Oct 4, 2014

Shifting Sands, Mountains and Mosaics in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Drawing my scarf up over my mouth I attempt to find a happy medium between desperately trying to gasp enough air to breathe and trying not to breathe too much. I look up from the dusty trail to see plumes of yellow smoke being belched into the atmosphere by a giant yellow vent, and, a few hundred metres further, a small plaque below the dry remains of what appears to be a dead sheep… The stench being emitted by the crater serves as a reminder of where I am – under a clear blue sky taking the final few steps to the 5671m summit of Damavand, Iran - the highest peak in the Middle East and the highest volcano in Asia. The summit is a barren plateau festooned with dull, sulphur-yellowed stones offering unparalleled views of the dry and rocky plains below.

Our journey had started much, much earlier that day…

Night in our ‘airy’ 4-person tent at our 4000m Base Camp had passed in a sleepless torment of quickened heartbeats and haggard breaths, until the alarm sounded, waking us from our hypoxic slumbers. It was 5am - go time.  One of my teammates, Kirsten, stuck her head out of the tent and reported back to us in a rasped in an excited whisper: “The weather is perfect.” We were in luck – the mountain gods were smiling upon us.

Our intrepid little group was the ‘united nations’ of teams – under the guidance of Shirin, a lovely Iranian-British friend with a true passion for the mountains and sharing her Iranian heritage through her newly established British-Iranian trekking company, we were a small team made up of a patchwork of nationalities and backgrounds -  British, Belgian, Brazilian, Japanese, South African, Spanish, Italian, Iranian and Canadian.

Fourty-five minutes later, with the sun rising at our backs, we set off single file behind our local Iranian guide up the spine of the gentle ridge, eyes squinting in the direction of the summit – from here a dull brown dome with patches of snow, defiant and still impossibly remote, framed against a bright blue sky. The rising sun cast a shadow of the mountain onto the dusty plains and shifting sands hundreds of metres below.

With boots crunching over the gravel, I reassured myself with the knowledge that we were embarking on what is a relatively uncomplicated climb. “Basically a walk-up,” had been my conclusion based on the numerous websites I’d consulted while researching the trip. “Technically easy and physically moderate.” Technically easy it was – the terrain being very similar to Kilimanjaro. Having said that, it differed from a standard Kilimanjaro climb as the physical element came from a very aggressive altitude profile – a 1600m summit day to 5671m - the climax of a 2.5 day climb which left very little room for acclimatisation. Empty syringes of dexamethasone, a steroid used to aggressively treat symptoms of altitude sickness, were littered between the rocks from past climbers.

I was also very aware of Damavand’s tempestuous weather system. Like other prominent peaks around the world, Damavand has a weather system all of its own: hot air blowing up from Iran’s dry interior hits the mountain’s southern flank, producing storms that are sudden, unpredictable and can easily quash the ambitions of the most seasoned climbers. In the early 1970s, Reinhold Messner, who is widely considered the greatest alpinist in history (and a personal hero of mine!), learned firsthand about Damavand’s fickle winds when a storm swept in and sabotaged his summit bid. Henceforth, Messner, whose normal playground is the 8000m death-zone of the Himalaya, would describe Damavand as “That little hill that defeated me”.

With that thought, I continued on, head bowed in submission to the altitude and moving slowly in single file behind our guide plodding on up the hill. We calculated that our average speed on the way up was just over 1km / hour. We certainly weren’t setting any speed records but we were moving at a steady and comfortable pace.

About 6 hours later we were within touching distance of what looked like an ominous rocky gate, a gap between two rocky outcrops, like a half-finished barricade, through which we could see our goal. Cheered by its apparent proximity we were urged onwards. “Ten minutes from here,” said our indefatigable guide, fibbing brazenly in a last-gasp attempt to raise our spirits – it turned out to be more like 40.

A welcome cultural distraction to our monotonous plodding was provided by a government religious group made up of about 10 rather militant looking men who were climbing alongside us. Every few minutes a call of prayer echoed down the ridge from what appeared to be a heavily bearded and prominent group leader. The climbing party, between strained gasps of breath, would respond in chorus, urged onwards and upwards, driven by their faith. I looked on and became increasingly conscious of my presence in this ‘foreign’ land – a woman, a Canadian, climbing as an equal alongside a party of men, in a country which I felt had, thus far, defied the media headlines and the many preconceptions I’d had. I adjusted my warm hat and pulled my head-scarf more prominently over my face to cover my western features and also provide protection against the acrid fumes.

Eventually, at a little before noon, our intrepid little team breached the crater rim and trundled onto the roof of the Middle East, a barren plateau festooned with sulphur-yellowed stones. The noxious smoke contaminated each triumphant breath, as fumaroles within the crater – the reason behind the rocks’ jaundiced coloration – pumped out a concoction of gases from the center of the earth. The stench served as a reminder of Damavand’s earthly purpose: a pressure-valve built by nature to relieve the earth-shuddering friction at the conjunction of the Arabian and Eurasian plates.

Living up to the Canadian stereotype, I arrived at the summit with a modest-sized Canadian flag stored in the depths of my rucksack. Earlier that morning, I’d spoken to our guide asking whether it would be permissible to have a picture on the summit of myself, alongside both the Iranian and Canadian flag. After much deliberation it was decided that as long as I was discrete the moment could be captured on film. So, it was with much trepidation that I stood on the summit with the red and white, maple leaf emblazoned flag hoping for a quick photo.

In the meantime, the burly-looking men which made up the government religious group had also arrived on the summit and were busy offering each other congratulations whilst continuing their exhortations of faith. My ‘sixth sense’ kicked into overdrive and I became aware that taking out a Canadian flag could go one of two ways, possibly putting me in the centre of a diplomatic incident… I began to visualize the headlines flashing across the ‘Globe and Mail’ and wondered how my parents would fare in dealing with ransom demands… The irony was that the risk that I found myself deliberating with surprising clarity was very different from the risk that I normally found myself deliberating on my more frequented Himalayan stomping ground.

And then it happened.

As I discretely attempted to unfurl the Canadian flag, one of my teammates started to cheer… All eyes turned to me. There was no going back as I held my flag – a symbol of democracy, freedom and equality - proudly above my head. The leader of the local Iranian religious group waved with a gentle nod indicating that it was ok to proceed. My united nations team looked on smiling. Suddenly it struck me. I was on the highest point in the Middle East, surrounded by friends, old and new… a team which reflected my perception of the ‘modern Iran’. Whilst the summit reflected the ‘crux’ of our climb, I realised that it actually was so much more than that. It was a symbol of the multifarious melting-pot that is defining modern Iran –a country that is endlessly welcoming and a country that is desperate to been seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be.

Before we began our descent, all of the teams standing on the summit – a mosaic of cultures – stood together to celebrate what we individually and jointly had achieved. It was one of the most pivotal and memorable moments that have shaped my climbing ‘journey’ as other flags soon began to appear from the depths of dusty climbing packs – Iranian, Ukranian, Palestinian… Climbing mountains has become a symbol of a journey which brings together people from all walks of life with a shared passion to achieve a common goal; to celebrate, learn from, and inspire each other.


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