Last Friday I went to Wonderwall to take photos of Gordon Rech on my route “Exile”.
This was the first new route I bolted after coming to the UAE and is one of a small collection of projects that have been milestones in my time here. It tackles the centre of Wonderwall’s Central Wall – a razor-cut sweep of vertical limestone 70m high and about 250m wide. It is one of the most impressive single rock features in the region. There are many much bigger cliffs but they are almost all broken by ledges or flawed in some way.
I first saw the Central Wall in a black and white photo in Alan Stark’s UAE CD guide before moving to Abu Dhabi. It seemed amazing that something so stunning was untouched. At the time I had provisionally been offered a job in the UAE but whilst waiting for definitive confirmation was also in discussion with a firm in London. They occupied an extremely precious office overlooking Hyde Park and had attitudes to match. Despite having been offered a job there several years previously – which I had turned down – it seemed to be necessary to re-interview with nearly everyone in the company multiple times. As this process ground on, I found myself thinking more and more about Central Wall and the unknown adventure it symbolised … and correspondingly less and less inclined to humour my interrogators.
When I did get to Abu Dhabi – February 2005 – I somehow got a ride out to Wonderwall on my first weekend. I dragged my partner across to Central Wall and discussed some of the possible lines. The wall is interrupted in most places by shallow holes and caves but has one section in the middle where the face is continuous, marked by a faint waterstreak. For me, this was a compelling challenge. At the time I did not expect that I would stay long in the UAE so it seemed sensible just to jump on the best-looking project available.
By the next weekend, I had got in touch with the inestimable Bernard Warren, who had been quietly establishing new routes at that end of Wonderwall for several years. He kindly volunteered to take me out there again, climb a pitch to get to the knife-edge ridge above the cliff and lend me his 100m static rope to take a look at the line. I found some old bolts above the wall (Gordon’s – I believe) and abseiled from them. It didn’t quite place me where I wanted to be but I could see that the wall was covered in small holds: the project was on.
Next I needed a drill and some chains (I had brought bolts and hangers with me from UK). Bernard guided me to a couple of small shops in Abu Dhabi’s congested Najda Street. Over the next few weekends I went out at Wonderwall alone and set to work. Every session proved memorable in some way. On my first solo trip I parked under the Central Wall end of the crag, shouldered a rucksack with drill, batteries, two ropes, etc, walked a kilometre across the sand dunes to the Wonderslab area, hiked the ramp there to the ridge then scrambled the kilometre back across to the route; a monstrous effort for someone unused to the desert heat.
I was back a week or two later on a menacing, sultry and cloudy day. Hiking the ridge alone I started to hear crackling sounds coming from my shoes. For a few moments I thought it was just fracturing limestone. Then I started to feel small electric shocks and realised I might be about to become a lightning statistic. Reluctantly I dropped down off the ridge and waited under an overhang. It started to rain and the tension in the air palbably lessened. I got on the abseil rope on the route and was gradually drenched. By the end of the day I was near hypothermic – an odd sensation in a desert country. The next weekend was a virtually identical repeat with the new additions of a full-blown thunderstorm and flooded roads on the return drive.
At the end of March I made contact with some reasonably plausible climbing partners in Al Ain and wondered if I should try the route. This became my first experience of the UAE climbing scene “flash mob” phenomenon, in which a group reaching a certain critical mass then rapidly expands further until dysfunctionally unwieldy. In this case I was fortunate that group consensus was that I should try my line. However I was significantly psyched out, not only by the large audience of expectant strangers but also when the volunteer belayer started to use an italian hitch; showing no familiarity with sport climbing at all. The attempt did not get far. I managed the strange crab-like moves out of the initial cave, the daunting pull onto the start of the true wall then ground to halt a couple of bolts higher. Amongst various factors, I realised that long falls on the cheesegrater rock would be a bad idea and that the route needed more bolts. Another solo trip with the drill followed. After that it got too hot and I found excuses to avoid my project: bolting easier lines to left (Circus Sands, Glucosamine) and right (Solstice Delirium), and assembling a bouldering wall in my villa.
In December I got serious again and managed a clean redpoint of the first 30m of the route – now listed as Exile Lite in the guidebook. This is about F7a in its own right. No really hard moves but all on first joint crimps with no rest. However as there is no ledge at 30m and at least 25m more similarly-sustained climbing above I was not satisfied. A month later I made one final trip back to the top of the wall and made another inspection of the top section.
The next weekend, exactly 12 months after moving to the UAE, I was back with Wolf Weisner, an alpine-minded climber whose main desire was one of the multi-pitch trad lines on Wonderslab. Fortunately this was denied to us by Wolf forgetting his helmet. I bullied him over to the other end of the cliff and set off on the route.
I have very little memory of the ascent except that it seemed to go on for ever. Somewhere near the top the moves get very thin just short of an obvious sloping ledge after which the route eases dramatically. At this point the belayer is 50m below, rope drag quite bad and the feeling of isolation on the wall very intense. My life seemed to contract into a bubble around my four tenuous contact points, screaming fatigue in calves and forearms and little else. I clawed through, just hanging the final slopers by panicked hand swaps then whooped up the last short crack. At the anchors, I was exhausted and my concentration shot. Whilst rigging an abseil I left behind a new screwgate carabiner; it would remain there standing guard over the route for the next two years!