Iran: Expedition to Mt Damavand

October 2003


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I made an early start on Tuesday morning, leaving some luggage locked up at the hotel that I didn't need for the mountain expedition and took a taxi to the Mountaineering Federation's offices. I had arranged to meet my guide at 08.00 at the offices. When I arrived Homayoun, whom I had arranged this expedition with a couple of days ago, was not at the office, but my arrival was expected. I sat in the main office next to the dusty polystyrene model of Mt Damavand and sipped a cup of tea while I waited for my guide to arrive. I didn't have to wait long until a small, slim man with a moustache and a balding head walked into the office and I was introduced to Hamid Bagerpour, my guide. We left the office almost as soon as we were introduced and began our journey to Mt Damavand, but first, we had to get out of Tehran through the morning traffic chaos.

We seemed to walk almost as far as we rode in share taxis to find our way out of the city. I followed behind Hamid as he led the way along crowded pavements and across the roads through the chaotic traffic carrying my backpack while Hamid just carried his small daypack. I soon found that Hamid could not speak much more than basic English, so we walked and travelled in taxis in relative silence. I did found out though that he had climbed to the summit of Mt Everest during Iran's 1998 expedition. I felt suitably impressed; this was the first person I had ever met face to face who had climbed the highest mountain in the world. With mountain experience like this I thought that he would make an ideal guide for my more modest expedition to Mt Damavand. At Emam Hossein Square we took the electric trolleybus towards the eastern bus station from where we finally took a share taxi out through the suburbs and along the A01 road through the Alborz Mountains.

There were three other passengers plus the driver in the car, an old burgundy coloured Peugeot, an unusual car in Iran where almost 90% of cars were white Paykans. Hamid and another passenger, a young student, sat in the back with me while two older men shared the front seat next to the driver. I soon found out that the standard of driving outside the urban capital of Tehran was no better or safer. Now I found myself travelling along a road, which twisted its way through the mountains and across a high mountain pass, with sheer, vertical drops to deep valleys only inches away. There still seemed to be a complete disregard for any road rules as everyone drove on whatever spare piece of tarmac they could find, even if that meant travelling on the wrong side of the road. I sat in the back trying to enjoy the harsh, barren mountain scenery and put my trust in our driver to get us to our destination safely. The young student offered Hamid and myself some seeds from a bag, which he was snacking on. Everyone seemed to pass the time while travelling in Iran by cracking seeds between their teeth. I hadn't quite grasped the correct way of eating these seeds and happily munched away on my handful of seeds until I ended up with a mouthful of seed husks, which I found difficult to swallow. It was only when the student offered me another handful of seeds, which I tried to refuse still attempting to swallow the dry husks in my mouth, that I realised my error. I looked at Hamid happily cracking the seeds in his mouth, extracting the kernel and throwing the husk onto the floor. Suddenly I felt very stupid and hoped that no one in the taxi had noticed as I pretended to throw husks out of the window. It still took a while to master this delicate eating practice and I never managed to crack open a melon seed cleanly.

After travelling for over an hour from Tehran I finally saw my first view of Mt Damavand as we stopped at a teahouse in a small town for some refreshment. I climbed out of the taxi and stared up at the mountain, a towering conical shaped volcano, the summit covered in patches of ice. From where I stood it looked an awful long way to the top, I'm sure I would be muttering some expletives in the next couple of days as I slogged up the mountain into the thin air. After a while I went and sat down on a bed couch with the other passengers on a patio outside the teahouse and enjoyed a cup of tea, while the driver busied himself dusting and polishing his car. After our tea break we continued on towards the mountain, the road following a deep valley until Hamid and myself were dropped off at the junction to the small town of Reyneh. We took a local share taxi along a small winding road until we reached Reyneh, perched high up on the side of the valley.

