Stairway to Heaven - treacherous, scary and dangerous

News of a death on Stairway to Heaven in Ras Al Khaimah is certain to reignite debate about the UAE's most notorious mountain route. John Henzell reports.

‘Spectacular’ is one of the most commonly used words to describe the Stairway to Heaven mountain route in Ras Al Khaimah.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

News of a fatal accident on the dangerous Stairway to Heaven climb in Ras Al Khaimah is certain to reignite debate about the UAE's most notorious mountain route. It seems no amount of education is enough to stop amateurs trying the trek.

"Spectacular" is one of the most commonly used words to describe the Stairway to Heaven mountain route in Ras Al Khaimah.

Or at least, one of the most common positive words. Others adjectives frequently used to describe the ancient shepherd's route scaling the cliffs of Wadi Galilah include scary, dangerous, crazy and stupid.

Sam Whitcombe, a graphic designer in Dubai, uses all four of those words to describe his experience on it last year.

He and a friend expected to take between eight to 12 hours but ended up taking 17, during which he was overtaken by darkness and ran out of water while still negotiating the cliffs.

"We were lucky," Mr Whitcombe recounts. "The situation could have turned out much worse and I was constantly thinking that this could become a reality during the night section of the hike."

His experience, while positive overall, has become a fairly common one, with the accounts of epics and narrow escapes outnumbering those of ascents in which everything went entirely to plan.

It is the publicity attracted by Stairway to Heaven - and in particular the way in which people clearly lacking the skills to safely climb it try it anyway - that vexes the authorities who have previously considered banning all ascents.

Part of the problem is that the route is described in UAE Off Road Explorer, a guidebook aimed at four-wheel drive enthusiasts rather than mountaineers, although accompanied by three separate warnings.

They are: "Do not underestimate this hike," "It is essential to do it the first time with someone who knows the route inside-out," and "It cannot be overstated how serious this hike is."

It has also featured in a Dubai entertainment listing magazine as one of 50 adventurous alternatives to the city's nightclubs, again with a warning: "This hike is extreme … go with someone who knows the route."

But the failure of readers to heed those clear warnings, or make realistic assessments of their own abilities, is fuelling a debate over whether Stairway to Heaven should be publicised at all.

View RAK hiker dies in a larger map

One of those who admits he failed to fully take account of the advice is Hisham Youssef, an American-Egyptian architect who did the route with a more experienced Austrian colleague in May 2009.

"From personal experience, I confirm the oft-unheeded warning to climb with someone who has done the stairway before," Mr Youssef says.

"I was not fit when we went. I did not carry enough water or food. Late May can be hot in the UAE, and needless to say I dehydrated.

"What we intended to be a return in Dubai by about 6pm ended up being around midnight. Had it not been for my Austrian friend I would have probably had to spend the night on the mountain.

"Never, never attempt this climb without someone who has done it before a few times and is very knowledgeable of the area."

Even going with companions who have experience with Stairway to Heaven proves no guarantee of a safe return.

Australian trekker Cameron Brooks took the challenge seriously when he tackled it in January last year, choosing to join a more experienced group. But on the descent, he fell and fractured his leg on an easier section of boulders.

A rescue was mounted involving the other 16 members of his group and more than 20 experienced mountaineers from the region who answered the call to help evacuate him.

His leg was splinted and he was put in a stretcher, but even with more than 20 helpers and easier terrain than high on Stairway to Heaven, it took a full day to move him through country that would take uninjured hikers 90 minutes to traverse.

One of the rescuers, Ian Ganderton, says the rescue team stabilised Mr Brooks then began the evacuation at first light the next day.

"The ground below the Wadi Ghalila Headwall is steep, broken and uncompromising. It's very difficult to evacuate an injured person through," Mr Ganderton says.

Ground that a fit climber could cover in 90 minutes took the rescue team of 29 people six hours to cover.

"The large expert team worked impressively hard throughout the whole task. I can't recall a better example of teamwork I've ever seen, and for no other reason than to help a fellow mountaineer."

Once the rescue was complete, some in the UAE mountaineering community turned their attention to the way Stairway to Heaven is publicised, in a bid to find a way to discourage inexperienced parties from trying it.

Much of Stairway to Heaven's high profile comes from UAE Off Road Explorer.

John Gregory, one of the UAE's most experienced rock climbers and a veteran of 20 ascents of Stairway to Heaven, put it simply: "Stairway [to Heaven] should never even be in the book.

"It's a matter of common sense. It's so different to anything else in the book and as a result many people have run into difficulties."

Another of those who weighed in was Brian Parry, the then director of adventure activities at the outdoor adventure company Al Shaheen.

"Stairway's virtually the only one that's well known and the reason is because people have had epics," Mr Parry said.

"People get excited and start to take chances. If you're a novice, you're making assumptions that it's going to be OK."

The producer of last year's edition of UAE Off Road Explorer, Matt Warnock, has defended its inclusion because of the clear warnings. The latest edition of the guide upgrades the warnings even further, including bright-red print with warning symbols.

"The Stairway To Heaven route is well known throughout the region and outdoor enthusiasts would discover and try the route anyway," Mr Warnock says.

"By including the route in our guide books we can stress the difficulty and warn about the dangers, as well as providing vital advice."

A series of workshops organised by local climbers followed, along with calls for minimum qualifications for mountain guides in the UAE, especially as few trails are marked and maps difficult to obtain.

Part of the problem also is the way Stairway to Heaven is usually described as a hike rather than a climb.

One reference, in a magazine article about adventures on the Arabian Peninsula, went as far as describing it as "more a hiker's joy, an 8-12 hour hike".

Toby Foord-Kelcey, author of a rock-climbing guidebook to the region and one of the top climbers until he emigrated to Canada, says Stairway to Heaven has received a disproportionate amount of attention, mostly from the inexperienced.

"For non-climbers the 'stairway' part of the route gives a taste of big-cliff exposure, but for experienced climbers it's just a moderate scramble, if a long one," Mr Foord-Kelcey says.

But it still attracts people who have little experience of that kind of terrain. As recently as September 18 this year, a report was posted by a group that had no previous experience of the route but embarked on it using internet research.

"The worst thing for our hike was no one in our team had professional mountaineering experience and we didn't know the actual route," the unattributed report stated.

"However, we had all printouts of route maps, photos, route description and blogs of previous climbers.

"We took around seven hours to reach the top of the cliff. We were tired and I got muscle cramps, which made me rest every 10 minutes."

The group was back at their car in just under 12 hours, advising all who followed to "ensure you are fit and capable of up to 12 hours' hard mountain walking that will involve some rock climbing.

"Thank Almighty God once you reach home safely …"