Posts Tagged ‘UAE’

Sorbonne University Wall

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
The Sorbonne wall

The climbing wall at Sorbonne University, on Reem island in Abu Dhabi, is probably the best wall so far built in the UAE. It’s only ~10m tall but the width allows for about 20-25 independent routes and the modern Walltopia design has a good variety of interesting features. It is also very steep. About three quarters of the routes involve some sort of overhang and the steepest have a continuous violent lean. Perfect for power-endurance training. Critically it is also indoor; in fact, in a very high quality (and under-utilised) sports facility.

Though the wall has been there since mid-2010, when the campus construction ended, it has only been possible to gain (limited) public access recently, despite a barrage of requests by climbers to the university during the intervening period. To be fair to the university administration, they probably had more urgent priorities during the first year in the finished campus. The owner of the campus buildings is also an unconnected entity (a quasi-public Abu Dhabi investment fund) making decisions about facility usage especially complex.

In September 2011 these decision makers did finally resolve (but not advertise!) a scheme for non-student usage of some of the sports facilities, which I discovered by chance in November. Unfortunately, for the climbing wall, their proposition was aimed at small school or corporate groups, who could “rent” the wall and its coach for a short sequence of weekly sessions at a very high price. Our challenge became to persuade them to instead accept a much longer duration arrangement for more people at a lower price. Thanks to fantastic support from the head of sports, this was eventually agreed. However it required accepting several constraints that have little resemblance to normal climbing wall usage: pre-payment for 20 weeks in advance and a fixed group of climbers. The university also required that their counter-party in the transaction be a single company with its own insurance, not the individual climbers themselves. This was solved thanks to the help of Abu Dhabi businessman and climber Sami Matuq. Axa insurance were also very accommodative.

The process of finding a group of climbers who were prepared to pre-pay for twenty weeks worth of Monday evening climbing sessions at a still quite high price was not especially easy. I think I must have fielded several hundred emails cumulatively along the way. The large number of people expressing a casual interest rapidly collapsed down to a small number when they learned the constraints, and especially when asked to part with hard cash, but we were – just – able to assemble a group of twenty. The first session was Monday 20th February. My impression is that everyone considered it a huge success. Thanks are also due to Pete Aldwinckle, from Global Climbing, who did a safety briefing free of charge.

Inevitably requests to join the group have already started appearing. A few points worth making: this is a hard-won and experimental project that will hopefully encourage the university to allow more flexible usage in the future; for the first 20 weeks there will only be space for new people if existing members of the group want to drop out; though Theo Giani, Sami and I did most of the work to make this happen, this is essentially a spontaneously-assembled co-operative and no-one is “in charge”; similarly this is 100% non-commercial – no-one has carved out even even a single fil from the transaction; there is no “operator” with incentive to boost numbers. Bottom-line, if you are reading this and interested: please be patient.


Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

I have just added a slightly facetious FAQ page for the UAE guidebook. Apart from the last two, these are all questions I regularly receive, in some cases a few times a month. Please let me know if I am have missed out an important topic.

9a Mike

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

A very strong french climber, Michael Fuselier, visited the UAE for a few days last week, hosted by a Dubai rope access gear distributor. As I understand it from various sources, he spent a couple of half days outside, which proceeded as follows: a drive up Wadi Shahah, but no climbing as there was “no potential over 6a”; a visit to Taiwiyan, where – in a time-honoured display of gallic superiority – he warmed up on Office Clerk in trainers then made an onsight ascent (the first, AFAIK) of Echo Beach, stopping at the crux to spark up a Gitane (*), then downgraded it to F6c. Splendid stuff.

Less splendidly, he then jumped on my unclimbed but bolted project there (the Caracal Tree extension). I’d specifically requested to three separate people who were there that the project’s “closed” status be honoured, so was not initially delighted to hear about this. However I have learnt that he just checked it out bolt-to-bolt rather than made a clean lead. After some prodding on Facebook, he also gave me a detailed opinion on the possible grade, for which I am grateful.

Observing the original equipper’s rights over a project is a much-debated topic around the climbing world, but the consensus is pretty clear: they are closed unless the equipper decides otherwise or the passage of time has become absurd. In this region that principle has been observed scrupulously over the time I have been here. For example, the cool-looking “Gutter” project on Wonderwall’s Central Wall has remained closed for 4-5 years. I have no intention of insisting on that for the CTE but one more inviolate season would be nice. Non-bolters may wonder what all the fuss is about. Rather than bang on with my opinion I’ll just highlight that Rock and Ice’s Jeff Jackson says it better here than I could. Worth a read.

