– “What time is it?”
– “12 o’clock.”
– “Midday or midnight?”
It was 29 hours since we had roped down into a pitch-black sink-hole on a remote rocky plain high in the mountains of Oman. I had lost sense of time in a relentless sequence of abseils, aid climbs, Tyroleans, water jumps, swims, swings, crawls, squeezes and shivering half-sleeps. There was still a mile of rock between us and the exit and we were running on empty.
This is the story of how five very amateur cavers took on a quite serious cave, had a bit of an epic, and emerged with a new appreciation of adventure, teamwork and the ethics of staying alive in wild places.
No deposit, no return
The four great sink-holes on the east side of the Oman’s high Selmah Plateau follow the same pattern – a more or less vertical drop of several hundred metres, feeding storm-water into a network of subterranean veins that wind gradually downhill. They converge one after another and emerge far away at Kahf Tahry, a vast maw of a cave deep in the canyon of Wadi Fins.
We had been exploring this system since October 2011, including through-trips to Kahf Tahry from two other sink-holes (Seventh Hole and Funnel Cave) as well as a drop and climb out of the famous Majlis al Jinn, an immense dead-end chamber nearby.
In March 2012 we took on Three Window Cave, knowing it would be a challenge. It is the most technical drop on the plateau, with 10 separate main pitches including several Tyrolean and aid traverses just in the sink-hole, plus dozens of rebelays. Its bottom is also the farthest from Kahf Tahry, with almost 6 km to cover underground.
Three Window Cave is rarely attempted: asking around, it seemed that since the Selmah system was discovered and mapped in the late 1980s only five or six teams had set foot inside, at least one of which retreated. In all the accounts I had read, the teams took the short route to the surface by roping back up Seventh Hole, which intersects Three Window halfway to Kahf Tahry. It’s possible that nobody had pushed right through from Three Window to Kahf Tahry. If so, we might become the first team to complete the longest possible traverse of the Selmah system.
We had allowed a full day to rig anchors and ropes for the main descent before starting the trip. We considered splitting into two rigging teams with one equipping the route we would take down Three Window and the other dropping ropes that we might use to exit up Seventh Hole, just in case. After much discussion we decided not to rig Seventh Hole and instead to focus on rigging deeper into Three Window, which would allow faster progress on drop day, and be prepared to overnight underground. This was a more committing plan, since without an exit route up Seventh Hole, the only way out would be to make it all the way to Kahf Tahry.
We had plenty of time to consider that decision.
It’s fair to say we underestimated this beast. Several of us were strong climbers and mountaineers, but only Nicky had caving experience (from the glorious grottos of her native Belgium). Most of us had basic rope-work proficiency from many evenings sweating up and down the girders at the TRAX industrial rope training centre in Dubai, but not a lot of real-world caving. Nadine and I dropped our first cave five months ago, and four since. For Sal and Pike, their only previous trip underground was the long but straightforward single-pitch drop and climb at Majlis six weeks ago. So if someone called us a bunch of reckless amateurs, I wouldn’t disagree. I might say, that’s half the fun (if you make it back alive…).
“Go find the white lady”
Selmah’s landscape is deceptive. From afar it resembles a rolling, rocky high-mountain plain, but up close it’s riven by hidden dips and wadis. The sink-holes can be hard to find. Three Window is less than 50m from the main dirt road – we had driven past it unseen dozens of times on previous trips.
The main drop was straightforward to rig – a large but suspect tree, reinforced with a pre-tensioned back-tie to a chunk of countryside. Nicky dropped down a couple of metres to rig deviation slings on the far side, providing the rope a clean drop down the first pitch. A safety line anchored separately to a big rock thread completed the setup, and down we went.
Our first surprise was at the gloomy base of the second pitch when we looked round to find a local Omani dude hanging out next to our anchors, having climbed down 35m unroped in his flip-flops without putting a crease in his immaculate white dish-dash. This was the guardian of the caves, employed by the government to keep an eye on us. Nice guy.
