Time Out talks to Toby Foord-Kelcey, author of UAE Rock Climbing, to find out more about the Emirates’ burgeoning wall-crawling scene
Time Out Dubai staff
So, how did you get into climbing in the UAE? I was already a very keen climber, so I had the email addresses of local climbers and had already looked at photos of cliffs before I arrived in the country – a climbing web forum in the UK was the initial source of this information. These days there are a couple of websites specifically for climbers here: www.uaeclimbing.com/forum, and my site www.redarmadapublishing.com. These make it very easy for new arrivals to find information and climbing partners. Dubai also has two artificial climbing walls – with a third imminent. These places make for good meeting places. Sadly, Abu Dhabi does not yet have a proper climbing wall; Sorbonne University has a wall under construction but it is not yet known whether it will be open to the public.
Where should newcomers to the sport go for instruction? The artificial walls in Dubai offer basic training applicable to their walls, but this is not enough to climb safely outside. At present only Al Shaheen in RAK (07 244 5171) employ instructors qualified to teach outdoor techniques. My associate Simon Cahill is hoping to set up an outdoor climbing course soon based out of Dubai. It is worth checking the blog www.redarmadapublishing.com for an up-to-date listing of respectable courses. An alternative option for expats it is to attend a course in somewhere like the UK during your holidays.
What kinds of people are suited to climbing? Rock climbing is all about attitude, balance and power-to-weight ratio. Skinny boys should definitely take the sport up because it is one activity where burly rugby physiques are at a major disadvantage! Girls will also find they can excel compared to men.
What are the health benefits of climbing? From a fitness perspective, climbing is completely symmetrical – unlike, say, racket sports or even football – and conditions everything: legs, core and upper body. It is also great for weight control as performance is so sensitive to weight. A few kilograms either way makes a huge difference.
How big is the climbing community here? Expat climbers have been developing routes in the UAE and Oman for the last 15 years. The numbers [of climbers] involved has now swelled from a small handful to what is now estimated to be a few hundred. The driving force behind [this increase] has been the appearance of artificial walls appearing in Dubai and my guidebook, UAE Rock Climbing, which was released at the end of 2009.
Tell us more about your book… I started work on UAE Rock Climbing in mid-2008. Initially I had an authorship contract with a well-known UAE publisher, but they pulled out after about three months. I decided to keep going and find a way to publish independently. I was lucky to have support throughout from Global Climbing and help from friends in the media industry here. The print run has been divided between the UAE and overseas distributors. There’s interest from climbers overseas because of the mid-winter climate, which is, for example, far better than any climbing area in Europe.
The book is targeted at active (or lapsed!) climbers and does not instruct in anyway; it purely describes established routes. However, it has a section giving advice to beginners on where to look for instruction. The book, UAE Rock Climbing, is stocked at Go Sport outlets in Dubai (Ibn Battuta: 04 368 5344; Mall of the Emirates: 04 341 3251), and at Noukhada (www.noukhada.ae) in Abu Dhabi. For further details, check out www.redarmadapublishing.com.
Toby lists his top climbing spots in the UAE.
‘The climbing sites in the UAE and Oman are all within the Hajar Mountains, which run for 700km from the tip of Musandam to Muscat and beyond,’ says Toby. ‘Though the rock is all limestone, there is surprisingly large variety of different cliff types. One thing I have learnt to look for is rock that is in the shade and kept solid by occasional water flow – rock that sits in direct sunlight can become fractured and loose.’
Shady Circus ‘In the north of RAK, where I was fortunate to discover and pioneer a beautiful line, Acquiescence, that climbs a 130m vertical dry waterfall.’
Tawiyan Crag ‘A deep canyon in Fujairah that channels water from one of the UAE’s highest peaks. A couple of friends and I spent almost one year developing new routes there in secret. A very vertiginous climb there, Jebel Jebel, is on the front cover of my guidebook [UAE Rock Climbing].’
Damian’s Boulders ‘The elegant water-polished boulders in Wadi Khab Shamis near Dibba; the rock there is the best in the region.’
Musandam ‘The whole Indian Ocean coast of Musandam, which has almost infinite scope for a sub-sport called deep water soloing (DWS): scary, but fairly safe, climbing up to 20m without ropes above the sea. The routes are accessed by dhows or speed boats rented from Dibba port. DWS can be happily intermingled with snorkelling and other aquatic distractions.’
Jebel Misht ‘In a different category, I should also mention Jebel Misht in Oman (just outside territory covered by my book) whose massive 1,100m south face is probably the tallest in the Middle East. The classic French Pillar route there has seen fewer ascents, in the 30 years since it was first climbed, than Everest sometimes gets in one day. Shamefully – since it is only five hours drive from Dubai or Abu Dhabi – I am the only UAE-based climber who has invested the effort to do it so far!’
Climbing dos and don’ts
Do… • Try the sport first at an indoor wall • Go on an instruction course before climbing outside • Check the qualifications of anyone offering instruction • Consider in advance how to respond and get help in an accident scenario • Accept ultimate responsibility for your own safety
Don’t… • Try to teach yourself to climb, either by guesswork or from a book • Stand underneath climbers at cliffs; loose rock often gets dislodged • Climb mid-summer (unless you’re mad)