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Oman Caving: Arch Cave

May 7, 1998

Here you'll find a description of yet another caving adventure in the remote cave-ridden Selma Plateau at 1500 meters in Oman. You can be reading the first part while the pics load in further down the article.

The Usual Intro Sort of Piece

I was included in another expedition by my usual companions, who are mounting a serious exploration of the cave system on the Selma Plateau. A few weeks back, Cemal emailed me. I got the message as I was heading for work Wednesday morning, last day at work before the weekend in Abu Dhabi. He said, come up tonight, we're going caving. I thought about it and emailed back something to the effect that I didn't think I could swing packing right after work plus an immediate departure for the ten hour drive. I'd have arrived after midnight, and these guys cave at the crack of dawn. So I stayed home while they went up and reconnoitered Arch Cave. They ended up penetrating halfway down the hole before turning back with a "bad feeling" as Paul put it. In talks with other cavers, they found later that they had pushed the wrong side. So they scheduled a return trip, and this time gave me a little more notice.


Training in the Correct Technique

Cemal said I'd be passing bolts in this cave. From their description of the weekend before, I thought this might be something like "shitting bricks" but found later that it was actually a technique of getting around anchor points fixed in the rock walls. I'd have to come down a day early in order to train on anchor points Paul had fixed in Wadi Mai. Since it was just me, I decided to fly. Paul picked me up at the airport and lent his bedroom, and next morning he took me out to Wadi Mai and had me moving up and down rope past bolts and deviations.

The ropes are rigged to the bolts in such a way that the topmost rope is slack and hangs below the bolt at a distance that is just right. The technique going down is to lower yourself even with the bolt, clip in with a short cow's tail and hang on it while you transfer your descender to the down side, stand in the loop from the topside rope so as to slacken the cow's tail and unclip it, and then, if you've done it properly, continue the descent. Going back up it's not quite the reverse. You ascend to where you can clip into the bolt with a long cow's tail. Then you stand in a foot-loop from your jumar so you can get slack on the chest ascender. That's the tricky bit, but once that's free, you clip it into the loop on the rope from the top. Then you transfer your jumar over and climb up far enough to unclip your cow's tail, at which point you're on your way again. Paul was a good teacher and threw a few problems at me, like, "Vance, there's been a mistake. The beer is already down here. You'll have to come back." So I have to abort my ascent and change to descender, lock it off while I free the ascender, stow the kit, and head down. Only when I got there I found out there wasn't really any beer.

Camping by the Tombs

We headed up that evening to Wadi Naam, signposted from Ibra, and after an hour off-road headed up the mountain in the dark. We camped in the moon shadow of the enigmatic 3000 year-old smokestack tombs, buffeted by a cool wind at 1400 meters which threatened tent erection. We had beer and cigars before bed. I slept in my tent between Cemal and Bart, the 4th member of our team. I'd caved with all these guys before but it was the first time I'd slept with them. Fortunately no one snored, and we were tired and just tipsy enough to fall all to sleep.


Negotiating the Morning

Next morning we decamped after expresso and drove down to the village at the end of the road. One reason I'd been enlisted for the trip was for my Arabic skills. Lacking any of these to speak of, Paul and Cemal had nevertheless managed to alert the villagers to our return trip on their previous visit and had arranged for donkeys to be waiting. As we negotiated the rough road from camp to village, the drivers of the few cars we met on the road waved us to stop and say hello, and all asked if we would need the donkeys, and gave us to understand that some were waiting for us. Sure enough by the time we had driven through the village and parked at the end of the road, the whole village had stirred and were mobilizing the available beasts. The kids descended on us for handouts of soda pop and the grownups all wanted a bit of our rope. Donkeys were produced and a price negotiated, 60 riyals for 4 donkeys and 2 handlers to help us reach the caves that day and retrieve our load the next.