One other note: overall the entertainment of Monsieur Fuselier could have been much better handled if his (non-climber) host had consulted more widely. At the moment, there is little in the UAE guidebook area to interest anyone operating at that standard. In fact, there may never be, as the rock rarely seems to erode into the sort of long/ steep/ clean features that lend themselves to F8 routes or above. For future reference, I do know of one interesting project that a cutting-edge climber could be pointed at, but someone would need to spend some significant time cleaning and bolting it first. Otherwise I’d say bouldering or DWSing could be more fruitful. For example, a repeat of Partheon Slots could have generated lots of spectacular photos for Mike to take home to his sponsors.

* actually I made that part up, but it would it be nice to think it were true.

Second ascent of Exit Surprise

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Last Friday Aiden Laffey and Philippe Delaunay made the probable second ascent of Exit Surprise on Shady Circus cliff in Wadi Ghalilah. Superficially climbing a six pitch E2 may not seem very remarkable but this route’s reputation has been rising after multiple abandoned attempts. Aiden had retreated off it four times previously: twice with Gen Boni, once with Andy LaBonte (Andy got offroute beyond the 4th pitch crux traverse and took a long fall on to old pitons), and once with Philippe (having solved the crux traverse they realised they needed larger cams for the 5th pitch).

Current thinking is that the first ascentionist Antoine Fabre probably used some aid on the traverse and so far it hasn’t been possible to climb it 100% free.

Philippe at the exposed stance before the crux traverse

The 5th pitch was found to be climbable in line with the guidebook description, though apparently the “Surprise” exit hole at the top of the pitch is quite tight and intimidating to reach.

Aiden at the steep move on pitch 5 before the chimney leading to the exit hole

With hindsight it would have been better to qualify some of the long trad routes described in full in the guidebook with a symbol to indicate that the the first ascentionists’ description had not yet been checked. Some UK guides use a dagger mark for that purpose. Something to consider if there is ever any momentum for a second edition. At least the book gives Exit Surprise E2 rather than the E1 in the previous PDF guide! And the three star quality rating seems to be correct.

Both photos © Aiden Laffey

2010/2011 season wrap

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Shockingly a whole year has passed since I wrote the 2009/2010 report. But as I brought things up to date in January, there’s not a huge amount to add. As last year, in chapter order:


Still neglected AFAIK.


Pete Thompson went back to his Stairway Headwall route with Pete Myers in February and made a one-day ascent. The route is now called Black Dog.


John Gregory has been cleaning and climbing new routes at Transition, another area in Wadi Shahah. No details available yet. Apparently Ralph Heath and friends have also been developing routes elsewhere in Wadi Shahah. No details available.


Very neglected. More reports of people failing to gain access even using the Dibba approach.


Lots of action at Tawiyan, both new routes and repeats, all noted in a February blog post.


Gordon Rech and friends have added more new stuff at The Narrows and also have a secret hard project on the go elsewhere in Wadi Khab Shamis. Matt Pfeifer completed the excellent slopey steep project at the Strip Club at about F7b, after quite a lot of effort. No name forthcoming so far. I made the second ascent in April.


The main excitement was the strong Brit/ Canuck team visiting in April, about which I have already written extensively and added an update guide. A few new routes have been added since their visit, notably at The Salt Mine, by Matt Pfeifer, Jose Molina and I.


At Hatta I climbed the trad crack project near Open Wide and Say Ahh in February.

Theo Giani has been bolting new stuff at NPZ. No details yet.

The Red Armada Publishing Ascent of the Season should probably go to Read Macadam for his first ascent of Parthian Slots F8a on the Dibba Coast, especially given the sponsored-heros snapping at his heels. But Matt Pfeifer deserves an honourable mention for his rapid progress through the grades within 18 months of starting to climb: two F7b+ redpoints and an F7b new route. Similarly Maddy Stocks has reached F6c within less than a year.

If anyone knows of anything significant I have missed, please let me know.

Tawiyan update

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Tawiyan has been popular over the last few months. All the routes have seen some attention, especially on the Azimuth Wall. At the same time I have been tidying up some bolting and working on some new lines.

