Friends in High Places
On hearing about ski mountaineering in Iran, Americans have two questions;
1) "Is it safe?"
Sometimes the order is reversed, but the questions are always the same. Before heading over there, I only knew a partial answer to one of the questions; yes, Iran has some mountains, at least they have one really big one, Mt. Damavand, which is over 18,000'. As a ski mountaineer, that seemed like plenty of info.
The trip got off to an auspicious start. Greg VonDoersten from Jackson Hole called one day and mentioned that he had submitted a series of proposals to magazines, including one where we skied off of Iran's highest peak. One of the magazines was interested in it and he was wondering if I could go, although it was the first I'd ever heard, or even thought about skiing in Iran. It sounded interesting. I knew that Iran had had thirty people show up for an international ski mountaineering course (the US had one person for their course - me), so I suspected that Iran had some avid skiers. Where there are avid skiers, there is usually good skiing. A equals B equals C, so, yes, that sounds like a good idea Greg. I'll go.
Still, I gave the trip very low odds of actually happening.
First there was the issue of getting a visa. With Bush having labeled Iran part of the "Axis of Evil", plus having no diplomatic relations between American and Iran, plus the fact that the US sold weapons to Iran's enemies, plus the fact that the American CIA engineered a coup to over throw the Iranian government, the Iranians have lots of good reasons for not letting American's into their country. But, through the miracle of a tourist visa (versus a Press visa) it was easy, as long as it was applied for well in advance. The catch is that you have to be with a guide the entire time, but in retrospect, it would be difficult to visit Iran any other way. The traffic is insane, the streets are confusing and Farsi is not the kind of language you casually pick up in your spare time.
The second issue was getting a team together. Greg had sold this as a magazine article, which meant he was going as a photographer, and James Alexander Vlahos, aka Jav, would be going as a writer. This left a group of three, which is not so good for ski mountaineering. I asked my friend Dylan Freed from Salt Lake City if he was interested and he said "When do we leave?" Now we were a group of four.
Another issue was money, but then again, it always is. Between airfare and two weeks of full time guiding, traveling, food and permits, Iran is not exactly a discount ski vacation, but it is not too bad either. Total costs were estimated at about $2,500 per person (which later slipped to about $3k). I rationalize my ski trips with the fact that the average family spends $15,000 for a week in Park City, so $3k is cheap. Plus, Mountain Hardwear came to the rescue and provided some extra funds as well. Money - check.
A day before leaving for Tehran, we were in New York for the premier of "Steep" in which Dylan and I star as avalanche poodles, and we still hadn't received our visa. No visa, no trip. Greg took it upon himself to travel down to Washington DC and force the issue with the Pakistani embassy and arrived back in NYC with visas in hand a few minutes before the plane left for Amsterdam. It looked like the trip was actually going to happen!
There are few cultural extremes as far apart as Amsterdam (the City of Tolerance) versus the Islamic Republic of Iran. We slept through the six hour layover in Amsterdam and arrived at 2:00am in Tehran, although our luggage did not. This wasn't too big a deal as we had planned on a day of decompressing in Tehran, which we spent driving around with our new friend and guide, Majid Doroodgar. Majid is a Tehran native and thus has the required competitive driving gene.
Aside from the overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming people, any first time visitor to Iran will be stunned by the country's driving habits. Seat belts and mirror are for sissies. Majid explained "You drive for yourself and look ahead." Lanes are ignored in an all-out free-for-all. Traffic merges at 90 degrees and just pushes through. People drive backwards for blocks on one way streets. U-turns in the middle of crowded thoroughfares are common. For some reason there seem to be very few wrecks (or even dings on cars) and nobody takes it personally. The car of choice is an old Polish model which is now being produced in Iran. Gas is $.33 per gallon and there seems to be no such thing as emission control.