This guy was just passing through on his way down from Selma

We later found that this was 30% too much, but as we'd agreed so readily to part with our money, a young character stepped forth to offer to watch our cars for us while we were gone. This led to some discussion over whether there were thieves in the area, with perhaps the implication of a thief materializing if we didn't cough up, one from Ibra or another village who would strike in that remote location in the night, but I told all within earshot that I'd been there several times before without incident and that I knew the villagers were honest, and I told the young lad who was threatening us that if anything was taken from our cars, I'd bring the police straight to him. The youngster thought it highly unlikely that I'd ever get policeman out there, and he was probably correct, but all this transpired in the spirit of bargaining that Arabs so enjoy, with all present participating in the exchange, commenting, agreeing, critiquing.

Rope is a valued commodity in these parts

Transport was arranged with not a lot of fuss. Our gear was eyeballed, hefted by seasoned handlers, and stacked in 4 pairs of piles. The donkeys were caparisoned in colorfully fringed harnesses and the gear lashed aboard. A minor crisis was averted when our water started gushing on the ground, but the cans were righted and remounted on the donkey. The operation seemed haphazard to us, but the handlers knew what they were doing.

Donkey Train to the Cave and Campsite

The train moved off quickly, leaving us to struggle to keep up, even with only our day packs. It was early enough in the morning that we completed the walk without much sweat. We'd all been there before. I'd always carried my own gear before plus food and rope or other caving equipment, so the walk with only a couple of liters of water was a casual stroll, and we were at the gaping sinkhole in an hour and a half.

The handlers wanted to unload their gear at the cave and be on their way, but they acquiesced when we asked them to await the others. When Paul and his wife Elvira arrived, they dumped their packs and went on a walkabout looking for a better campsite. This was Elvira's task. As "camp boss" she would be preparing supper for 4 hungry men after midnight that night when we emerged from the cave. Meantime she'd be sitting around reading, so we wanted her to have a comfortable spot. Soon she and Paul called us from the shade of a solitary tree ten minutes distant. We got the donkeys to follow us there and after unloading, we even got them to carry our caving gear back to the hole. The handlers were helpful and made sure they understood when we wanted to be picked up the following day. Nine in the morning, we told them. Before they left, they told us if we needed anything, there was water and food at their village over there, and at another over that way.

Bart had remained with Elvira to help set up camp


Paul Rigs the Pitch

Bart had remained with Elvira to help set up camp, so Cemal and Paul and I carried the gear around the edge of the pit and down into its mouth. We stopped in a shaded grove of thorn trees at the top of our first pitch, a short ten meter abseil down a dry waterfall to the next level below, which I rigged while Paul and Cemal prepared their kit. Paul would be first down and rig all the rest of the pitches. Paul had a hammer and bolt driver, and he placed his first bolt midway down the first pitch, just to complicate things for Cemal and I to follow.

While he and Cemal lowered themselves and our 200-meter rope to the next level and started to rig the really serious 150-meter descent, I headed back to camp to have a quick bite to eat and fetch Bart. Paul had asked me to bring Bart back in an hour, which was why I looked at my watch at that time. It was 13:30 when I left Paul rigging and 2:30 when Bart and I arrived back at the pit. After that I didn't notice the time, except that we were eating dinner 12 hours later at the campsite.

Bart and I put on our harnesses and lowered ourselves down the short pitch before making our way down the wadi bed to where Cemal was waiting by himself at the top of the rope. We clipped in and moved out along the thin ledge to join Cemal.

Trying not to LOOK stressed

At our feet ran a shaft descending straight into the gloom. From its bowls came the sound of Paul's hammer tapping in the last of the bolts. Cemal said Paul was almost to the bottom, and shortly we heard the three blasts on Paul's whistle signaling Cemal to join him below.

Cemal defies gravity yet again!

Cemal disappeared below and Bart and I munched on dried fruit and while we waited our turn. Soon there came a shout of "Off rope," and Bart made the last of his preparations for descent. He mentioned matter-of-factly that he was experiencing some stress, understandable in the circumstances, but soon he too whooshed out of site and I was on my own.