The rebolting is as follows:

Stone Pussy – first two bolts moved on to the normal line (previously too far right)

Echo Beach – bolt on the crux roof moved higher (makes for a more flowing redpoint, the next bolt is now only needed for working the route). The route has been redpointed by at least six people now and is currently well chalked and tickmarked. Perhaps only worth F7b+?

Burnt to a Crisp – new bolt just below the anchors (to prevent any repetitions of Solomon’s near-groundfall). A new sequence for the crux has also been found; some people now think that the grade is more like F6c.

Bloody as Hell – moved first bolt higher (safer) and placed new chain anchor (old chain was crap and in a bad position). In contrast to its neighbour this route doesn’t get redpointed often and seems to be holding on to F7a.

Another grade opinion is that Fujairah Spaceport may be easier than F7a+ but everyone who has done it has enthused about its quality. Frankly I think people deserve the grade for making the effort to go up there!

Matt Pfeifer flashing Fujairah Spaceport

Back down in the wadi basin, Office Clerk seems to be holding on to F7a+. Because of its centre-stage location it is probably the most attempted route at the grade in the region.

And the new stuff (click for larger images):

Tawiyan Feb 2011

1. Caracal Branch F7a+ 22m Start just left of Stone Pussy at twin bolt anchors, move up the easy groove for a few metres then shuffle right to the hand crack and follow it to where it ends in the corner under the flat roof. Cross this to a large flake then move rightwards with big dynamic moves for 7m to an obvious hole (and reasonable rest). Exit up and right on positive but spaced holds in a wild position. Chain anchor. Possibly F7b.
Toby Foord-Kelcey, 6 February 2011

2. The Caracal Tree F7b 25m Follow the Branch to the rest at the hole. Leave the hole with a tenuous move left then climb more easily up to the big hollow flake. A couple of strenuous pulls above this reach better holds and twin ring anchors where the rock turns blank. Possibly F7b+.
Toby Foord-Kelcey, 24 February 2011

3. The Caracal Tree Extension F-hard 32m Follow the Tree to its anchors, then somehow improvise a move past the blank section and continue up the spectacularly-positioned arete above to a chain anchor just under the Jebel Jebel traverse ramp. Take care lowering off.
a work in progress

4. Más Sangrienta F6b 10m Scoop and shallow groove right of Bloody as Hell to that route’s new chain anchor.
Toby Foord-Kelcey, 29 January 2011

The “Caracal Tree” refers to a macabre discovery Scott Barber and I made during the early days of new-routing at Tawiyan. About one kilometer from the cliff, in the gravel flats near a quarry entrance, was a tree with desiccated animal corpses hanging in it.

At the time we thought they might be foxes but a few months later a photo of the same tree appeared in The National newspaper, accompanied by an interview with the conservationist who had made the discovery, explaining that they were caracals and that they’d been trapped then hung there by local goat herders. (Though not very large, the cats are fast and agile enough to kill goats.) Unsurprisingly the corpses swiftly vanished after the article appeared.

Hatta update

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I have been climbing at Hatta a few times recently. The cliff doesn’t seem to be as fashionable as it used to be, maybe because the core Dubai crew have done most of the routes. Still there were 5-10 cars there on each occasion I have been, and I even caught a glimpse of legendary Everest-and-the-poles-man Adrian (presumably mainly there for the grim approach hike?). It is still the best place to go for grade 5 and 6 sport routes.

A few years ago Gordon Rech and Tom Kendall cleaned and top-roped a steep corner in the Eastern Buttress area but didn’t bolt it as it contains a continuous finger-width crack in its back that sucks up trad gear (very unusual for Hatta). They also never got around to leading it. After getting permission (thanks Gordon …), I led it last weekend after a failure the week before:

The Aberration 15m E3 The obvious line in the bay left of Open Wide and Say Ahh (p145 of the guidebook). The climbing is pumpy as the top half of the corner overhangs in two dimensions, but there are good fingerlocks and some spots to bridge. The crux is a quite wild and committing pull from the top of the corner rightwards to hidden holds around the arete, after which the climbing is easy. There are bolt anchors above. Take wires and a rack of cams to hand-width, with duplicates in finger-width sizes (blue and yellow Metolius, or green and yellow Alien, or whatever that now equates to with BD or Wild Country cams).

It may be soft for E3 – I am not sure as I only do trad routes sporadically. For what it’s worth, my belayer on the successful ascent declined the opportunity to second the route despite being happy enough on grade 6 sport routes.

