Jabal Shams
The Al Qannah Massif: Oman's Summit

May 2008 (English only)

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Thanks to Alban Rivira, Gordon Forbes and Graham Booth. Without the encouragement and enthusiasm of these worthy companions I would not have made it.


Rim walk to the summit of Jabal Shams

This walk is described as "walk 4 Jabal Shams South flank; rim walk to the summit" ( Dale & Hadwin, 2001) as well as walk "W4: Trekking path to the southern summit of Jabal Shams from the "Plateau"; Rim walk to summit of Jabal Shams" (Trekking Oman, 2005).

The path takes you up on the south flank of Jabal Shams along the northern side wadi (Saydran gorge) of  the deeply incised gorges that are known as Oman's Grand Canyon (wadi Nakhr). While climbing the view southwards gradually expands over Jabal Khawr and Jabal Misht and to the interior of Oman beyond. The summit ridge provides also great views to the North into the core of the Oman Mountains with wadi Sahtan (leading to Rustaq) below – indeed this must be one of the best views in Oman!


Profile of the walk up Jabal Shams. As a graph it definitely looks less impressive.

The walk to the summit ridge at 2880m is about 8km and will take you between 5-6 hours up and 4-5 hours down. From there W4 continues to the southern peak - Qarn Al Ghameyah at 2997m - which is about 3.5 km further.

We tried to walk it all on one day, starting at 05:15hrs, just after sunrise. We reached the summit ridge at 11:30hrs and decided that to get back safe in Muscat at a reasonable time we should return. All of course depends on your physical condition. Climbing in May as we did, with a blazing hot sun of course is not the best  timing. If you are not a regular trekker the best you can do is plan for an overnight camp on the ridge and return the next day. Each of us took about 6 litres of water and we needed it all.

How to get there

See also http://home.kpn.nl/~lilian_jan_schreurs/oman/Wghul.htm and Jabal Shams 2006. Google earth files with tracks and locations (KMZ files) can be uploaded here. The track (in yellow on the maps above and below) is signposted next to the first tourist campsite on the Jabal Shams Plateau. Take the track to the left (north) just after passing the site and follow the track to its end (near a wadi). Here you will also find some trees to provide some shade to park the car.


Google Earth view of the Jabal Shams region.

Jabal Shams or Al Qannah?

Jabal Shams (Mountain of the Sun) is a relative new name that resulted from historical mixed-up transliterations and recordings of names by early explorers of various mountains in Oman (see Insall, 2000).

The group of peaks that form the highest area of Oman are known by local people as Al Qannah "the summit".

Up till the late 1990's the highest peak of Al Qannah was thought to be Qarn Al Ghameyah, but accurate measurements have established Ghamet Shameyli at 3009m (the peak with the radar station on it).

Although strictly speaking not correct the name Jabal Shams is now so well established that it is there to stay. Seeing the mountain in the early morning or at sunset it is not surprising that this name is now generally explained by the first and last rays of the sun lighting the peak before and after any other place. Everybody who has seen or climbed this peak will agree that Shams is a fitting name for this magnificent Mountain. If you check Google Earth you will see the name Jabal Shams confusingly labelled to both of the highest points of Al Qannah, but hopefully you will now understand that it is easy to get confused.

To summarise Insall's (2000):  the highest peak is Gamhat Shameyli (or Gamhat Shameyla) with an altitude of 3009m, Qarn Al Ghameyah, some 3.5 km to the Southwest, at 2997m is the second highest. Together with Qarn Al Maheysi, Gamhat Sareyah and Ruweys Al Kelb they are the principal peaks of the Al Qannah massif, within the Jabal Al Kabir region of the Jabal Al Akhdar range.  

That's what I thought after reading the documentation on Jabal Shams. To my surprise when talking to local people in the area they seemed to call the top Jabal Asarah.


Google Earth map with the highest points of Jabal Shams - Al Qannah- indicated. The road  is shown in green . The yellow line marks the walking track (W4) to the summit of Jabal Shams.

Geology

The track follows more or less the dipslope of the Natih B Formation. Limestones of the Natih Formation comprise one of the most important oil reservoirs in North Oman (for example in the Fahud field). The first part of the walk is on top of a depositional breccia. Further up there are many layers rich in rudist fossils (bivalves that had a worldwide success store at the end of the Cretaceous).

Traditionally I took a sample of the rocks at the highest point that we reached on the Jabal Shams crestal ridge. The dark limestones have a strong fetid smell, which would confirm what one would expect for a Naith B organic-rich limestone. To top of Jabal Shams would be the overlying Natih A limestones.

The upper thick massif limestone that can be seen in the cliff faces of the Grand Canyon corresponds to the Natih E, whereas the deeper massive limestone package is the Shuaiba Formation -another important oil reservoir of Northern Oman oil fields.


Photograph and geological annotation courtesy of Volker Vahrenkamp (ex PDO colleague). The track up the southern flank of Jabal Shams follows the edge of this almost vertical canyon. Photograph taken from the viewpoint on the Jabal Shams Plateau in northern direction.

