‘A stunning line; a desert hybrid of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses and The Nose of El Capitan’.
Quite a statement you’ll agree. Was the French Pillar on Jebel Misht to live up to the guidebook’s description?
Work took me to the UAE for a month. Our little dust bowl of heaven, Ras-al-Khaimah; the most ‘picturesque’ of the Emirates, was a hot, noisy creation. Ostentatious office blocks and lavish homes, surrounded by garish walls, were incongruous in the otherwise empty, sterile desert. I’d never been anywhere like it, the overlooking mountains felt harsh, barren, and unforgiving.
Oman’s Jebel Misht lay just over the border, purportedly the tallest cliff in the Arabian peninsula, with routes up to 900 metres in length. First climbed in 1979 by a French team, the topo suggested fewer than a dozen ascents in total, of which only a few hadn’t needed a bivvy. Photos revealed a striking arête running the length of the cliff; with tricky pitches up to E3 interspersed with scrambling, returning to harder climbing high on the head wall. Given how intimidating the local climbing and mountains were, I wasn’t overly convinced it was a great idea.
Before long, work had ended, leaving us four days to nip over the border, climb the route, and return in time for our flight. Car hire was entertaining. Rental companies were on several levels; at the high end, suit-clad employees in swanky offices spoke perfect English, offering flash cars. They obviously didn’t recognise us as tight arsed climbers. At the lower end, we found the Trotter Brothers, operating from the bottom of a high rise, who wanted to keep our passports as a deposit, perfect considering we may have needed them for the border crossing… We chose a company somewhere in-between.
The Mitsubishi Lancer looked great in the fading light the night before, we were transported back to playing ‘Colin McRae Rally’ on Playstations as kids. Daylight revealed reality, we wouldn’t be rallying. Equally though, we didn’t need to worry about adding to its ‘character’, scratches and dents adorned its bodywork. Turning left was normal. Turning right was nothing short of magnificent; tyres screeched wildly at the faintest of touches, it could have been used in Bullitt (later inspection revealed only two locking nuts per wheel, we’re glad we didn’t know sooner). We definitely didn’t do laps of the roundabout- that would have been childish.
We chose to ‘cuff it’ and not bother with a map, it seemed there was only one road into Oman anyway. It was desolate. Tiny villages; a smattering of homes, the odd petrol station, a mosque, there was little else to break the expanse of nothing-ness. Miles of shimmering sand and broken rock gave way to deep wadis, mountains looming above angular, and foreboding. No trees. No shrubs. No wildlife. And then another tiny village. We speculated about the locals’ lifestyle, so different from our own. Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands blared from the speakers. It seemed fitting.
Eventually we saw the mountain for the first time. It resembled a huge ship’s prow, jutting from nowhere, far grander than I’d envisaged. Our line was obvious, and elegant, even from a distance. Soon enough we stood at the approach, gazing across. The cliff was twice or three times as wide as it was tall; deep grooves and niches punctured the multi-coloured horizontal rock bands, each distorting the fading light differently; yellow, ochre, gold, orange and pink- it was stunning.
We trotted in, stashing our climbing kit on the last steep approach slopes. The route looked even better, and more intimidating now; it was going to happen, no longer pub talk. A quick drive to the other side enabled us to hide some bikes which work had kindly leant us. Otherwise a 25 kilometre walk back would have ensued. We also left provisions we knew we’d need after a big day- Haribo and Leffe. Desert dehydration is a curse after all.
Sleeping in the open, under the stars, with only a cotton liner and mat was a first for me. Shooting stars raced across the sky, the Misht’s daunting south face silhouetted starkly against the deep blue night. I vacillated between feeling calm and anxious. I was glad to have such a strong partner; having climbed E6, the Eiger, and the Idwal Slabs in the rain, I knew Mike would cruise it.
Nutella and banana wraps were surprisingly difficult to get down at 3 am, though we tried valiantly. We were glad not to have encountered snakes or scorpions while going to the loo in the night. Dawn was astounding; a patchwork of emerald fields revealed itself in the distance, the first semblance of home I’d witnessed. A palette of colour spilled across the landscape; bright, warm and earthy all at once. White specks appeared on opposite hillsides- isolated homes and farms in the most unlikely of places. It was perfectly still, no sounds availed, it felt strangely sterile, and lonely. It reminded me of the end of a night in a busy pub, the lights turned on obtrusively, only everyone had already left.
Dawn also heralded the start of climbing. A limp, weather beaten rope hung ominously down the first pitch. I began to wonder why it lay there, abandoned at the start. Had someone had an epic? Before I could start to think and worry, Mike whipped his shirt off, and, with a wry smile, cheerfully said ‘sun’s out, guns out’. I couldn’t break it to him that they were more super-soaker than AK in calibre.
The first three pitches were graded HVS, E3 and HVS respectively. On the whole, the rock was solid and reasonably protected. Excellent moves on rough limestone in a stunning corner crack led to thin face climbing. Accounting for just over 100 metres’ climbing, it felt much higher, the approach slopes plunged to the desert floor, distorting our sense of place. We untied from the ropes, stowing them in our bags, ready to solo the easier, though spectacularly exposed scrambling section.
