More rope!” shouts Stefan Glowacz. “MORE! ROPE!” But Chris Sharma can’t hear him. Sharma is a couple of metres below the beam of light from Glowacz’s head torch, swallowed up by the darkness of Majlis al Jinn, the second biggest cave chamber in the world. The vastness of this underground cathedral breaks down Glowacz’s words into separate syllables, bounces them off the walls and turns them into a dull reverberation. His face is racked with pain. It is February 28, 2014, with little more than a week left to make a success of a near-impossible mission. He would like the acoustics to be the worst of his problems.
MID 2012, GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY
Glowacz: “My friend Heli Putz put the idea into my head. He told me about this cave in Oman, the Majlis al Jinn. Felix Baumgartner [the man who leapt from the edge of space in the Red Bull Stratos mission] jumped into it in 2007 and a few other BASE-jumpers had been there since. The cave is nondescript from the outside: three crevices a few metres across at the bottom of a slope covered in small rocks. But in actual fact, you’re standing on the roof of an enormous vault. At 160m deep, 310m long and 225m wide, it could almost accommodate Wembley Stadium.
‘Wouldn’t it be amazing,’ Heli said, ‘if someone abseiled down to the bottom and then climbed back out via the rock face.’ I wanted to be that somebody. But this was not a job for one man alone. I would need a partner. The best one I could get. I thought Chris Sharma would be interested. We had met at a couple of events and hit it off straight away. He is the most creative climber of his generation, one I look up to in the same way I admire my idols from the 1970s and ’80s.”
LATE 2012, SANTA CRUZ, USA
Sharma: “The phone rang. It was Stefan Glowacz. The same Stefan Glowacz I’d admired for years. With every new project he reinvents climbing, even though he’s now been active for decades. I said yes before he’d even finished his question.”
In December 2012, Glowacz drove to the Selma Plateau in Oman in a 4x4, stirring up clouds of dust that hung in the air for minutes. The Majlis al Jinn cave is only 30km from the coast, but to get there meant driving on bumpy gravel tracks and reaching altitudes of up to 1,500m above sea level. Glowacz realised that he wouldn’t just be facing technical climbing challenges on this expedition. There would be logistical challenges as well.
There wouldn’t be any drinking water for the base camp he’d want to set up here.
Back in Oman’s capital, Muscat, he met with high-ranking officials. They agreed to grant him official permission to enter the cave, their only demand being that he should come back out alive. Glowacz gave them his word. He had his hands on the official permit relatively quickly by local standards: six months later.
FEBRUARY 18, 2014, MUSCAT, OMAN
Sharma: “Today I stood for the first time at the chasm where our adventure awaits us and looked down. You can’t see anything. It’s just blackness. I threw a rock in and waited for the impact. And waited. And waited. It seems pretty deep.”
FEBRUARY 19, 2014, MAJLIS AL JINN
Glowacz: “We abseiled down to the bottom of the cave. Our first climbing attempts showed that the quality of the rock was better than we hoped, but the weak light meant it was hard to see in all directions. You could hardly see the holds on the rock in front of you. You’re climbing blind.”
Sharma: “Right from day one, I understood how differently Stefan and I wanted to approach the project. I’d like to just climb straight off, but Stefan studies the rock face first, plans the pitches, and co-ordinates the logistics, which is necessary because our project has turned into something huge. There are 20 of us in total on the team, and we have 700kg of equipment, six lighting balloons and 2,400m of rope.
And we’re in a hurry: we’ll have to climb all the routes in just two-and-a-half weeks because the authorities won’t let us stay in the cave any longer than that. What I can learn from Stefan are analytical thinking and having a commanding overview. I have to learn these things. We have a project full of questions ahead of us. The biggest question of all is whether we we’ll be able to free-climb such a steep rock face at all.”
The narrow beam of light from Sharma’s head torch scours the rock in front of him. He is hanging upside down about a third of the way up the rock face. Even he, perhaps the best competitive climber in the world, has his limits. Inserting each bolt into the rock face is a challenge. He moves from one to the next quickly.“That’s great!” Glowacz shouts out, from below. The echo reverberates off the walls.
FEBRUARY 20, 2014, MAJLIS AL JINN
Glowacz: “I was climbing differently from the way I normally climb. I wasn’t falling back on my routine and was more unsettled than usual, which is why I made a mistake. I wanted to hook in my second ascender rope, but when released, it went into a sudden spin. This caused the other ascender to come loose and I was flung down about 10m. I automatically grabbed the rope with both hands, which is the worst thing I could have possibly done. The rope ripped the skin off my hands to the point that flesh was exposed. I screamed out and dropped a bit further. Shit.”
FEBRUARY 25, 2014, MAJLIS AL JINN
Sharma: “Stefan is one tough guy. He wrapped tape around his exposed palms, which must have stung like crazy. But as bad as it was, that fall could have ended very differently. Now I understand why Majlis al Jinn translates as ‘the meeting place of the spirits’. We living creatures aren’t welcome here, deep below ground. It is too dry, too dark, too far down, too dangerous. There aren’t any animals here, apart from a few tiny black bugs. But I’m beginning to enjoy the challenge. As you have to improvise so much when you’re climbing, you can let your intuition take over. Climbing is actually like meditating for me. A peak sporting performance is the way to find yourself.”
Sharma is hanging in the fourth of the 13 separate sections, known as pitches, that he and Glowacz have mapped out. He’s climbed 100m so far. The stresses and strains of organising the pitches over a total of 300m are enormous. Many pitches are on overhangs of at least 45 degrees from the horizontal. No natural light. No days off. And now he has the toughest section of the whole rock face ahead of him. Sharma dips into the chalk bag once more. He will later rate this pitch as one of the hardest he has ever undertaken.
MARCH 1, 2014, MAJLIS AL JINN
Glowacz: “‘If you do this,’ I say to Chris, ‘then in my view you’re the best climber in the world.’ I can see the ambition in his eyes, but just as he’s a couple of millimetres away from triumph, he has to give in because we don’t have enough time to devote a whole day to a single pitch. So we organise a way around, even if Chris is a little unhappy about it.”
MARCH 5, 2014, MAJLIS AL JINN
Sharma: “Yes, it is possible to free-climb in the Majlis al Jinn. Today we managed the final pitch and climbed every single red point, which means that we only used the natural rock structures. We spent six days climbing in all. The rest of the time went on organisation. It was rough going. We peeked out into the glaring light of the desert. Our crew celebrated and a couple of goatherds gave us toothless grins. We hugged. But Stefan, with his hand injuries, stayed out of the high-fives.”
After they packed up their equipment, Sharma and Glowacz flew to Europe. While celebrating at a small party in Spain, where Sharma has chosen to make his home, they hear that the Majlis al Jinn is to be opened up to tourists.Perhaps, in three or four years’ time, other climbers will be climbing different routes back out into the light of day.“Every rock face,” Glowacz explains, “is easier once someone has shown it can be climbed. The hardest thing is imagining the impossible.”