Our adventure

Our plan was to conquer the southern flank route of Jabal Shams in one day. We left Muscat at 16:00 hrs from work and drove straight via Nizwa, via Al Hamra and Ghul, up to the Jabal Shams Plateau. This worked out well with sunset at 18::34hrs and almost full moon rising one hour later (yes GPS devices with such details help a lot with planning).

Protected by an ancient stone enclosure the beds were set-up and we got a campfire going at the other side in the enclosure. As the wind set, the temperature dropped from 25 degrees to a chilly 17 degrees C. A quiet night, only disturbed by some visiting donkeys, enthusiastically IAAAing their presence while passing. Only Gordon heard the noise as well and the rest slept as quiet as one could expect mature males to sleep.
The next morning we rose at 04:30 hrs with a very early breakfast, planning to walk as much as possible before the sun would start seriously baking. Each carrying some 6 litres of water as we expected a long and hot day. The elevation at the start of the track is some 1940m.

Alban (left), Gordon (middle) and Graham (right) preparing for the assault at 05:15 hrs just after sunrise at the start of the walk

The first sunrays make it over the summit ridge (to the right of this picture) and illuminate the ridges beyond. Every minute the rays penetrate deeper and deeper and we realise we have had our longest time protected from the blazing sun.

Graham set a strong pace on the first stretch. Sunrise is much faster when you don't want it and by 08:00 hrs we were walking with the sun already blazing straight ahead in our faces. Soon our (at least mine) body systems started giving warning signs with heartbeats going in overdrive. Good that the track passes a number of grooves with sizable (ancient-looking) junipers that provide welcoming shade and repose.

Many excuses to stop for making pictures as well.

By 10:00 hrs we had agreed to see how far we would get, with a point of no return at 11:30 hrs as we wanted to get back to Muscat at a reasonable time, preferably down at the car again at 16:00-17:00 hrs. 

A view down into Saydran gorge, the most northern of the three canyons that deeply incise the southern flank of Al Qannah (Jabal Shams), jointly known as Oman's Grand Canyon. The fist rays of the sun illuminate the depths below. Somewhere just out of sight is the village of Sap bani Khamis with its terraced gardens cut into the flanks of the canyon. To our surprise we discover another terraced garden hidden in the head of Saydran Gorge and wonder how people got there with vertical cliffs above and below. 
Jabal Misht in the distance. This characteristic mountain is disconnected from the Jabal Akhdar range and rises gradually from the north to its near vertical southern edge with a drop of some 1000m

The southern skyline is dominated by Jabal Kawr, the largest "exotic" block in the Oman Mountains

Trees testify a hard existence with twisted branches and contorted trunks, growing low, but broad, with roots radiating tens of metres seeking their way deep into in crags of the limestone rocks. 
The red-white-yellow markers delineate the path very well, to such extent that you should assume you are off-track when not seeing them for some hundred metres. That happened only once and was easily corrected. The track crosses several side wadis, but essentially follows the western side of the Saydran gorge. The views down south are great although it was rather hazy and had been worse (dust) the days before. We made it in one piece to the crestal ridge at some 2870m, next to the radar station. 

Jabal Misht rising as a sphinx in the distance

Glad to have an excuse to take a breath
The radar station lies about one hundred metres higher, but this is military area and therefore inaccessible.  The same applies for Gamhat Shameyli, the nearby highest point. The only accessible peak is Qarn Al Ghameyah, some 3.5 km to the Southwest, at 2997m, following the ridge, but we decided that it would be pushing to make it to that point in our tight timeframe and headed back after enjoying the scenery at both sides of the summit ridge.

Al Hawb village some 2000 metres below in wadi Sahtan.

Summit ridge to the southeast with left an almost vertical scarp dropping some 2000m into wadi Sahtan. The highest point in the middle is Qarn Al Ghameyah, some 3.5 km to the southeast, at 2997m the second highest point in Oman

More testimonies of a struggling existence

Lunch on the crestal ridge

14:00 hrs. Descending is also hard work. A well deserved rest in the shade of a tree, even a bit of a quick nap.

That's how the trees look like when laying on our backs and enjoying the protective shade of these branches and leaves.
It turned out to be the right decision as we got back to the car at around 17:00 hrs. Most of the water used and for a few of us we even resorted to a badly needed boost by adding dehydration salts in the water. It may be a mountain, but it remains a desert as well, even high-up.

Back in Muscat @ 20:00 hts. Tired but with another great experience taken from that magnificent Mountain.

References

  • David Insall, 2000, The re-naming of Oman's highest Mountain, Journal of Oman Studies, volume 11, pp 111-120.
  • Oman Trekking, 2005, 1st edition ISBN 976 8182 62 8
  • Dale, A. and J. Hadwin, 2001, Adventure trekking Oman. ISBN 0 9537854 0 8

 

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@ J. Schreurs May 2008