The taxi dropped us outside a small grocery shop, where the owner, a stout, elderly man with greying hair, welcomed us. The owner and Hamid were good friends and we dropped our luggage in the storeroom at the back of the shop before sitting down to rest. At first glance Reyneh seemed deserted, the wide main street looked out of place in this small town with very little traffic. After spending the last few days in Tehran the silence of Reyneh was an absolute joy; the quiet was only occasionally broken when an old dilapidated vehicle slowly made its way along the main street. Hamid asked me if meat would be okay for lunch. I said yes and Hamid left and walked down the road to a butchers shop. Presently he returned with a carrier bag and we went next door to a small, local restaurant and into a cluttered back room, which served as the kitchen, although it hardly looked like what I would describe as a kitchen. We sat on a hard wooden bench and Hamid emptied the contents of the carrier bag onto a plastic tray; lying on the tray now, in a small pool of blood, was a liver, two kidneys and a heart. Hamid set to work with a knife butchering the offal and turning it all into bite size pieces to make kebabs. By the time he had finished and skewered the lumps of meat his hands were dripping with blood. Lunch suddenly didn't seem that appealing as Hamid barbequed the skewers over a gas stove hidden amongst the kitchen clutter of pots and pans. Shortly the kebabs were served on a large plate accompanied by the standard Iranian bread lavash, which was unleavened and stale with the texture of cardboard. The only saviour to this carnivore's lunch was a raw onion, which managed to disguise the strong flavours of the offal. The two of us sat in silence on a wooden bench in the dimly lit room as we munched through the small mountain of meat Hamid had cooked. I sincerely hoped that his cooking on the mountain over the next few days would be more inspiring.

After struggling over the last few pieces of meat and running out of onion I proclaimed that I was full and couldn't eat any more. We returned to the grocery store to buy provisions for the trek. There was not much choice in this small shop halfway up the side of a mountain and we made do with some spaghetti, tins of beans and soup, more of the stale bread, goat's cheese and biscuits. We now waited for another one of Hamid's friends to arrive to give us a lift to the small settlement of Gusfand Sara, where we would spend the night before starting our climb up Mt Damavand the next morning. Mustapha shortly pulled up outside the grocery store in a battered, light blue pick-up truck, which appeared to be held together with dirt and dust. Mustapha was middle-aged, the sharp features of his face weathered, his eyes slightly bulging from their sockets and his hair a wild tangle. He stepped from his truck wearing a blue boiler suit and could hardly walk as he staggered across the pavement and hauled himself up the steps into the shop. He walked with a looping gait; one of his legs was bent at an awkward angle, which he had to manhandle over any obstacle. I presumed that his disability must have been caused by polio. In the back of the pick-up was a large oil tank and some other miscellaneous pieces of machinery, oil leaking everywhere. There was hardly enough room to squeeze our luggage and supplies into the back, which also included a large barrel of water.

We followed the road out of Reyneh; I was concerned about Mustapha's ability to drive, especially along this twisting mountain road, but somehow he managed. We soon turned off the tarred road and followed a dirt track, which zigzagged up the side of the mountain, a billowing cloud of dust following us. It was a slow and very bumpy drive, the pick-ups engine whining and the suspension groaning with every rut and pothole we hit. At last we reached Gusfand Sara and the pick-up came to shuddering stop in a cloud of dust; it was now late afternoon. This place was far from civilisation and the only clue that I was at my destination, the small mosque in front of me that I had read about being a place where climbers could spend the night before heading up the mountain.

I expected Gusfand Sara to be a small mountain village, but it was far from that. There were only two buildings of any size, the mosque built from local volcanic stone with a metal roof, surrounded by a green fence; the other a long rectangular concrete building with a flat roof and the words, I love you, spray painted on the side. Dotted amongst the ridges of rock and boulders were some extremely basic stone shelters, home to a handful of peasants who herded goats on the side of the mountain. It looked an inhospitable place, as the wind whipped up some dust forcing me to turn my head downwind to avoid getting a face full of dust. Shortly an old man, wrapped in a blanket hobbled with a walking stick towards us together with a young boy, Ali, who would help us on our climb, and greeted us. Once we had unloaded our gear, placing it next to Ali's weather beaten tent, complete with bent poles, Mustapha departed and silence returned to the settlement as the pickup disappeared back down the mountain. Now the only sounds came from the occasional heehaw of a lonely donkey and the wind, as the nylon of Ali's tent flapped in the gusts.

