Volume 36 Number 1 Article 1
Arch Cave - Part 2
Continued from Part 1 in Volume 35 Number 2.
Bart, Vance, Cemal, and Paul
It was hard to keep up the momentum, but the following weekend we had a training day in Wadi Mai. On Thursday along with Bart's help we had bolted up a 10m high cliff face next to the road. Then on Friday along with Cemal and Bart we spent a day practising all the basic SRT techniques. We rounded the day off by performing a rescue of sorts, when we lifted Cemal up the face using pulleys and jamers. It was quite easy, but then again, Cemal weighed only about 50 kg, "2 1/2 action men to be precise". Vance, who lived in Abu Dhabi, couldn't join us. I had already decided to take the following Wednesday off work to prepare for the trip. Vance agreed to fly in on Tuesday night so that the next morning we could refresh his SRT skills before being faced with a problem in the big shaft. Throughout the week we spent hours on the phone, organising who would bring what and just how the logistics were to be planned. I had volunteered Elvira to be Camp Boss and she busied herself with preparing the food and camp side of the trip.
It was during this week that I had a surprise call from Dave Humphreys. We quickly arranged to meet up. Elvira made a good meal and we sat outside for a BBQ. During the evening he was able to provide lots of tips and information to help us with our trip. He had been Carry Boss for the 2 week expedition in 1997. He also solved the mystery of our aborted recognisance trip down Arch Cave. The route down from the tree had only been used as a practice drop. The main route that we had started down had been tried by the group, but given up when it was clear that it was a poor way down. So, I at least knew why I didn't find any bolts. Dave then described the traverse and the ledge and the main hang. But, I was still confused as to why I'd found no studs at the end of the ledge, surely there must have been a main belay there? He then produced some photographs and said that the pitch had finally been rigged using normal anchors and the first bolt he could remember was just 1m below the ledge, thereafter the route had corkscrewed down to the right. So by the end of the evening he had cleared up a great deal of uncertainty. It was a pity that he was unable to join us for the trip.
On Wednesday afternoon we packed up and set of from Muscat. By 8:30 pm we were setting up camp at the tombs. We then sat under a blanket of stars, drinking beers and puffing away on big cigars while telling jokes and relating various climbing and caving stories. Once again Cemal did not disappoint us. He made a classic 5 pm start... "Coffee anyone?" As we drove to the village we passed several Bedus. Vance can speak Arabic and he was in his element blabbing away to the locals. Vance had found out that "they were expecting us and the Donkeys were waiting... four to be precise." You can never beat the Bush Telegraph.
Despite "expecting us" we had to wait 1/2 hr while they prepared the donkeys. Planning was something that obviously wasn't passed on from father to son. Remembering our last visit I promised to keep cool. Fahd arrived and we then spent 1/2 hr discussing the price. A new face was also present, he was one of the elders from the village. Eventually we fixed a price. It then took another 3/4 hr to load up.
The village youths then started their extortion ploy. "You know, there are many thieves in the hills up here... very many; and they are very bad... evil. people. If you give us 5OR then we can promise to protect your cars." I asked Vance to explain that we had great faith in the pride of the village to protect our cars from these villains. Surely, with such good people around then these thieves would have no chance to enter the village. I heard Vance blab away. "Did he understand?" "Yeah. I told him that if anything happens to our cars we'll come looking for him!". "Just the translation I was after".
With four donkeys, three helpers and Fahd, we set of to the plateaux. By 11 am we were at the entrance to Arch cave. Camp Boss was adamant that we needed a good camp and some shade. After all "I've got to spend all day waiting and I need some shade!". By the cave there was only rock and a few bushes. About 1 km further we could see some trees on the flat plain. We then realised that all the gear had been mixed up when it was packed onto the donkeys. Rather than unload it all at the cave and then have to re-pack it, we decided to set up camp and then return with a donkey and the main gear.
The camp spot was perfect. Vance and Bart stayed to help set up camp and I advised that they take a rest and come to the cave at about 2 pm. Cemal and I set off to rig the cave.
