Climbing up the balcony in Jebel Shams

With both of my feet firmly set on two stainless steel pins, and one of my hands sliding up along the metal cable, I pull myself up to grab a cavity in the warm rock. As I carefully clip both carabiners connected to my harness onto the next section of the cable, I look over my shoulder to briefly take in the view: the majestic Jebel Shams canyon seems to be bottomless under my feet. I push on my leg muscles a little bit more until I reach a ledge where I can rest safely contemplating this overwhelming barren and rugged mineral landscape.

I can hardly believe that local shepherds used to climb this 200-metre vertical wall bare foot with no gear whatsoever to look for their goats running off in the mountains. Today two of them observe us from the top of the cliff that is still roughly another 100 metres of climbing up. Their risky chore has been turned into an exhilarating adventure: a stunning via ferrata with the greatest canyon of the Middle East as its backdrop. They must be laughing at us, adventure seekers in colourful technical clothes with top-of-the-line harnesses and Petzl helmets, overhearing the instructions of our professional guide echoing loudly against the rocks.

As I make progress slowly, I can barely see their village all the way down by the side of wadi Al Nakhar. From up here, the houses resemble tiny brown LEGO bricks. Or maybe they are from the hamlet of Al Khutaim, the start (and end for many) of the Balcony Walk that follows the edge of the canyon to the ruins of Sap Bani Khamis. If the Rim Walk already offers magnificent vistas on Jebel Shams, the sultanate’s highest peak at 3,009 metres and its canyon, the real adventure starts past the abandoned houses of Sap Bani Khamis that used to be the summer village higher up and cooler than by the wadi about a thousand metres below. After a steep uphill, the cables and pins of the via ferrata signal it is time to gear up: a harness with two ropes with a carabiner attached to each, a helmet, and sturdy leather gloves make us ready for the ascension. The via ferrata principle was borrowed from the equipped rock faces of the Italian Dolomites that allowed soldiers to climb up and down fast and safely during World War I, shortcutting longer routes and avoiding risky and technical rock climbs. Today, this newly built via ferrata is purely recreational and offers unbeatable views on Jebel Shams, the mountain of the sun and the sheer 1,000 metre-drop of its canyon. From up here, we clearly see small dots advancing in both directions on the almost horizontal Balcony Walk. Most tourists have to turn around on the ancient goat path once in Sap Bani Khamis as it is a dead end but for the ones venturing up the via ferrata. The rate of climb gives me a much better idea of the immensity of the canyon. The adrenaline adds the extra boost needed to conquer the last dozens of metres up and eventually summit, waving at the young shepherds from up close.

Standing on top of the cliff, I can only stare at Oman’s Grand Canyon and take in the view for a few more minutes. After walking the balcony and climbing up, all my senses are sharpened making this walk and climb an unforgettable experience and definitely the best way to discover Jebel Shams.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • To live this experience, get in touch with twenty3 extreme (do not venture on the via ferrata with no gear!), the only insured outdoor company in Oman with professional guides and top of the line equipment.
  • There are plenty of wild camping spots on Jebel Shams close to the start of the Balcony Walk as residents love driving up in their 4×4 to cook in the outdoors and camp under the stars.
  • Another great option for more comfort is the Jebel Shams Resort where campgrounds as well as mountain lodges and villas are available. A swimming pool and restaurant are onsite.
  • If a 4×4 is recommended for the stunning dirt road to the start of the Balcony Walk, it is possible to reach the Jebel Shams Resort with a 2-wheel drive. The last bit to the start of the Balcony Walk in Al Khutaim is only 4×4 accessible. The Jebel Shams Resort can arrange transfers.
  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Zoom in on the area of interest, and check out the black pins: each of them corresponds to an article.

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