Wednesday, January 2, 2019

DESTINY MANIFEST : BAYAN MASSIR



I lie in a pool of blood and excrement on the cold steel floor of an old Omani Royal Air Force Eurocopter. The drone of the rotor blades pounds deep inside my head as I stare at the ceiling. The coppery taste of blood in my mouth sickens me. A large flap of skin hangs down my cheek and there is a hole in my right foot oozing blood onto the dirty steel.

It takes a supreme effort of will to drag myself upright, in one corner beside the open door of the helicopter. The young airman who winched me up stands over me. Pointing at my wounds, he says something in Arabic, but I can’t understand him. I raise my left hand to show a thumbs up. He returns a smile and takes a seat at the back of the helicopter. Peering outside, the Al Hajar Mountains are incandescent as we lift off for Ibri Hospital.

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In September 2010, I graduated with a degree in Computer Science and couldn’t wait to never see another computer again. On a whim, I took a job guiding in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. Although I couldn’t then have pointed out Oman on a map, I believed this would be an opportunity for me to live out a long-held dream.

Touching down for the first time in Muscat, Oman’s capital, I experienced a subtle apprehension. The people spoke in languages that I didn’t understand and signs were written in an alphabet with which I was barely familiar – and only from news reports dominated by gunfire and explosions. Despite what the media had led me to believe, Oman is among the wealthiest and most prosperous nations on Earth. The local climbing community, however, consisted of less than 30 people out of a population of around 4.5 million. They were fun and tight-knit, coming from the UK, France, Germany, Slovenia, Canada, USA, Albania, Egypt, and the Netherlands. I became immersed in the group’s outings to local crags and discovered that, when it came to rock climbing, Oman was a diamond in the rough.

During one of these weekly gatherings, I became aware of Oman’s most illustrious wall, Jebel Misht (‘Crested Mountain’). At more than 1,000m, its limestone crown explodes from the desert floor, reaching higher than even Yosemite’s El Capitan. It was first climbed in 1979. French climber Raymond Renaud and his team spent more than 20 days battling Misht’s south-east face using siege tactics, fixing over 1,000m of rope, drilling dozens of bolts, and even using helicopter supply drops along the route. They named this route the French Pillar. It’s said that the Sultan of Oman was so impressed by their achievement that he sent a helicopter to airlift the team from the summit to his palace for a celebration. Renaud’s story kindled my desire to pioneer big walls, and I began planning my first ascent of Jebel Misht.


Word spread and a local climber called Hamza Zidoum approached me and proposed we climb Misht together. Hamza was older and more experienced, and had a calm and positive demeanour.

He was a cornerstone of the Omani climbing community and, having previously climbed many of the classic routes on Misht, I thought he’d be an excellent partner for my first big wall. Hamza pulled a crude topo map from his pocket. A thick line was drawn up Misht’s East Face, which followed a crack feature to a ledge midway up the wall. The crack continued through a large roof at around 800m and finished direct. Hamza had previously attempted the route with another team but they had been forced to retreat. The line inspired me and we planned to return and complete the route a few weeks later.

We arrived at the base of Jebel Misht with gear and supplies, put on our equipment, and began to climb. However, several hundred metres up the wall, I heard a frantic call of ‘Rock!’ and, before I could react, a limestone block came out of nowhere and struck me. Directly in the face. Further rockfall destroyed my anchor, built into the loose, chossy rock, and I plummeted more than 5m, coming to a brutal halt on a ledge below. Struggling to catch my breath, I vividly recall staring up at the blue sky above, vision blurred, and utterly stunned.
"I heard a frantic call of ‘Rock!’ and, before I could react, a limestone block came out of nowhere and struck me.  Directly in the face." 
Hamza shouted down to me from above, panicked. I couldn’t make out the words. Rocks continued to fall and I shuffled closer to the wall. Head and torso protected, my legs were still exposed and my right foot was struck by another rock, which tore a large hole just below the ankle. Hamza continued to shout – somewhat less dazed now, I could make out his words. He was telling me to stop pulling him, but my face had been badly damaged by the impact, and when I tried to shout up I couldn’t form the worlds. He could easily have been completely unaware of what had just happened.