We scrambled down into the plain Wadi. There was a drop of 15m into a huge plunge pool. We then followed the wadi round and scrambled down to the base of the previous "tree route". We anchored the rope and I gingerly stepped along the ledge. I found a dubious natural belay. I then edged forward to the very end of the narrow ledge. The sun was directly overhead now and I could look down a clear drop of at least 120m. The shaft was around 30m in diameter, but 1/2 way down it opened up into what appeared to be a huge chamber. It was impossible to judge the scale. I found the bolt just over the lip of the ledge. I wasn't happy with this as a main belay. I made a stance and placed a bolt. It was quite an airy place to work. With Cemal's help we lowered down the 200m rope. It was a virtual free hang to the bottom and we could just make out our slender white thread coiled up on the boulders below.
We both traversed back around the ledge to our pill box sanctuary for a rest and some water. "Well, this is it. All that planning and now here we are at the top the pitch". "Yeah". We were both nervous. I set off down the main rope. I rigged the first bolt, and descended into unknown territory. About 15m down I was feeling quite relaxed, taking in the view (even looking down) and beginning to enjoy getting the feeling of my old caving days back. The dimensions of the shaft were huge and I realised just how special it was to be able to be here. At this point I was scared out of my-wits when I startled a pigeon, which blasted forth from behind me, making a hell of a racket in the process. I thought about pigeon pie.
About 25m down I found a bolt. Another 30m down the rope brushed against the lip of an undercut. I looked hard to find a bolt. Since my confidence had built a little (no thanks to our feathered friend) I began to swing around to what looked like obvious noses of rock or points above overhangs where there might be bolts. In the end I decided that with the shaft being so huge, I had no way of telling where the original party had put in deviations or re-belays, they could be anywhere. I returned to the direct hang. Although it was almost a clear hang to the bottom, I decided to put in a rebelay. This took about half an hour. I then descended further and put in another 2 re-belays. Whilst I was putting in the last bolt I could hear shouts from above. Bart and Vance had arrived. From the last bolt was a free drop of around 60m. The shaft had opened up completely. I could only guess at how big it was. The only description would be to relate it to the size of GG main chamber. I couldn't begin to guess how big it was. With the reduced light level and the increased humidity, the walls were now covered with green algaes and moss. I finally landed on the boulder floor. I staggered away from the bottom of the shaft and got the whistle out to signal for the others to follow. We had agreed that no-one would come down until the pitch was fully rigged. I took off my gear. One of my legs had gone numb while sitting around for so long bolting. I then sat back to take in the spectacle.
The chamber was so big it masked out the rope hanging in it. Looking up I could see the sunlight sending a beam of light against the far wall. The high humidity created huge steam clouds which slowly floated up the shaft. It looked like the chamber had its own weather system. I could then just make out the tiny dot of Cernal as he started down the rope. I slowly walked around the edge of the chamber and watched the whole descent, trying to decide which was the best angle to watch the show from. I shouted up a few times, but there was no reply. Cemal was in his own world concentrating on the job at hand. Within one and a half hours everyone was at the bottom of the shaft. We were all gob smacked. A few photos were made and we prepared for the rest of the trip. It was 4 pm. Our plan was to explore the one and a half kilometres of passage down to the point where it connects through to 7th hole. We packed our bags, and as usual carried about 3-4 litres of water per person. The first 300m of cave was a huge canyon, some 20m wide and 30-40m high. We traversed on ledges at the side to avoid the mini strearnway in the floor, with all its boulders, pools and short drops. At several places we could see flood debris. It then began to sink home just what a huge volume of water must blast down this storm drain when it rains outside. The whole mountainside and several square kilometres of plateaux would drain straight into here.
On one ledge, below the flood debris I found some old, but nonetheless fresh looking footprints. There had been no water across these. Within a 100m the nature of the cave changed completely. We started to crawl in a bedding about 1m high and 3-4m across. This degenerated further to a squeeze down into a pool. From the survey we could see that the cross section was small, even at "2x scale" as was denoted on the plot. But it was hard to imagine that such a huge passage could degenerate to this grovel. It was very unlike Hoti Cave which was big all the way down. We continued to grovel on for another 100m. It was not easy caving. Our bags were heavy, Cemal who couldn't swim was feeling uneasy about the prospect of coming across pools that were too deep for him. Bart was feeling unhappy with small places. The water was also cold! This was a surprise too. In Hoti the water was nice'n warm, but we were now 1500m up in the mountains and the temperature below ground was much cooler. Vance gave out a groan.
