It’s a deep-end introduction to my first via ferrata hike, which I’m doing in Snake Canyon in the Jebel Akhdar mountains of Oman. Carl releases me and a moment later I’m zipping smoothly across the abyss. It’s quite a rush and I find myself pleasantly surprised, the sense of euphoria doubtlessly enhanced by the adrenalin now coursing through my veins. Of course this is the easy part with little effort involved, the hard part is yet to come.
Via ferrata (meaning ‘iron path’ in Italian) is a mountain route equipped with a combination of fixed cables, ladders and bridges to allow climbers to traverse difficult mountain terrain more easily. The first via ferratas were built in the Italian Dolomite mountains during World War I to aid the movement of mountain infantry. Today they’re found in mountains across the globe and are a magnet for adventurous, outdoor types.
Snake Canyon is a two-hour drive from Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. Rob Gardner, an expat Englishman now living in Muscat, designed and oversaw the installation of this via ferrata. The idea was “to create an environmentally friendly attraction” with a route conceived to give the average person “the chance to push their limits and succeed”. Its remote, scenic location and recent installation (in 2005) combine to make it a unique and very memorable adventure.
My zip wire traverse of the canyon is slowed to a standstill by the sag in the cable. It’s winter, but in this region of the Middle East that still means 30˚C heat. I wipe the sweat from my brow before turning onto my back and pulling myself the last few metres to the safety of the rock face. ‘Safety’ being a relative word. Our harnesses are equipped with two short safety ropes each ending with a carabiner, at least one of which should remain clipped to the safety cable at all times — “unless you want a rapid lesson in freefall to oblivion,” as Carl so aptly put it during our safety briefing before the hike.
One at a time I unclip my carabiners from the zip wire and re-attach them to the cable that’s anchored in the rock wall and which disappears around the cliffside a short distance away. For the next half-hour I follow my fellow climbers clambering laterally along the rock face stopping to catch our breath and re-secure our carabiners at every anchor point. There’s not much room to manoeuvre on this rugged, uncompromising terrain and if you don’t put your trust in the wires it’s hard to make any progress.
When I reach the second zip wire it’s a relief. For a few moments I’m able to rest my gloved hands, which have been fiercely gripping rocks and clutching cables, with more tension than is probably required. It’s difficult telling your muscles to relax when they seem to be the only thing keeping you from falling into the bottomless chasm below.
As I dismount the zip wire following my second traverse someone up ahead accidentally dislodges a rock and soon a mini-avalanche of boulders is cascading into the gorge below, taking a disturbingly long time to crash to the bottom before sending its echo eerily back and forth across the canyon. It’s a sobering reminder of the fate that awaits if you lose concentration.
I get a second wake-up call when, pressed up against the cliff face, I brush my camera against the rocks and dislodge the lens cap. I watch as it tumbles endlessly into the void below and then find images from the opening scene of the movie Cliffhanger flitting before my eyes.
Thankfully it’s only a lens cap. It doesn’t stare up beseechingly at me as it disappears far below accompanied by a gradually fading, blood-curdling scream.
Clambering on the hike feels gruelling at times, and after one particularly steep section I’m panting heavily and sweat pours off my head into my eyes.
“How are you doing Eric?” asks Carl from up ahead, showing no signs of having exerted himself any more than had he been opening a box of cornflakes. “Walk in the … park,” I manage to reply, pausing mid-sentence to catch my breath.
After a couple of hours and three zip wire crossings we reach a small rocky recess where we pause to eat our picnic lunches and sign the already well-thumbed visitors’ book, kept in a little alcove. Following our all-too- brief break we press on. Towards the end of the course there is a ‘surprise’ guaranteed to make sure you end the hike on a high, but I won’t ruin it for you.
It’s only later back in the car park that I start to revel in the sense of accomplishment. Carl was right, I do want to do it again. As soon as the aching subsides.