This was the beginning of my downfall. After spending one-and-a-half days driving around Tehran, my lily pink lungs felt like they had been deep-fried in carbon dioxide. By the time we started hiking into the beautiful Alum Koo range, I was having visions of my esophagus being flossed with barbed wire and felt like I'd had my lips wrapped around an exhaust pipe until my lungs burst. I seldom get sick on trips, but in this case, I developed a chest infection that put me down for the count and was very painful.
The itinerary for the trip was put together by Iranian Mountain Guides (IMG), of whom Majid is a part owner. Iran has many guide services, but for ski mountaineering, IMG is ideal as they are skiers and know what skiers want. They offer all sorts of trips and are willing to customize them as well. Our 13 day outing formed a triangle. Starting at Tehran as the lower point, we would go northwest to the Alam Kooh range for about five days, traverse back east to the Caspian Sea for the second leg of the triangle, then arc back down towards Tehran to ski Mt. Damavand for the final third leg.
It's unlikely that a doctor would recommend strenuous hiking at high altitudes with cold, dry mountain air to someone with a respiratory infection, but that was what we were here for. Aside from the nagging feeling that I'd been hit in the chest with a shotgun blast, the four hour approach to our basecamp was mellow and scenic. Basecamp was located on the sagging roof of a shepherd's hut which was conveniently located right at snow level.
The Alam Kooh range tops out at about 15,600' and has a high concentration of skiable terrain ranging from big fat couloirs to peaks, gentle valleys, big open faces and endless corn runs. The mountainscape is a bit trickier than meets the eye with seemingly parallel drainages ending up miles apart at the bottom. We weren't able to find any helpful maps of the area, but mostly it was Point & Chute skiing, or we were directed by Majid, so didn't matter.
The weather was mixture of high clouds and sunshine which allowed us to get out skiing every day. One of the first days included an ascent of a 14,400' peak which just about killed me. I kept thinking I should take a rest day for my seared lungs, but it never seemed to happen as the mornings were all perfect for skiing. As we were a group of five, the standard operating procedure was to start out together, then divide into two groups later on depending on speed and motivation. On the day that Dylan and Gerg (as the Iranians called Greg) skied off the summit of Alam Kooh, James and I had a silky smooth corn run from lower down.
Mountain climbing is very popular in Iran. Based on the size and number of the clubs, club houses, climbing facilities, organized teams and government climbing agencies, I suspect that Iran has a much higher percentage of climbers per population than most countries, especially America. The clubhouses were capable of holding hundreds of people and there were many of them. The one we stayed in after coming down from the Alam Kooh range was on the scale of a major European climbing facility, complete with a gated entrance, landscaped grounds, a caretakers hut, room for 100+ people, showers, beds, a huge communal dining area and industrial kitchen. This is not cooking on your camp stoves in a leaky little lean-to!
On reaching civilization, the first order of the day was to stop at a pharmacy and get lung repairing drugs. There were some language issues, but I was happy getting anything that had the word "anti" in it - antibiotic, antiseptic, antihistamine, anti-inflammatory - they were all close enough. A four day course of anti-somethings set me back $.50 and were washed down with cough syrup - the closest thing to a cocktail in Iran. After a few days of snaffing these and reorganizing on the coast of the Caspian Sea, I finally started to feel a little better.
The next and final peak on our agenda was Mt. Damavand which reminded me of a turbo-charged version of Mt. Shasta. It is a huge (18,405') volcanic peak which stands all by itself and although it is non technical to climb, the crux issues are the weather and altitude. The mountain town of Raineh is the staging point for the popular south side routes. From there, it is a rugged forty minute drive up a dirt road where out of nowhere, you come across a golden mosque at the trailhead.
After a brief exchange with three other climbers, Majid ran back to the Wagoneer in a panic. "The Iranian National Climbing Team is coming! We have to get to the shelter ahead of them!" The team consisted of sixty people, plus instructors. The shelter held twenty people at the most. Getting there first seemed like a good idea.
