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Exploring the unexplored

Local writer and adventurer Mark Synnott reaches new heights with National Geographic

By Erik Eisele

CONWAY — To most people, the Earth is a known entity. Every corner has been explored, photographed, studied and tamed, with no mysteries left to unveil. But study the map a little longer and a marvelous truth emerges: In some places, there still be dragons.
"The world's a pretty big place," according Jackson writer and adventurer Mark Synnott, but tucked between Oman and Iran in a region known as the Strait of Hormuz he found his dragon. "It's so cool, and nobody knows about it."

12-21-oman-2152Mark Synnott with the January issue of National Geographic. (ERIK EISELE PHOTO)The Musandam Peninsula is a tentacled network of fjords, mountains and sheer cliffs that juts out into the Persian Gulf from the northern tip of Oman. It is a rugged landscape, dominated by limestone towers up to 3,000 feet tall. Fishing villages crouch in the shadows of giants. Smugglers use its inlets and islands as a base to ferry goods into Iran. Its coastlines have been charted, but many of the dagger-like summits have never felt a hand print or a boot sole.
The Musandam "looks like a dragon coming out of the ocean," according to Synnott, and that's what drew him there.
Synnott is a climber, mountaineer, writer and guide based in the Mount Washington Valley. He's been on more than 25 expeditions to places like Chad, Pakistan, Patagonia, Borneo, Cameroon, China and Guyana. He is a professional adventurer, a job that often has him searching out unexplored places. Last November he led an expedition to the Musandam to explore the region for climbing potential, and this month the story of that trip hit newsstands in the latest issue of National Geographic.
"The basic idea for this expedition was a sailing and climbing trip," Synnott said. A team of British climbers had been to the Musandam once before, but they were land-based, which meant they were severely limited in what they could access. Synnott's team, however, had a way around that — a 44-foot catamaran that would serve as both their transportation and base camp.
With Synnott were two other professional climbers — a 28-year-old American and a 24-year-old Brit — plus two photographers and a videographer. They spent three weeks weaving their way around the Musandam's inlets searching for formations to climb.
"It's just endless," Synnott said, "there's just walls everywhere."
"They call this area the Norway of the Persian Gulf," he said, pointing to a map. Walls jut skyward like daggers from the sea.
That's exactly the terrain the team was seeking, and the Musandam didn't disappoint. They used their floating base camp to explore, climbing towers and exploring steep cliffs along the sea edge.
Some of the climbing was done ropeless, and kept close enough to the water that a fall would result in a splash and a swim. Elsewhere, however, Synnott said, they were climbing thousands of feet into the air, and falls would have had serious consequences. One team had their rope cut by a falling rock, he said, but no one was hurt. At one point local fisherman saw one of the climbers high up on a cliff face and started shouting that he was a witch. Adventure, and dragons, were all around.
"Here you have one of the world's busiest shipping lanes," Synnott said, where millions of gallons of oil chug past each year, and his team climbed in solitude.
It took a year of planning, however, to get there. The idea for the trip was born when Synnott was reading an article on climbing in Africa and the Middle East. "It was talking about all the different places people had been," he said, "and there was like one sentence that said something like, 'the fascinating and mysterious Musandam Peninsula. That was all it said"
A quick look at satellite photos was enough to convince him to go. "The place was just amazing," he said.
Synnott has a habit of interlacing sailing and climbing, using boats to get him to places otherwise inaccessible. But it's not just about access; it's an intersection of passions.
"Being out on the ocean is kind of like being out in the mountains," Synnott said. "It's the same kind of feel that you get, where you just feel like a little puny human being, like a speck of dust. I like that feeling of feeling really small and vulnerable."
"I like being in situations where I feel like I can see nature in its most raw form," he said. "That's what you find in the mountains, and I've been finding that out on the ocean as well. To combine the two seems like the ultimate adventure."
Now, back in his living room, a year after returning from the Musandam, he gets to again relive the adventure, this time in print. His article, entitled "Impossible Rock," is a 14-page feature in the January issue of National Geographic, the most iconic publication for adventurers like Synnott.
"It's pretty cool to sit here right now and see the article," he said. He's been writing for magazines for two decades, but this is his first piece for National Geographic. "For what I do," he said, "it's hard to find a better magazine."
But like every passionate explorer, Synnott is not finished. He's already making plans for the next adventure, for the next chance to combine the summit and the sea. His article is out, but he's looking at maps again, wondering where the dragons are.

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