…the wind tore at our clothes, stealing the warmth we had left. Peering through my snow goggles I lost sight of Jordi as another blast of frigid snow smashed into us. High, high above, the perfect peak looked down on our struggle…
Tehran. It’s huge. It sprawls down from the white peaked mountains of the Alborz range, enveloped in a blanket of smoke and pollution. Punctuated by a characteristic skyline, most of the buildings are of medium height, especially in the old quarter, with twisting streets and small back alleys. This is of course before you get to the bazaars. It can be hard to find your way on the public transport at first, but the segregated shopping districts can help. We would always know we were arriving in our part of town as soon as we saw car parts and tyres. Other streets yield lines of household appliances or sporting gear. Thankfully, shortly after our arrival we were welcomed by the best of guides: Vahid and his family. A friend of Jordi’s, we had just had time to set down our stuff before he and his wife were taking us out into town. After heading into the old part we were soon feeling refreshed after some great tasting bastani or ice-cream and carrot juice. The ice-cream is put into the juice and melts, making it smooth and tasty, with the small pieces of frozen cream adding texture. It is not coincidence that I mention the Iranian food, it was to be an important part of the whole experience!
We then proceeded to take a series of buses and the underground to buy the supplies and at the same time learning to navigate the city and the protocols of public transport. The metropolis just goes on and on, filled with shops, restaurants and cars. Lots of cars. This was even though it was Noruuz, when most people leave town and head to their relative’s homes in the countryside. It is the spring festival and hails the arrival of the Persian New Year. Accordingly, decorations had been set out, in the form of a set table showing items representing the seven S’s or Haft Seen. These include: greenery, garlic, apples and vinegar which all start with the letter S in Persian, as well as other, more conspicuous, items such as bowls of gold-fish and painted eggs.
After shopping and a first glimpse of the Iranian capital, we were invited for lunch at our host’s, where we were welcomed by his mother and sister. They had prepared an excellent meal, which we soon enjoying sitting of the beautiful carpets in their living room. I was particularly struck by the rice with saffron and barberries, which give it a slight acid touch. This was completed with chicken, soups and salad, before finishing with sweets and tea. It definitely felt like our Christmas or New Year, to all be sitting together and trying to force one last piece of cake down. We were so full by the end that all we could hardly move, let alone think about skiing mountains!
Unfortunately we still had to get stuff sorted out, so after our goodbyes we went back to our lodgings to finish the packing. We managed to get a ride sorted out for the morning and after our first day Iran, went to bed, with rising expectations on what the Alborz would bring.
The fun thing about travelling with skis is of course the logistics of getting them into any car you have the fortune of hiring for the ride. Luckily most drivers we encountered in Iran we not too fussy and we always found a way. This meant that after an early morning we had all our gear loaded up and ready to leave town. We were soon picking up speed (we never seemed to slow down afterwards) and leaving the smog behind. We looked out of the window, seeing the dry arid landscape giving way to white tipped peaks. The road was soon climbing swiftly, and checking my altimeters we were driving at over 2800 m up. Passing a ski station, we started to drop a bit into the next valley. It was then that we were finally able to catch our first glimpse of Damavand. It is an enormous, cone-shaped peak. At that moment it had its own personal cloud, perched on the top and rolling down the sides. We couldn’t see much snow on the lower flanks and hoped we wouldn’t have to carry up too high. Passing Polour village we took the road towards Reyneh and stopped halfway, at the base of a mud track heading up. A sign indicated the way.
As our driver sped back down the road, we pulled on our backpacks. They were rather heavy, as we were carrying tents and all the ski gear as well as way too much food. Trying to distinguish the peak through the clouds, we started to hike up. It became more overcast and started to snow very lightly. Following the muddy path we gained height, and in the early afternoon we had to take off our sports shoes and change into ski boots. A bit further up and we put on the skis. We were making slow progress, but eventually saw the spire of the Sahem al Zaman mosque to our right. Not wanting to stay there we went around it and gained some more height before setting up camp. The wind had started to pick up considerably, so we looked around for the most protected spot. This turned out to be a snow drift which we decided to dig into. We dropped our packs and were soon shovelling. As the light started to fade we got everything ready and were soon in our cosy sleeping bags out of the wind.
Just before bed, we decided to look outside. The clouds had vanished, and in their place hundreds of stars shone down on the peak, which we could see properly for the first time! We jumped out oto admire the scene. It looked so close, but yet so far, at more than 2 km above us. Energised by the sight, we slid back into the tent ready for the next day.
Awaking to the sound of the wind against the canvas we were soon on the move again. The objective was to get high enough to attempt the summit the next day. After much debate we decided to take the tent, and if possible use it as high as as could go. If not, there was a hut marked on the map that should afford some protection. We started off, zigzagging up the small patches of snow protected from the wind. In some places we had to carry the skis to cross patches of swept rock. As we gained ground we saw two guys following us. They caught up with us and we said hello. Guillaume and Stephan turned out to be French, from the Pyrenees. They were very jovial and we spoke in a mix of French and Spanish. They took the lead, tracking up a steeper slope trying to find a way through without taking our skis off. But the snow eventually gave way to rock and we had to stop again. Putting the skis of our bags we clambered through the rocky terrain. By this point, the climbing and incessant wind meant we were seriously tired out. Going round a bend we suddenly saw the refuge. But instead of giving us the extra strength we needed it seemed to sap out all that was left. The last few hundred metres seemed to go on for ever, and after we had climbed the metal steps I sat down inside, completely exhausted. The wind seemed to be getting stronger and we were both too tired to contemplate going back out and setting up the tent, so we went up to the freezing (literally) dormitory and crawled beneath a pile of filthy rugs.
