“Do you mind if I look around?” Alex asks the villagers.
We’re standing with a group of fishermen in front of a small mosque in northern Oman. A row of whitewashed buildings lines the pebbly beach. Behind the village rises a sheer 3,000-foot cliff that shimmers under a blistering midday sun.
“You can do as you please,” says Taha Abdullah Saif Althouri, speaking for the group.
There are no roads in the village, which lies at the head of a deep fjordlike waterway on the remote Musandam Peninsula. The only way to get here is by boat, which is how we arrived.
Jutting deep into the world’s busiest oil shipping channel, the peninsula lies only 24 miles from Iran and is one of the most strategic military locations in the world. Yet for centuries the peninsula was inaccessible, little known, and seldom visited by outsiders. The sultanate created a Ministry of Tourism in 2004 hoping to stimulate the economy, but so far it has had little effect in the region.
As Alex wanders off, we explain to the fishermen that we’re professional rock climbers on an exploratory visit. The men, dressed in white and tan dishdashas, puff on their pipes and nod. The mountainous peninsula on which they live is an intricate maze of bays and fjords, called khors. Few climbers have ever touched its sheer limestone cliffs. We had learned of the area’s potential from some British climbers who visited in 2005.
There are six of us on our team, including two of the best young climbers in the world, Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay. Alex, a 28-year-old from Sacramento, California, made headlines in 2008 when he scaled the 2,000-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite without a rope. Hazel, 24, who grew up climbing in Wales, in 2011 became the first British woman to free climb the 3,000-foot wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan.
Taha tells us that this village, known as Sibi, is home to about a dozen families that all share the same last name, Althouri. Besides fishing, they make their living primarily as goat herders.
Suddenly one of the men stops in his tracks, points up at the towering cliff, and starts shouting. A thousand feet above us Alex is climbing, antlike, up the rock wall. The Althouris are beside themselves.
“What are they saying?” I ask our translator.
“It’s hard to explain,” he replies. “But essentially, they think Alex is a witch.”