Jabal Bil Ays West Peak – 6,207ft
Matthew Gilbertson – March 7, 2016
Eric Gilbertson – August 30, 2016
Amanda was fortunate to secure a month-long rotation at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD) for the month of March 2016. I visited her for a week and targeted three nearby country high points in the Middle East. First on the list was the United Arab Emirates.
After 21 hours of flying from Boston, I arrived in Abu Dhabi at 8pm on a Saturday. In the UAE, the weekend is actually Friday/Saturday, not Saturday/Sunday, so while Amanda worked at the clinic, I spent Sunday on a 15 mile exploration jog/walk through the city. This gave me the opportunity to get adjusted to the hot and surprisingly humid conditions and reset my internal clock to the nine hour time difference.
On Monday I rolled out of bed around 8am and decided that today would be the day for Jabal Bil Ays. I had only a handful of activities planned for my week in the UAE, giving me some flexibility for which day I climbed the UAE high point. The only constraint for this day was that I would need to be back in Abu Dhabi by 7pm because Amanda’s colleagues in the anesthesia department of CCAD had invited me and her to a welcome dinner that evening.
I expected to arrive well before 7pm based upon a few trip reports that I had read on Peakbagger. The reports I read suggested that reaching the summit was nearly trivial – a road goes almost the whole way to the top, the reports said, and the hiking is only 40 minutes up/25 minutes down from the point where you park your car. As I would discover, it wouldn’t be quite that easy.
Since Google Maps showed a driving time of 3.5 hours each way, I expected that I would spend most of the time driving. That ought to put me back in Abu Dhabi by around 5pm, I thought, giving plenty of time to get cleaned up and changed into fancy clothes before the dinner.
I hopped in a taxi to the Abu Dhabi airport and picked up a rental car from Thrifty. By the time I hit the road, it was 9:30am. I headed east into the desert, and passed through Dubai in about an hour. As I neared the city, a tall spire towered hundreds of feet over everything else. It was the Burj Kalifa – the tallest building in the world. Because it was hazy, you couldn’t see the tower from more than ten miles away, but on a clear day you could probably see it not too far outside of Abu Dhabi. I also noticed the indoor ski park next to the freeway, but there was no time to stop and admire it because I was on a mission.
I continued driving on the high-quality highway at a speed of 120kph (75mph) and passed through the northern city of Ras Al Khaimah around 11am. Soon after that, I headed eastward into the mountains. Before long, I spotted signs for Jabal Jais, a mountain that I knew was on the hiking route to Jabal Bil Ays. The road became extremely windy as it wove its way higher into the mountains, but with smooth asphalt and three wide lanes, progress continued to be fast. Finally, by 12:30pm, I reached the end of the road. Well, the end of the driveable road, that is. It was time for some hiking.
The reports suggested that this was indeed the correct spot to park the car. From here, it was supposedly 40 minutes of hiking along a gravel road to the summit. But Jabal Bil Ays would not be defeated that easily. In the year or so since the trip report had been written, road improvement had begun in earnest. There were dump trucks and excavators everywhere, jackhammering, blasting, and hauling rocks. It was pretty evident that they were trying to extend the 3-lane road all the way to the top of Jabal Jais, if not Jabl Bil Ays, which meant that in just a few years reaching the summit of the UAE would indeed be almost trivial.
Unfortunately, the road construction presented a bit of a dilemma. Across the road which I had planned to hike up, there was a big gate and a bunch of signs indicating that construction personnel only were allowed beyond that point. I approached the gentlemen manning the gate to explore my options.
“Hello,” he said with a smile, extending his hand to me. “My name is Mohammad*.” (*I can’t recall what his name actually was, but I will assume that it was Mohammad.)
“Hello,” I replied, “my name is Matthew. Can I hike to the top?”
“No, the road is closed,” Mohammad said. “Too dangerous. Blasting. Boom!” He made a motion with his hands indicating exploding rocks. That was bad news indeed. They shouldn’t be able to close the entire mountain just because of blasting, I thought. It would really be inconvenient to come this far and get turned around.
Perhaps sensing my disappointment, Mohammed said with a smile, “walk up here is OK,” pointing to a relatively steep hillside next to the road, away from the blasting and construction.
I hadn’t expected this answer, so I wanted to double check that I had understood him correctly. “It is OK to walk up this mountain?” I asked.
“Yes, it is OK,” he answered.
I wasn’t entirely sure if he was suggesting: A) you can only walk up to the top of that random hill (which wasn’t Jabl Bil Ays), or B) to get to the summit, you have to walk up that hill first. Given his vagueness, the language barrier, and my eagerness to reach the summit, I assumed B). In any case, by the time I got to the top of that hill, I would be out of sight of Mohammad so he wouldn’t know which direction I went. I knew that with this added difficulty time was going to be very tight, so I set a turnaround time of 2:25. That was the time that was exactly halfway between my 9:30am start and the 7pm time that dinner started. But that gave zero margin for error.
