When you find yourself parallel to the slope of a steep mountain, a lanyard and the grip of your own hands on a steel cable the only semblance of safety, comforting words – any crumbs of advice – are very much appreciated.
The phrase “just lean back” rattles down the ear canal as an utterly unnatural command, especially when you have already ignored all sensible counsel and looked down the sheer drop, acutely aware that there is no ledge to shuffle your legs across.
“Trust the wire” doesn’t exactly slow the heart rate either.
But those morsels were all I got from Mohammed and Tariq, the ever-so-cool guides waiting for me to take further steps down a cliffside in the Al-Hajar mountains. These were the very same chaps who had earlier joked, when I was running late, that I likely wouldn’t turn up out of fear.
In their defence, cheating gravity isn’t a frequent hobby of mine. But I was in Oman, on part of the highest mountain range in the eastern Arabian peninsula, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital Muscatand about to tackle Jabal Akhdar – the Green Mountain – via the country’s highest via ferrata (iron way) climbing route.
The precarious path zigzags for half a mile over the scarped desert verticals. It’s climbing but not as you know it, following the route of a metal wire, and alternately securing and unclipping your harness every so often around the fixings. The method, which originated in the Italian Alps, allows for the traversing of dangerous terrain with less risk (and less equipment) than standard climbing.
This mountainside traverse can only be booked through Alila Jabal Akhdar, a boutique retreat that sits atop the route and blends into the limestone surrounds. It is a welcome speck of luxury in the vast, dry landscape.
The hotel spa’s wellness offerings are a particularly good antidote to time spent groping along high above terra firma – but that felt a lifetime away as I began my descent.
As it turned out, I needn’t have been so dismissive of the nonchalant guidance given to me (being asked to step out on nothingness at 6,560ft above sea level can bring out a rather tetchy side). Apart from a short safety walk-through – attach one carabiner this way, the other this way – those few succinct instructions were all I needed to know.
I had set out by leaning back and using my strength on the now taut wire to pull myself along the rock face, finding somewhere stable after each step to reassess my position. Twice, three times, and against all initial instinct, I began to “trust the wire”.
It wasn’t just me who started to grow in confidence. Our small group – a climb typically features no more than five participants at a time – was a mixed bag, including someone who froze before deciding she would give it her best shot, and a talkative chap who definitely had the collywobbles despite his endless banter. This soon morphed into the collective realisation that we could conquer our fears.
That doesn’t make it easy, mind. Shoes scrape as you grapple for some kind of mantel. A chance to catch your breath in a cave means thoughts wander to simpler times, such as checking in while being served dates and Omani coffee. Lovely as the guides are, the best help they can really offer is “come on” (fear of holding up the group is powerful fuel in this situation).
Halfway through you are given the choice of a slightly easier route up to the hotel, or a harder option. My advice is to take up the challenge. You head up a different side of Jabal Akhdar, climbing threadbare metal steps before sidestepping around a blind corner, legs akimbo as you seek the foundation that Tariq has promised will be there.
The high-rope that follows, 82ft above a cave mouth, actually felt like a doddle afterwards; while I didn’t dare stop for a selfie, in that moment I had an unbeatable view straight down the canyon.
The final stretch felt far more like a traditional mountain climb, with craggy clefts to grab on to alongside the steel rope. Enthusiasm remained (although the aching muscles that followed a day later gave an indication of the adrenalin that had cascaded through my system) and the sense of achievement, once uncoupled from the via ferrata, was higher than the Al-Hajar mountains themselves.
Taking off the helmet, sweating as though I had a fever, I learnt from the group afterwards that the guides had started us on one of the trickiest parts of the climb to gauge straight away how we would handle the experience.
It dawned on me then that the very part I’d just hot-footedly scrambled up, with a now-instinctive clippity-clip of the carabiners and in full trust of the wire, was the section on which I had begun – the one that had perturbed me just hours before.
A chilled cocktail infused with local rosewater was never more richly deserved.
It’s not the easiest location to get to, but a beautifully arid backdrop – along with support from clear and competent instructors – take this via ferrata experience to new heights.
Two hours on a trek was enough for this novice to know that it was more than just the carabiners that were getting hooked during an extreme climb.
BACK AT BASE
The boutique retreat, Alila Jabal Akhdar, is certainly remote – but there is plenty to keep you occupied when you are back on solid ground: stargazing, yoga, bars and restaurants, soothing spa treatments and more.