Elsewhere at Hatta, as I have mentioned before, there are at least five bolted routes that aren’t in the guidebook courtesy of Jerry Spring but no-one has details at the moment (please Jerry …).

Of more importance than any of this for the long-term, the hillside behind the cliff is under inexorable assault by the quarriers. It looks like the cliff will be consumed in due course, starting from the eastern end. At the current pace, could be impacting actual routes within three years?

UAE perspectives

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

I used this simple animation for a talk about outdoor activities in the UAE. I am quite fond of it. The idea was to show how someone enthusiastic about the outdoors might perceive the country, relative to the standard city/ roads/ airports view.

Click the image to open it in a new window. Refresh that window to run it again.


Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

I believe most people who have spent a reasonable time in the UAE wrestle with two competing paradigms as to how the country works.

Is it (A) a suffocating bureaucracy in which any attempt at doing anything innovative grinds to a halt at the desk of a rulebound gentleman from the sub-continent (*) who has worked thanklessly for twenty years in an unmarked windowless room, located many miles of echoing corridors deep within the Ministry of Obstruction?

Or is it (B) a glorious anarchic free-for-all in which almost anything goes? Where, for instance, a missed highway turn is easily rectified by reversing back up the hard shoulder or plunging briefly into the sands.

The answer is of course a bit of both.

Rock climbing certainly operates chiefly within paradigm (B). We never ask permission to climb or even establish who owns the cliffs. Nor do we look for licences or club memberships from our prospective climbing partners. We infer each other’s competence from nuggets of behaviour, appearance or talk: being able to discuss climbs or climbing areas in other countries, having some gear and demonstrating appropriate usage (ie not racking trad protection for a sport route!), showing some power or grace in movement, not being overweight, etc, etc. This seems right and proper to me and in line with the climbing world elsewhere. There have been vague attempts to foist more structure on the community by people with vested interest but they have been resisted or ridiculed.

The problem with paradigm (B) comes when innocents are at risk. For example, the lack of bureaucratic overview means that almost anyone can market themselves as an outdoor climbing instructor or guide. And given the often-bored and transient character of the UAE expat population: plenty of clueless potential customers. Should we care who exploits that opportunity? I think so. Leaving aside the direct impact on a victim, a serious accident resulting from an incompetent instructor’s negligence that leads to adverse publicity could be disastrous for the sport in the UAE. I would expect: official bans at UAE climbing sites and calls for mandatory insurance and external regulation. If the victim were local and well-connected, then all bets would be off.

So, since at present we are a self-regulating community, what sort of instructors should we tolerate? The only practical answer is people with accredited qualifications. I have expressed that opinion in the guidebook and followed it up with a list of known qualified instructors at the guidebook resources web page. They are all people with UK qualifications. That’s part coincidence but part reflects the well-established nature of the UK mountain training sector. If anyone wants to be on that list and has another country’s qualification, then I would check a database like the UIAA’s and add them if the qualification were recognised.

If you have read this far, you may be guessing there’s a context to this. You are right. Various verbal anecdotes, emails and Facebook messages have revealed a vigorous effort by one non-credible individual to conduct instruction business. An american friend forwarded me correspondence with that individual showing suggested rates of 500-700 AED per client per day. His “qualification” is attendance at a Single Pitch Instructor course in the US. But not, as far as I know, the two day SPI assessment. That’s rather like deciding to drive solo after having a few driving lessons but before having passed a driving test; not something countries with sensible traffic regimes encourage. There’s only so much that we can do to dissuade people like this – particularly when known to be pig-headed – except peer pressure. So, if you agree with me, know who I am talking about (I don’t want to sully my blog with his name) and have an opportunity, please express your opinion to him and/or dissuade anyone entrusting themselves to his hands.

* apologies for this stereotyping but it does appear to be universally true. Be respectful to these folk, shake their hands, ask after their family, know where (usually) Kerala can be found on the map and the rules may even briefly relax for you.

more chossaneering madness!

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Aiden Laffey has just got in touch with a new seven pitch route in Wadi Ghalilah, including a full-blown aid pitch. In a similar vein, he and Andy LaBonte recently tried the (probably never repeated) Shady Circus route, Exit Surprise, and found the fourth pitch traverse much harder than expected, taking a fall onto old pitons. It seems possible that pitch was originally aided and not climbed free as reported? Beware …