By Jeff Cole
(Editor’s note: The following is a bit lengthy, but so are most stories about love and epics. I decided to keep it in its full length as it’s a good story, with some fun humor. Sit back with some coffee and enjoy! -BJ)
I prayed to Allah for the first time on top of a 500 foot cliff in the United Arab Emirates. Even though I was a Christian stranger in the Middle East, it seemed appropriate geographically, and I was desperate. I asked him to give Samantha, my inexperienced girlfriend, the courage to find her way through the darkness to my belay. I had no idea what I was going to do if she gave up.
Samantha and I met in Boise, Idaho, days before she moved to Dubai to teach high school science. I couldn’t resist the temptation for love and adventure, so I quit my job and followed. She took up climbing to impress me during our separation, and when I arrived we explored pockets of limestone hidden in the desert.
Sam was eager to try multi-pitch climbing, so we found a suitable looking trad climb in the guide book. It was a four pitch route located an hour north of where we lived. Like so many of my adventures, we got a late start. Then the drive took longer than expected, and we had trouble finding the cliff. By the time we were at the base it was already 3 pm. I had an intuitive concern but rationalized that four pitches wouldn’t take very long, and if it started getting late, we could rappel.
The first pitch went slowly, and wandered. Sam had trouble removing her first cams and nuts from the limestone and was suspicious about being belayed from above. Soon, I noticed a direct correlation between our height on the wall, Sam’s anxiety, and our speed. As height and anxiety increased, speed slowed proportionately. Thankfully, pitch two ended on a large ledge and Sam had time to regroup. To be fair, she was marvelously composed for her first multi-pitch climb.
The third pitch went slower than the first two, and at the top I noticed we were nearing nightfall. The route had veered more than I thought from the topo in the guidebook and there were no anchors at the belays. Rappelling was not an option. I was nervous we would be walking off in the dark. However, the guidebook stated, “The descent is not easily viewed from below but is fairly obvious when above the routes.” I knew that walking off in the dark was not going to be fun, so I started bribing Sam. “Let’s treat ourselves tonight,” I said, “Let’s get a room in the Hilton and take a bath in one of those big tubs.” I hoped this would speed her up a little.
I started pitch four in the failing light thinking we had a half hour of sun left. But when the sun sets in the Middle East, it’s like someone flipped off a light switch in a dark room. Darkness comes fast. Really fast. And it gets really dark. Before I could reach the top of the climb, I was jamming cams into slightly darker looking sections of the crack and climbing mostly by feel. I ran out the last 40 feet, knowing it would be difficult for Sam to remove protection in the dark and trying to move as fast as possible. At the top I set up a belay close to the cliff edge knowing that I was going to have to coax her through the night.
As I yelled “on belay” I said my prayer to Allah. The rope moved slowly through my belay device: centimeters at a time. I could hear scuffles, whimpering, and cursing through the darkness. Then the rope stopped moving. She stopped for a minute, then three, then ten. Finally I heard her say, “I can’t get your cam!” “Just leave it,” I shouted back, “don’t worry about it!” The rope slowly started to move again and over the next forty minutes she made her way to my belay.
When she arrived, Sam was trembling and frightened, and I felt like an asshole. It was my responsibility to keep her safe, because I had decades of experience and this was her first multi-pitch climb. When her breathing slowed, we moved farther from the cliff edge, and she sat while I coiled the rope and sorted the rack. It was completely dark. I could only see a few feet in front of me and I wondered how we were going to get down.
According to the guidebook, the descent was “fairly obvious” from the top but in the darkness even my hand wasn’t “fairly obvious.” I scrambled along a loose fifteen-foot ledge to the west until it pinched off to a six inch wide foot rail that rounded a corner. I tried a route to the east until the ledge turned into a thirty degree scree slope of death. Then I scrambled up until I found myself climbing 5.7 again and had to turn back. I returned to Sam, defeated and worried. It’s funny to get stuck on a ledge all night with your buddy but not with your new girlfriend, who is new to climbing, who has never been on a multi-pitch climb before. I wondered how long we would continue to date after she froze on a ledge all night.
I tried to make the best of a bad situation by erecting a small bench out of large flat stones. I broke the news of our impending stay cliff-top awkwardly by saying, “so… uh… I kinda think we’re spending the night here.” I felt terrible because Sam was cold, scared and hungry, and it was my fault. We sat on our poorly constructed stone bench while she tried to teach me chemistry to avoid dwelling on our predicament.
Somewhere in the middle of the periodic table, I noticed the moon had come out and was casting light in the valley. Unfortunately an adjacent cliff was blocking our light, but I noted that if the moon had a favorable trajectory, I might be afforded an opportunity to see the descent route in an hour or so. Thankfully during my tutorial on ionic bonds the moon peeked around the corner and cast its glow on our situation.
I popped up and said I was going to have another look. The most reasonable route looked to be westerly, but again I ran into the six inch rail overhanging a 500 foot fall to the ground. Moonlight wasn’t reaching the valley floor so I pretended I didn’t have far to fall and inched my way around the corner kicking off loose rocks on my way. There I found a wider path sloping toward the ground. I figured that I had better make sure it led to the bottom or there was no need to move Sam, so I followed the trail all the way to the bottom. Other than a sketchy 15 foot down-climb at the end, and the scary six inch rail, the descent was fairly gentle.
I moved as quickly as I could back up to Sam, where I found her trying to stifle her crying and looking very surprised to see me. “I thought you were dead,” she sobbed. Apparently as I rounded the corner and knocked off scree, Sam took the bouncing rocks to be my body tumbling down the cliff. I refrained from informing her that bodies are well cushioned and don’t make the same noise falling as rocks. She had spent the last half hour screaming my name and was now hoarse and even more reluctant to move. I held her again, feeling even worse about our situation. I had scared a woman I loved into a fetal mumbling mess. I also knew that if we didn’t get moving soon the moon light would pass and leave us in darkness.
I managed to get Sam to her feet, unload her of extra gear, and coax her to the six inch rail we needed to pass. There, her gaze cycled from looking at the rail, down into the dark abyss, and to me as if I was the stupidest person on the planet. Again I tried to tempt her with the tub at the Hilton but she wasn’t fooled. “I won’t be able to enjoy a bath when I’m splattered on the rocks,” she told me. “At least you won’t be cold anymore,” I sheepishly joked. She glared at me. “I’ll be right behind you and really, it’s better than it looks,” I said.
The hormones associated with new love create unwarranted trust, and fortunately she believed me. We inched around the rail with our heels hanging over the darkness to the much wider path on the other side. From there the descent was easy and I again noticed a correlation between my love’s happiness, the amount of words she spoke, and our elevation. As elevation decreased Sam became happier and spoke more. I thought speaking was good. Typically a person about to break up with someone is quiet.
The last fifteen feet of our descent included a sketchy down-climb, but Sam practically jumped when she saw solid earth below. We made our way back to the car and then to the most expensive hotel I have ever stayed in, tub and bathrobes included.
Jeff and Sam are getting married this spring, but she never leaves the house anymore without a jacket, a snack, and two headlamps.
For information on climbing in the UAE go to http://redarmadapublishing.com/updates.php