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Climbing in the Asir of Saudi Arabia


Submitted by berniecad1 on 2006-03-23 | Last Modified on 2006-11-11

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The Saudi Arabian Alpine rating system

MM- mufi mushkala (no problem)

M-Mushkala (problem)

MK-Mushkala Kahbeer (big problem)

Maz-Mahznoon (mad/crazy

BM-Baden Mort (soon you will die)

I devised this system after a couple of beers with some mates one night in a cave at a place called Tanumah in the ASIR region of KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)

I spent 12 years at Khamis Mushayt working as an aircraft technician, 11 of those I spent exploring and climbing the region mainly with Katherine (now wife). I’ve been back in Australia for 3 years and am wondering if there is anybody still climbing in the Asir region. When I originally went to KSA, to Khamis, there was a western expat community of between 2000-3000. Now I'm told it numbers about 20. All a little remote for big international companies to control security so I think everybody has been shifted to Dhahran and Riyadh.

Overall, after 3 years away from KSA, its about time to share some of the experiences of climbing and adventure before they fade too much.

I’ve divided the article into climbing areas of significance to me, which are WBH (Wadi Bin Hashbal), Tanumah, Jebal Shadah and Wadi Lajb. All these areas are in the region between Jeddah and the Yeman border

WADI BIN HASHBAL

The township of WBH is situated about 50 kms from Khamis. Zor rock is the closest of three volcanic plugs to Wadi Bin Hashbal. My first contact with Zor was scrambling up it with a hangover (remember no drinking in KSA) with some American friends. This was pre-technical climbing for me and was the first time I had been stuck up a slippery water smoothed granite gully and wondering weather I was going to survive.

My first introduction to technical climbing was at the hands of Julian Fisher, who stayed in Khamis for about 2 years. We climbed at Zor and put up some reasonable climbs. Sleepless nights (5.9) was one of the more memorable. It's a strenuous, 50m climb with a single handed final move that I fell off more than once. There are about 4 or 5 others, some bolted sports climbs and some longer traditional climbs. Julian left at the end of '94 then wrote a small article about climbing in the Asir for High magazine in Aug 95. Wayne Allen was another who in the early 90s spent a lot of time at Zor working on specific climbing projects. The Deceptions (5.9), The Paragon (5.10) and Wayne's World (5.10) were three pretty good climbs. Wayne also produced a limited guide to the climbs on Zor. He stopped climbing in the late 90s.

For about 4 years it remained a pretty private mid-week, after-work playground for Katherine and me and anybody else who I could con into holding onto the end of the rope.

In 96-97 a lot of the routes, which we had previously climbed using trad methods, were bolted and chain belayed by a group of climbers from Chamonix France, employed by Roland Stieger, who, with the blessing from prince Bandar of the KSA royal family, was contracted by the Asir tourist beaurue to try to increase tourism to the Asir region. I never did see the place swarming with climbers.

Initially it irked me to see routes that were climbed fairly easily using removable protection being bolted. But the superb straight, face climbs on the dry clean granite made it a whole lot safer to expose those interested to the climbing feeling. It became my/our pretty incredible playground, with about 3 kms of bolted climbs on the one rock. Drive to the base, pull out the gear and start climbing, all 40 minutes from my accommodation. Heaven on this rock climbing earth. Roland also produced a very detailed guide to the bolted routes on Zor and this is probably still available at the Abha Palace hotel in Abha.

Excitement was never very far away at WBH. Phil Letman, another Brit climber, was shot at while doing a fairly exposed abseil and had his tyres deflated by a couple of irate locals. More than one of the lads at Khamis tried persuading members of the expat nursing community to partake in climbing and other risky adventures on the rock. I took a 30-ft winger onto a #2 Peanut after four pieces zippered out on Sleepless Nights. Add cobras, vipers and fairly aggressive, ever-present Baboons, and it was hard to be bored.

The second rock from Wadi Bin Hashbal, Muchala, could provide all the same without the bolts.

The whole massif of Muchala is made up of about 16 buttresses varying from 30m to 90m with some superb lightening bolt cracks, most still unclimbed. On Muchala, Katherine and I climbed a superb flake of about 50m requiring 4 bolts across a face then a clean layback 40m to the top called Vasaline Alley (5.9).

