Mention you are travelling to Iran and it is guaranteed to generate an interesting response.
One of the great, enigmatic nations of the world, before our trip I knew nothing of the country beyond the narrow lens of occasional western media reports. Fortunately (and predictably) there is far more to this secretive Islamic Republic than a few trade embargos and nuclear talks and we had eyes on a ski descent of the country’s highest peak: Mount Damavand. A stunning snowy cone, it rises over a thousand metres above any of its neighbours with a smoking, sulphurous plume gently drifting from the volcano’s summit crater.
“As a British, American or Canadian citizen it simply isn’t possible to saunter up to the border, paperwork in hand and set off on your travels.”
For this particular trip we had the added excitement of a cameraman, Matt Traver, joining us to film our ascent for Hot Aches productions. The trip was also the closest to a package tour I have ever come as all of the planning and logistics were handled by Shirin Shabestari of Persian Pursuits. It isn’t usually my style to pay and join an organised expedition, but there were huge logistical advantages in doing so when travelling to Iran. Obtaining a visa was not straightforward and required a trip overseas since the Iranian UK embassy had been closed for some time. Born and raised in Iran, Shirin’s farsi language skills proved invaluable in Vienna when she arrived with our passports and found our visas missing, a situation remedied by a stern call to the Ministry in Tehran.
The other challenge involves free-roaming, a concept I’d never ever considered before. As a British, American or Canadian citizen it simply isn’t possible to saunter up to the border, paperwork in hand and set off on your travels. A daily itinerary must be submitted in advance, with no real flexibility, and we were to be accompanied at all times by a government approved private guide (who in our case required additional qualifications as both a ski mountaineer and English speaker – quite a niche!). As might be imagined, this sort of constraint doesn’t marry well with the flexibility selecting a summit day weather window demands.
“I felt a tinge off apprehension that my lack of experience on skis in the mountains would show and wondered if the trip would prove to be a physical as well as cultural challenge.”
We flew in on 2nd April against a backdrop of increasingly promising negotiations on sanctions between Iran and the west. One surprising consequence of the ongoing dispute was that many EU nations did not provide aviation fuel to Iran. IranAir were thus forced to leave Tehran for London with a full tank and make a stop-off mid-way through Europe on the return leg to refuel, having been unable to do so when passengers and luggage were changed at Heathrow. Preferring a smoother ride, we chose to fly Emirates.
Landing at Tehran late at night, I had little idea of what was to follow. Besides Shirin, Matt and I, our team included Chris and Jonathan, both slightly older than I and veterans of the ski racing and expedition touring worlds respectively. I felt a tinge off apprehension that my lack of experience on skis in the mountains would show and wondered if the trip would prove to be a physical as well as cultural challenge.
Queuing at immigration at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, I replayed the final scenes of Ben Affleck’s film Argo in my head: tense encounters as the group negotiate with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards at passport control whilst the plane prepares to taxi. Of course the reality was, thankfully, mundane and straightforward. After a quick scrum to grab my skis through the baggage belt door we were in a taxi en route to our hotel in central Tehran.
Our expedition was only 10 days long and split across three phases: acclimatization on nearby Gol-e Zard, the ascent and ski descent of Damavand itself, and an opportunity to soak up Iran’s cultural riches in Tehran and the surrounding area. Before first light we transferred to the Polour Mountaineering Federation Hut, our basecamp for the first week. Less than 12 hours into my visit to Iran I was skinning up the melting slopes with rusty kick-turns catching inconveniently at the apex of each bend. Beneath the baking sun and bright blue sky the situation was as far removed from an alpine piste as I have known. Shirin was hiking down the ridgeline, silhouetted against the stunning backdrop of Damavand’s perfect volcanic cone. Matt waded below in slushy snow, encumbered with a multitude of dSLRs and tripods. Beside me stood Majid, our Iranian guide, singing the one-word chorus to his favourite Abba hit over and over. I packed away the skins, clipped in my skis and followed Chris and Jonathan back towards the truck. Ski touring in Iran: this is what my holidays now entailed.
“Beside me stood Majid, our Iranian guide, singing the one-word chorus to his favourite Abba hit over and over.”
Considering that it towers over the Middle East more than a thousand metres higher than its nearest neighbours, I find it amusing that I’m still not sure quite how tall Damavand is. Official statements conflict with reports of both 5610m and 5671m, but what is clear is that it’s a bloody long way from the roadhead to the summit.
We spread our ascent over four days, the first of which was a gentle skin up to a mosque with a beautiful golden roof. We arrived and headed over to the concrete block next door to unpack but Majid called us back and showed us into the mosque itself – accommodation somewhat different to the standard bivies and bothies of the UK! The following day we gained another 1000m to arrive at the Bargah Sevom Shelter (4250m) a modern, two storey hut with bunks, cookers and a small store. Another novel feature of this trip for me was our use of porters to carry our loads to the shelter, a shy band of young Afghan refugees who mix work as construction labourers with load carrying on the hills.
