Hitting the heights with the Stairway to Heaven in Ras Al Khaimah

Our reporter clambers up the spectacular yet dangerous Stairway to Heaven route in RAK, almost a quarter of a century after it was uncovered.

Ascending the Stairway to Heaven.  Nick Webster / The National
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Two hours north of Dubai, in Wadi Ghalilah, Ras Al Khaimah, lies the Stairway to Heaven. It has become famous as a playground for experienced climbers, but has also developed a notorious ­reputation.

Mountaineering is a curious sport. The pioneering George ­Mallory was the first Briton to attempt Mount Everest, the roof of the world. He paid the ultimate price for his adventurous spirit in 1924, when he died 245 metres short.

It was Mallory’s third attempt, but his fate went unknown until 75 years later when his body was discovered by climbers on an expedition to recover his remains, and those of his climbing partner Andrew Irvine.

The story of Britain’s early mountaineers serves as a warning, a reminder of the dangers intrinsically linked with adventure in the most dangerous of ­playgrounds.

When asked why he climbed ­Everest, Mallory answered: “Because it’s there.” A similar notion attracts hundreds to the less famous but still treacherous peaks of the UAE every year.

Its most famous trail is an ancient Shihuh mountain route linking the coast with a mountain village, close to the Oman border.

With few villages remaining, and shepherds no longer using the route, it is all but obsolete.

In 2012, adventure had a sickening end when a 31-year-old British pilot with Emirates fell 1,000 metres to his death from a narrow pathway.

In December, a 22-year old British national perished on the UAE’s tallest mountain, Jebel Jais, also in RAK, four months after a UAE resident lost his life after getting lost on unmarked trails while trekking on Wadi Al Sameenah mountain in Oman.

This is a dangerous corner of the region, but can be enjoyed and not feared if the right planning and precautions are taken.

UAE climbing clubs are quick to state this route isn’t a hike, and should only be undertaken by those with a decent level of fitness, accompanied by experienced mountaineers.

As a novice, I grab the opportunity to explore the famous Stairway to Heaven in the safe hands of a climbing group from Dubai. We leave the city at 5.30am, and take our first mountain steps at 8am.

The 17-kilometre route includes a climb of about 1,500 metres, and is estimated to take at least nine hours. I join a mixed bunch of nationalities and backgrounds, including lawyers, a pilot and seasoned mountaineers who have taken on climbs in the Himalayas, including Everest.

Driving off Al Rams Road, just past the RAK Cement factory towards the starting point, there’s a small parking area next to a dam. Off-road vehicles are needed to make the 10-minute drive to where the walk begins, next to a small settlement and goat farm.

Remarkably, the early route onto the mountain has been helpfully cultivated into concrete steps by locals, aiming to ease walkers into their ascent.

That sense of security is ­quickly replaced by apprehension, as walkways are replaced by rocks to scramble over, and narrow ledges above yawning descents.

Ledges can be narrow, and the terrain loose, with drop-offs just inches from the path. A wrong step could be fatal, as vertical stone walls disguise remnants of an ancient stairway. Larger rocks have been rolled into place to form a makeshift “safety” barrier on some sections of the trail.

Although ruggedly beautiful, there’s no doubting the route’s danger. It has taken lives, and many more have suffered serious injuries and close calls.

Planning is essential. Walkers should be fit and come prepared with at least three litres of water in winter months, and more in summer.

Breathtaking views and plenty of opportunity to take in expansive panoramas mean a camera is also essential. There’s nowhere to stop en route to stock up on food or drink, so bring your own. A torch is also recommended in case unforeseen delays result in descending in darkness, although that’s an option that should only be undertaken in extreme circumstances.

The first half of the climb is hidden in shade, but ascending, the first of the staircases is bathed in glorious sunshine.

Much has been written about the series of stairways that take climbers to the summit, each more remarkable than the last.

It’s hard to imagine shoeless goat farmers creating these vertical stone walkways, several hundred metres up on an exposed cliff face.

Rigid climbing boots aren’t essential, but make descending easier. Prepare for about five vertical stone staircases, and tricky ledges to negotiate in between. It’s no place to suffer a bout of vertigo.

Although there’s no defined trail, small cairns are helpful markers on the most direct route. Despite these, it’s easy to go wayward, and a wrong turn can lead to an impasse, and a tricky descent to return to the correct path.

Once at the summit, there’s a stop-off point next to another small goat farm, before a long traverse along a ridge to where the journey down begins.

Descending sounds easy, but it’s actually more physically demanding. As more experienced climbers on the walk explain, there’s no exercise that can prepare you for walking continuously downhill on steep, loose ground. Be prepared for a relentless slog, but enjoy the photograph opportunities, which are worth the tough trek.

Copper Hike

An easy-ish 7-kilometre hike in the Hatta area, which is the inland enclave of Dubai, located relatively high in the Hajar Mountains. You’ll walk past old copper areas and remnants of dwellings and slag fields.

Jebel Shams

Located in north-eastern Oman, north of Al Hamra town, Jebel Shams is the highest mountain in the country, and part of the Hajar Mountains. It‘s a popular sightseeing area located 240km from Muscat. The trek from the parking area is 9km, takes about seven hours and is classed as difficult.

Jebel Qihwi

A mountain on the Musandam Peninsula. Access is from a location on the route from Ras Al Khaimah to Dibba, via Wadi Al Bih. This is a full-day hike, with no technical climbing involved, but a high level of fitness is required.

Trails in the UAE/Oman

Jebel Hafeet

An 18km hike just outside Al Ain, the second-largest city in Abu Dhabi emirate. Part of the mountain straddles the border with Oman. With an elevation of 1,249 metres, this walk is considered difficult. Take the E22 road from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, then follow the brown tourist signs.

Shawka Dam

A full-day, easy 10km trail in Ras Al Khaimah. There are plenty of stops to be made along the way. Do the walk anticlockwise to get the tough stuff out of the way early.

Wadi Al Far

A 7km loop walk in Ras Al Khaimah that takes five to six hours. Boulder hopping is required, along with some up- and downhill trekking on loose rocks, so moderate level of fitness is required. Exit Dubai on the E311, and follow road signs.

Wadi Shah

This track is in the northern part of RAK, bordering Musandam. It’s a 13km-long circular trip that takes at least seven hours to complete. It offers lovely scenery, and requires a reasonable level of fitness.

Wadi Tayyibah

This used to form the main route between Dibba and Masafi, also known as the East Coast Road. This 8.5km track is great to explore – natural pools and traditional falaj irrigation systems line the track, and you’ll pass through the village of Taybah and the Taybah Museum. Suitable for most people.

Note: Hiking during summer isn't advisable because of extreme temperatures.