"Not all those who wander are lost"

Epic at Wonderwall

Good memories not good decisions




The weekend epic began with an early start.  I was up by 5:30 with only a couple hours of sleep but with the enthusiasm of looking forward to two days of climbing sleep was far from my thoughts.  Nearing the end of my allowed time in UAE I had to leave the country to get a new passport stamp.  The plan to go back to RAK for the weekend was foiled, but instead a new opportunity arose.  RIT would pay for my passport stamp so I could finally climb in Oman.  Keeping this in mind Sam and I settled on Wonderwall, a large and highly talked about crag just over the border.

We arrived at the border between Al Ain and Buraymi and the confusion began.  We drove through the toll booth style entry.  Nobody inhabited the booths so there was no getting checked and no instructions given.  Sam, familiar with going to Oman, knew we needed to go inside to get our passports stamped.  We found some parking spots and a poorly marked building.  Half a dozen doors spattered the side of the building.  Our first attempt was unsuccessful.  We were told we needed to go farther down the building.  Some border officers noticed the dumb, lost Americans and played a nice game of hot-or-cold with us to direct us to the correct door.  When it was our turn we walked up to the desk.  Explaining our plan to go climbing several times they kept asking if we were only going to Buraymi.  Confused we just said yes and paid our 35dhs a piece and continued on our journey.

We came out though a road cut that revealed a great vista.  The desert ahead spread into a small village and beyond the village was the piece de resistance, Wonderwall: a long stretching wall 150m tall.  We drifted our way through the soft sand to the base of the scree and boulders.  Abandoning the car we trekked up the slope to the base of the first area we planned on climbing: Spaghetti Western.  It was a smooth blank looking slab from farther away, but provided sufficient crimps.  Already having picked out the first climb to be a two pitch sport route, Hang em High.  It was good fun climbing through the whole route.  This was Sam’s second multipitch route and the first one where she didn’t get stuck on top for hours in the dark with no light.

Keeping with the trend we moved to another route where Sam got her second lead climb.

It was still early afternoon so we decided to go to the next section over and do a long moderate 3 pitch trad climb that had been rated highly in the book.  The route, Toothless Fox, proved to be confusing from the start.  I had to search to even find the start and ended up climbing ~40ft before I could place any gear or get onto what I knew was actually the route.  The pitch continued in the same manner, only offering up gear placements ever 40ft until I reached a small round alcove which I could stand in, the belay spot.  The problem with this was there was almost nowhere to place pro, especially the 3 minimum pieces for an anchor.  I moved all around trying to find any good crack but was not rewarded.  Finally I returned to the alcove and began to try to place gear.  Testing my first attempted cam placement I yanked on it, breaking the flakey rock it was on and slammed my elbow against the rock.  I attempted a tricam but only managed to punch the rock again and cut up my knuckles when I tested it.  Eventually I managed to find some tenuous placements: a sling looped through a hole, a solid tricam, a sketchy tricam that popped out of it’s cam position but held as nut, and a scary looking but relatively solid cam placed in the constriction on the outside of a runnel.

Sam climbed up, the anchor help, and I started the second pitch.  It was more of the same:  the description was poor and more confusing more than helpful.  I ended up traversing, per the book, creating absurd rope drag when I got to the long sloping ledge that was the next belay  spot.  Unable to pull the rope through I was forced to sling a bit of rock and down climb to my last (and first of the route) cam.  Searching the ledge there was no protection for an anchor.  The ledge sloped inwards to a large wide crack leaving nothing but a crack twice the size of my largest cam.  I found one large boulder in the crack that I hoped was actually attached.  After moving other rocks around to get to it and testing if I could budge it the rock seemed solid.  I built an anchor of three pieces on the boulder and hoped it would stay.  Sam didn’t really test it, but it remained in place.  The third and last pitch finally provided a growing number of gear placements.  The climbing eased as I neared the top so although I finally had the option to place enough gear, I passed up the opportunity anyway.  My run-out tactics were not without reason though.  Darkness was quickly approaching and we needed every minute possible, dealing with gear would have just slowed me down.  It was only Sam’s second multipitch trad climb and I had told her she wouldn’t have to climb in the dark as she had been forced to do before.  She made it to the top just as it was getting dark.

