Persian Pursuits – Ski Mountaineering in Iran
In 2002, along with North Korea and Iraq, George W. Bush branded Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was trying to scare people off from his favorite ski mountaineering stashes, but Charlie don’t surf and W doesn’t tour. Although the Bushwhacker was serious, after skiing in Iran, I can vouch he completely misunderestimated not only the country, but the skiing potential and the people as well. Iran as a country is nothing like you hear about in the mainstream media and the ski mountaineering, which most Americans have never even knew existed, is some of the best on earth.
It’s doubtful that “ski mountaineering” would make the top ten list of phrases that come to mind when American’s think of Iran, or even the top one thousand, but it should. Iran’s high point, Mt. Damavand, is 18,410 feet tall and the rugged Alam-Kuh range, at 15,906’ is taller and craggier than Wyoming’s Tetons. And although it is roughly the same size as Alaska, Iran’s average elevation is over twice as high.
Like many Americans, my mental imagery of Iran was filled with deserts, tanks, sand, oil, bearded politicians, heat and angry protests. I had no idea how to go about preparing for a trip like this. First and foremost, we needed to get a visa, which had a multi-month lead time. It turns out obtaining a “tourist visa” is not that hard or even expensive, but it does require the visitor to be accompanied by a local guide at all times. This in turn led us to Majid Doroodgar who is a co-owner of Iranian Mountain Guides (www.mountainguide.ir) based out of Tehran. Majid is the glue that holds any ski mountaineering trip to Iran together. He meets you at the airport with a big smile, helps load up all of your gear, plans all of the logistics, takes care of translations, knows where to eat, where to get supplies, does all of the driving and even gets to go touring with you. He’s also an endless font of information and incredibly patient.
Skiing in Iran first crossed my mind after Greg VonDoersten told me that Powder Magazine had chosen his proposal to go skiing there for a feature article. He casually mentioned that he’d included my name, but that I wasn’t obliged at all to go. Iran? Really? Is there even snow there? Do we need bulletproof ski jackets?
The rest of the team came from all over, but Greg was our dedicated trip leader. In retrospect, I’ve learned that Greg has a sure-fire formula for selling trips – find a war-torn of conflicted area of the world with snow on it, and go skiing there. He’s probably researching turns in Syria right now. If nicknames and terms of endearment are measures of your personal relationships, Greg VonDoersten would be wealthy beyond words. Probably the most universal is GVD, although Jeeves is a close second followed by Greg VD. The Iranians had a hard time twisting his vowels around and christened him “Gurg” which remains my personal favorite.
With Gurg as photographer, Powder also sent along a writer, James Alexander Vlahos, whose initials were quickly contracted to “Jav.” None of us had met Jav before the trip and some of his pre-trip emails were a bit disconcerting. He was living in Manhattan and planned to train before the trip by running stairs, but as often happens in Manhattan, work got the best of him. Nonetheless, he was a good sport and enjoyed suffering, which is essential for ski mountaineering.
The fourth member of the group was Dylan Freed, a longtime ski buddy from Salt Lake City. I doubt he ever had one, but Dylan’s online dating profile might mention enjoying Martial Arts, Thai Knife Fighting, getting tattoos (there’s not much blank canvas left on him), competitive shooting and working out. The year before this trip, I had been skiing with Dylan in Iceland where he took the ride of a lifetime in an avalanche that was immortalized in the movie “Steep” and came out of it with a calm “I’m good.” People often mention that I’m old enough to be Dylan’s dad, but in turn, he’s burly enough to be my bodyguard.
The first sign that things might be different than a standard-issue ski trip was on the plane flight over. Flying from Amsterdam to Tehran was about as much of a cultural shift as can be imagined, and as the plane started to descend, the women put head scarfs on. The burkas and segregated buses were common in Tehran, but things were much more relaxed in the mountain towns.
Majid offers a package deal with almost everything included in the price except for the occasional meal. Credit cards and ATM’s were nonexistent, so one of the first things we had to do was exchange dollars for Iranian rial, which resulted in a large mountain of cash, not so much because the trip was expensive (it was very reasonable) but more because of the denominations. Ten-thousand rial notes were common and worth about thirty cents in US dollars. Paranoid about having so much cash, I stashed separate piles all over my luggage and in hidden pockets, only to rediscover them at random times, like when standing on top of Mt. Damavand.
Our trip itinerary was set by Majid and formed an upside down triangle with Tehran as the starting and ending point. The first leg took us northwest to the Alam Kooh area in the Takht-e Suleyman Mountains, which were steep, craggy and full of fun rolling terrain and nice chutes. This portion of the trip was tent camping and for the most part we didn’t see any other skiers or even tracks. After pointing out a steep couloir to Majid, he replied “Hmmm, no, that is not a ski run.” Later that day, after returning from skiing it, he smiled and said “Now it is a ski run.” Much of the local ski mountaineering that takes place in Iran is classic touring from place to place, with the tour being primary and the turns secondary, but there is endless potential for steep skiing as well.