A few hours later I was feeling much better, so I went downstairs to prepare a meal with the others, who were already assembled in the main room. There was no heating except for the small kitchen where all the inhabitants of the refuge were sitting around a stinking petrol heater. They were accompanied by a couple of Americans and their guide. They had attempted the summit that same day but turned back due to some ice on the ridge towards 5000m. Sitting in the sub-zero temperatures we melted water for the meal, with Jordi braving what had now become a raging blizzard to get enough snow. We chatted with the “franchutes” who turned out be to be canyoning guides and were good company. Getting ready for the next day I was pretty excited, visualising the route to the top. We decided to try the summit together and all headed to bed, hoping the wind would die down during the night as was forecasted.
It did not. Throughout the night we could hear it battering the windows, and small jets of snow could be seen making their way through the cracks. By 5 am things were not much better. Stephan bravely left the comfort of his sleeping bag to go outside. His report was terminal: it was not even worth it. With that kind of wind at 4200m it was unthinkable to go up to 5600m. We stayed under the covers, but no longer dreaming of the summit…
A few hours later, as we made breakfast it was decision time: stay for another day or head back down. It was maddening to be so close, after all the preparations, to give up without trying the final ascent. But time was not on our side, and we did not want to miss out on the rest of our travels while spending days in the freezing refuge hoping for the weather to change. The latest forecast Vahid had sent us were not optimistic either, and it actually looked like it might be getting worse. To delay the decision for a bit we headed out to check the slopes above the refuge. The wind had died down a bit but was still considerable. We went up to 4400m and looked up. The windswept ground rose sharply and didn’t look very appetising. We decided to cut our losses and head down as fast as we could.
The descent was mediocre at best, trying to find patches of snow to ski on. Considering the heavy packs and changing conditions we made quite good time, even enjoying the lower part where the snow was better. Changing back into sports shoes we were on the muddy track once again. We had failed, but it hadn’t dented our spirits and we still had so much more to discover of the country!
Note: Damavand is in fact a very straightforward peak, and we did not encounter any particular difficulties. In summer it is hiked by man. But because it is much higher than the surrounding summits it is very exposed to the wind. This also limits the skiability of the mountain. With the conditions we found it would have perhaps been easier to go up by foot and save the extra weight and looking for a snow-covered route. Also, the refuges on the south-east side mean that you can forget about carrying your tent and other gear if you want to go fast and light.
About a week later, we finally had an opportunity to assuage our wounded pride. We were in Yazd, and Jordi had seen there was a 4000 m peak not far off that we could try and hike. We only had our travel gear as we had left almost everything else in Tehran, so we hoped there would not be too much snow. It was an early drive once again, and after a few mistaken turns, we were at the foot of the path. As we set off, we met a group of Iranians who were also hiking up. They were Reza, Saïd and Reza, who were friends from Tehran. We started off together, witht Reza 1 setting the pace. The path climbed up a steep, rocky valley, before following a beautiful rock wall. At the end of this it crossed a dry river and turned up a steep gully. Arriving at the top we stopped for some food and admired the view. We could see also our destination: the flat topped Shir Kuh. The path then took us to a couple of refuges, where Reza stopped to wait for his friends. We kept going, across the flat mountain top where the snow started. Luckily it was still hard so we stayed on top. We crossed another group of hikers coming down, and after saying “hi” continued on to the peak. From there we had a good view across towards the sharper peaks of the massif and across the surrounding desert. It was stunning to see the summits rise vertically out of the flat desert. After a small pause we headed down and crossed Reza and friends a few minutes later. We took a picture with them and celebrated the moment. From there we headed back down and were lucky enough to get a ride with another hiker who kindly offered to take us back to Yazd. After a shower in the hostel we were heading out to grab a celebratory malt beer and some food! We had finally got our (small) Persian peak!
Mountain sports in Iran: Routes, kit and topography.
Iranians like to hike, climb and ski, so don’t be surprised to meet plenty of people on the more common itineraries and even some mountain huts. We even saw people training for ski alpinism. Because of this there is a multitude of sports shops, most of them on Valiasr Street. You can buy anything from alpine boots to climbing cams. It also means there is quite a lot of information about routes in the mountains, but unfortunately it is mostly in Persian. For Damavand you can always check Camp2Camp and Skitour for recent outings. There is also a lot of info on damavand.de. For maps we went back once again to the great Russian army maps, although we were only able to find 200k scale, meaning they were only really fit for planning purposes. Once there we used the Oruxmaps app with the “OpenTopoMap” which can be downloaded and kept offline. For more info on getting routes and maps check out the “routes and maps page”
Hiking Shir Kuh is a fun addition to any trip to Yazd, and like us can be done in sports shoes after most of the snow has melted.The gps track and a description of the route has been uploaded by J. here. You can also find some detailed information here and the original Alpine Journal article here. There is potential for some good ski lines in the massif, perhaps a bit earlier in the season: we would definitely like to go back and try them out!
If you have any experience on these mountains, questions and/or planning on going please let use know!