Descending was a whole new epic.  The book describes a slanting rake that is the only way to the top for hikers but we found no such path.  Sam had her headlamp, but I had been sure we started early enough that I didn’t bring mine.  We found what we believed was the decent path and traversed a zig-zagging ledge.  Thanks to the darkness I could not tell, and therefore could forget easier, that next to me the cliff continued hundreds of feet down to the ground.  Several minutes of this moonlight traverse on the narrow ledge brought us to the end.  The ledge melded back into the cliff and we had no way down.  Still not knowing how high we were I decided not to try to rap off from an outcrop of rock fearing it was too high.  It was a good thing because the next morning I spotted our location 2/3 up the cliff).  We turned around and hiked back to the top.  I was sure that we needed to continue farther along the cliff top to find our decent, or worst case find the rap rings for climbs a ways down Wonderwall.  It looked like an awkward traverse around a bulge to continue along the top so Sam decided she’d had enough uncertainty.  We walked back a bit and descended the scree on the back side of the cliff to walk around.  It soon proved to be a primrose path.  The farther we descended the farther we had to go.  Trying to find the end of the crag I walked over a ridge while Sam kept going down to get off of the scree.  The end of the crag was not over the ridge or over the next one either.  From there I could see the clear cliff line stretching way out in front and to the left.  Unfortunately we had already committed to going this way and neither wanted to hike back up and figure out another way down.  I headed back to catch up with Sam but all I could see was a flickering dot in the distance.  I sped down the remaining scree to catch up, going as fast as I could carrying my rope and rack without having any light.  I got down to the flat, rocky desert but could no longer see any sign of light.  Perfect.  I jogged in the direction of the end of the cliff with my gear rattling like a cowbell on my harness.  I held still for a minute and heard a pleasant sound:  “cling, cling, cling.”  No light but I could still hear the gear on her harness.  I kept jogging, pausing ever few minutes to listen and reorient myself.  I caught up quickly in part thanks to Sam because she stopped, thinking she was being stalked by a goat.  We walked.  We walked.  We, oh yeah, walked more.  Finding some good boards to use for firewood we picked them up and continued on carrying our new weight.  After an eternity we made it to the edge of the small town that had looked so far away from the top of the crag.  Lights shown on something exciting, judging by the yells, happening on the other side of an out of place looking fence with barbed wire.  Semi trucks screamed passed us several times a minute from a nearby mining operation.  We continued walking.  I execrated the cliff and more so our decision.  Trucks sped by.  We (wait for it) walked more.  We continued to trudge around the cliff until time faded and reality blurred.  Our usually great conversation had been replaced by internal musings of taxis, ATVs, camels, horses, buffets, pot lucks, and feasts.  Eventually trudging even took over all other thoughts.  Thankfully Sam was no kvetch and stayed positive despite our weariness.  Still thinking we needed to turn the corner before we would be in front of Wonderwall I was pleasantly surprised when Sam mentioned trying to find a path through the rocks to the dunes in front of the cliff.  I inspected the area: we were almost back to Wonderslab.  Life came rushing back.  A couple more minutes of walking barefoot through the sand and I was treated to the best sight all day: Sam’s car.  It was a glorious sight.  We dumped the gear and laid in the sand, easing aching shoulders and hips that carried rope and gear for our entire epic.  I checked the time to see that it was after 10:00.  We had topped out before 6:00.  Our journey had taken over four hours.  I kicked myself for not insisting we continued around the awkward traverse to find the decent route or some rap rings.  Unfortunately my rope bag and backpack were still up at the base of the climb.  I hiked back up to get my stuff while Sam set up camp.  We at the best tasting cold rice and beans of my life and went to bed without bothering to make a fire with the wood we had just carried for miles.

…to be continued

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