“It is not as stable as it looks” Justin shouts, after which he instructs us to stay a good 3 metres away from the gaping black hole into which two white rock climbing ropes disappear. What seems to be solid ground that we are standing on is just a thin layer of limestone covering a vast cavity of air which is more than a hundred metres deep. Basically, we are on the ridge of a collapsed cave, a massive sinkhole that we are about to explore which from where we stand looks like a large crack in the lunar landscape of the Selma Plateau high in the eastern Hajar Mountains of Oman.
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I immediately step back as instructed. After spending several demanding training sessions that are a prerequisite for this advanced caving adventure with Justin Hall, Senior Technical Instructor for Twenty3Extreme and caving and roping expert, I trust him with my life and admire his acclaimed global experience. With over 23 years spent on and around ropes, Justin possesses a unique skill set that makes him travel the world to explore its most impressive cave systems and canyons with teams of professional documentary makers working for the most prestigious TV channels. Today, he is at home, in Oman and about to show us a cave he knows like the back of his hand: the Seventh Hole. More than the Seventh Hole, it is the whole Selma Cave system that he has explored over the years with its fossil chambers, stalactites, stalagmites and crystal chambers that have been formed over millions of years and only surveyed and mapped in the 1990’s.
At the moment, Justin seems quite comfortable sitting by the ridge of the Seventh Hole as he is calmly guiding Claire (who seems slightly less comfortable), already hanging in her harness above the cavity I cannot even see the bottom of. Passing an overhang, she slowly descends herself into darkness. “It should take her about 12 minutes, maybe 13 to 14 as it’s her first time” Justin says. Internally I slightly freak out as I was secretly hoping I could get this part over with a lot quicker as it terrifies me the most. I feel my heart beat faster and the urge to go to the bathroom coming up instantly. This is not an option at all. Number one, there is no bathroom nor are there any bushes nor boulders in sight, but just our camp of last night on this desolated plateau. Number two, I am all geared up myself with my caving harness to which carabiners, a descender, my ASAP, croll and jumar are connected (if this does not mean anything to you, it did not either to me two days ago but now my life depends on my proper usage of all these devices that have become a second nature thanks to the rope training). The shoulder straps are perfectly adjusted, nice and tight just like my helmet. De-kitting and gearing up again is really not tempting.
“Tell her to slow down” Justin commands on his walky-talky to his assistant guide Hamid who is monitoring the free abseil down below from the cave. Going too fast heats up the stainless steel Petzl descender, a small device in which the rope is passed in an S pattern to control the descent. Pressing too hard on its red handle dissipates too much heat that conducted to the rope will damage its external layer. With a 120 metre free hanging descent, no kidding with this!
The 25-kilogram rope starts wiggling: Claire must have landed. “Rope free, over” Hamid’s soft voice resonates in the walky-talky.
I swallow. It is my turn now. I carefully walk towards Justin and step over the ropes. I look at the anchor points: two are bolted into the ground and two others are firmly connected to the wheels of the supersized 4×4 – a must to conquer the incredibly steep dirt track which leads from sea level to the 1,380-metre high Selma Plateau – parked about 10 metres from the crack. “Inshalla” I think as locals say. I connect one of my carabiners to Justin’s safety rope. Then I hook up my ASAP to the second rope. Methodically I connect my descender to the primary rope. So far so good: I am confident in what I am doing having practiced this over and over again during the training. Tiny little detail: there was not a 120-metre gap below that makes me slightly anxious right now! I take as much slack out of the rope as I can. Still my heart skips a beat at the moment I fully lean back into my harness. My breathing gets shallow. “No worries Marcella, you are still attached to three points here” Justin soothes me. I check my descender one more time. I see Justin’s approbation before I disconnect my short cow’s tail from the safety rope. Now I am hanging in the air. I curiously look down to only look back up in a reflex: the image of the rope disappearing underneath my feet into shear blackness will be engraved in my mind forever! I slowly start my 120-metre free hanging descent like a spider going down its thread. Soon I feel like I am abseiling the inside of a cathedral created by Mother Nature. The flow of adrenaline rushing through my veins does not seem to decrease. I have to consciously force myself to enjoy and observe the rock formations around me. I am controlling my speed carefully with my left hand by pressing the red handle. I feel the heat of the descender starting to burn my fingertips and reshuffle my hand to protect it with the thick leather of my mitt. A cramp starts in my same hand while I still cannot see the bottom of the cave. Suddenly, I feel more relaxed and joyful when I spot Claire taking photographs from a flat slab. She still looks so tiny though: I still have quite a way to go… The sun rays colour the rocks in warm tones and I am lowering myself into this shaft of sunlight to eventually land in the centre of the majestic cave chamber.