As soon as I twisted the rock from my foot, blood began pouring from the wound. I grabbed my backpack and took out three quick-wrap bandages – the only medical supplies I had brought – and began tightly dressing my ankle. Hamza shouted again, this time to tell me he’d built an anchor and intended to rappel down. He didn’t say much when he joined me on the ledge, but I could tell from the look on his face that I wasn’t in good shape.

I pushed the flap I of skin back across my face and held it there while he wrapped a bandage from his own pack around my head. Despite our efforts, the bleeding from my foot continued. ‘We need to go down,’ I mumbled through my swollen face. Hamza nodded. I sensed a sinking feeling between the two of us. We placed a sling over a horn-shaped rock and began the long journey back to the ground.


Arriving at base camp six hours later, Hamza attempted to carry me using an alpine coil, but with the ground so loose and steep this would have put both of us in danger. The only way down was to shuffle on my backside. Hamza shouldered our equipment and scouted the path ahead, while I began the slow and painful process of scooting myself over sharp rocks for the next seven hours. Pain suffused every moment. Eventually, I became too exhausted from blood loss. After nearly a full day, I was eventually picked up by a military helicopter and dropped off at the nearest hospital where I received surgery to fix my broken face and ankle. It had been a hell of a first attempt at a big wall.

In a hospital room resembling a luxury hotel, TV news was dominated by protests rapidly spreading throughout the Middle East: the Arab Spring. Violent clashes with police in most of the surrounding countries led me to reluctantly decide to return to the UK to finish my recovery. It was the end of my dream to establish a route on Jebel Misht. I spent the next six months learning how to walk and eat again – two things I had previously taken for granted. Eventually, when I was fully recovered, I took a job managing climbing gyms and returned to the nine-to-five existence of the weekend warrior. Time passed, memories faded, and the accident became just an unfinished chapter in the story of my life. It wasn’t until early 2017, some seven years later, that the desire to climb Jebel Misht began to bloom again. I had acquired new skills and experience in the time since the accident, and I felt as though I could now meet its challenge. The time was right to return to Oman.

This time, I would be climbing alongside my long-time partner, Sergio ‘Tiny’ Almada, who had accompanied me on risky yet successful expeditions in Mexico and Africa. On arriving in Muscat after months of preparation, we had just two weeks to reach the summit of Jebel Misht and climb its 1,000m wall. We loaded up our 4x4 and sped south towards the Al Hajar Mountains, but it was deep into night before we established our first camp beneath the 5,000-year-old Al Ayn beehive tombs. Here, we caught our first glimpse of Jebel Misht: its face lit by the moon’s glow, its ship-like prow breaking through a sea of stars. Jet-lagged and exhausted, we pitched our tents and passed out.





The next morning offered a sky strewn with cloud, which helped mitigate the heat, but even then we struggled. With such a small window, we spent the first days hauling gear up to the base of the wall. There, I found myself staring up at the same route that had once left me defeated and humbled. I hesitated. Fear chilled me. After stashing our gear we returned to base camp for one final rest.

We woke well before dawn, prepared coffee, and picked our way to the base of the wall. The night was still and cooled by moonlight as we dispatched eight pitches of incredible climbing to reach the big ledge, the desert’s tranquility broken only by the sound of the morning adhan, the Islamic call to worship, which echoed throughout the valleys below. A short break offered a change to study our line through the roof, but it was hard to tell if the route would actually go. We continued to trade leads for some hours until we arrived at the base of the roof, and the first section of steep climbing. I took the sharp end and tick-tacked out through a segment of small, loose roofs. Stepping up into a giant boulder undercling, I found myself completely gripped. The climbing became substantially harder – somewhere around 5.12 – and my last good gear placement was far below me. I could see the next move ahead, but I became paralysed by the risks I saw everywhere: I might miss the hold, or it might break off in my hands, which happened frequently on this chossy limestone wall. I reached out carefully, and cleared off several small blocks with my hands. There I found slightly more solid rock. I moved onwards, nerves buzzing, pulled over a bulge and arrived to a good stance below the final headwall.


