I’m looking through a door in the basement of an Iranian hotel where I’m lying, with 4 other men, in a radon bath heated by the geothermal springs of Mt Damavand. Stood in the doorway is an overweight Iranian taxi driver in white baggy white Y fronts with a big rubber tube in his hand. Even after only a few days in Iran we were getting rapidly used to these contrasts but only a few hours ago it had been -25℃ and blowing about 40km/h as we clipped into our skis, 100m below the summit of Mt Damavand, the highest mountain in the Middle East, and began the 2nd British descent of the mountain.
Whilst not a technically difficult mountain, being ascended by hundreds of Iranians annually in the summer, Mt Damavand is a different proposition in winter. The highest mountain and volcano in the Middle East it gets whipped by violent winds throughout winter and temperatures can reach below -60℃. The scale is Himalayan, being the Earth’s 12th highest prominence from base to summit means an ascent/descent of at least 3200m in winter. The two huts are open in winter but can only provide limited facilities.
Day 1 – illycit coffee, fire and protests
I’ve always wanted to turn up at a major airport, look at the departures board and book a flight there and then onto the most random destination it shows. Looking at the board in Rome hunting for a gate number to Tehran is the closest that’s come so far. Boarding the plane with stares of “what the hell are you doing getting on here” was matched by our first experiences of friendly Iranian curiosity. Even after explaining our aims, it seemed they still wondered what the hell we were doing.
After our first Iranian call to prayer at the immigration desk and an emptying of the bureau de change coffers we had the usual airport taxi hiring issues and our first experiences of the carnage of Iranian driving, all to the smooth tones of Chris de Burgh. Who said western music was banned? Maybe it was just the good stuff they didn’t let in.
The Iranian Mountaineering Federation had kindly helped us with the initial logistics and visas and had organised for us to stay at the Iranian Olympic training village. We met with their Foreign Affairs Minister that evening. We discussed weather conditions and agreed that given the abnormally calm conditions due for Saturday we would aim to summit then which meant no time for acclimatization. Not too bad for Scott, Duncan and I who had been climbing in the alps all winter but not so great for Chris who’d travelled from Whistler and even worse for Henry who’d travelled form the dizzy heights of Blackpool. It was Tuesday afternoon already and it was a 3 day climb from the roadhead. We were introduced to Hossein Salehi, a member of the Iranian Expeditions team (read, full time state sponsored mountaineer), who wanted to come with us for our ascent. He had descended Damavand on skis for the first time a couple of weeks previous.
We got a lift into Tehran from the Iranian 100 and 200m and the World Taekwondo champions whom we bumped into, and had wander through Mellat Park (with a detour for Dunc to have a workout on the insitu gym equipment) to the shopping district in the North of Tehran. Oh look, there’s a Debenhams.
We flukily spotted an Illy sign, which turned to be the “illicit” goods shop in Tehran. You could pay for your trip by trading Quality Street, Lindt, Thorntons, Wrigleys etc into this place. $70 for a box of Swiss chocolates. Damn good coffee though, the best you’ll get in Iran outside of an Embassy. As we were drinking it, around 400 riot police started to line the street ready for the planned protests, just like I’d accidentally experienced in Oxford Circus a few weeks earlier, if a little more heavily armed. Following our best retreating instincts we watched the fires and fireworks burn over Tehran that evening from the hotel. Nothing abnormal, just the last Tuesday before No Rooz, the Persian New Year.
Day 2 – Dizin
So much for Chris de Burgh, it’s Bananarama time… Cruel summer rings out in the van as we survey the avalanches which have come down everywhere including onto the road from 1000m above. This is off the chart. Only half the lifts are running, the others are buried. The avalanche hazard scale is re-defined; 1,2,3,4,5,Dizin…
I’d emailed the team a few days earlier to say that it looked like we were in for a powder day on the first day. This isn’t heavy Euro powder, this is Iranian powder. As close to champagne as you’ll get in Iran, dry as a bone, light as a feather, straight off the Caspian sea. Dizin is the size of the Grand Montets, but with no big queues, with Whistler powder and fresh tracks all day, nearly everyday. This is Iran not paradise, but it’s damn close. Mashallah, this is the greatest ski day in history…
Amusingly, someone had slipped into mine and Duncan’s cablecar, introducing himself as head of security at the British Embassy. Certainly not an established skier on a powder hunting mission. The blue balaclava come sock over his head never came off. Not then, or in later encounters… Supposedly we were suicidal for trying Damavand in Winter, at least we knew he wasn’t going to follow us up there.
