Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Two weeks ago, the Saudi Climbing and Hiking Federation held an opening event for a new climbing crag south of Riyadh. They invited members of the local climbing community to come check it out, climb the new routes, and experience the unique joys and frustrations of climbing in the Riyadh region. It was a success. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and no one got injured, which is generally what you want.
I was fortunate enough to get invited to photograph the event. You can find some of the photos I took in the Projects section of this site https://www.ryanolsonphotos.com/schf-wadi-alakhu .
The whole experience was a blast, and it was made extra special with the realization that the opening of Wadi Al Akhu was the culmination of years of exploration and hard work by the local climbing community.
So that’s what this post is going to be about, the history of the work that went into the development of the newest crag in Saudi Arabia.
Until very recently, in the last couple of years really, rock climbing in Saudi Arabia was obscure. Small groups of expats and locals getting together and going to the very few spots around the country with decent rock. I won’t claim to know the whole history, but from what I’ve been able to put together things started in the 90s. A few expats took it upon themselves to start exploring, looking for places to climb.
The first climbers in Saudi were pioneers. I wish I knew more of their history. What I do know is that they laid the groundwork for all of the recent developments in the country. Without them, places like Tanomah, which is on its way to becoming a world class crag, would never have been developed.
That pioneering spirit continued after those first climbers left. Climbers, using their own time and resources, would go out to explore the surrounding countryside in hopes of finding some new place to climb. When I arrived in 2014 there were a number of locations where you could go and get some climbing in. But, there wasn’t much. Most places only had a few developed routes, and people were constantly looking for something new.
I can remember sitting at work, between classes, pouring over satellite images on Google Earth, searching for anything that looked promising. That’s how it was done. You would search for shadows that marked cliffs, and look to see how much broken rock was at the bottom. If you found something that looked promising you would mark in the map, and then drive out into the desert during the weekend to see if it was any good. 95% of the time it wasn’t. Especially around Riyadh.
Riyadh is on a plateau. A plateau that ends in a massive escarpment that extends north to south just to the west of the city. The cliffs are tall, but the rock is awful. Old rotten sandstone and limestone. Some spots are climbable (barely), like Faisal’s Finger, but for the most part it’s just chossy garbage. You see a hold, you grab it, it breaks. Completely unclimbable. But, that didn’t stop us from exploring, looking, and searching for something, anything that we could climb.
And that brings us to the fall of 2015, and the discovery of the first crag in the Hariq area. Will Newnham, Hugh Thomas and Zakee Kazmee found it. I don’t know what took them to that particular stretch of rock, or even how they saw it from the road, but they saw something that they liked. Something they liked enough to go back to in December 2015. A group of local Riyadh climbers, among them Will, Zakee, Ruben, Laith Saad Eddin, and Martin Mital, went back and started to develop the crag.
It started with some top rope anchors and a couple of bolted routes. The rock wasn’t fantastic, but it was pretty damn good for the region. Over the course of that first winter, they kept going back. A few routes were bolted, then a few more. Where there were only top rope anchors, Steve Taylor and Simon Bailey took up the slack and finished the bolting. Pretty soon, Wadi Will had eight bolted sport routes ranging from 5a to 7 hard.
Wadi Will became our go to spot. It was a two and a half hour drive south of Riyadh, but it was the best climbing in the area. There was a good, bordering on great, camping spot. It was in the middle of nowhere. It was perfect. Over the next couple of years, the local climbers in Riyadh spent as many winter weekends there as they could.
Joao Miquel was the one who saw the potential for further development. There were more lines, and untapped potential. By then, the winter of 2018, most of the original climbers who developed Wadi Will had left the country, and taken their drills and bolts with them. But Miquel was not going to let that stop him. He bought a Hilti and brought bolts and hangers with him from Europe, and set about the process of putting up new lines in Wadi Will. The first, and probably the best route at the crag, was “God is Good” 6a+.
Dumb, stupid luck took Miquel to Wadi Al Akhu. At the time, he only had one day off each week. He would drive down to Wadi Will Thursday night, climb and bolt on Friday, then drive back Friday evening so he could go back to work on Saturday. He was determined to get as much time there as he could. So determined, that one day, when everyone else was busy, he resolved to go there alone. Anyone who has spent any time exploring the desert knows that this a stupid idea. If anything goes wrong, you’re in trouble. There is no mobile service, and the nearest town is a 25 km hike across the desert. Miquel went anyway.
He went to sleep in the camping area Thursday night, and woke up to a dead car battery Friday morning. He had planned to bolt a new route that Friday, but instead he packed his backpack full of water, and set out for the long walk looking for help. He only made it a few hundred meters when he saw a car, and not far from the car, a man with a metal detector. That man’s name was Naif, and Miquel had met him before.
