Mark Steadman led Explore's inaugural
Mt Damavand trek
in July 2010. Read first hand his experience of scaling the brooding mountain that is a 5,671m high volcano in Iran, and discover insights not only about the challenges of mountain climbing, but also the unique culture of Iran. "Mount Damavand, Iran. An immense volcanic peak towering above the central Asia plateau, finally piercing the sky nearly six kilometres above sea level; The highest mountain in the Middle East. Only the Himalayas to the east threaten it’s towering status on the plateau. It’s here that I had unfinished business with this legendary peak.
My taxi rattled me from the airport, past the huge shrine complex of Ayatollah Khomeini and into central Tehran. In the distance the pinkish glow of first light silhouetted Damavand, almost a perfect triangle, poking from the Alborz range, some seventy or so kilometres to the north east of the capital. Two years ago I made it as far as the high camp, only for the first winter snows to end to my ascent prematurely. Last summer the post election violence prevented me getting even that far. This summer the unrest has moved underground from the streets to simmer among the youth in the coffee shops and internet cafés. Trekking in Iran has long been associated with freedom movements. The mountains were out of bounds during the Shahs brutal reign, too far from the SAVAK (secret police) watchtowers, which kept control over the populace. Now Iran’s ‘Green’ movement uses mountaineering as a physical metaphor for freedom. Damavand’s history transcends the revolutions, overthrows and Islam, having remained at the spiritual heart of the nation from Zoroastrian times. Tehran in the summer is no place to be, the 40 degree summer heat sets the streets ablaze with the pollution from 12 million residents, and the city chokes amid the fumes and haze. Some welcome respite is found at Darband village, a forty-five minute drive up through Tehran’s leafy northern suburbs. Here we scheduled some acclimatisation time on Mount Touchal, a near 4000 metre peak, before the attempt at Mount Damavand. From Darband an intricate network of pretty paths, waterfalls and tea houses leads up through the village towards the overnight shelter at Shir Pala. This area is popular with skiers during the winter, and also the young who come use the teahouses for a private cuddle and a kebab, away from the eyes of authority. From the shelters terrace the lights of the city twinkled a couple of kilometres below us. The following day we snaked back and forth across slopes devoid of vegetation for four hours to the peak. A small circular shelter, symbolically painted green sat on the top. From here it was a five-hour descent to the teahouses and back to the capital.
Next morning it was time to pack the heavy gear and head west of the city into the rugged foothills of Mount Damavand. This year I was leading a group of adventurous travellers to the peak for Explore. When I asked them at the briefing why they chose Damavand, it was the combination of a seriously challenging peak and the uniqueness of climbing in an unfamiliar land that appealed. With us on the mountain were my mountain guides and good friends Hussein & Arash. After a couple of hours tailing mining trucks along dusty roads and through inhospitable terrain we reached Polour, one of the small towns that service the mountain. The nearby Lar lake provided us with fresh trout, and after lunch we arrived at the Iranian Mountaineering Federation lodge. The shelter here provided a comfortable and friendly base for the first night of our trek. Later in the afternoon, as the sun began to cast huge mountain shadows, we headed out for an acclimatization walk in the foothills of Damavand. The air was wonderfully fresh and, despite still being summer, heavy snow had left the top 2000 metres of the volcano dusted in white. Next morning, jeeps arrived to transfer us to Damavand’s second camp, Goosfand Sara ‘place of sheep’ - at around 3000 metres. During the summer months the sheep share their territory with mountain folk who make a living at the dusty interchange of four-wheel drives, mules, guides, luggage and livestock. A huddle of heavily bearded men transferred our bulk to the mules, and we began our ascent to the 3rd camp, beside Goosfand Sara’s only structure, a gold onion domed mosque. With acclimatization in mind, we ascended at a gentle pace up through the craggy veins of the volcano. For moments the peak was in clear view, before clouds sped across the upper slopes. Plenty of stops along the route gave us the opportunity to look back across the valley to a spine of 4000 metre plus peaks, shielding the azure waters of lake Lar.
After four hours of steady trekking we approached the high camp at 4200 metres. Conditions had changed dramatically on the ascent; fleeces and wool hats replaced sunhats and shirt sleeves. As snow flurries whirled themselves into a blizzard, we just about made out the outline of the stone shelter standing out among a backdrop of white. Inside the shelter the atmosphere warmed us immediately; Iranian tradition prides itself on hospitality and friendliness to strangers. Every new arrival at the shelter was universally greeted with a ‘salaam’. Single burners with pots of food were heating way in the camps’ corners, and a huge communal kettle provided the tea. Bread, biscuits, dates, nuts and fruit were shared around, and everyone wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of their country. After a carb loaded dinner, several blankets and a quality sleeping bag made for a snug night - despite the sub zeros outside.