After moving around a bit in the Takht-e Suleyman range, I came down with a horrendous chest infection which felt like I was coughing up razor blades. I’m not sure where it came from, but the blue, polluted air of Tehran seemed like a likely suspect. It was one of the few times I’ve been incapacitated on a skiing trip and I now carry an antibiotic “Z-Pak” as one of my few travel drugs. It was a miserable experience not only for me, but for all of my campmates as well, as I’d hack uncontrollably and then moan in pain all night long.
Before leaving the area, we spent a night in an Iranian mountain hut, which was on par with large European huts. It was nice, clean and easily held 100 people. It was almost empty when we were there as it was mainly used in the summer. There is a vibrant mountain culture in Iran with all sorts of hiking, climbing, skiing and camping clubs as well as an extensive hut system. We also drove past a few small ski resorts, but since it was mid-April, most were melted out.
Piling back into Majid’s well-travelled blue Chevy Suburban, we began heading east toward the high point of Iran, Mount Damavand. The drive took us right by the southern edge of Caspian Sea where we spent the night right on the shoreline in a comfortable hotel. The next day as we continued on, I offered up some gas money, but Majid politely declined saying that the entire Suburban tank only cost $5.00 to fill up. Living in an oil rich country has its benefits.
Mount Damavand is a major volcano that can be seen from Tehran much like Mt. Rainier can be seen from Seattle. On a clear day, it appears to be just outside of town, although its size and distance away is deceiving. The road leading up to the main trailhead twists and turns for a few hours and you drive by cliff cave dwellings, which as Majid said, were there “2,000 years before the Jesus.”
The road ends at a major trailhead with a mosque and information building. From there, it is about a 7,000’ climb to the summit. The ascent starts out on a well-marked dirt trail and leads up to a hut a few thousand feet higher. On the day we arrived, the Iranian national climbing team was also there for their annual tryouts. The climbers all arrived in one large group of about 30 people and the candidates were wearing orange safety vests. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but apparently the next phase of the evaluation was on selecting a camp site and pitching a tent. After the speech ended, a whistle blew and immediately all 30 campers cleared spots, set up their tents, crawled in, made food and went to bed in the space of about 45 minutes.
From afar, Damavand looks imposing, but once we were up at the hut, it was apparent that the angle was much lower than expected and the firm conditions made it perfect for a light & fast straight-up ascent to the summit. Like many symmetrical volcanic mountains, there was probably an established route, but it didn’t matter as the avalanche conditions were solid, there were no crevasses and we had great visibility. As Dylan and I neared the top, what appeared to be a thin cloud turned out to be sulphur fumes creeping out of the summit rocks. This was entertaining for the first few minutes, but drove us off the top as soon as GVD arrived and snapped a few photos. Weeks later, I could still smell the summit in my clothes.
The ski down was perfect California-style corn snow for thousands of feet with a few rocky ridgeline crossings thrown in for variety. Our faint crampon uptrack was melted out by the afternoon sun, which made reverse navigating our way back to the hut exciting, since with the exception of a large gargoyle-like rock, there were few prominent landmarks. After descending to the trailhead, we spent another day in a nearby small village which featured a natural spring hot tub which would be banned in the United States. I’m not sure what the actual temperature was, but it took a good half hour to slowly ease ourselves into the scalding hot pool where I briefly soaked with visions of boiled lobsters on my mind before turning bright pink and climbing out.
With an early start, it’s possible to ski off the summit of Damavand and then drive back to Tehran that day for a total vertical drop of over 14,500 feet in 24 hours. Not bad for a day trip in a country many people think of as hot, flat and dry. Tehran itself is worthy of a multi-day trip, especially if you get a chance to visit the Grand Bazaar which is located in the historical center of town and stretches out for miles in multiple corridors. We only scratched the tip of it by visiting the rug section, which featured a chain of huge atriums filled with mountains of Persian rugs stacked head high, or higher. As clueless tourists, we were no match for the savvy rug salesmen and ended up only drinking tea with them, but for future trips, I would bring ski gear to trade for rugs in some of the smaller towns. A small rolled up carpet will fit in a ski bag, and it is a mutually beneficial trade – the Iranians want ski gear and the tourists want carpets.
Relations between Iran and the US ebb and flow. As of August 2016, a travel warning has been issued for Iranian-American citizens traveling to Iran. We were there during a tense time of political relations and I fully expected to be harassed and berated over politics, even though that was one of the stipulations of the visa; no discussion of politics. In our brightly colored outdoor gear, we easily stood out on the streets of Iran and at one point I noticed a man across the street see us, then vector straight towards us with intent. When he asked where we were from, I was braced for conflict as I mumbled “America.” to which he replied “I thought so. Tell all of your friends we are not bad people and they should come visit Iran.” I couldn’t agree more.
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