Sustained scrambling on smooth, solid rock sent us up various groove systems, and out into the middle of the face. Mike was practically running up it, I took my time, very aware of the void lurking below. An insitu rope beckoned us up a ramp, to a slippery groove, devoid of positive holds. A quote from an old Clint Eastwood film flashed in my mind- ‘a man’s got to know his limitations’. I did, and gratefully accepted the rope which Mike anticipated I’d appreciate. Shortly after we arrived on the crest of the ridge and the main bivvy site of the ’79 expedition. The strong French team spent a month on the wall, looking for new lines. A few relics of their camp remained, old tins and cooking utensils testament to their toil and adventure years ago.
The crest narrowed, providing what we agreed was the best scrambling we’d ever done. Smeary steps and corners abounded, all on immaculate rock. We were flying. A sphincter tightening section arrived, a car width across, a fall to the left would end in a good drop rocky ledges. The reality though, was that any slip would result in a freefall to the right, down a 500 metre overhanging wall- a base jumper’s delight. Mike raced up it, his whoops of joy conveying its quality. I felt queasy at the prospect, it looked steady enough, but reliant on sloping footholds and small crimps.
‘You can have a rope if you want Will, but you’ll definitely regret it’ Mike shouted helpfully. I pondered. I could really, really regret it though I thought. I peered down again. Jesus. Never in my life had I been in such an exposed position, it was outrageous. I surprised myself, my hands chalked themselves up seemingly of their own accord. Amazingly they pulled on. I stepped up, heart in mouth, I could feel the emptiness below pulling at my feet, daring them to pop off. I had to commit to a high rock over, shifting my hips as carefully as I could. And then it was over. We stood grinning from ear-to-ear, the piston in my chest beating furiously. Phwoar!
We estimated we had 300 metres left, so took ten minutes’ rest. Three litres of water, power bars, tuna and a jumper were all we carried. As far as we knew, there was no rescue team, nor hope of a helicopter. We had decided to leave the first aid kit- if an accident was bad, it’d be really bad. And if it wasn’t, we’d just think big, strong thoughts! It was at this point we realised we’d neglected to put any sun screen on, both now a nice shade of crimson.
Craning our necks, we scoped for a line of weakness in the impending steep and overhanging ground ahead. Moving together over steady but serious ground took us to the last pitch of E3, the sting in the tail. It seemed from reports that previous teams had bivvied somewhere around here. We were glad not to, it wasn’t overly enticing. The pitch was easier than the lower ones, it was swiftly done. Route finding became more difficult, a few pitches of cheesegrater-like rock led us to the base of an easy looking corner.
It looked innocuous enough; VS climbing up a groove to what looked like a huge, flat ledge with a walk to a tree belay. Innocuous it was not. Footholds disintegrated as they were weighted, no gear appeared. I looked at my belay; a poor cam and sapling, then at what lay below. I felt tense. Mike reached the ledge, only it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a sloping, barrel-like feature, requiring trust in smeary footholds on bad rock. He fiddled in an alien and a wire, then committed to the traverse. I could tell he was having to concentrate properly for the first time, which didn’t bode well for me.
I wanted to rename it the ‘Talc Traverse’, its consistency varying from talc to a paper-thin hard skin over mush. I climbed as carefully as I could, trying to trick myself into not being scared. It seemed to work- the prospect of a fall was so bad that I wouldn’t concede to the thought of it occurring. I was in little doubt of the consequence; a thirty metre pendulum would send my ropes over menacingly sharp edges. I began the traverse and focused on breathing calmly. Soon enough I reached the sanctuary of the tree belay and the last easy pitches to the summit. It was in the bag.
Eight and a half hours’ climbing put us on the summit. The panorama was spectacular. As seems to be tradition here, a huge national flag (the size of a small swimming pool) hung down from the summit. We lazed in the sun for an hour, finishing our food and water, psyching up for the abhorrent walk off. A moonscape of jagged rocks, deep clefts, and unrelentingly steep ground, demanded concentration throughout. We longed to be reunited with our goody bag stashed below. ‘Do you think it feels snakey?’ Mike asked. As dusk and darkness approached, I had to confirm. I was tired enough not to care, stumbling and swearing profusely till I reached for my head torch.
Drinking beer was the obvious priority, we drank them quickly, the Leffe’s strength hitting our weary heads quickly. The tarmac felt warm and damp, sweaty even, a contrast to the clear, cooling night’s air. Stars revealed themselves in abundance. A truck approached us, its lights dazzlingly bright. We hid our beer bottles quickly, not in the mood for any hassle, after all, we shouldn’t be drinking. It drove past quickly. Stopped. And reversed. The driver kindly checked if we were okay, I suppose he wouldn’t often see two westerners lying limply in the road. We smiled, nodded and with a quick ‘salaam’, was gone. The void of sound returned. We mounted our steeds and began the bike ride back, stopping off for a cheeky kebab on the way back. We were on holiday after all!
An alpine route in the middle of the desert- quality. The French Pillar has everything you would want in a route; buckets of exposure, technical pitches, history and flow- a true adventure. It is an elegant, aesthetic line. It was fantastic.
Car-to-car (with a kebab): 16 hours.
(The French Pillar is the most travelled route of the crag, other routes exist from E1 to 7c. We climbed it in December, where daily temperatures were roughly 25 degrees. The main climbing season is December to March)