There is another rock about 15 kilometers the other side of WBH called the Camel's Hump which contains many bolted and trad climbs but never got much use due to the distance from Khamis.

The whole area at WBH has so much easy access climbing available, if any climber ever has the opportunity to visit the Asir, this place is definitely the Jem.

My last memories of WBH were standing on top of Zor and gazing across at Muchala and the huge volcanic boils and 20m boulders between them, wondering how much more climbing would be done in this area.

TANUMAH

Katherine and I were introduced to the Tanumah area in '93 and it became our close weekend away. It is situated about 100Kms North of Khamis and Abha on the road to Al Baha, high on the Asir escarpment. The unique thing about Tanumah is that the whole ASIR escarpment is generally sandstone but Tanumah and particularly the Ash Sharraf area is a gneiss vein that protrudes out to the edge of the escarpment, producing probably the best climbing area in the Asir if not in KSA. The climbing areas are split by the township. On the escarpment side is the Ash Sharraf which is in a national park area this is mainly a recreation area and can become very crowded during the Saudi holiday periods, but not with climbers. On the opposite is the Mana’a area, which is mainly private land, drier because it is away from the escarpment and much quieter.

Ash Sharraf

Most of the climbing in this area was done in the Ash Sharraf. Access is to drive 10-minutes from town and the most remote climb is about 15 to 20mins walk/scramble. Katherine, Jim Nixon and I put up about 50 high quality climbs, some with bolted belays and hangers but generally traditional. Our most memorable climb was Goat Herders Nightmare, which Katherine, a british climber named Chris Pallet and I climbed in '95. It's got about 150m of trad climbing on clean Gniess with pockets, cracks, a little over hang in the 3rd pitch and a really wild feel. During our first ascent a goatherder had his flock grazing around the base of the rock. He spent about 30 minutess looking under rocks and behind trees to find where our voices were coming from. Eventually he glanced up and saw us. It took him about another hour to calm down and stop requesting Allah to explain why these westerners were 70m up his rock. Hence the name.

The climb has three bolted chain belays but still requires a fairly extensive rack of small to medium gear. Initially it was an hour walk back to camp but now it is a rappel back down the face and 20-minute scramble.

Another memorable climb was with Dowd Ashwad from Salt Lake City. We had spied a fairly obvious crack across the valley from Goatherders and thought we might give it a run. Katherine and I had climbed two pitches previously and had finished up with a belay in a juniper tree growing horozontal from the face. I took the lead for the final pitch: about 30m of pocketed face slightly past vertical. I made it to within a meter from the top and my hands let go, burnt out, nothing left. Dave finished with a great lead for the first ascent of “Dream of White Pointers,” named after the t-shirt I was wearing at the time with Bruce, of Jaws fame, on the front.

Climbing in Tanumah was complemented by camping in The Cave which protected us from the frequent rain in the evenings. The floor was a fairly thick base of goat shit but with a natural chimney for the camp fire at the back of the cave. The vista was superb. Directly opposite was a rock face, which we turned into our own practice wall. The face was about 200m long and up to 70m high. In the middle we had three bottom to top routes and about seven bolted chain belay points for top roping to a 10m ledge set into the face. We introduced many to climbing here and assisted a school group with teenagers from Riyahd Dhahran Jeddah and Khamis. Again, this rock type was gneiss, very light in colour which made it possible to attempt some easy routes under moonlight. It was a superb evening out moving across a pale gneiss face under a full Arabic moon with nothing but the odd dog bark in the distance and the sound of baboons rooting and tearing our unprotected camp site apart. The bastards did it every time. After being raided many times by baboons we employed "Precious" to protect our camp while climbing, he was a 2 ft long stuffed toy dog and he seemed to do the trick.

Yet another classic climb was Precious and the Vulture which was on the south facing escarpment that looked down to the Tihamah (low land desert between the Red Sea and the Asir mountain range) about 4000-ft below. A really spectacular climb but liable to get extreme weather changes in minutes. Katherine and I experienced one of these on a ledge two pitches up dressed in only t-shirts and shorts after starting in the sunshine. The temperature dropped to near zero and clouds engulfed the face. With one pitch left of a face traverse below a ceiling then an overhung offwidth/chimney we decided to call it a day with a rappel from a boulder wedged in a crack. We left the ropes on the rock.