Unlike other caves I have explored, the vast open chamber is not too warm nor too humid and I am happy to deeply inhale healthy air to recover from my emotions. Not too dark either, we observe how the sun slowly lights parts of the rocks before exploring further, going up a dry torrent bed.
After a few dates and some water for an energy boost as we will have to climb up every metre we have descended, it is time to switch on our Petzl headlamps to head into the dark fossil chamber. If the water can flood the main chamber violently, it does not come through this narrow tunnel that leads into another much smaller chamber where the light-coloured limestone has been polished by water over the millions of years.
After another 40 metre abseil down, we reach the bottom of the Seventh Hole. Or at least that is what we think. As Justin explains, the complex cave system is such that another 160 metres down, it connects to the Three Windows Cave and the Majlis al-Jinn cave system to eventually end several kilometres further at Khaf Thary (a 14-hour non-stop caving expedition for experts).
If we are dreaming of exploring further, today it is time to go back up the 160 metres we descended. Looking up, Justin is comfortably hanging in his harness at mid height keeping an eye on everyone and guiding as necessary. Claire is already half way up. I get closer to the vertical wall, and connect my ASAP to the safety rope: in case everything else fails (or if my rate of descent is hectic) the pins of the ASAP will indent the rope and catch me in my fall (a bit similar to a seat belt blocking during a brutal stop). To ascend, I need my croll and jumar. The croll is solidly attached to my harness at the level of my plexus. Sliding the primary rope in, it allows me to go up and prevents me from going down by pinching the rope. The jumar works on the same principle and I place it above the croll on the same rope. A long adjustable strap is connected to this handle I move up with my left hand in which my right foot hangs. Going up is synchronizing the movements: I lift my left arm (simultaneously with my right foot connected via the strap) to block the jumar higher up on the rope; then I push on my right leg and pull on my left arm to lift my upper body along the rope that slides through the croll of which the teeth grab the rope allowing me to only go up. It looks a bit like a caterpillar making progress vertically. Above me, on every rope section, our small team of colourful caterpillar-like cavers in technical t-shirts are ascending to the rhythm of carabiners clicking, sometimes stopping to rest a bit or to rebelay to the next rope section (for non-rope specialists out there: read ‘swap’). If I was anxious going down, all my confidence is back and going up is exhilarating and physically demanding. Sometimes I am free hanging, sometimes I can help myself against the smooth limestone wall. Most of the rebelays are much easier than during the training with often a solid rock to hold on to. Justin prepared us for the worst. With safety being paramount, in a very short amount of time we have gotten the hang of all the climbing and industrial rope devices and techniques we may have needed in case something would have gone wrong.
After several times swapping ropes, I see more and more light announcing I am about to reach the exit of the Seventh Hole. A last scramble up, and we find ourselves back up on the Selma Plateau, about 200 metres from the crack we entered hours ago.
Walking towards the crack to help pull up the 200-metre ropes and realizing the vastness of the cave system underneath our feet is humbling. We high-five and congratulate each other on this extraordinary adventure with large smiles on our faces and utmost respect for our team leader, Justin, and his assistant Hamid.
Despite my anxiousness on the way down, looking at the camp, the team, and the dark opening of the cave, I am dreaming of coming back up on this very same Selma Plateau with its few settlements of Bedouins to go deeper into the mysterious underworld. We all had to face our fears, to go beyond our limits and trust each other to such an extent that we made a pact: we will back here, one day, for the Seventh Hole 2.0 and beyond.
Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau
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Part of this article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by