The spectacular scenery makes the climb to the top easy...well, nearly
Article Words : Henry Wismayer | 10 December

Climbing Mount Damavand: Iran's highest peak

Mount Damavand may be little known outside its home nation of Iran but Asia's highest volcano is a delightful challenge for mountaineers

You see those two big humps? We call those ‘khayeh Damavand’ – Damavand’s balls.”Mashallah the mule-driver pointed at his crotch with his index fingers – rather unnecessarily I thought – and we looked east to where two enormous geothermal ripples, each 100m broad, had rent the slope asunder.

The background of controversy

Still audible in the distance, the dogs of the wattle-and-daub settlements that pockmarked the mountainside harangued us with a relay of barks. But the fusillade did little to distract from the overawing presence to my left, where the owner of these metaphorical testicles was visible again,brooding under a billowing cape of cloud.

If you switched on the evening news on 14 June 2009, you may have caught a glimpse of this profile, hanging behind a bank of microphones, as Mahmoud Ahmedinejad announced a suspect election victory to a dumbstruck press. For most bearing witness to that news conference the mountain depicted on the banner was an idealised peak without a name – impressive, sure, but otherwise anonymous.

But for Iranians, watching their reconfirmed president railing against the “bullying and arrogance of enemies overseas”, the choice of backdrop would have seemed especially appropriate. The mountain was Damavand, the age-old symbol of Iran’s resistance to foreign conquest, and the peak I had come here with four friends to climb.

Two days in Iran had already been marked by chance encounters with the country’s favourite icon: at Ayatollah Khomeini Airport we thumbed through freshly changed money to find its image on the 10,000 rial banknote; hunting for breakfast in the morning bluster of Tehran’s Ferdowsi Street, Damavand peered up – in the guise of a cone-shaped pastry effigy – from the sweet-merchant’s window; and travelling the 70km from the capital to the mountain village of Nandel, we stopped to stock up on ‘Damarvand’ mineral water, named after the vast pyramid which, just minutes afterwards, would fill the Landcruiser’s windscreen.

Asia's perfect peak

Twenty-four hours later I looked up from my notebook at the way we had just ascended – from the trailhead at Gardeneh-Sar, around Damavand’s balls to here at camp one – no longer in any doubt why the object of our ambitions should also be an object of such veneration.

Looming high above the wind-scoured steppes of the Alborz Mountains – the crescent range that divides the Great Salt Desert from the fertile Caspian coast – Damavand’s dimensions make a mockery of its limited renown outside its homeland. Based on its summit’s most widely cited height of 5,671m, this is the highest point in Eurasia west of the Hindu Kush. It’s also the highest volcano in Asia, and it’s this aspect of its physiology that lends Damavand its near-symmetrical lines, the graceful form of a stratovolcano that has lain dormant for 10,000 years.

But the thing that had struck me most that first day on the mountain, wending up the vague mule-trails on its north-eastern flank, was how much it transfixed the eye. Though surrounded by lesser peaks in every direction, Damavand still cut an aloof and imperious figure. We’d come here to bag a peak, and found ourselves on a pilgrimage to a country’s geographical heart.

With a final deferential glance at the summit, I hurried back uphill in the direction of camp: a natural clearing scooped out of the mountainside, where head-guide Mohammad fussed around the guy-ropes of our three yellow tents while his accomplice Nasir ladled rice and barberries infused with saffron onto plastic plates.

As dusk fell, a cloud inversion filled up the northern valleys like a tidal surge, blanketing the lowlands to leave behind an archipelago of mountaintops nudging above a rolling purple ocean. Every ten minutes the clouds’ tendrils clawed up the slope and lapped at our feet.

The only direction left to look was up. After a fitful night, we broke camp with the dawn, each lamenting the thin air and lack of sleep. Damavand’s broad topography means that the journey to its summit starts high, and night one had been spent at the already heady altitude of 3,800m.

A victim of global warming?

Mercifully, our second day’s trek was a short one, spent engulfed in a mist of condensation that filtered out the scorch of the sun. Walking in the malodorous wake of Mashallah’s flatulent mules, we climbed over ground covered in hardy, dew-soaked flowers, flourishing in soils made fecund by the ashy deposits of ancient eruptions. Three hours march took us to the ice-line at a translucent slick the shape of an inverted teardrop. We stopped to replenish empty water bottles from the glacial run-off, while the guides grumbled about wider issues down on the plains.