To rescue the ropes from the summit, the next day was an epic rappel from an overhung roof past an Egyptian vulture's nest. The vultures launched from a ledge 5-ft below me and blanked out the ground. These birds were huge and harmless enough but when they were trying to return to their nest through my rope line, I was sure only Precious could rescue me. My lack of forethought resulted in me contemplating life 500 feet above the ground on a knot at the end of a 300-ft rappel with 40-knot winds and about 40 feet from any face. The wind whipped the ropes over to me and all were saved after an ascent on prussiks back to the top. Shit, life was good to contemplate after cheating it a bit.

Most of the routes in the Ash Sharraf area have only had one or two ascents and wev’e left a lot unfinished. It's probably the best climbing in KSA.

Mana’a / Sayyarah

The Mana’a area is on the other side of Tanumah. It consists of small farmlets and is accessed via the road behind the artificial waterfall or the zig-zag mountain track that can be seen on the RH side on the way to Taif after passing through the souk area of Tanumah. This is a loop road. Skull Mountain and Twin Peaks are clearly visible from the loop road and the wall along the Wadi is accessed via the road to Sayyarah.

We (Katherine and I) had put up about 20 routes in this area, mostly in the Twin Peaks/Skull Mountain area and the Sayyarah with a 1-kilometer long, 100m-high cliff running along a Wadi. These places are a little more remote but the rock is superb with very few interruptions. I spent a couple of weekends at Twin Peaks by myself just soloing and exploring. After the cut and thrust of teaching aircraft maintenance to the locals, it was a great to regain composure.

One particular area, Talbah, had a series of three cliffs, none more than 30m but near vertical faces with pockets all over the place with easy access to the top and bottem. The cliff is accessed behind the really obvious pink house. Follow the wadi down on the left-hand side about one kilometer and see the cliffs on the opposite side of the wadi.

Other Areas of Tanumah.

Just driving thru Tanumah township opens up heaps of possibilities, on the right-hand side travelling north are a series of pinnacles, one called Itmah, on which Katherine and I climbed a route bottom to top. It was not particularly hard, maybe an MM/M, but it had great views of the township and it was comfortable with the sun behind the rock in the afternoon. This can be viewed from the front verandah of a little Turkish restaurant on the nth side of the township while eating flat chicken after a hard day on the rock. Another plug about 12 kilometers north of Tanumah (again on the right a couple of kilometers up the hill towards Namas) was climbed by Katherine and I. It was seven pitches, again not hard -- up to 5.8 or M -- but really close to the road and therefore we gained a fairly large crowd of inquisitive locals causing a minor traffic jam. We named that one Berties first ascent (we thought Kath was pregnant), but Bertie wasn’t born for another year and a half (Bloody long pregnancy).

The escarpment side of Ash Sharraf is pretty well untouched and huge. We put up one good climb called Alovera Facial (and heaps of bad ones) named after the final piece of protection. A lot of the rock was slightly overhung at the start and a bit dirty due to the damp lowland air rising, but no doubt someone will do heaps with it. There is one particular face on that side we used to do a bit of Abseiling on, just like a rugby field on its end. I did the 100m rappel with Samantha, my daughter, who was 11 at the time. She screamed all the way to the bottom and then reckoned it was one of the best things she had ever done.

Send me back to Tanumah! What a play ground!

Next installment will be Jebal shadah, Wadi Lajb and other areas.

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4 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 TBlake84
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 2007-04-24
I lived in Jiddah for five years (91-96) after the Gulf War. I also traveled to Abha countless times and the Escarpment is still a very vivid memory of mine. Sadly, I was not introduced to climbing until I returned to the states. It's nice to know if I ever make it back there, I will have a place to rip it up!
 yarmmit
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 2010-05-25
Just spent a weekend at Wadi Bin Hashbal climbing some of the routes mentioned by Bernie. Everything pretty much the same as it was except I don't think anyone has climbed there recently except for a group working for Aramco in the eastern province.
 berniecad1
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 2010-07-08
Good to see someone is getting some use out of my article
 dkochka
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 2010-11-11
climbed Hasbal extensively 97-2004, Tanumah was an absolut playground with the multiple routes and camping. Climbed some of Jebel Sheda with Bernie Mike Myself and one other person. Summited Jebal Sheda with Ray, Mike Tor and Myself. Well worth the effort

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