I’m all about trying to conquer my fears, but I’m not quite ready to do that with my fear of heights. A few weeks ago, when Nate decided to hook himself to a rope and jump into a cave on top of a plateau in the Hajar mountains, I said “F*** no” and stayed behind. So I’m letting him take over to write about it:
When the Embassy fun coordinator (she has an official title, but that is a significant part of her duties) announced that there was going to be an abseiling trip into a 120 meter deep cavern, I first looked up what abseiling was, and then I enthusiastically volunteered. I also asked Kathryn if she wanted to come, but she did not seem super interested in hanging mid-air attached to a rope.
We had heard a lot of good things about the company that was guiding the tour, Twenty 3 Extreme, so I was fairly certain it would be a safe, competently led expedition. Our friend had used them for a trip a month or so back, and said all of their equipment was top of the line and in really good shape, which is what you want to hear when you’re going to be dangling over an abyss in short order.
I also liked that they required nine hours of training over the course of three sessions at a local climbing facility. If I need to use a lot of new equipment to do something, I want to get a lot of opportunities to use it in as safe an environment as possible.
We were given a helmet, a harness, an ASAP (a safety device with metal teeth that attaches to a rope running alongside your descent / ascent rope), an ascending device attached to our chest (a piece of equipment with metal teeth that keeps you attached to the climbing rope, but also allows you to move up it), a Jumar ascending device (a device with a foot loop attached to it that allows you to climb a rope essentially by standing up repeatedly), a descender device, and several cables attached to carabiners that could be used as safety devices when attached to anchors. Most of these devices rely on weight and friction, and if you take your weight off them you can detach them from the rope you’re on. This became necessary when we were transferring from rope to rope mid-climb.
It took a little while to get used to all these pieces of equipment: I still can’t really describe the process of what I was doing as much as I can say it became much easier as I continuously did it. Pretty soon everyone was going up and down ropes with ease, and using the descender to more rapidly go down. The last part of the training was adding an additional 15 kilos of weight to the bottom of the rope we were using to see if we could still feed it through the descender device. This was to simulate having 200 feet of rope hanging underneath us, which we might need to manipulate at some point.
After the final training we packed up our camping gear and headed to the Hajar mountains, overlooking the town of Fins and some very deep canyons. The mountain road was extremely twisty and steep, and our Mitsubishi Pajero overheated twice before we made it to the hole we planned on abseiling into. We set up camp maybe ten meters away from the hole, and our guides Joe and Justin set up the ropes we’d be using the next day. We got a grill set up and cooked chicken and steak under the stars. The view of the sky was amazing. Joe and Justin regaled us with tales of their cave exploring throughout the world. One of their many interesting stories was Justin’s tale of cannibals threatening his life and the life of a BBC film crew while trying to explore a cave in Papua New Guinea.
The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, ate some breakfast, and started dropping into the hole. I went second so that I wouldn’t psych myself out, though I don’t think I needed to worry. Joe was at the top, and was extremely reassuring, even though I was literally backing myself off the edge of a cliff. I did not look down very much, enjoying the views of the cave and the cliff above me. When I did look down, I mistook the mouth of the cavern for the ground, so I thought I was halfway down when I was actually about a quarter of the way there. It took about 17 minutes to make it all the way down.
When we got to the bottom we took some group photos, signed the Twenty 3 Extreme cave guestbook they had hidden there, and hiked a short distance through a dark tunnel. We came out on the other side, rappelled down a ten – fifteen meter drop and then climbed up what was variously described as a 40, 50, or possibly 60 meter rock wall. Another short hike found us climbing a final 30-meter high rock wall. As we climbed we saw two huge lizards fighting it out for dominance of the cave by trying to grab each other by the tails and fling each other off the wall.
The cave itself was beautiful, deep, and cool. A nearby wadi feeds into it, and you can see where torrents of water have created a series of deep cauldrons. Apparently it goes another 160 meters down, though exploring that part is another expedition. The initial descent alone is worth the trip. I strongly suggest trying it out, and using Twenty 3 Extreme; their guides are excellent, and will make you a successful abseiler no matter how scared of heights you are.