I thanked Mohammad and started scrambling and running up the hill. Time check: 12:50pm. I ran for a number of reasons. First, I was in a hurry. Second, as I climbed the hill, I was extremely visible to the construction workers, so I wanted to keep a low profile and minimize the chances that anyone would spot me and get mad at me. And third, finally free from the car, it was liberating to be under my own power. I made it to the top of the first hill in about ten minutes and happened to emerge right at the bottom of the construction workers’ outhouse. Gross. I didn’t see anyone so I kept running. I was now on a ridge, with what looked to be a steep drop on the left. To the right, the slope was more gradual, with a nice smooth gravel road leading in the direction that I wanted to go. But, alas, I spotted a number of trucks on the road, and I decided I would be too likely to get spotted if I ran along the road, so I tried to stick to the crest of the sharp ridge.
I traversed the ridge quickly and stealthily. Occasionally I noticed construction workers driving or walking along the road below me but, reluctant to get caught, I kept running, hoping that they wouldn’t see me. All it would take would be one worker to yell at me and tell me to turn around for my hopes of reaching the summit to be dashed. I had already started to mentally prepare for that possibility, which would require me to find an alternative route on an alternative day up the mountain.
As I ran, I ducked behind some boulders whenever I saw people coming along the road. Once, as I ducked behind a boulder, I almost ran into a guy who looked to be a nomadic goat herder. He was likely dressed no differently than his ancestors had been centuries ago. He was as astonished to see me as I was to see him. I said “hello” and he responded with something I couldn’t understand, then I continued running. He was probably wondering “what is this crazy westerner doing running along these rocks?”
By now, I was sweating copiously in the hot, dry desert sun, but I kept on going. “Once I reach that hill,” I said to myself, “then I’ll be out of sight from the workers and I can slow down.” I pushed on, giving it 100%. My pulse was racing and sweat was pouring downwards, forcing me to wipe off my sunglasses. Finally, I reached the side of a hill from which I was no longer visible to the construction workers, and I paused for a drink. I noticed with dismay that another hill had just appeared beyond what I had thought was the summit. Darn it. This was going to be harder than I thought. Little did I know that even the distant hill I could see was also a false summit.
I continued running up the next hill, and passed by a large encampment of trailers which was likely where the workers stayed. I shifted into 5th gear and started running faster, hoping that I would breeze by the construction site without anyone noticing. Fortunately, it worked. Either I was so fast that nobody noticed me, or people did notice me but just didn’t care. I assumed the former. I soon crested the hill only to spot yet another hill looming in the distance.
I turned on my GPS and verified that indeed I wasn’t at the top yet. I was referring to fellow highpointer Lyngve Skrede’s trip report and GPS track from his website distantpeak.blogspot.com. I kept on running, giving it all I had. I was determined to summit before my turnaround time.
Soon I noticed some concrete pillars that demarcated the border of the UAE and Oman. I knew that this meant I was safe. If someone on the UAE side decided to yell at me, I could just walk over to the Oman side and they couldn’t touch me. And vice versa if someone on the Oman side yelled at me.
I ran along the border and beheld a stunning view. To the west, I could barely discern the Persian (aka Arabian) Gulf. To the east, I looked over a long valley that stretched far into Oman, several thousand feet below me. I had read that years ago when they were defining the UAE/Oman border, a few guys went around on camels asking the sheikhs whom they pledged allegiance to: UAE or Oman. The UAE/Oman border was then drawn along the border of the sheikhs’ land depending upon their allegiance.
I was getting very close to my turnaround time, but was extremely reluctant to turn around yet. I had come this far and victory was within my grasp. The pain associated with having to do this whole thing over again if I turned around far outweighed the pain associated with being a little late for dinner. After all, this wasn’t like Everest, in which unless you’re “within spitting distance of the summit” by your turnaround time, then you turn around. My turnaround time was a bit more artificial.
When I was planning this trip, I didn’t think that I was going to have to run. I figured that it would be a nice easy slow-paced stroll to the top with plenty of time to spare. But, as is often the case in highpointing, I found myself in more of a hurry than expected, necessitating some hustle. I didn’t mind it though. The running and the stealth made me feel like I was on a clandestine mission – a covert operation to reach the forbidden ground of the summit. I ran as hard as I could, giving it 100% because I knew that the descent would be much easier.
I kept pushing onwards and by 2:18pm I was on the top! It was down in every direction, and Lyngve Skrede’s GPS track corroborated this point as being the summit. There was a small rock-walled structure on the summit, along with some sandbags, suggesting that either this was a strategic defense position or that people liked to hang out on the top and had enough time to build a rock wall to shelter themselves and fellow hikers from the wind.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake this nagging suspicion that I wasn’t at the true summit. I spotted an obviously taller mountain a few miles distant that seemed to lie on the border. It had what looked to be a radome and observation station at the top. (I later discovered that that mountain, which is called either Jabal As Sayh or Jebel Al Harim, was 3.5 miles away and was indeed about 600 ft taller. Fortunately, it was completely in Oman, so I was indeed on the UAE high point.) In either case, I definitely didn’t have time to climb that mountain before my turnaround time. If it was higher, I’d have to come back another day to climb it.