The next drops looped down a near-vertical shaft through a series of rebelays and deviations hooked through natural thread-holes in the rock, to keep the working rope hanging free from abrasion. Nicky pushed ahead to 90m depth while we stacked up behind on the rebelays.
We had come fully loaded with bolting equipment, expecting almost no in-situ anchors, but found the main pitches ready-bolted. Someone had done a good job, and not long ago. So when the third pitch landed us in a dry plunge pool (“Wash n’ Go”) and we saw more shiny new 10mm bolts and Petzl hangers in place ahead, we decided to travel light. Nadine and Sal set off back up the ropes to hump 15kg of drills and metalwork back to the surface, while Nicky and I pushed on down to rig more ropes for the next day.
Around the corner came our first challenge – a 7m overhanging aid traverse high above a large black pond bubbling with methane. We cut away and replaced most of the tattered ropes, swung across and continued via a low-angled Tyrolean traverse and a funky narrow passage to the top of the next pitch, which we dropped with not an inch to spare at the bottom of our last rope.
At its base was a shallow round pool of crystal water and a network of side-chambers hung with curtains of flowstone and constellations of glittering water droplets. Time to go back for more rope and return in the morning.
The jug back up was long and hard. The others had a three-hour start on us so we were surprised to find the exit pitch still occupied. Sal had run out of steam below a jammed karabiner at the top deviation, parked himself up on a ledge and hollered at the local spectators squatting around the cave rim to “GO FIND THE WHITE LADY”. They roused Nadine from her nap in the car to help from above while Nicky climbed the safety rope and I free climbed out through the wadi, finding new respect for our guardian in his flip-flops. Nadine and Nicky sorted it. All safely out, our guardian reappeared with a pot of steaming tea made with zaatar, wild thyme, goat milk and a lot sugar. Nothing ever tasted better.
At least, until tomorrow.
In the morning we scooted down yesterday’s rigging at a fine pace, if only to get our sunburned hides back into the shade. Fresh ropes took us down the last long drop and to the start of the 6km sideways section. As our keenest climber, Pike was getting jumpy with all this going down and no going up, so we unleashed him on the first upward section of aid climbing. This included such shenanigans as hanging off trad climbing wires cinched over the heads of old 6mm studs, and an entertaining pendulum using a rock thread in the ceiling to swing heavy packs across the chamber.
The next technical section was a high traverse above water along a steep-walled passage just narrow enough to bridge legs across to start with, but widening gradually to require acrobatics even from those of us with normal human-length legs. Fortunately, it was protected with an attractive green lifeline. Unfortunately the important section had been mashed to tatters by storm-waters – a salient point for those who ended up hanging from it (or sitting on me below it).
This was all shaping up to be a lot of fun. Three Window is a wonderfully varied cave combining nice big drops with technical rope-work, aid sections, cool rock formations, and the dominant feature of the mid-section: water. The wet stuff appears as a narrow gutter down the middle of the floor, easily straddled, but grows until scrambles to avoid wet feet turn into proper bouldering across sidewalls and ceilings. Soon enough we gave up, packed away dry gear and prepared to get moist. With the exception of Pike, who kept up the Spiderman show until a hold snapped off dumped him arse-first in the drink.
Filthy and sweaty, we found the water refreshingly cool – to begin with. It deepened, until we were no longer wading but swimming, buoyed by inflated dry-bags, through flooded passages up to 100m long. The water was clear and clean, flowing in little rapids over rimstone weirs. Nicky could not be restrained from treating the place like a waterpark and sliding down anything she could find with terrifying Flemish war cries. At many points a high jump and splash was the only way forward — cue plenty of malarkey. Pushing off and gliding through the water made a pleasant change from humping heavy packs over rough ground, and we made a good pace through this section, labelled on the map as “Opportunity Knocks”.
But time and exertion were adding up.