After a few hours of hiking and skinning, Dylan and I arrived at the empty hut, which was located at about 14,000'. Two days earlier, a group of 20 Austrians and Germans had used the hut and when we walked into it, my gag reflexes were firing at full volume. Amid ankle-deep garbage, boxes of half-eaten food were spilled all over the floor and had started to fester in pools of water. It was dark, dank and reeked. We went outside to catch our breath, walking by a swirling pile of half burned garbage before finding a place to sit down. As we sat there bemoaning our fate, we realized we were sitting in a massive field of human shit. It was everywhere - on the rocks, between the rocks, on the railings, steps and gravel. I looked at my skis and realized they were augured into dried pile, complete with a tat of toilet paper hanging off the tail. It was absolutely disgusting and we agreed there was no way in hell we were spending the night there. It would be better to return to the base and try to climb the entire peak in a day.
Majid showed up and was soon followed by the first of the Iranian National Team. We held a small sit-down strike, but Majid's enthusiasm (as well as some house cleaning by some Iranian saints) persuaded us to give the hut another look. We either lowered our standards or had grown accustomed to the filth by then and agreed that it would probably be OK to spend the night there.
Even with sixty people, the Iranian National Team was hardly noticeable. They were there as part of a try-out for a select group who would later go to the Himalayas and were all business. They set up camp, cooked in their tents, woke up early, got out quietly, returned, broke camp and were gone with hardly a sound! On our part, we woke up around 5:00am, ate and started climbing Damavand around 6:00am.
The 5,000+ foot climb to the summit is mostly mellow 30-degree snowfields and would be skinnable if conditions allowed. It was a frozen mess of sustrugi when we were on it, so we opted for booting with crampons for most of the five hour climb. The main trail is on a subtle ridge with loose talus, which is fine for hiking boots, but not so great in ski boots.
The summit of Damavand is a surreal mix of sulfuric rocks, venting fumes and gargoyle-like formations. A group of four Iranians materialized out of the mist and I think they were even more psyched about us reaching the summit then we were. "Yes, yes! It is right there! Congratulations!" The actual high point is on the rim of a crater and has a small natural amphitheater of rocks that provide shelter from the wind. Dylan and I hung around for a few minutes until Gerg showed up sans skis, which we gave him grief about even though it wasn't possible to ski off the rocky summit. It's the thought that counts, as well as a chance to harass your partners.
The skiing down was mix of white-out Braille skiing, rock strikes and survival turns before we finally got down low enough for the snow to soften up. From there, it was nice carveable slush all the way back to the hut with a few sections of walking to connect snowfields. The round trip from the hut to the summit and back took about seven hours, with a liberally amount of time thrown in for fauxtography and video.
We made it back to the hut with plenty of time to get back down to the trailhead, but decided to spend the night there again and head down in the morning when the snow would be firmer, which would be easier with bulky packs. The next day all went according to plan and we spent a quite night in Raineh before driving back into the mayhem of Tehran.
Throughout the trip, Dylan had one pressing shopping need - an Iranian sword. These are a bit hard to come by, but Majid found one, as well as flags, postcards, carpets, pillows and 'kabobs in an afternoon of driving around. We had packed gear both coming and going under the assumption we would be grilled by Customs in both directions and have something confiscated, but it was a non issue. "What do you have in that bag?" Skis. "Okay, go ahead."
The trip back to Utah entailed a 31 hour day, starting at 2:00am and finishing at 11:00pm, with some help from the time zone changes. Gerg and James stayed on for another week of touring holy sites.
Iran is one of those places that you start to miss immediately after leaving it. The skiing was good, but by far and away, the highlight of the trip was the culture and people of Iran. That area of the world has a long standing policy of accepting travelers, which lives on to today. One of the most asked questions was "What do you think of Iran now that you are here?" and we all had to admit that it was nothing like we had been lead to believe from the American press. As one of the helpful KLM ticket agents said "Tell all your friends to come visit and not be afraid of us."
Does Iran have mountains? Is it safe? Absolutely on both accounts, and not only that, it's an incredibly fun adventure.
Andrew McLean, 22 May 2007