Soon the daylight began to fade and the temperature too began to drop quickly, especially as we were now at an altitude of approximately 2,950m. Hamid, Ali and myself took shelter in Ali's tent for the night and Ali began preparing some spaghetti for dinner. The three of us huddled inside the tent around a gas stove, where Ali placed a large pot and began cooking. Hamid showed me some of his photos of the mountain and past climbs, including a photo of a young climber, Hussein from Tehran, who had died of a heart attack on the mountain earlier in the year. He showed me the photo, almost with pride pronouncing, 'Mort, mort!' over and over again. He had helped to bring the body, wrapped in the young mans sleeping bag, down the mountain with the aid of a donkey, probably the one which I could hear braying occasionally somewhere out in the darkness. Another one of his photos featured a small flock of goats high up on the mountain their tongues hanging loosely from their mouths, again mort, and this time asphyxiated by the sulphur fumes.

Meanwhile Ali cooked. The culinary events, which ensued, still amaze me, but as I was a guest I didn't like to say anything and just sat on the dusty old carpet and watched. Ali brought the pot to the boil, and dropped a half-kilo bag of spaghetti in to the boiling water. Next he emptied a small can of tomato puree into the boiling water and replaced the lid and let it boil. After about ten minutes he removed the pot from the stove and took it outside to drain, pouring away any flavour the tomato puree would give tonight's dinner. I thought that dinner would now be served, but no, Ali placed the pot back on the stove and continued cooking the spaghetti, the pot now dry and the spaghetti ready to eat. I kept thinking to myself, the spaghetti is going to burn, but still Ali continued cooking it. After a quarter hour or so he lifted the lid and then placed a sheet of unleavened bread tightly over the spaghetti and again continued to cook it. Almost twenty minutes later Ali removed the pot and Hamid took over, frying an onion and then mixing in a tin of tuna; at last dinner was served. Hamid and Ali eagerly lifted the lid on the spaghetti and scraped away on the bottom breaking off large chunks of burnt spaghetti, which they handed to me as though it was some kind of delicacy. I finally refused this culinary treat; I drew the line at pretending that burnt spaghetti was delicious. Hamid and Ali shrugged as though I was stupid; I just ate what moist spaghetti was left in the pot with some fired onion and tuna on the side.

After dinner there was nothing else to do except sleep, so I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and tried to forget about Ali's odd spaghetti recipe and think about the climb ahead of me tomorrow. Outside in the dark I could hear dogs pacing around the tent. I didn't sleep well that night, the ground was hard and rocky and the wind had picked up, the nylon of the tent flapping noisily. In the middle of the night I felt the weight of a small animal running over my sleeping bag, it must have been a rat as during the night I could hear them scurrying around in Ali's cardboard boxes where he stored his food.

The night slowly slipped past and soon I began to notice the blue nylon of the tent lighten as the sun creped towards the horizon, heralding the start of another day. Hamid's breakfast was again an unusual mixture; bread, goats cheese and honey. I just stuck to the bread and honey washed down with some sweet black tea. It took a while for Hamid to get organised but at 09.50 we were ready to depart and start our ascent of the mountain.

Ali set off ahead of us carrying some of our supplies to the mountain shelter, which would be our destination for the day; some 1,200m vertical climb up the mountain. I followed Hamid as he led the way along a dusty path from the mosque up towards a volcanic ridge. From here the path zigzagged up the mountain following the ridge; we climbed upwards at a fairly steady pace, walking slow enough so as not to get out of breath. The gradient was fairly steep, but the zigzagging path took a lot of the strain out of the vertical climb. The weather looked good, the summit of the mountain towering upwards to a deep, blue sky, some light, wispy cloud occasionally brushing past the mountain. The wind though had picked up since yesterday, which added a chill to the air; at times the gusts were very strong, blowing clouds of dust across the side of the mountain. The mountain was barren just dust and rocks; any vegetation had long since died in the intense heat of the summer sun; the dried stems of the poppies rattled together in the gusts of wind. Not a drop of water flowed off the mountain and the gullies and streams were dry, the smooth carved rocks the only clue that water once did flow down this mountain. It wasn't the most scenic mountain I had climbed but the surrounding views were spectacular as other 4,000m plus peaks of the Alborz Mountains surrounded me.