Less than 30m of overhanging limestone separated us from easier ground that would eventually lead to the summit. We studied the wall above for any weakness, but found nothing. The wall blanked out in all directions. We had set out to establish a pure trad line, and we knew that if we wanted to continue we would need to compromise our ethics, something neither of us was willing to do. Our only option was to rappel several hundred metres down to the grand ledge and search for an alternate route around the roof. As night approached, we descended into the unknown. With only a small amount of trad gear left, we constructed only the most rudimentary anchor. Later, to save gear, we decided to down-solo the last 40m. It took eight hours before we reached the ledge and were able to build a small fire out of dead brush and savour a little rest. It was 2am. With no sleeping bags, little water, and no food to spare, we shivered and starved, and waited for morning to arrive. Rising with the sun, we huddled in dawn’s warmer light and discussed our options. We now had very little gear left.

Our rations consisted of under a litre of water and two snack bars. If we bailed to the ground now, we would be able to reach the floor and get supplies, but we’d likely use the last of our rack to get down and the expedition would be over. If we went up, we had a chance to complete the route but, with the cupboard so bare for the climbing ahead, it was a gamble. Most concerning was what would happen if we didn’t find a way to the top. I’d meticulously studied Jebel Misht’s many routes and was aware of an Italian line just 20m left of ours. It went up a steep, chossy off-width to the side of the roof at a grade we knew we could climb. Exhausted from lack of sleep and burned by the sun’s relentless heat, we set off into the relative unknown. Loose and unprotectable, it was as though the space grew wider with each move I made. It was the longest 25m of my life. Finally, weak from effort, I found a good stance above a small roof and built the belay. When Tiny joined me on the ledge, all he could say was: ‘I hope we don’t find much more of that.’ It was now his turn to take the lead into the loose unknown waiting above. Climbing over and behind giant limestone flakes that clung precariously to the wall, each of Tiny’s deft movements took us closer to that final headwall we so desperately sought. Everything was going great, until Tiny fell, a giant block still in his hand. I watched in horror as the block fell away – narrowly missing his head – and crashed into the wall below, exploding into dust and tiny fragments.



At the same time, I was launched upwards from the belay and unceremoniously suspended in mid-air. Tiny too hung in space, but not before first hammering against the wall while upside down. There we swung, like wind chimes in the Arabian sun, swearing and aching. Once I lowered myself back down to the ledge I had belayed from, I realised to my amazement that Tiny had come through the fall relatively unscathed. Although shaken, he was fine. I, on the other hand, had stupidly removed my shoes while Tiny was leading and, during the fall, had sliced my foot on some sharp rock. Blood flowed and I knew the best way to deal with it was to apply pressure using my climbing shoe. Pressure and pain.

Tiny, perversely, took renewed confidence from the fact that his protection had held up so well in such terrible rock. He pulled himself back to the wall and finished an incredible pitch to the final ledge and headwall. I joined him as the sun’s light began to fade. We’d have to move fast if we wanted to avoid another cold night on the wall. Crossing the ledge, we dispatched the remaining wall and summited as the sun set – more than 40 hours from when we had begun, with no food or water left. Trembling from fatigue and overwhelming emotion, I had to kneel. I never imagined, in my dreams about this day, that it would demand so much of me. I didn’t know whether to cry, vomit, or laugh. Tiny smiled at me through burnt lips and we embraced. Exhausted, we spent a cold night sleeping on top and woke early, packed up our gear, and began the steep hike down the backside of the mountain. We decided to name the route Bayan Massir (‘Destiny Manifest’ in Arabic) as homage to lessons learned through defeat, perseverance, and eventual success.

Dare to be Bold.







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