“You will be zip-lining from the height of a 30-storey building,” says Fahed Zarifa, senior instructor at the new via ferrata (iron climbing path) in Ras Al Khaimah, when our group of adrenaline junkies meets him at the foot of Jebal Jais, the tallest mountain in the UAE. For anyone who lives in a skyscraper, that height may not instil fear, but change the scenery to steep, rocky terrain, and it can send shivers down the spine of even the most daring adventurers.
The via ferrata and three zip lines that meander around UAE’s highest mountain are the latest tourist attraction by the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, operated by Dubai-based tour company Absolute Adventure. The authority has plans to turn Jebal Jais into an adventure park for extreme-sports enthusiasts with mountain biking and climbing routes, and exploring and trekking paths to the villages around. There will also be observation decks created at the Jebal Jais peak for a bird’s-eye-view of the wadi.
The 470-metre-long via ferrata and zip line – which includes the UAE’s longest outdoor line at 300 metres – opened in November. The RAK Government is now working to develop the world’s longest zip line by next year. Currently, the world’s longest is at the Toro Verde Adventure Park in Puerto Rico, at about 2,300 metres in length.
I receive guidelines the night before our trek recommending that I wear athletic wear and trainers with grips. The activity is designed for participants between 12 and 65 years of age, weighing between 50 and 100 kilograms. Climbing experience isn’t required, but participants must have a moderate fitness level and be comfortable with heights. There are daily morning and afternoon via ferrata treks, except on Mondays and Tuesdays. I choose a morning slot to escape the peak temperatures and traffic on the way back to Dubai.
Our adventure begins with a two-hour road trip at the crack of dawn from Dubai to the mountainous end of Ras Al Khaimah, which on Google Maps looks like a zigzag drawing from a child’s colouring book. As we move higher towards Jebal Jais, the temperature drops to 9°C, making me regret my decision to wear fine cotton tights.
About 10km before the end of the tarmac mountain road, there’s a sudden turn off to the base of the via ferrata that, without precise directions from the organisers, is easily missed. I’m informed there will soon be better signage.
I park at the rocky base near a portacabin that’s the briefing point for the tour and our final toilet break before the three-hour challenge. Our group is met by three instructors, who fit us with safety equipment and give us a demo on climbing the via ferrata. Absolute Adventure’s tour guides have technical and safety qualifications and experience with guiding young people and groups. They have also received a five-day site specific training by Traks Pro, which designed and fitted the via ferrata’s anchoring system.
There are three routes to get to the highest zip line – the Ledge Walk, Julphar Scare and Middle Path. Newcomers have to prove themselves on the Ledge Walk route before they can progress to the other two, with the Middle Path being the hardest and a direct vertical trek up to the longest zip line. Trekkers on the Ledge Walk and Middle Path will take three zip lines, which are 50, 60 and 300 metres long.
Zarifa explains that we must be hooked onto the via ferrata wires at all times, our safety net in the mountains. We have lanyards around our waists with two locking carabiners that need to be squeezed to be unlocked. We’re told to lock them with the gates facing each other – and at no point to unclip both at the same time, which is risky because that would mean being unconnected from the via ferrata. On reaching a new section of the climb, we’re advised to immediately clip onto the next wire before attempting to walk upwards, to avoid slipping all the way down, and to keep a reasonable amount of distance from other participants during vertical climbs.
It’s a 1km trek to the highest point of 120 metres. where the longest zip line has been set up. “Once we come to the first zip line of 50 metres, there is no looking back,” Zarifa says. “You have to take that leap to come back down.” On that note, our group of seven hikers, including three guides, begin our ascent to the top, with nothing more than our safety gear and a small lightweight backpack provided by the organisers for our water bottle, camera and phones. A broadly illustrated route map handed to us notes the Ledge Walk as the easiest access to the via ferrata.
A few minutes into our walk, I have already worked up a sweat. I’m regretting wearing a thick sweater (although now glad that my tights aren’t thick), and all the scrambling over exposed rocks has me doubting this is actually the easy route. The first horizontal section is 470 metres long, at the end of which is a 50-metre zip line. I gingerly continue climbing, making sure not to disturb some of the loose sedimentary rocks of the Hajar Mountains.
There are several pedals and rungs for assistance throughout the path. I’m concentrating so hard on hooking and unhooking to the wires while moving up that at first I can hardly take in the fresh air and embrace the unadulterated nature around me. In the process, I also resort to unclipping myself off the wire in a hurry to get to more stable ground. I’m told off for that several times during the first 15 minutes of the trek.
Once we reach the first zip line, we’re clipped onto another wire and briefed again. With my heart pounding, I jump off and get to the other side of the mountain within seconds. Just before I start zipping back, I hook myself onto another line for the instructor to manually pull me in. While I’m waiting for the others to make it to the other side, I’m finally acquainted with the climbing technique and can revel in the silence of the valley, looking down 20 metres from where the zip line is. I’m also comfortable enough to whip out my smartphone to capture the natural play of light and shadow in the mountains.
We continue to walk to the 60-metre zip line, which isn’t far and is 70 metres above our first stop. We follow the same protocol and continue to the 300-metre zip line, the third and most exhilarating, which is 120 metres high. Accessing this zip line is slightly tricky because of the steepness in certain areas.
At this point, I feel like a zip-line pro and even ask the instructor to take a video of me while I dangle (securely tied) at the edge of the mountain. I let go, and while zipping, I can feel the lightness of flying, getting a thrill out of the gust of wind that also blows the helmet off my head. I stop a few metres before the end of the line, and again need to be pulled in by the guide. The trek back is less tedious – we only have to cover 225 metres. The trek is marketed as a four-hour activity, but we have managed to complete it in two-and-a-half hours.
Seasoned rock climbers and trekkers can skip this route and challenge themselves with the more technical treks. The Middle Path ascends 60 metres from the wadi bed and contains three vertical sections, a horizontal traverse and two overhanging sections. The Julphar Scare is the direct route to the longest zip line, with a 120-metre ascent using ladders through five different verticals.
I, on the other hand, will continue to hone my rock climbing ability on this “easy route” until I’m ready to up the ante.
• The via ferrata and zip-line tour costs Dh400. All safety gear is provided by Absolute Adventure. For more information, visit www.jebeljais.ae or call 050 6259165. You can follow @visitrasalkhaimah on Instagram
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