“On the north side, the Siyouleh Glacier used to stretch all the way down to 4,000m; now it finishes 600m higher up the mountain,” Mohammad explained, pointing out areas where the icefalls had receded. “If you look at photographs from 50 years ago, you’ll see glaciers that don’t exist any more.”

As we shivered over this forlorn remnant of Damavand’s colder past the country below was feeling the burn. Another summer of rising temperatures and water shortages had produced a havoc of failed harvests and, by paralysing hydroelectric energy output, widespread power cuts. Faced with the prospect of intractable drought, the government in Tehran had done the unthinkable, resorting to American wheat imports for the first time in 28 years.

This is the less-reported context behind Iran’s controversial quest for nuclear power: the growing demands of a population that has doubled to 70 million in the past 30 years, and an aging oil industry now running on its last fumes. Sitting on the climate change front-line, Iranians face a future in which the Alborz foothills over which Damavand reigns – already a popular retreat for affluent Tehranis – may someday become one of the country’s few regions fit for human habitation.

A little past midday, above a cruddy slope of light brown pumice, the base camp hut came into view, looking like a miniature aircraft-hanger around 10m long by 4m wide, its semi-cylindrical roof striped orange and blue. Inside we found a shrine to past expeditions. The gloomy room reeked with the musty smell of anxious nights, while all over the bare-brick walls and sheet-steel ceiling, swirls of Persian graffiti – Islamic invocations and summit posts – reflected the human tendency to leave a mark where humans seldom tread.

We unfurled our sleeping bags on a dirty wooden platform, strewn with woven plastic sheets and discarded pistachio husks, and chugged down some sugar-laden tea. The plan for the afternoon was to ascend ‘Himalayan style’, ditching our gear in the hut and then trekking up to 4,900m or so to accustomise lungs to the lofty altitude, before heading back down for supper and sleep.

Lightning darkens the mood

The weather ignored the script of course. Bound by the Englishman’s congenital over-excitement at the sight of weather that’s not drizzle, we scampered outside when thesnow started tumbling out of the firmament in heavy, thumb-sized dollops. But this was only a prelude to something more sinister, its coming heralded by a thunderclap of biblical fury and a fizz in the air that crackled in our ears: lightning hunting for a salient point to strike.

Back in the hut, Mohammad confirmed what we already feared: our summit attempt was in real jeopardy. “If there are thundery storms and snowstorms tomorrow there is no way, it’s too dangerous. We definitely cannot go further up today.”

So much for Himalayan style. For the next four hours we were confined indoors while a scything wind consumed the shelter, jeering us as it rattled the opaque Perspex windows. Chastened and sulking, I sought distraction in the spectacle of my Iranian hosts divvying up portions for a late lunch.

It seemed unlikely that the three people huddled around a gas-stove on the floor should share a common nationality: Mohammad with aquiline Afghan features and green eyes; the bushy-moustached Nasir with prominent Azeri brow and swarthy complexion; Mashallah the muleteer with his broad face and Mongol cheekbones.

Only a culture made up of such an ethnic hodgepodge, I concluded, could come up with so eccentric a custom as ta’arof, the traditional Iranian courtesy being acted out in front of me, whereby one is obliged to decline an item offered two or three times before it is gracious to accept. The ritual seemed a bit incongruous in this unrefined context, sharing around flatbreads and Laughing Cow cheese triangles in the midst of a tempest. At least it helpedto pass the time.

A mythological mountain bust-up

At 6.30pm, as the light began to fade, quiet finally returned to the mountainside. Their tantrum exhausted, the clouds fled downhill like a sheet being drawn back to reveal a whole new mountain: starkly placid and dressed in two inches of snow. On the craggy promontory that overshadowed the hut, we submitted offerings to a 2m-high, meticulously crafted rectangular cairn in thanks for the turn in providence, and gritted our teeth against the biting chill.

