National Geographic : 2014 Jan
140 national geographic • January 2014 climbing in which you push as far up a wall as you can, then simply tumble into the water. It sounds harmless enough, but an out-of-control fall can cause serious injury and even death. We’ve rented a 44-foot catamaran to serve as our mobile base camp. Besides Alex and Hazel, our team includes photographer Jimmy Chin, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, and rigger Mikey Schaefer. One of the places we thought would be perfect for visiting by boat is As Salamah, an uninhabited island in the Strait of Hormuz. “It’s too close to Iran,” says our guide, Abdul- lah Said al Busaidi, a veteran police officer from Muscat, Oman’s capital. Peering through the thick haze, we see the hulking outlines of oil tankers in the strait. Nearby, dozens of speed- boats cut back and forth, their decks piled high with crates. “Smugglers,” Abdullah says. UN sanctions against Iran have created short- ages of goods such as cigarettes, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs, as well as supplies of food and medicine. With Khasab, the region’s largest town, as little as an hour by speedboat from Iran, and 123 miles by highway from Dubai, a black market thrives here. “We can’t catch them all,” Abdullah says, as an Iranian speedboat roars past. We arrive at the island in early afternoon. As Salamah, we discover, is nothing more than a giant rock rising from the sea, and there is nowhere to anchor. So we drop the sails and use the catamaran’s twin engines to park the boat just offshore. Wasting no time, Alex and Hazel lace up their climbing shoes, dive from the boat, and swim to a cliff where the ocean has carved out a cavern with an overarching 15-foot roof. Within min- utes Alex has reached the cavern’s ceiling, where he finds a series of tiny holds along a protrud- ing rib of dark gray limestone. It’s exactly the kind of challenge he and Hazel have been look- ing for, with every move more difficult than the one before. Hanging upside down, holding on to bumps in the rock no bigger than matchboxes, Alex hooks the heels of his sticky-soled shoes over a small protrusion. Defying gravity, he lets go with one hand and snatches for the next hold, reaching a spot about halfway across the roof. There the rock becomes too slick for a heel hook, so, with Hazel cheering him on, Alex dangles his legs and swings like a chimp from one tiny edge to the next. At the lip of the roof Alex finds a way to hook his right foot over a sloping knob. Locking off with one arm, he gropes blindly over the lip with his other, feeling for a tiny crease into which he crushes his fingers. With nowhere to go from here, he looks down at the water 25 feet below. In other circumstances falling could have deadly consequences for a free soloist like Alex. With his arms failing, his survival instinct is kicking in. “Come on, Alex!” Hazel screams, urging him to finish his new route. Alex lunges over the lip with a grunt, but his legs swing out, and he peels off the rock and leaps into the water. “I hate jumping off things,” Alex says, swim- ming back to the wall for another try. That night we dock at Kumzar, a village on the northern edge of the peninsula. More than 2,000 people live here in one of the oldest settlements in the region. Their densely packed houses crowd a few acres of level ground at the foot of a soaring rock-walled ravine. The morning call to prayer, broadcast from speakers mounted on a nearby mosque, awakens us at 5 a.m. Within half an hour a dozen fisher- men appear at the wharf to collect the previous With Hazel cheering him on, Alex dangles his legs and swings like a chimp from one edge to the next.