Mt Damavand was a very vivid climb which stands out from the rest. The strenuousness of the climb aside, the sheer beauty of the environment and the trippiness that ensued during the ascent made it a pretty uplifting experience.
Getting to Iran is not easy if you have a British, American or Canadian passport. I applied for my visa in January, and as Britain does not have an Iranian embassy I had to spend a day in Frankfurt and get it done there. It wasn’t cheap! But the difficulty was made up for by the hilariousness of trying to take a passport photo wearing a fraying old scarf as a veil. It’s too easy to end up looking like E.T. in the flying bike scene.
Me in a headscarf
April 12 – Arrival at Camp 1 (2,270m)
I landed in Tehran in the pre-dawn hours and was met by Mr. Ardeshir Soltani, manager of the guiding firm I was going with. He treated me to some of the strongest coffee I have ever tasted, and then the guide, Ali Fard, whisked us out of Tehran towards the mountain.
Mt Damavand is about two hours’ drive to the northeast of Tehran. The volcano is dormant, but still spews a constant plume of sulphur. I later learned exactly how much sulphur.
We arrived at Polour Resort, a huge stone building also known as Camp 1, though it is actually almost an hour’s drive from the mountain. It houses the offices of the Iran Mountaineering Association. The plan was to spend the day resting up, eating hearty meals down in Polour village, and leave for Mt Damavand the following day. I was still on antibiotics for a nasty cough, and so spent a lot of time napping. Bliss.
The local food was as spectacular as the scenery around Polour village: barbecued lamb chops on a skewer, dates and nan bread fresh from the oven, very sweet tea.
A team of German ski tourists also arrived that day. All eight of them were car engineers from Ingolstadt, Bavaria. It made for much banter – as I was travelling alone I was lumped in with them for meals and it made for a jolly time.
April 13 – Move to Camp 3 (4,250m)
The day began with blue skies and sun. After a breakfast in the village of fried eggs, coffee and bread, Ali and I piled into a rickety blue truck and trundled up the road towards the mountain. As the road climbed, the asphalt gave way to mud, and eventually the vehicle couldn’t go any further. Ali and I hopped out. He helped the driver free the truck from the mud with an enthusiastic shove, and then we began plodding up to the mountain refuge.
We were carrying all our kit with us – my rucksack weighed about 10kgs. We took our time, taking breaks every so often and admiring the wonderful views.
Odd squirrel rock
We eventually arrived at Bargah Sevom Camp. It wasn’t so much a camp as a massive stone fortress three stories tall. Inside it was pretty chilly. Pretty soon we climbers figured out that there was a guides' ‘VIP’ room on the top floor – kitted out with heater (and strong fumes!), thick carpet, TV and DVD player. My room, which I had the luxury of sharing with no one, was next door.
Ali made it clear that I was welcome to hang out in the VIP room whenever I wanted. Over the next two days we watched a string of pirated DVDs. It was bizarrely comforting – watching Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Nicholas Cage films perched at 4,250m on a volcano in Iran.
April 14 – Acclimatisation Day
Snowy and windy.
Ali: “Let’s go for the acclimatisation hike later.”
Me: “Yes alright, when the weather is better.”
[2 hours pass. Even windier.]
Ali: “You didn’t have a headache this morning? You’re still acclimatised?”
Me: “Yes, I feel fine.”
Ali: “The weather is still bad.”
Me: “Yes, let’s skip the acclimatisation hike. Is there more coffee?”
April 15 – Summit Day
There was a knock on my door at 5am and I clambered out of the cocoon of sleeping bag, insulating bag, and blanket. All the kit had been laid out the night before and it didn’t take long to get organised.
I went to meet Ali in the VIP room. A breakfast of peanut butter, coffee and bread.
“We leave after 6,” Ali said.
As I went back into my room to get my bag and climbing poles, the sky was suddenly lit up by a huge bolt of lightning. I rushed back into the VIP room.
“Gah! Huge flash of lightning! What does this mean? Is it still wise to go?” I asked, suddenly dreading the consequences if we couldn’t go that morning. Time was very tight on this trip and I couldn’t overstay my visa. It would mean having to go through the whole rigmarole all over again. Yikes.
“No, it’s ok,” Ali said confidently. “The lightning will happen only once.”
I went back to my room and stood by the window. Only once? How did he know?
Amazingly, Ali was right. No more lightning.
“No problem. No black clouds, only white,” he said.
By 7am we were heading out of the building and starting up the slope behind it.
As we trudged upwards through the snow and rock it didn’t feel overly cold, but it was a bit of a struggle fighting the wind, which whipped bitchy little splinters of ice through the crack between my goggles and face mask. It was overcast, and at first there wasn’t much to see.
We climbed on.
Then, as we passed the 4,700, 4,800, and 4,900-metre marks and the oxygen got thinner, the psychedelic part of the expedition began. I was still acclimatised from Kilimanjaro 10 days prior, and physically I felt fine. But just as we were negotiating some big rocks, the sun suddenly broke through the cloud and I began to float on the most wonderful feelings of euphoria.
It wasn't the first time this had happened on a climb, but the intensity of it was quite unexpected and very trippy. Gossamer-like spindrift whirled and glinted in the sun. Intermittent white-gold sunbeams lit up the snow and turquoise skies. Everything turned the colour of heaven.
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold…
On almost every climb, the brain starts to play songs on repeat. Rather embarrassingly, mine then decided to look up Alanis Morrisette and her angsty 1990s teenage anthems. The music was so loud and vibrant it became almost neon.