While the lads were below, I started trying to work out how and whether I could take a piss. The way the harness tightens over your pants, this is not an easy thing to manage, and the subject had been wholly neglected in my otherwise comprehensive training regimen. After some struggle I managed to get the zipper down, but there was not much more I could free up, so when the call of "Off rope" came from below, I had to restore my fixtures without having accomplished the needful. (This was probably a good thing, since the shaft was pretty much straight down and all my friends down below, when they called "off rope" were looking up the shaft at the time).


My Turn

The descent went quite well. I was on a stop, which I find fairly easy to manage. A stop is a device threaded in such a way that when you squeeze on its handle, friction is released and you descend at a rate somewhat in proportion to the squeeze you are putting on the handle. If you want to slow down you relax the squeeze, and if you want to stop, or if you simply lose it and let go, then you theoretically stop. Worn stops work less well in practice than in theory, but they are safe relative to a figure 8 which can be hard to slow down on if you get to dropping too fast over long distances.

Paul had bolted the rope in 5 places to the wall over the 150 meters, and most of the drops were free-hang. I just concentrated on taking it slowly. I had no trouble at any of the bolts, and by the 5th one, I was clipping in, shifting kit, and getting back underway quite handily. The little circle of light beams at the bottom of the shaft kept getting bigger and the sides of the hole got darker as I passed the mottled rock heading steadily down. In 15 minutes I was on the bottom with the others.

The only way back out


It wouldn't be caving if we didn't get wet and cold

Reunited, we took a few photos, removed some of the gear we wouldn't be needing right away, and moved off into the cave. We started out walking upright through chambers with decorations on the ceiling and some small curtains starting, but soon we were crouching over as we penetrated deeper. In less than half an hour we had reached a crawlway, and this led in turn to pools which we all tried to ignore as we blundered on. In my eagerness to let the others think this kind of caving didn't bother ME in the least, I was dog paddling through the second pool with all my clothes, boots, food, and gear on me, when I thought, uh oh, I've got my digital camera in my waist pack. (I managed to retrieve one of the shots here from it, but that camera has otherwise since been disfunctional; the other pics were scanned in by Bart and I from our other cameras).

An unusually dry corner of the cave

The tight squeeze and need for total immersion had taken all of us with the possible exception of Paul totally by surprise. None of us had really prepared for it. We were wearing cotton clothes and hadn't waterproofed anything. The water was comfortable at first, but sapped energy quickly, and soon, we started shivering from exposure in the pools. Consequently, it was clear that it wasn't a good idea to continue. We had accomplished enough by rigging the pitch and learning what to wear next time. We headed back.

Soggy! Cemal wrings out. Why does he bother?


What do people DO in caves, anyway?

You'd be surprised at how often we cavers are asked that question. Normally we are at a loss to answer, since it's dark down there and half the time we don't know what we are doing. Now, for perhaps the first time in the history of spelunking (or perhaps not, no one keeps track actually) the light of a flashbulb has penetrated the gloom to capture moments that would not normally see the light of day. Here then is a sampling of some things that transpire in caves, that would normally be unknown outside a tight circle of cavers.

You never know how people will react in caves. At right, Cemal and Paul assume the elevated position of de facto leadership, having observed that one of the cavers may be showing subtle signs of stress. Here they discuss how the increasingly erratic behavior of one of the group might affect the morale of the party and hence the outcome of the expedition. To see the object of their concern, click here or on the picture.



Vance feigns apology for knocking over a boulder that is just about to fall on Cemal's head.

Cemal strains to hear apology only moments before the boulder bounced harmlessly off his head (thick skull comes in handy).


