to write or not to write? this is the question

Last week a walker who’s plan had been to complete a circuit in the Wadi Ghalilah area in the Hajar Mountains, just outside of Ras Al Khaimah, was late ringing in to his family as planned. This obviously worried them greatly and they tried to do something to raise the alarm and in the process a friend of mine, Simon Cahill of Arabia Outdoors, was contacted. To mount a search in this part of the Hajar mountains is a particularly difficult task. The ground is very steep and uncompromising mountainous terrain, its a very big area that even includes an international border plus there is a very limited number of people in the area with the expertise to even participate in the search let alone organise it. On top of that the alarm was raised as it was getting dark. Although the family were worried there was a high probability that the walker was just running a bit later than planned. A search of walking reports from this area will show plenty of people who have been for an adventure there who have found it tougher than the expected and got back down later than planned so it is a normal thing to have happen.

Early the next morning, with the walker still missing, Ras Al Khaimah police mounted a search at first light that also utilised their helicopter. Unfortunately they found the walkers body, a tragic outcome for the persons family and friends.

While I don’t know how they are feeling as I don’t know them at all and I believe its important not to assume, what I do know is how I’ve felt in the past when close friends have died in mountaineering accidents, its tough as hell. A couple of them (there have been 4 total in 3 separate incidents) were very very close friends, the kind who don’t slip out of your memory, the kind I will always miss. Procrastinating about what it is I’ve been asked to do has meant they have been right at the forefront of my mind more than usual and its caused some tough moments for me in the past few days as a result. I wish I could talk to them about it, their thoughts and opinions would be great to have right now (and always).

What it is I’ve been questioning is I’ve been asked by Outdoor UAE to submit a piece concerning the accident. Part of the reason for this is that there has been quite a bit of news coverage in the national press here in the UAE. This is partly because the walkers planned route included the infamous, notorious and spectacular Stairway To Heaven (a ‘path’ that follows a wild line up through the Wadi Ghaliah headwall built by the Hajar’s hill tribes to give them a shortcut between RAK and the large plateau area at the top). There are sections where the tribesmen built steps out of piles of stones, the thing is that these so called steps seem to defy gravity as the piles of stones extend out from the cliff.

The Stairway to Heaven is describes in Explore Publishing’s UAE Offroad Guide and is therefore one of the only walking routes described in any detail in any easily available publication. This is something lots of people seem to have an opinion on 🙄

The reporting that I have seen in the national press has at best had significant inaccuracies based on the information I have been given, but at worst has been sensational badly written tripe full of contradictions. Put simply its been SHITE in my opinion. My ‘source’, Simon, is certainly what I would describe as very trustworthy and has been closer than most to the actual story. It is a fact that there are no witnesses to the incident that lead to this persons death but there are some reasonable assumptions that can be made based on what information I have and after discussions with other people who know the area and the same information I think we are agreed that in all likelihood the incident that lead to the injuries happened at about 5pm in an area of steep broken ground quite late in the descent. i.e. NOT a fall from the spectacular and exposed Stairway to Heaven as every paper seems to have reported (one even reported that he had fallen into a crevasse!! Yeah, right, the UAE is famous for its crevasses obviously).

So eventually (sorry not very good at getting to the point, it takes a while) I get to my original question regarding the piece I’ve been asked to write. Its been requested something concerning both the accident AND mountain safety itself.

Well the accident bit of it is easy because I think I have access to good information. The problem is the mountain safety advice.

I have some quite strong opinions on this kind of thing, the kind that some folks might get very wound up over and while it might not seem like it sometimes I don’t actually like to wind people up, flip side is I’m confident my opinions are pretty good and based on some significant personal experience from a lot of time playing a lot of ‘outdoor’ games so perhaps some people would do as well to listen.