The view from the summit was magnificent. I could see much of my ascent route, along with what appeared to be a private residence just a few hundred feet below on the UAE side. (Lyngve’s report suggests that this is the home of a sheikh.) I could see well into Oman, and noticed countless gravel roads far below me. I noted that it would certainly be possible to climb Jabal Bil Ays from the Oman side, although it might take longer to reach the base of the mountain if the road quality wasn’t good.
Sadly, I didn’t have long to admire the view. I was currently right at my turnaround time, which meant that if it took me exactly as long to get back to Abu Dhabi as it had taken me to get to this point, I would arrive at dinner at exactly 7pm. I hoped to build up a little more margin with a speedy descent. The ascent had required about 90 minutes of nearly continuous running (OK, about 75% running, 25% fast walking) and I hoped to halve that on the descent. I paused to sip the last drop of water out of my bottle and began running downwards.
I felt a huge sense of relief. Even though I was only half way done with my solo adventure, it felt like I was finished. I no longer had to be stealthy because I didn’t worry anymore about getting caught. If I did get caught, what is the worst they could do? Send me to prison? They could make me a little late for dinner but couldn’t take away the fact that I had been to the summit. In any case, I still wanted to make it back in time for dinner so I continued hustling. I could rest in the car as I drove, I figured.
About half way down, I decided to skip the sketchy knife-edge ridge traverse in favor of running down the road that was under construction. I waited until I couldn’t see any more dump trucks driving up, and then started jogging down the road. A bunch of workers were off to the side working on a wall, but I ran by stealthily and it appeared that nobody spotted me. Soon I turned a corner and couple of dudes looked right at me. Do I ignore them? I continued running and waved at them with a big smile, hoping for the best. They waved back, also smiling. No problem!
I continued running downhill in the same fashion. As workers spotted me, they initially cast me a questioning look. They were probably thinking: “what’s this crazy Westerner doing running down the mountain right through the middle of our construction site, I thought the road was blocked? What’s this, he’s waving at me? Oh, OK, then he must be OK, so I’ll wave back.”
After about 45 minutes of running, and with no incidents, I made it back to the rental car at the parking lot. It had been significantly harder than the leisurely 40 minute ascent/25 minute descent that I had expected based upon the trip reports, but c’est la vie with highpointing. When the road construction is done someday, it’ll be a mere 10 minute hike to the summit from where you park your car, assuming that they don’t just make the road go the whole way to the top.
On the drive back, I got stuck in traffic just outside of Abu Dhabi, and arrived at dinner a disappointing 60 minutes late. But fortunately the wonderful hosts from CCAD’s anesthesia department were very forgiving and welcoming, and Amanda and I enjoyed an exquisite seafood dinner at an exclusive restaurant on the waterfront, replete with authentic local cuisine and shrimp the size of lobsters. Word has it that the restaurant is frequented by the royal family. It was a fabulous finish to an epic day.
Eric Gilbertson – August 30, 2016
The road is freshly paved to within 4 miles of the summit and passable to any vehicle as Matthew describes, and closed beyond that point. There was still active construction on the road for the remaining few miles and they don’t allow people walking on the road.
There is a ridge you can walk/scramble on next to the road that it appears nobody cares about. I waved to a few construction workers who didn’t care about me, but it’s possible their bosses would have cared. There is a worker’s camp about 2 miles up, which is where the construction stops. But above that point there is a dirt road up to the sheikh’s residence. I hiked up near the road, and a truck driving down stopped when he saw me, then continued going down. I suspect he called up the guards at the gate to the residence.
I had to cross the road eventually to get to the highpoint, and two guards came out and made motions that I could go no farther. I walked over them and was extremely friendly. They spoke only a few words of english. I made it known that I was just going to hike up Jabal Bil Ays then come right back. I could see the summit from there and pointed to it. They kept saying “No” and “problem,” while shaking their fingers. They seemed to be concerned both that I was too close to the sheikh’s reside
nce, and that I was trying to sneak into Oman.
I kept talking and said I had come all the way from America to hike up here. Eventually one guard called somebody up on his phone, then said “ok” with a smile. Then the other guard said “ok.” I pointed to the mountain and asked “ok?” and they nodded and said “ok”.
So I officially received permission and made the short hike up to the summit.
-Go up at night without a headlamp. There is no construction at night, so nobody will be there to see you. I would probably scramble up the ridge instead of walking in the road, though, for good measure.
-When you pass the worker’s camp, hike up in the rocks, far from the road to the sheikh’s residence.
-When the terrain levels out, try to cross the road as far as possible from the guardhouse so you won’t be seen.
-Write down a simple phrase in arabic on a piece of paper (like “I am hiking to the top of Jabal Bil Ays and will return here in 30 minutes”) to show the guards if caught, since they probably don’t speak english.