His electronic camera had just fallen out of his pouch and gone "blub". We looked at it. "Do you think it'll work again?" It felt warm. Something wasn't right. I suspected that the cells were directly shorted. We whipped out the batteries in a hope to save it. Things were not going smoothly. It was now 6:30 pm. We gathered together as best we could but still ended up crouched down in a pool feeling cold. That about summed it up, I decided that it was time to retreat, we wouldn't achieve anything by struggling on. It was fair to say that we were not prepared for this. We were carrying too much gear and water, which, because it was colder we were not needing to drink. At first we were unsure that this was the best decision. Each of us was thinking that he'd let the side down. However we soon cheered up when we got back in the main passage and Bart took some more photos. Back at the base of the shaft we kitted up. It was now 9 pm. The atmosphere had changed now. It was dark outside and the Cathedral-like chamber was now a mass of black nothingness. I squinted up to see if I could see any stars, but couldn't. Cemal was feeling cold, being only 50 kg he didn't have an ounce of fat to keep him warm, so he was volunteered to go out first. We made a joke about someone prussiking up with someone else's gear in a bag. Cemal set of up. The other guys kitted up and packed their bags. I then looked for my gear. It wasn't in my bag. Oh shit. The others checked their bags. "Mafi", "Mafi". "Humbug".
We asked Cemal to lower the bag down. He did this from the bolt. But despite having a free hang the bag snagged on the rope. We couldn't quite work this one out. After 15 minutes of work, I could hear that Cemal was getting knackered. So before it went to rat shit I asked him to secure the rope and carry on out. I used Vance's kit and whizzed up to the bolt. I sorted out the rope and shouted to Cemal to carry on out and go to the camp to let Elvira know that we were coming out. I returned to the bottom. When I checked the bag I was even more "humbugged" to find my kit wasn't in it after all. Bart and Vance did a double take. After rechecking bags, my gear was found hiding in the bottom of Vance's bag. We could only laugh, since we were damned if we were going to cry. We were now feeling tired. Vance set off next. He had a problem passing the first bolt, but after 1/2 hr and some coaching form below he was off. I thought of the good old days.
If someone was screwing around on a bolt for longer than 10 minutes then they were usually in trouble. I'm sure there is a club record for the longest time ever to pass a bolt. I followed next, and Bart brought up the rear. Vance cruised past all the other re-belays. I hung around enjoying the atmosphere. It was warm and humid. But our torture wasn't over yet. As we approached the surface there was the constant high pitched whine of attacking mozzies. And here I was, a piece of hot sweaty bait dangling on a line. I hurried to the ledge but got bitten at least five times. Having caught malaria I have developed a healthy phobia of these evil little bastard insects. Bart was soon up and I let him past. Since myself and Vance were rested we could haul up the rope. I set up a pulley rig and we began hauling in the 200m.
As we stuffed the tail end into the rucksack Elvira shouted from above. "Yu hue ... Boys". We de-rigged the last pitch and took our gear off. Cemal came down to help ferry gear up the last climb. It took half an hour to ferry the gear up to the surface, where we finally stepped onto real terra firma. We were all knackered and in a semi zombie state headed back to the camp. It was about 1 am. Elv had laid out a sitting area of sleeping mats for us to lie on, with rucksacks for cushions. It looked very Arabian. She had also made herself a kitchen. We had just enough energy to take our boots off and collapsed. A few hot sugary brews later and life began to return. Whilst Elv was busy cooking we changed. Vance then produced his hidden contribution to the trip. A Presentation box of three Malt Whiskies.... "3 x 33cc. That's a whole litre of whisky". "Long live Dubai Duty Free" "Bring on the Belly Dancers!" As the nectar revived us further we began to move the sleeping mats and gather around Elv's kitchen. Everyone knows that the best bit of a party is always in the kitchen. She was not impressed by our whisky guzzling, and even less impressed by our crowding out her kitchen. So Camp Boss used her authority to restore order. Whisky and pasta stew did not go together so that was that! Despite everyone feeling a lack of hunger we destroyed a huge pan of pasta, followed by rice pud. Then we had more brews and hot chocolate ... laced with whisky to avoid the ban from the camp boss. We finally crashed out by about 2 pm.