In a nutshell I think that if folks want a nice safe life free from any risk then more fool them. Let them sit on the sofa watching telly and get obese (DOH! so much for avoiding risk ha ha!!). If folks want to do what some would perceive as stupid and risking such injury that may even put their life in danger then let em fill their boots. Why not?

NB I dont support at all folks doing stupid things that put other people in danger! Those tossers weaving through the traffic at breakneck speeds in huge 4wd vehicles on the Emirates Road in Sharjah (still dont get why the driving is so bad specifically on that bit of road). I’d love to see those people caught by the police and prosecuted with the full force of the law.

But folks putting themselves at risk for shits and giggles, why not? See the problem is that both risk and safety are completely subjective, one persons dangerous could be another persons walk in the park.

Safety guidelines that fit with the ethos of the adventurous activities/games we play have always seemed fundamentally flawed. Some examples:

  1. Never go alone – problem is I’ve had some of my best experiences in the outdoors alone. I love not having to organise or be organised. I love the simplicity of it and the pure feeling of self reliance. It may be mountain biking, mountaineering, kayaking or climbing. By myself the other day kayaking on the Black Run at Wadi Adventure, no one could see me, no one was ‘watching my back’. It felt like an easy place to maybe take a roll, wouldn’t be hard if this happened to smack my face on an obstacle under the water and brain myself, unconcious, injured and upside down I’m up against that fundamental safety problem with watersports that humans cant breathe water. By the time I’d have come into view of the rafting base I would have been in a bit of a state. But it felt great, exciting and empowering, the same as soloing a climb. These are things that on the surface are a bit daft but a lot of people know the benefits can outweigh the risks.
  2. Only go where you know where you are going or where someone you are with has experience – wheres the exploration and fun in that!!!!  If this is one of the things everyone should be doing then how is anyone ever going to find anywhere new? Around the world nations hold their famous explorers as hero’s, think of the places no one would know about, both a big and small scale if this, sensible on the surface of it guideline had been adhered to by everyone.
  3. Stay within your abilities – another load of tripe. My recommendation is to go out and take a great big bite of more than you can chew. Nothing beats that feeling of ‘oh shit, here we go’ but then succeeding despite it, even failing and taking a pasting feels great in the end because you tried. How will you ever know your current limits if you don’t explore right up to and beyond where you think they might be. Staying within your comfort zone is just a route to a life of mediocrity, cardigans and slippers. Bleugh!!

So from receiving a request for an article about guidelines for mountain safety I find myself wanting to say to everyone go out and find your limits, even cross the line where you think they may be and do it where you know nothing about where you are and do it alone!!

Hmmmm, doesn’t sound very sensible does it, hmmmmm, does sound kinda fun though!

If you choose to accept my, what I think is excellent, advice can I just point out something that I think is VERY IMPORTANT. If you follow my advice dont come crying to me, or anyone else for that matter, when it all goes horribly wrong.

Take responsibility for yourself and your actions.

That is the thing that is most likely to actually keep you safe. Forget any poxy safety guidelines written in some mythical outdoor safety manual. Do your research, make a plan, be properly prepared and then go and have a fantastic adventure with only yourself to blame for the consequences. This can be done with other people, taking responsibility doesn’t just happen when your solo.

Every one I know who are what could be described as good climbers/kayakers/mountaineers/surfers/outdoorsmen etc are all people who fully take responsibility for themselves. They make sure they fully understand the game they are playing and plan, prepare and then get out there. Some times they get their butts kicked and everyone laughs about it over a drink. Sometimes its not funny at all and the consequences are brutal for all concerned. Why folks continue to do it despite these consequences is a whole other blog post I’ll need to help me think about it.

to write or not to write? hmmmm, dont know.

Lastly to the family, just in case someone one of you reads this, please accept my sincerest condolences. It tore me apart when similar happened to me but I’m soooooo glad I knew them and they were my friends. I’m pretty sure that none of them or me can/would/could/should change a thing. They were all people who’s light burned brightly and I loved them very much for that and miss them badly.

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