Comic Interlude

Not that cavers would EVER take a cave anything but seriously, but we had a bit of amusement on the way out. I don't know if I should report it here and put it up on the web for the ENTIRE caving world to see, but each of us would be carrying a load on the way up, and ONE of us noticed as the first was heading up the rope, that his climbing kit was not with us at the bottom. Therefore it must be in the bag going up the rope with the first caver out. So we shouted up the rope for the return of the first bag. The first guy clipped in at the first bolt which was abojusut 40-50 meters above us and attempted to lower the bag belayed on his descender. Somehow the bag fouled in midair and refused to go down any further - we figure it must have got tangled in the loop of rope dangling off the belay. After a bit of pfaffing about, all of us concerned about the new problem of there being a bag caught midway on the rope that only two out of three of us could climb, the first caver managed to get the bag back up and clip it in to the bolt, at which point he abandoned the rest of us to our plight and continued his evacuation of the cave. I write this in humorous vein of course. There was not much else he could do.

The caver without climbing gear then borrowed from the other two of us, and frogged quickly up the rope to retrieve the bag. He returned not long after and was not totally without chagrin, on opening it, to discover that his climbing gear was NOT in the bag we'd just with great effort and inconvenience retrieved. After a few more minutes of rummaging through ALL the bags at the bottom of the pit like a thief in a chest of drawers, Bart and I nudging each other in the ribs and barely able to hold in our giggles, trying to look serious whenever the search seemed to be heading to bags near us, the missing gear was found at the bottom of a bag covered by rope. We all breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to the moment we'd all be topside and having a good laugh over the incident.

Can you tell whose gear is in this bag?

[Incidentally, as long as I have the world's attention here, I would like to go on record to say that it was not I who hid the gear under the ropes in the bottom of that bag. I don't know who would have done a thing like that, though there was only one other caver at the bottom of the pit with me besides the one who'd lost his gear, and he SEEMED like a nice guy. At any rate, it was a good joke, whoever did it.]


Problem at my first bolt

After that, the trip out proceeded normally except for a hiccup I had at the first bolt. As it was my first live climb into bolts aside from the dress rehearsal in Wadi Mai, I didn't have all the moves down and I had trouble getting the slack on my ascender that I needed to work it free. With each attempt I got it more precariously close to the knot in the rope tied to the bolt. If you ever get an ascender right up to an obstruction at its top end, then you won't be able to free it, since it needs a little rope at its north end to slide along as you free it. What I was doing was sliding it up the rope but not freeing it since I wasn't getting the slack to do so, and it was getting close to that point of no deposit no return. Paul could see I was in difficulty and started coaching from below. I had released my jumar from the bottom rope in order to make more room to free the ascender and clipped it to the top one, a bit of improvisation that wasn't working, because when I tried to stand in it, the top rope stretched.

Paul could visualize this without my having to explain it and told me to clip the jumar into the bolt itself. I knew I was in no danger since I was attached by a cow's tail and the jumar, so I got a crab off the figure 8 I carried for good luck and clipped the jumar in to the bolt. Now I could stand properly in my foot-loops, but when I did that the ascender moved up to within an inch of the knot at the bolt. I had that one more inch to free it, but this time I could stand properly in a stable foot-loop and get close to the wall. The weight came off the ascender and I had just enough rope to work its catch open as it ran up to the knot. Problem solved.


Normal Exit After That

I hooked the ascender into the top rope and frogged my way up to where I could release the cow's tail, and continued on my way. At each successive bolt I now knew not to run the ascender up too near the jumar so I could get close to the wall when I stood in the foot-loops, and with the technique down pat I had no further trouble at any of the remaining bolts. From then on it was just a tedious slog a foot at a time up the rope, knees sometimes banging into the rocks (Paul later showed me how to avoid that by using only one foot-loop).

Topside we all helped retrieve the gear. Bart was last up the rope and brought home the bolts while Paul, ever the man with a bag of tricks, rigged a pulley from an ascender and hauled in the rope while I stowed it. All this had to get hauled up the remaining 10 meter pitch and up the trail and to the campsite after that, but Elvira came down to help. She had spent a pleasant day at the campsite. A few people had stopped by as their flocks passed, or they were out for a stroll, but no one had bothered her and our gear was perfectly safe left in the open.