The euphoria came and went. When I was in its grip, it felt like I had put on the world's best noise-cancelling, surround-sound, Dolby headset and could actually see the music in technicolour. I was almost surprised Ali couldn’t hear it. It was exquisitely nuanced – bass line, chords, Alanis’ yowling voice. Quite a party. (Click here for song. Or listen to a cool live rendition.)
I…recommend biting off more than you can chew to anyone
I…recommend sticking that foot in your mouth at any time. Feel free
Throw it down - the caution blocks you from the wind
Hold it up – to the rays
You wait and see it when the smoke clears..
It may have been minus 20 celsius with 45km/h winds, but inside the goggles and facemask the weather was beautiful.
And what it all boils down to
Is that everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine..
Ali and I eventually reached the summit stretch. Above us against the deep blue sky was the crater, which was surrounded by a gentle incline and spewing out a noxious plume of yellowish sulphur. We could smell it from 100m below, like rotten eggs. We began to trudge towards the top. I was feeling fine, but Ali began to stop to rest after every turn in the switchback path.
“You ok?” he shouted back.
“Fine,” I replied.
“Me, not OK.”
He was having trouble getting enough air and feeling nauseous, so we went up at a very slow pace. Finally we cleared the stones beneath the rim of the crater, many of which were stained horse turd yellow-green. The sulphur smell grew stronger.
The last few vertical metres to the summit were tricky. At this height we were beneath the plume, and the wind had a tendency to suddenly switch direction and blow sulphur right down onto us. It was not pleasant. We were forced to keep a beady eye on the plume’s direction, but were caught out several times.
“STOP! Do like this!” Ali shouted more than once, stopping abruptly and bending over, covering his face with his hands. I copied him, though a few times I wasn’t quick enough and almost collapsed in a choking fit as the stuff forced its way into my lungs.
Eventually though, we got to the summit.
Made it! At the summit of Mt Damavand
After about 3 minutes of jubilation, we had to start down again as it was getting late.
We set off – only to be engulfed in another thick cloud of manure-coloured gas. We bent over, shielded our faces and tried to wait it out.
Only this time, the cloud didn’t dissipate. We stayed frozen in position, waited some more. I thought my lungs would burst.
The damn cloud of poisonous gas wasn’t going away! If anything, it was getting thicker.
It was exasperating. Where did all this sulphur come from? When would we be able to breathe again? Why the hell were we climbing a mountain which farted poisonous gas?!
“Go! GO!!” Ali suddenly shouted and made a break for it. I ran downhill after him, but as I did I managed to inhale a great big lungful of sulphur.
It was repulsive. All we could do was choke uncontrollably as we tried to outrun the toxic cloud. Our mad dash lasted a good few minutes. Finally, the stuff thinned out and we could see down the mountain again, but for the next hour whenever I exhaled into my face mask I swore I could smell sulphur on my breath.
The rest of the climb was uneventful. We were caught in thick fog, but Ali guided us down expertly and other than feeling exhausted and slightly nauseous, nothing bad happened. Once back in the hut we hung out in the VIP room for a while with some other climbers, then I had an early night. It was great to be back.
April 16 – return to Tehran
The next morning we had a hearty breakfast of fried eggs and bread and then started back down the mountain. In a complete change from summit day, the sky had cleared and the fog and wind were gone. Perfect conditions, but Ali said encouragingly that our summit was all the more valuable as we had managed it despite inclement weather.
We took shortcuts over the snow, which was swiftly turning to slush under the hot sun. Lots of sure-footed porters bustled up and down the path bantering loudly with each other. They only wore galoshes and sneakers, but went at three times our speed over the mountain paths. It was so different from the slightly hostile emptiness of the previous day. Today, the mountain was just another workplace, full of people preoccupied with getting tasks done.
It was fun stumbling and sliding through the slushy snow. Quite a few times we sank in up to our knees or fell over. After a few hours, we finally saw the mosque, with the blue truck parked next to it. Everything felt safer and warmer at low altitude. It kind of felt like we were stepping back into a world which had been given back to us.
Back in the car, Ali said: "Good summit." Then, casually: "A few years ago, I got stuck on the summit with 90km/h winds. It was too strong to stand up, so I crawled down the whole way in the snow on my hands and knees. It took 16 hours."
I gaped at him.
After that, everything went pretty quickly. We drove back to Tehran, where I saw tons of interesting sights from the car, and then on to the airport. Sadly it wasn't feasible to see the city centre properly (especially not with huge bags). I flew back on Qatar Airways - so much better than Pegasus, Turkey's version of Easyjet, if only because we weren't packed in like sardines. And no back-of-headrest touchscreens. Those things always make people want to get out of their seats, walk round to the row behind and deliver roundhouse kicks to the backs of their headrests with swift and vengeful accuracy.
Mt Damavand was an extraordinary trip. People were a lot friendlier than I expected, and even as the number of tourists visiting Iran has soared under the new president, many people I spoke to made no secret of their negative view of the ruling clerics. It reminded me of how an Iranian photographer at my old employer once put it: "They're so backward. You look at a photo of them, one's picking his nose, another one's scratching his butt").
It would be fantastic to have the chance to visit Iran again. There were lots of people coming to climb / ski Mt Damavand, and I imagine that with the seven volcanic summits getting more popular the numbers will only increase. Fantastic place.