Day 3 – Mt Damavand approach to camp 1
Everyday should start with a big breakfast, except for one called Haleem. Duncan’s gouging on it thinking it’s porridge, until Scott spots a bit of nondescript meat. No-one who speaks more English than we do Farsi in the restaurant knows what’s in it, the one’s that can’t are laughing anyway. It turns out it’s boiled wheat and turkey bits, like the bits in turkey twizzlers, flavoured with sugar and cinnamon. Regardless I’d eaten enough of it to power a shire horse, which was lucky as my de-hydrated meals got left in the taxi in Polour later in the day.
We sorted kit at the Iranian Mountaineering Federation hut in Polour, where they informed us we had to go the long way round as the road was avalanched, quelle surprise. Hossein had a hired a porter for his massive bag although I didn’t realise this until I turned around in our taxi to see a near 70 year old had slipped into the spare seat and asked what the hell he was doing there!
The approach to the Mosque at camp one is drivable in summer, but it was about a 3 hour skin from 2200m to 3200m. At the hut I turned on my GPS to make sure the waypoint was correct – 3.6 horizontal miles to the summit.
Hossein was getting a bit concerned as his porter hadn’t arrived, we had long since overtaken him. Eventually he turned up, bagless, literally on death’s door. Aged at least 65 and exhausted he slumped onto the floor of the Mosque. We jetboiled some sweet, Yorkshire, tea and fed him a couple of SIS gels and electrolyte drinks. Slowly he began to perk up, finally pulling out a box of matches under what appeared to be a stash of opium. A quick dabble and a few minutes later off he went, with Hossein, to locate his bag which he had to carry up himself. $20 well spent.
We skinned up about 400m further and skied down to the hut, more for fun than acclimatization. It was only now, as the slope begins to rear up around you that you realise the scale of the mountains here. The views that were starting to appear were breathtaking.
Scott, Duncan and I had gone fast and light in the true spirit of modern alpinism, neglecting to bring roll mats and operating on a “wear all your clothes inside a 2 season sleeping bag wrapped together in a bothy bag” strategy. Well Duncan and I had, Scott had “traded” his 500g roll mat for a 1kg book on spread betting. Seeing the ice sheet on the floor of the mosque and watching the katabatic winds whip up at about 4pm and throw supercooled spindrift down the mountain we knew it was going to be a cold night and it was bleak to say the least, literally sleeping on a spare pair of gloves round the hips for floor insulation. Chris the secret Himalayan veteran and Henry who seemed to be sherpa-ing kit for two laughed on at the shivering youth.
Day 4 – Mt Damavand approach to camp 2
Scott rolled over at 6am, “Shit the bed, that was bleak!”. “Damn straight.” Duncan and I echoed. Lockyer chuckled, bouncing into action as we awoke slowly like the fast and light groundhog. We ate some more random breakfast food, this time sesame paste and Iranian flat bread and booted on for about 5 hours up the mountain. Duncan swapped sacs with Henry, as in his words he wanted some training. Henry was lugging 7kg worth of camera kit up the mountain.
Bargah camp (4,250m) is supposedly bustling in the summer, frankly, in early March, it was an icebox. I swear it was colder inside than outside. The locals and guardian are wearing expedition down suits in the dining room, so we opted for some food and skinned up another 200m or so and skied down in time to be back before the katabatic wind kicked down again. When we arrived a Russian had just descended from the summit. I asked him what he felt about the conditions. In broken English he suggested that it was -50℃ on the summit. We didn’t think it was quite that cold, but he certainly didn’t look warm signaling to me that he’d had to wear all his down clothes. Luckily, the weather forecast for us had shown a marked increase in predicted temperature for the following day at a balmy -25℃.
The hut was built around 3 years ago, they started by shipping the stone up by chopper, but unfortunately this crashed in poor weather killing 6 in the process. The rest of the building was finished by portering the stone from Polour which must have been a mammoth task as the hut is similar in size to the Cosmiques hut in the Mont Blanc Massif. It, however, bears no resemblance to the Cosmiques hut in terms of cost; $45 dollars in total for a room for 6. The sunset from here was stunning with the powder carried by the downdraft creating an arctic haze about 2000m below us. I remember thinking that if you were caught out at night, with the conditions we were seeing recur daily, you would be very lucky to survive.
I went to bed, with almost every layer on including goretex, 2 layers of primaloft, gloves and inner boots. Using the 40below overboots as outers is a great hut boot in extreme cold. It means your feet can stay warm, dry and comfortable and you can also walk outside in them for the inevitable altitude induced calls of nature without having to fully boot up.