The rewards of caving, well deserved (to see aftermath, click here or on picture)

Once we got everything back at the camp, us guys changed out our wet clothes and collapsed on camp mats and passed around the single malt scotches I'd brought along as part of my contribution to camp comfort. Elvira made us all a pot of pasta followed up by rice pudding, and she straightened up the camp as we guys flaked out after our day of sublime exertion.


Next Morning

We were camped in a meadow of ankle-high scrub green from the recent rains. Our shade-tree was full of lizards. In the pristine morning, I answered the call that must be obeyed and saw in the distance across the escarpment a pair of camels trying to evade a couple of people I could hardly see in the dawn light. I tried to go back to sleep, but heard footsteps and a loud Salaam wa alaikum. Although it was then only six in the morning, since I was the Arabic speaker, it was my duty to get dressed and go outside and return the greeting. We were surrounded by goats on the move pausing briefly to feed on the scrub. Two Arab guys had come to visit. They must have heard we were in the neighborhood, as one needed a ride to Ibra. I tried to explain that we would be leaving much later that day. The two guys sat back on their haunches as others in the camp stirred and emerged from tents. I offered water.

As we were waking up our camp, our donkey train returned. We had paid for two attendants, but there were about a dozen in attendance with the four donkeys. They arrived in a colorful flurry of dust on the hoof and gentlemanly kissing all around centering on the two who had arrived earlier. Elvira was chasing goats away from her kitchen. We offered water as the breakfast mats were set out, and our Arab visitors arrayed themselves a discreet distance away. We started the coffee and boiled water for tea and offered it to our visitors, who each refused. We got out fruit and offered that. Refused. Finally I offered granola to a young boy who'd come up barefoot and kept asking for my shoes. Unable to resist his curiosity over what we were eating, he took a handful. I offered it to the next person, and then a dozen hands were reaching out. They just wanted to taste it, but it was a moment of ice being broken. After that, we gave out Cafe Noir biscuits, and those disappeared without fuss.

If it was clear that these rough but friendly gentlemen didn't want to disturb our eating, meanwhile a couple of men were rummaging through our equipment out of curiosity, and when one started opening bags I went over and put a stop to that. Though they wouldn't eat, there were constant requests for rope, and one man took a fancy to our water containers. If we offered water, a trick was to accept, and then act as if the container had been offered, feigning surprise that we would want it back. One man drank from one of my waist bottles and then tossed it aside as if it were a mineral water bottle. Maybe I would forget it and leave it there and he could get it later. It was worth a try. Finally, after one of our water containers didn't get loaded on the donkeys for the trip back, Elvira gave the culprit a piece of her mind, and he abashedly lashed the container to a donkey to the ridicule of his mates.

We Make our Escape

Paul accepts a trial lift

The donkey train moved off around the hills not long after nine, the appointed hour, and we made a hot walk back to our cars, which had been left undisturbed. This didn't prevent the sassy youth from demanding his due for successfully warding off thieves, but we brushed him off. His friend dogged us for some rope promised the day before, but by then we were pretty fed up with the constant demands, and after paying for the donkeys we'd hired, and repairing a flat that Bart had just as we were trying to affect a smooth exit, we made our getaway, possessions intact.

One more thing, the guy who'd arrived at 6 wanting a ride to Ibra stuck it out through the trek, and he and his friend were ensconced in the back seat of Bart's car as we left for the ride back down.

We had successfully not only survived, but thrived on, yet another caving adventure in the remote Selma Plateau region of Oman, getting ourselves in on donkeys supplied by the natives, getting safely down and out the hole, and getting back to our cars without loss or injury. We'll be back, so let's hope our luck holds.

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Last updated: August 17, 1998; Internal links verified May 12, 1998