We stopped for three breaks on the way up to the shelter. After the third break Hamid increased his pace, as though he was anxious to get to the shelter and gradually left me behind until I found myself alone slowly plodding up the mountain. The final climb to the shelter was steep and rocky and by the time I arrived, three and a quarter hours after leaving the mosque, Hamid had made himself at home. He was busy chatting to the caretaker, an old man with a carefully trimmed moustache and a friendly face wearing a bright yellow waterproof suit, torn on one side.

The shelter had more the appearance of a Nissen hut, the outside walls painted yellow and the semi-circular roof bright orange. It sat on a terrace, slightly hidden by the ridge of rock we had followed up from the mosque. A couple of flags flapped violently in the wind, which was now bitterly cold as I stood outside the shelter at an altitude of 4,150m. The inside of the shelter was painted light blue, roughly constructed bunk beds lined both walls with a small corridor running down the middle. It was fairly dark inside, the only light coming from some small windows beside the door. We were the first trekkers of the day to arrive at the shelter and Hamid and I placed our backpacks on top of the bunks. The shelter was a mess, despite having a caretaker in residence, it didn't appear that cleaning was high on his agenda; he spent the majority of his time listening to a pocket radio with some earphones. I went for a stroll around the shelter, soon discovering the latrines, just down the slope; they were not pleasant, both of them overflowing with excrement. Above the shelter were small clearings in the rocks where previous climbers had pitched their tents, each pitch having a roughly built stonewall protecting the tent from the incessant wind from the west. I found a sheltered spot on a rare patch of hardy grass, slightly sheltered from the cold wind and soaked up what warmth I could from the sun.

I had found the climb to this altitude fairly easy, I could not feel any oncoming effects of altitude sickness or any shortness of breath. This ability to adapt from my life at sea level somewhat surprised me; I would have expected some effects of the thin air, like a headache. I usually suffer most from the altitude while I try to sleep, as my breathing slows down I find myself waking suddenly in the middle of the night short of breath. As I lay in the sun, Hamid and Ali emptied the two oil drums of rubbish outside the shelters door and carried it off across the side of the mountain. They dumped it all amongst the boulders and set fire to it, a long finger of smoke now snaked up the side of the mountain. The afternoon slipped by and eventually as the heat from the sun weakened I retreated back into the dimly lit, grubby, cold shelter. Ali had returned back down the mountain and three students from Tehran had arrived during the afternoon and had made themselves at home on the opposite bunks. There really isn't much to do in a mountain shelter, especially when you don't share a common language with the other guests; I wish I had brought a book to read to help pass the time.

As the sun set, casting an orange glow across the tiny windows, two more climbers arrived. A few minutes later and the mountain was enveloped by night; the darkness inside the shelter only broken by the beams of torches and the blue glow of stoves as we all set about cooking dinner for the night. Hamid redeemed himself that night with his cooking, a thick bean soup; or maybe the altitude was effecting me and anything edible up here in this cold, dark outpost of civilisation would of tasted good. Once we had all finished cooking the roar of the stoves was replaced by the howling of the wind outside.

At 19.30 I popped outside to go to the toilet, the wind blew at gale force, my Gore-Tex jacket flapping noisily. I stared up at the night sky and the thousands of stars hanging above the mountains and then glanced at the summit I would tackle tomorrow. What I saw disturbed me; the summit was covered in cloud, which in the moonlight I could see racing across the flank of the mountain. The weather looked like it was turning for the worse as though a storm was brewing. Once back in the shelter I shivered uncontrollably, the freezing wind had cut right through me. I climbed into my sleeping bag, fully clothed to try and keep warm and lay on my back and waited for sleep to overtake me. It was a long wait and when sleep finally did arrive it was only for short snatches. The cold kept me awake as well as the wind, which sounded like a jet engine blasting the shelter. Through all this Hamid laid on the bunk next to me, sound asleep snoring. We were not alone in the shelter; we shared it with rodents, which didn't surprise me. After the previous night with rats in Ali's tent I now had mice running over the hood of my sleeping bag.