Two weeks prior, we had been climbing at Wadi Will. At some point, we looked down to see two local men walking up the wadi towards us. Up to that point, all of our run ins with the local people had been very positive (a particularly memorable encounter took place during my first trip to Wadi Will, when a local family made us Kabsa over a fire). However, we were in a mixed group, so there was some concern that this could potentially cause problems. Miquel ran down to head them off. He wasn’t exactly welcoming. In the end, everything was great, they were curious, and open, and just wanted to see what we were doing out there in the middle of nowhere. But Miquel didn’t leave the best first impression.
Now here he was, in need of help, face to face with the man he had encountered two weeks before. There are a number of ways that meeting could have gone. Maybe Naif remembered Miquel acting like an asshole. Maybe he would reluctantly agree to help. Maybe he would tell him to keep walking. Instead, in typical Saudi fashion, he greeted him like a brother, invited him into his istiraha (kind of a permanent camp), fed him, gave him tea, and offered to show him around. They started referring to each other as “akhu”, Arabic for brother.
That’s how Miquel found Wadi Al Akhu, The Brother’s Wadi. Naif wanted to show him some other cliffs he thought Miquel might like. As they drove around in Naif’s car, Miquel spotted a wall that instantly grabbed his attention. Taller, longer, and more solid than Wadi Will. As soon as he returned to Riyadh that night (turned out that his car started no problem when he went back to it with Naif), he sent me pictures and showed the kind of enthusiasm and excitement I’ve rarely seen from him.
The next weekend I went with him to check it out. It was beautiful. We started planning routes. He guessed he could put up 30. I guessed 50. We walked along the top of the cliff to check out some of the other wadis in the area, but none of them were as promising as Wadi Al Akhu.
Over the next few weeks Miquel went back. He bolted the first route, a crack on the left side that he named “Al Akhu” 6b+. He put up some new top rope anchors and started planning the routes he would put up. But by now it was late winter, early spring 2019. It was getting too hot to keep going back, and he was leaving the country for another of his many holidays. He went back to Europe, bought more bolts and hangers, and made plans to continue developing the crag during the winter of 2019.
The Saudi Climbing and Hiking Federation was established in February 2018 with the goal of developing climbing and hiking in Saudi Arabia. I was lucky enough to be invited on a few of their early events to photograph. Over the past two years they’ve done amazing things to help develop climbing. The sport has grown in leaps and bounds during that time. It’s gone from an obscure sport, practiced by few, to a mainstream activity. To the point where the first climbing competition will take place later this month. They brought a team in to develop crags in Shafa and Tanomah, giving the climbing community a taste for what is possible here. So, when Abdulrahman Alabdu approached Miquel about letting the Federation develop Wadi Al Akhu, he was gracious enough to turn his project over to them.
In October 2019, the Federation brought Read Macadam and his team, Carlo Giulibrti, Piergiorgio Lotito, and Alex Ruscior, back to Saudi Arabia to continue developing. Over the course of a month they put up new routes in Tanomah, and then began the development of Wadi Al Akhu. For two weeks, they worked in 35C heat and managed to establish 38 new routes. The work they did was impressive to say the least. It would have taken Miquel, working alone with his one drill, months to put up that many routes. Especially considering they used glue in bolts for everything.
I once again had the good fortune to be one of the first people to see their finished work. I went there the weekend they finished the bolting and got to spend time with the developers, and climb a couple of the new routes. I was curious to see how much overlap there would be between the plans Miquel and I came up with, and what the development team did. With the exception of a few routes, it was almost identical.
Three weeks later I returned to Wadi Al Akhu for the opening weekend, this time as a photographer. I had the pleasure of seeing climbers from all over the country experiencing what the climbers of Riyadh have experienced for years. The unique rock features, the pockets, the strange mixture of limestone so hard it’s almost marble, the constant dust making the holds slippery, and the joy of being out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert, enjoying the sport we love.
As climbing continues to grow in Saudi, it seems to me that it’s important to remember its roots in the country. The hard work, time and resources that people put into making the climbing we have today possible. People like Dave Black, Ray Timm, Neville Holmes, Bernie Caddie, Bandar Khalid Al-Saud, Nasser Bdeir, Vojta Stanek, Niklas Gassen, Paul McCormack, Alex Smith, Douglas Mac Collum, Zakee Kazmee, Will Newnham, Hugh Thomas, Steve Taylor, and Joao Miquel (I know I’ve missed some key figures, so please send me an email so I can give credit where credit is due).
Now the baton those pioneers started with has been passed on, to the Federation and its members like Yasmin Gahtani and Abdulrahman Alabdu, and a new generation of Saudi climbers. The future of climbing in Saudi Arabia is looking brighter than ever.
Edit: Some names have been added since I originally posted this. Also, Miguel just called and informed me that his name is spelled Miquel. So, that's been changed too. In my defense, Miguel is his middle name and Miquel is his last name, which is confusing. In true Miguel fashion, he only just told me because he'd spent the entire weekend climbing in Wadi Al Akhu.
Edit 2: The original post left out the names of Zakee Kazmee and Hugh Thomas as the people who first found the cliff that would become Wadi Will.