By morning, the weather has warmed and brightened, and a big orange sun began to thaw the pipes that brought water down from above. A few headaches among the group reminded us that we were at altitude. Outside the shelter our eyes followed the blanket of snow that led up to the icefall, at about 5000 metres. This was the target for our acclimatization walk. At altitude it’s important to climb higher each day, then drop down to sleep. Without this system then altitude sickness will make progress physically and mentally impossible.
After breakfast we crunched the first footprints in several inches of snow. The ascent was deliberately slower than the previous day and we carefully placed one foot in front of the other expending the minimum of energy. Every forty-five minutes we rested for ten, keeping our energy levels up with nuts, dried fruit, seeds and chocolate. It took us three hours to ascend the 600 metres to a spot below the 12 metre frozen waterfall, which never thaws. At 4800 metres, we rest and acclimatize for forty-five minutes in the morning sun. An hour and a half later we are back in the camp, warming ourselves with soup before the sleeping the afternoon away. The group appear briefly to be force fed carbohydrates before retiring to prepare physically and mentally for the summit attempt in the morning.
After another freezing night, when outside temperatures reached minus ten, we left camp at first light, when the temperature was a little kinder. Despite clouds racing across a flickering sun, it was still extremely cold and the icefall was not visible from the camp. We walked in hour blocks, it took us two hours to reach the previous days acclimatisation ceiling. Each alternate step was accompanied by either a full lungs worth of air or audible expiring. It’s important to keep a rhythm going - to make the most efficient use of body energy and to keep warm. Altitude and gradient slowed us - its nearly another two hours to the icefall at 5000 metres; the last 100 metre ascent took an hour. The new snowfall is tiring us and we sank into virgin snow knee deep in places. At times we found ourselves paddling with arms, scrambling to get a grip on the rocks to haul us from the snow. This exertion proved exhausting and 300 metres above the icefall, two of the group decided to abort. A combination of fatigue and altitude had conspired against them. Spiritedly they decided that to continue could impact our summit attempt, and they put group success before personal disappointment. Muted farewells and good luck handshakes followed, and they started the descent to the high camp with my guide’s assistant.
For the rest of us, with one mountain guide left, it was either all or none of us that would make the summit. After the scrambling above the icefall the route flattened so we could see the peak in the distance. Mentally this was good motivation - although it was still 300 metres up - and more than two hours away. We were now inside the clouds, with a blanket of white both above us and under foot. The flatter expanses now welcomed a screaming wind across our path; fleece, down and Gore-Tex combined to prevent it cutting through me. As we stole another 100 metres from the angry mountain it had one more test for us - sulphur. Despite 7000 years passing since Damavand’s last eruption, sulphuric gases spat from fumaroles as we neared the peak. If the wind is unkind the gasses can prevent mountaineers approaching the summit. We were fortunate.
Almost overcome with fatigue, I sensed the summit was only a few hundred metres away - but dared not to look up. Aside from a few words of encouragement the last hours had passed in silence; oxygen too valuable a commodity to waste on speech. Hearing voices again meant I was finally closing in on the peak! Nearly nine hours after leaving the high camp, we were standing 5671 metres above sea level, at the highest point in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Exhaustion and deteriorating weather conditions muted celebrations a little, and we were soon on our way back down to the high camp. The summit had become dangerous, a mess of dirty grey skies and white snow diminished visibility to about five metres ahead. The descent had to be quick; it was imperative the person in front stayed in view, rather than disappear into the white abyss that now engulfed us. At times we struggled to find footing, as legs disappeared deep into fresh snow. The quickened pace combined with exhaustion frequently dumped us on our backsides. At times it was actually easier to ride on our behinds down towards the high camp, much to the bemusement of the mountain guide. Finally just above the camp the weather relented, and we were able to sit and rest looking down into a vast sunlit valley. As the clouds lifted, Damavand’s peak was once again visible in the distance far above us. Now we could fully enjoy the sense of achievement.
Next morning mules were loaded, and we descended again to the camp at Goosfand Sara for our transfer back to the capital. Our descent was slowed, not by tiredness, but by hundreds of Iranians filing their way up towards the high camp. It was Thursday, the start of the Iranian weekend, a time when local people leave their cities for the countryside. Traditional songs echoed around the mountains and a celebratory atmosphere commenced. Ladies headscarves were abandoned to the wind. Everyone was keen to greet, congratulate and pose for photos with us. There can be no doubting that Iranians are among the friendliest people on the planet. Lack of proper equipment and fitness meant most of the people wouldn’t make the summit - but that wasn’t really the point. The weekly pilgrimage predates Islam; they were here to make a connection with the legendary mountain of the Persian epics. The regime may still have a tight grip on the cities, but in the mountain’s people are rediscovering their freedom. I will be back again next year hopefully with a little less snow and that if anyone wants more info I'm happy to answer questions - if I’m not on tour!"
Mark Steadman, September, 2010