Cold and late
As a team we were not moving at the same pace, but we had to stick together, so those at the back got little rest and those out front got cold as they waited. Nobody really warmed up after this point. The mood turned serious, especially for our photographer Pike, who had dunked a $2000 camera lens in a sump. We stopped to eat and rest, and progress slowed – no thanks to the terrain. The ceilings began to close in from above while from the floor rose ranks of gours – walls of deposited flowstone blocking our way like rows of hurdles to be clambered and squeezed over. As the ceiling dropped further there were long sections of crawling or hunched-down lumbering. Exhausting, back-breaking work.
It was hard to figure out our location on the map, because for almost a kilometre there is little to mark out one section from another. We came upon a large open room on the left which I was convinced was Downham’s Chamber, meaning we were only 300m short of the bottom of Seventh Hole. All tired, we pushed on, while 300m turned into 400, 500, 600 – and still no opening.
Seventh Hole was psychologically important. Although we couldn’t escape up it because we hadn’t left ropes rigged down it, three of us had already come down that way right through to the exit at Kahf Tahry, so it would be familiar ground. For now, though, we were in the unknown. I was aware that at least one previous team had been forced to retreat back up Three Window. We would find this arduous considering how far we had already come, particularly tackling the water sections uphill.
I was also aware that the topography of these caves changes radically from season to season as storm-waters push tons of rocks and gravel from place to place. The exit to the bottom of Seventh Hole might be blocked. We wouldn’t know until we got there.
As we pushed on the team became strung out, with Nadine and I up front and Pike, Nicky and Sal behind. Nadine called a halt to wait while I scouted ahead a short way, finding what seemed to be a big opening. Was it Seventh Hole? No – a dead-end room that could only be Downham’s Chamber, the point I thought we had reached three hours ago. There was no going on. Cold and exhausted, we put on dry clothes, ate, lit a candle, broke out our silver emergency blankets and settled down to wait for the others.
They never came.
Tired as we were, it was impossible to sleep. Water dripping from the ceiling onto ancient formations made bizarre noises, including one just like a dog barking. Even the movement of breathing under silver blankets makes an eerie metallic rustle like campfire popcorn.
Weighing on our minds was the fate of the others. Most likely, like us, they had just stopped to rest and would catch up soon enough. Possibly someone was injured, but it couldn’t be worse than a twisted ankle on this easy terrain. There was only one passage, so they couldn’t be lost. But still, we hadn’t made Seventh Hole, so everything was in play.
After a couple of hours (or three or four?) the cold began to bite; I was shivering continuously and worried about hypothermia. We had to move. Nadine sprang into action and booted me up. Leaving all our gear we hustled fast back the way we had come, looking for the others. We covered hundreds of metres, through an area of floor-to-ceiling pillars called “Selmah Forest”. How could they be so far back? Eventually we heard shouts and came across three lumps of shivering rescue blanket in a chamber just about tall enough to sit up in.
We figured out what had happened when we split. They hadn’t been far behind us at all – in fact, they came 50 metres short of Downham’s Chamber, but lost sight of us in front. At that point there is, in fact, only one way to go, but it’s a nasty crawl that doesn’t look promising. They had shouted for us, but it’s a feature of narrow curvy caves that sound doesn’t carry. So they sensibly retraced their steps to the last point we had all seen each other and stayed put, knowing we would return.
Camp Two also had a dark and surreal night. Sal spent the night fighting off small imaginary creatures that kept trying to invade the camp and nibble him. Pike was freezing in soaked clothes from a failed dry-bag, and passed the time shuffling around trying to find a place to pee in the pitch dark after his head-torch got hidden as part of Sal’s alien-defence mission. I hear Nicky put on a show to cheer everyone up, which I’m sorry to have missed.
No way back, and salvation
Back together again we forged on, warmed up and made good time back to Downham’s Chamber and beyond into wider passages where we encountered several more drops requiring ropes to abseil. We had only one 30m rope remaining. Until now we had left all of our ropes rigged in place, ready to retreat back up if needed. Now, to move forward, we would need to thread the halfway point of our remaining rope through a sling at the anchor, abseil down it doubled, and then pull one end to retrieve it at the bottom – leaving no rope rigged up the pitch, and no way back. Confident we were very close to Seventh Hole, we pulled the rope; and again; and again.