Despite all this I managed some sleep and woke surprised at 06.30 to the sound of people getting up in the shelter. We should of started our ascent to the summit at 06.00 but Hamid still lay fast asleep and all but two of the other five climbers were still wrapped up in their sleeping bags. The weather had beaten us, only two of the students went for the summit that morning; the first storm of the winter had hit Mt Damavand. I ventured out of the shelter to check the situation with the weather. It was unpleasant, thick cloud covered the summit and a light misty drizzle blew in the ferocious wind, chilling me to the bone despite the four layers of clothing I wore. The summit was another 1,500m above us, if conditions were hardly bearable here it would be extreme at the summit, something I was not prepared for. We waited until 10.00 to see if the weather abated; it didn't and I agreed with Hamid's decision to abandon the climb and return to the road head at Gusfand Sara.

The weather is one thing you cannot plan for and although I felt disappointment at not achieving my goal of climbing to the summit I knew that it wasn't because I was unfit, or injured or suffering from altitude sickness. Damavand is a big mountain, which people sometimes under estimate and people die trying to reach the summit every year, as Hamid's photo collection and stories proved. The mountain will always be there and there will always be another day.

We were back at Gusfand Sara by midday and were met by Ali. He had packed away his tent because of the storm, a very wise move and had decamped into the long rectangular concrete building next to the mosque. Here we waited for a couple of hours for Mustapha to return in his pickup to give us a lift back to the main highway. Hamid made lunch and managed to rustle up another liver to make kebabs. The wait for Mustapha seemed endless. A herd of goats came down from the mountain, passing us and on down the road, the hundreds of hoofs kicking up a cloud of dust. I sat and watched the goats disappear until I saw another cloud of dust in the distance and then coming slowly around a corner a blue pickup; it was Mustapha with my transport away from this bleak, barren mountainside

Hamid loaded up the pickup with gear, which had been stored in the mosque, to take back to the Mountaineering Federation offices in Tehran. There wasn't much room left in the pickup by the time he had finished and Hamid and I squeezed into the cab while Ali and another young lad rode on top of the luggage in the back. Once back down in the valley on the main road Hamid arranged with a truck driver to take Ali and myself to the next town; Ali would now be my guide to get back to Tehran. After hitching with the truck driver we took another two share taxis to reach the city, from where a couple of bus rides took us to Haft-e Tir Square, a few hundred metres up the road from the federation offices. By now it was 18.30 and dark when we finally met up with Hamid again.

The two of us sat down to sort out money, I knew that this would be a problem and hadn't been looking forward to it. The deal arranged with Homayoun was that I would pay the Federation for the guide, which I had and I would settle the rest of the expenses directly with the guide, Hamid. Hamid and been banding around a figure of US$150 for my expenses, which I knew was extortionate as I had been keeping an eye on how much everything cost. I asked him to break down the expenses; transport to the mountain, food, accommodation, Ali's pay for being an impromptu porter, return transport etc. I agreed with the breakdown and the total of 80,000 rials and gave Hamid 100,000 rials, which included a tip. He just stared at the money I gave him in disbelief and gave it back, pointing to the total on his breakdown, 80,000. The language barrier was too great to sort out this confusion so Hamid phoned Homayoun to translate. After a lengthy conversation I finally gathered that the price Hamid had quoted was in tomans.

I since learned that there is a strange practice in Iran when it comes to dealing with prices. The Iranian unit of currency is the rial but a toman (not a unit of currency, but which only exists in language and not in reality) is worth ten rials. Therefore, the cost of Hamid's expenses were in fact 800,000 rials, over US$150! This was down right robbery. So when quizzing him about the breakdown of expenses, taking the cost of the transport back from the mountain, which I knew only cost 15,500 rials and which Hamid had written down as 16,000 suddenly turned into 160,000 a 1000% mark up. I refused to pay and Hamid lost his temper, pacing up and down angrily making more phone calls to Homayoun. I told him to calm down, if anyone should be getting angry it should be me, after all I was the one being robbed. Eventually Hamid demanded US$60, which was still too much, but I paid to put an end to the argument and we parted on bad terms.

Continue reading this journey: Train to Kerman & on to Bam