on big cliffs recently, as suddenly the trail wasn’t very trail like. It was a tiny, thin ledge leading around a corner, finger holds above, heels over the air below.
Vertiginous comes to mind. Or just plain scary.
We wove, we twisted, we climbed up onto a long terrace above. Then up and down we went, out to the centre of the wall. The way ahead kept defying visual logic. When it looked impossible ahead the way would dip behind a boulder, pop out below on the other side, skirt a cliff and then abruptly switchback.
It was a vertical maze that was both thrilling and a bit terrifying at the same time.
Then we came upon it, the famed stones. Ten meters of flat stone carefully stacked into a dihedral, going up and up, an ancient staircase connecting the low wadi below with the broad plateau of the rim leading into Oman.
This is it we thought, and I scrambled up first, not wanting to have to watch.
It was hands and foot climbing, a shade under vertical, keeping the toes wedged on the inside rocks in the hope they were more stable. Stepping onto a staircase of stacked rocks, there for 100’s of years – must be solid? One stack or perhaps two I thought would get us up?
No, we wound up a staircase, traversed a terrace. Another, and then another staircase. Each distinctive, some short a abrupt, straight up. Others twisted and turned. Some started out left, then switched cracks and went right.
Thinner, shakier, slate stacked atop boulders stacked atop a stick or two.
It was ingenious and a touch insane. It was big wall exposure, on ancient stacked stones. Weaving, twisting and turning we ascended. Staircase after staircase.
It was ultimately, like big wall climbing, a matter of getting accustomed to the exposure.
Then it became fun, but still with enough tension, with wondering if the stones, having lasted in place for eons, might decide to come loose and tumble down, with us amongst them.
After a few stairways, the art of them became clear. The passage was improbably, just humanly possible with navigation worked out centuries ago, art in the stone work and a strong dose of magic from the creators.
We rose up towards the rim, thankfully being still hidden under the cliff in the shade. The final terraces wove out, a few more staircases, then pop.
Over the top of the rim, sitting in Oman in the sun on flat ground.
A goat wandered up to share our late breakfast as we crunched rolls, sipped coffee and ate a few mandatory desert dates.
The real fun was over, but another 300 vertical meters, across the stark and dry plateau led up brushy, trail-less slopes and onto the main ridge of the Hagar Mountains.
We galloped along, the mountains extending far out to the east and dropping into the Sea of Oman.
Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of border posts.
Piecing together goat trails, a bad 4 wheel drive track and then a drop back onto a ridge jutting back into the canyon took us into a 4-house stone village, under a few palms, past the ubiquitous goat and onto the top of the right branch of the trail.
We saw our first fellow hikers, huffing and puffing upwards in the sun, along the crafted steps set into the top of this side.
Shelters every 200 meters provided a bench and a respite. Down a 1,000 meters, or was it 1,500 (it is always further down) dropping and dropping, quads burning, heat rising, water going.
Back in the recesses of the canyon the shade returned. We could look up at the route, the cliff we had climbed looked even more impossible.
That we had simply climbed up through it, scrambled up the endless steps and popped out atop it all a few hours before – yes it was truly, a Stairway to Heaven.
A final warning – if not clear above, if you are experienced in mountain and desert conditions, enjoy exposure and are willing to take the risk of century old staircases collapsing on you, this is an amazing and exciting adventure.
If you can go with someone who is experienced and done it before, certainly not a bad idea.
This is not a hike, and if you want to read more, there are plenty of epics detailed online about this route – from taking twice the amount of time we did, to running out of water, to being benighted.
To yes, very sadly, dying.
So in the words of Whymper, who made the first ascent of the Matterhorn and put it so well:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.”
It may be the Stairway to Heaven, you just don’t want to end up there any earlier than necessary.