Soon enough, we made it. Writing about this moment sends shivers down my spine. Three Window Cave comes out part-way up a sidewall of the Canyon Room at the bottom of Seventh Hole, a chamber vast enough to swallow a city block of 15-storey buildings. We picked our way down a maze of massive flowstone walls to the boulder field at its base. Far, far above, we could see a rose-orange glow filtering down from sunlight on the upper walls of Seventh Hole.
We had slept 250m directly below our warm camp on the surface.
This was a moment of salvation, because from here we knew the way and what was involved: a couple of hours of time-consuming ups and downs of rope-work through flowstone barriers, then about 3km of underground hiking and scrambling through the boulders and underground canyon chambers of the “Selmah Highway”.
We were wiped, and it took forever. We did, however, find time to get creative. Pike binned his ascenders, free-climbed everything and introduced a ladies-only baggage handling service. Sal invented a magnificent new technique of upside-down abseiling with his feet in the air and his arse against the wall. I slipped above an abseil anchor to test the hypothesis that a tied-off Piranha eight and a single old 10mm bolt can take a factor-two fall on static rope. Passed!
And eventually, the monumental arch of Kahf Tahry hove into sight, framing the sunlit cliffs of the opposite canyon wall. We stumbled out into the heat of the afternoon. It was a magical moment in an ethereal place. It felt like walking out of the gates of the Underworld. But we weren’t home safe yet.
At Kahf Tahry we drank the last of our water. We had judged our supplies fairly well, balancing weight with safety, and those with more had shared generously with those (like me) who ran out early. But we should have refilled water in the wet sections of the cave, which were probably clean enough to be drinkable. Now we were all out, dehydrated, exhausted from 29 hours on the go, and in the middle of nowhere in a hot, bone-dry desert mountain range.
The most direct trail back to camp is a strenuous scramble directly back up out of the canyon to the plateau. Instead, expecting to be tired, we had left a car at a spot on the nearest dirt road that can be reached via a “donkey trail” (pity the donkeys) – a longer walk but on easier ground and with (only) a net 1000m of ascent. None of us had taken this route before, but we had a GPS and waypoints.
It was too much for Sal, who had been running on fumes for many hours already. Halfway, he sat down and couldn’t get up – even after a helpful scorched-earth motivational speech from Nadine. He self-diagnosed a “mild case of death”, and was moving nowhere without water.
We were screwed.
At that moment, singing and whistling around the corner came a local mountain man on his way back up to Selmah with a large gathered bundle of wild thyme. Nadine and Nicky communicated the dehydration-collapse situation, and our thyme-gatherer ran off around the canyon wall with an empty water bottle, promising to return in an hour from some secret spring or water cache. He left his thyme, so for sure he was coming back.
We had an hour of daylight remaining, just enough to get out and get help; but who should stay with Sal? Nobody volunteered. We left Sal alone. It was easy enough to rationalise: without water any who stayed would soon be in the same condition. First rule of rescue: don’t create more casualties. The thyme-gatherer is coming back to help. We can’t help unless we get out, get water, regroup and return.
These rationalisations felt wrong then because that’s all they were. Our decision weighs on my conscience now because that’s not why we did it. We did it because human beings close to their limit get selfish. None of us wanted to stay. Evolution favours self-preservation. So we took GPS coordinates and photos of Sal’s location, made him promise not to move from that spot alone, and fired off for the road.
We only just made it with what energy we had left. It was really close. We tore into the car and feasted on water, dried sausage and cold beer. Nothing ever tasted so good. We sprawled on the ground for half an hour before even noticing we were sitting in a circle around a large pile of donkey shit. Something of a moral metaphor, looking back.
Three hours later I stood in the dark at the edge of the plateau trying to get a phone signal. Pike and I were planning to head back down the canyon at first light. I was calling to raise the alert that if we didn’t find Sal, we would need help to mount a search. At that moment, a pickup pulled over the brow with its back door swinging open.
Out stepped Sal and his saviour in a waft of fresh mountain thyme.