Day 5 – Summit Day
After a mildly more comfortable night we left at 6am. We all had an inkling that the altitude was going to hurt. Duncan, Scott and myself had been to 4000m numerous times over the winter, but given pretty much no further acclimatization and the exertion required it was, assuming no AMS issues, going to be good training for 8000m later this year. Chris and Henry had pretty much shipped in from sea level and were running purely on gurn and fitness. After about 400m of skinning it became clear that given the conditions it was going to be much faster to boot pack up the ridge line, onwards and upwards towards to the false summit which looked about 200m away but in reality was over 800m above.
Duncan and I had each carried a ski of Henry’s, knowing how much extra kit he had for photos but I was beginning to feel that I couldn’t carry the extra weight all the way up to the summit and Henry was really feeling the altitude. At around 5000m Henry took the decision to descend back to the hut. We were completely gutted for him but it was certainly a solid effort ascending straight to 5000m from sea level in 4 days.
With nearly 700m left to go climbing higher was really starting to hurt, the temperature dropped significantly above the false summit and the wind ripped across the face. Although the angle decreased the sulphur gases were also being carried in the wind and this was causing severe sore throats on top of breathing the cold, dry air. About 200m from the summit the altitude really started to hit, each step, a new height record for me, lungs burning, throat burning. Scott ploughed through as usual, Duncan, slightly in front of us, whilst Chris and I elected to have bursts of energy quickly followed by the standard altitude pose, body dropped, balanced between ski poles, dropping the head as low as possible, just in case the air is thicker down there. I drank the last of my Nuun water which seemed to react with the sulphur in my throat causing a choking and spluttering fit.
Near the summit, I couldn’t wait to clip into my skis, point downhill and enjoy the main event, but it was fantastic to share the summit with the lads and Hossein who was now firmly becoming one of them. We quickly packed skins away and prepared our layers for the descent. Around 3400m, 14km. Similar in horizontal distance to the Vallee Blanche, but with a much bigger altitude drop. c.35 degrees max. Perfect for high altitude skiing.
The summit slope was far too windblown to ski straight from the summit so we descended about 100m into the south couloir and clipped in. The snow appeared to be hovering above hot sulphur gases and breaking the crust forced a plume of noxious gas through the post hole. However, a few turns in, this was what it was all about. Despite all the horror stories I’d heard about high altitude skiing it felt physically easy in comparison to the ascent and the snow was firm and easy to ski. Telemarking looks brutal at the best of times, let alone with 50% of the oxygen available to your quads and Chris was really fighting with the skis but it was impressive to watch him free-heel his way from 5500m.
We skied back to camp 2 in 45 minutes, where Henry was waiting for us. We quickly packed the kit we’d left there and set off buzzing with another c.2000m of descent to go. I wiped my face with a Clinell wipe and it turned yellow with sulphur deposits.
We skied between couloirs witnessing all different snow conditions (except snorkel deep powder!). I dropped into a couloir with Hossein. A couple of animals ran across the couloir below us, we eventually managed to translate these as wolf, above, a golden eagle circled. Iran really was beginning to feel like a special place to be. We later saw more golden eagles, Hossein couldn’t understand our interest given how clearly common they are out there.
The whole team felt privileged to be there and looking back, now understanding the scale of this giant, it was surreal to have been on the summit only about 90 minutes earlier, 25 degrees colder, fighting for oxygen and burning with sulphur.
The snows we had skinned up only 2 days ago were already melting away and it was becoming very thick breakable crust. Probably the worst snow I’d ever skied. 4 inches of crust, bonded with huge crystals; often snow plough the only safe way of skiing. In reality the quality of the snow didn’t matter, it was all part of the experience.
Mahde was waiting for us with fresh fruit juice and water. We asked him to drive us to a restaurant. Out came his black book, driving one handed down a snowy road, struggling to read his own hand writing. A quick phonecall in Persian, translated into poor English, “good restaurant” accompanied by his head flick and pout, the sign I began to realise meant, “don’t worry, I’ve sorted it.”
Naturally, he had sorted it and we gorged on kebab and piled back into the van ending in the Hotel Damavand in Larijan where the volcanic water springing from Damavand heats the houses and provides radon baths for its residents. We checked in and piled into one of the baths in the basement of the hotel. The aches of 3 days on the mountain are washed away by its own water, along with the sulphur ingrained in our skin. Just as we’re relaxing, the lights go out, flicked back on, visibility restored, Mahde, the Iranian taxi driver, is stood in the doorway, belly hanging out over baggy white Y fronts clutching a piece of green hosepipe with a big bearded grin. He runs off to his own bath while we fall about in hysterics.