Cemal didn't wake by 05:00. By 7:00 we were up. We had asked Fahd to return by 9:00. We sat under the tree enjoying breakfast. By 7:30 the donkeys arrived. Our breakfast became a spectacle to Fahd and his now eight helpers, who sat in a semi circle some 5m way and watched the whole process. Every now and then one would get up and walk to our bags and rummage around to see what could be useful. Vance was nominated as guard. We started to pack up, a fiasco as usual. It always starts as follows. Fahd looks helpless and points to the loads and the donkeys. "Mafi Habal...Mafi Habal°. He had rope to tie on the loads when we came, but now he had none. They see that we have hundreds of metres of new rope, so why can't he have a bit for his donkeys. I had to agree that 10mm Edelrid was definitely better than polypropylene washing line for tying things onto donkeys. However I was not about to chop several tens of metres of my prize 200m cord. Vance tried his best to explain that if we did this, then the long rope would not be long anymore and it would be no good to go down such deep holes. I thought Fahd understood; but within a few minutes he started the "Mafi Habal"s again and we were back to square one. So we just milled about and waited. After 15 minutes he realised he was onto a loser. He took a bag from a donkey and tipped a huge pile of rope onto the ground. Some of it was old caving rope too. They began to load up. Fahd next had his eye on our blue water containers. Not that he was short of water containers, on the contrary, they had literally hundreds of water containers. But this one had a tap on it! So it would be one up on his mates. By now we all had to have eagle eyes to avoid things disappearing. Vance educated us as to the way by which things "disappear". It was important to understand that this was not stealing. It was merely a technique by which you made sure that someone leaves something behind. Which then, by definition, means that the said article was obviously not important to them, so you can keep it.
We watched as one youngster drank from one of Vance's plastic drinking bottles. He investigated the article thoroughly for several minutes. We pretended to look away. He then tossed the bottle into the bushes beside him and moved off to pack a donkey. After a few minutes Vance made a show of finding the bottle, much to the disappointment of the youth. So that was the game. I watched my three blue water containers like a hawk. It was indeed a game. Fahd talked to me at every opportunity he could, I didn't need to understand Arabic to get the gist of his stories. Vance was having fun too. A little while later I looked around to check my Jerrys. Only 2 to be seen. Hmmm. Now where did he hide it. Here we were in the middle of a barren plane, stood by the only tree in sight and my Jerry can had been hidden. I pretended not to notice and slowly walked around the gear pile and donkeys, making a point of checking everything. Fahd avoided my every glance. Although I'm sure I saw him grin at one point. I eventually caught sight of it behind the tree, pushed right up against the trunk to obscure it as much as possible from view.
I walked over, motioned with my eyes to the tree and asked him not to forget my Jerry can. The whole gang burst out laughing. At last everything was packed up and by 10:30 we set off back to the village. It was a long hot walk and we were tired.
Back at the village we were quickly informed that no thieves had been seen and our cars had been well looked after. We packed as quickly as possible, thanked Fahd and his helpers and paid up. We said we would see them after the summer for some more caving. However we were not quite free yet. Just as Bart moved his car we heard a loud "hissing" noise. I admired his calmness over this last broken straw. We all helped to change the tyre.
On the walk back Vance had been befriended by two locals who needed a lift back. So we had two local chaps in the car as we drove down to Izgi. They spoke some English, and tried to convince us that we had paid far too much for the donkeys and that they would do it for two thirds of the price. However they didn't come from that village and so we would have to meet before the village and take a different track to the plateaux. Vance tried to find out how we could get a message to them, but failed miserably when neither of them could remember exactly who had a phone. Better the devil you know. The last thing we needed now was some inter-village competition. "..with all those thieves up there it would become a difficult place to go"
So this is caving in Oman. There is still a lot more of the Selmah system to explore and a few leads which have been passed on to our group. So we await the next winter season to make a few more trips.