There were beds for 30 but we were the sole occupants for much of our trip. Damavand in winter is a significant, if non-technical, ascent, but during the snow-free summer months the mountain’s proximity to the capital sees the Iranian public treat it as something akin to a day trip. Weekend attempts without acclimatization are common and we heard reports of the sprawling campsite that the land around the shelter becomes, complete with frequent abuse of high altitude medication and high rates of failure to summit. Nonetheless, Majid was proving to be a wonderful ambassador for the Iranian people and superbly capable as chef, ski guide and lover of English pop music.
Height gain on summit day is around one and a half kilometres. We departed early and skinned our way gently upwards, the alpenglow teasing the jagged outline of the horizon. Shielded by the ridgeline from the worst of the wind the temperature felt remarkable warm for a mountain of its size. Before long the slope steepened and we zigzagged up the icy crusts, crampons doing the bulk of the work as the gradient approached the sensible limit of grip.
Fortuitously I felt fit and on fire, racing ahead with no ill effects from the altitude at the expense of the others who were suffering somewhat worse. As the hours ticked by progress slowed, but the majesty of the view did not disappoint and the exposed position was like no other mountain I’ve been on, gazing right down onto the valleys and peaks below. Approaching the eight hour mark we neared the top and it was clear that some of the team were struggling to perform in the rarefied air. Late in the day and with a large descent to follow we ditched the skis at the start of the scree and spread out for the rush to the top. On reaching the summit I spent a splendid few moments alone on the roof of Persia before being joined by Chris and Matt. The winds were blowing the sulphur clouds clear of the summit block and we stared down from Iran’s volcanic altar onto the vast, sprawling landscape beneath. It was time to get down.
I’d be lying to proclaim the skiing was spectacular: clear skies, cold nights and high altitude had robbed the snowpack of any softening and the descent was a hard, icy slide back to the hut. My fears of struggling to keep pace on skis had been unfounded and I was soon back at the shelter with the team following shortly afterwards. Our weather window had arrived exactly on schedule and we had spent ten hours alone on the mountain, a successful ascent in perfect conditions of a prominent mountain in the most magical of countries.
“The winds were blowing the sulphur clouds clear of the summit block and we stared down from Iran’s volcanic altar onto the vast, sprawling landscape beneath.”
Shopping in the markets of Tehran was eye opening. The city felt alive and modern, far removed from the aging second-world capital I had expected. The stunning architectural attractions of the Azadi and Milad Towers would not be out of place in any European city. People everywhere were delighted to meet us: “Where are you from? ...ahh Engel-stan!” was a common exchange, followed by excitement on learning of our ascent of their iconic Damavand. Islamic dress is enforced by the somewhat notorious moral police in their green cars and yet compliance varied from a full burka to the lightest of cloths delicately balanced on the back of the hair. On the flip side nose jobs seemed hugely popular, an unexpected side effect of the need to cover up in public?
Around the capital, reminders of Iran’s recent history are to found. “Down with the U.S.A” screams the giant mural on the side of the Karim-Khan e-Zand building, the stripes of the U.S. flag re-imagined as smoke trails from falling bombs. A clever design although as is often the case the apparently sinister message has a more nuanced meaning. Large pictures of past and present leaders Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei hang everywhere, along with reminders not to film any sensitive sites, a message worth reinforcing at times to our cameraman.
As expected, access to all social media is blocked, with the bizarre exception of Instagram. The Iranian moral police clearly approve of selfies, sunsets and dinner snaps. Amusingly the hotel staff were happy to provide a special USB stick to bypass the filter if we wanted to. Pricing was especially confusing for whilst the currency is the rial, most prices on shops are listed in toman which are a tenth the value. Keeping a mental reminder that the numbers on banknotes and shop signs differed by a factor of ten was a significant challenge!
“As expected, access to all social media is blocked, with the bizarre exception of Instagram. The Iranian moral police clearly approve of selfies, sunsets and dinner snaps.”
The most wonderful moment of all came at dinner one evening. Downstairs in a crowded basement restaurant we had settled into a hearty buffet meal when the music picked up. The singing began, women waved handkerchiefs, men danced on the tables and then an Iranian man wearing a Santa outfit burst out and began to lead an animated rendition of Gangnam Style from the stage. We never quite worked out what was happening, but felt privileged to have witnessed this microcosm of passionate Iranian life, hidden beneath the veneer of conservative conformance.
Our trip was over but Iran feels like a country on the cusp of a new beginning as relations with the western nations begin to warm. The Iranian consulate in London is now open again and I would expect that the free roaming restrictions will be rescinded one day soon. Damavand has seen only a handful of British ski descents and many enticing mountaineering objectives remain, including a huge winter traverse of the alpine skyline which envelopes the mountain’s southern edge. There are few countries in the world where you can travel two hours from the desert heat of the capital to a major volcanic summit and climb in such splendid isolation. Iran is a country of genuine hospitality and rich culture, a modern country with ancient and historic roots. Visit now before the rest of the world catches on.
“The singing began, women waved handkerchiefs, men danced on the tables and then an Iranian man wearing a Santa outfit burst out and began to lead an animated rendition of Gangnam Style from the stage.”