The scene below – a replay of last night’s surreal cloudscape – was suitably magical, for this was a mountain swathed in myth. In the Shahnameh, the poet Ferdowsi’s epic 11th-century distillation of Persian folklore, this region was the scene of a showdown between the hero Fereydun and Zahhak, a tyrant king said to have fed his pet serpents on his subjects’ brains.

Confronting his nemesis on the slopes of Damavand, Fereydun smote Zahhak with his ox-head mace, imprisoned him within the mountain and usurped the crown. His benevolent rule lasted for 500 years.

In the centuries since, the spectacular ridge on which we stood, and which delineates much of the north-east route from here on up, has come to be known as the Takht-e Fereydun – Fereydun’s throne. Zahhak, meanwhile, remains trapped in the earth that lay beneath our feet, his vengeful rages expressed in the sulphurous billows that belch daily from the summit crater.

Night on the platform passed in a sleepless torment of quickened heartbeats and haggard breaths, until a series of alarms erupted from the floor below where the guides had slept like contented babes: 4am. Mohammad shuffled outside and we sat up in our sleeping bags, all stricken by the realisation that we were about to discover whether or not conditions were fit for a summit attempt. The diminutive silhouette of our guide came back in and rasped in an urgent whisper: “The weather is perfect.”

Thirty minutes later, with the sun rising at our backs, we set off up the spine of the ridge, eyes squinting in the direction of the summit – from here a blazing white dome, defiant and still impossibly remote, framed against an auspicious cobalt sky.

With boots crunching through snow hardened by the night winds, I reassured myself with the knowledge that we were embarking on the business end of what is a relatively uncomplicated climb. “Basically a walk-up,” one website had declared reassuringly as I researched the trip from the comfort of sea level. “Technically easy and physically moderate.”

As long ago as 1837 it had proved straightforward enough for the English explorer W Taylor Thomson to achieve the first recognised ascent, no doubt attired in tweed and probably taking pot-shots at the Asiatic wolves and black bears, now so rare in the region, with his musket.

Braving the elements

But I also knew that we had been unlucky with yesterday’s sudden squall. The previous evening, Mohammad, who likes to quantify things, had conceded that Damavand snow showers only occur about 15% of the time in the summer months, and that the snow cover was likely to make the climb around 25% more difficult than it would be otherwise. How much harder could things get, I pondered nervously, if the elements turned again?

The digital display on Nasir’s GPS flickered past 5,000m, and we stopped to take stock of rapidly deteriorating conditions. Mohammad looked concerned. This morning’s plucky breeze had become a biting gale, while an angry carpet of slate-coloured cumulus was working its way up the slope to the east, threatening to converge with the wispy penumbra coalescing about the summit. The icy wind had left my extremities numb, and I couldn’t help but recall images of frostbite victims from the Everest disaster book in my luggage, a regrettable choice of holiday reading.

Taking on this mountain means duelling with its fickle winds. Like other prominent peaks around the world, Damavand has a weather system all of its own: hot air blowing up from Iran’s parched interior bombards the mountain’s southern flank, yielding storms that are sudden, unpredictable and capable of quashing the ambitions of the most seasoned summiteer.

In the early 1970s, the man widely considered the greatest alpinist in history, Reinhold Messner, learned this lesson the hard way when a storm swept in and sabotaged his summit bid. Henceforth, Messner, whose normal playground is the death-zone of the Himalaya, would describe Damavand as “that little hill that defeated me”.

Determined to outdo the great Tyrolean but far from sharing the “little” sentiment, our single file trundled on, heads bowed in submission to the eye-watering headwind. (Later, recuperating in a Tehran café, we calculated our average speed on the way up: 1.2km/h.)

At 5,400m we were within touching distance of ‘the gate’, a gap between two rocky outcrops, like a half-finished barricade, through which lay our goal. Cheered by its apparent proximity we urged Nasir onwards. “Ten minutes from here,” said the indefatigable Azerbaijani, fibbing brazenly in a last-gasp attempt to raise our spirits – it turned out to be more like 40.

Smell to high heaven

Eventually, at a little before noon, we clambered onto the roof of the Middle East, a barren plateau festooned with ugly, sulphur-yellowed stones. It seemed a slightly anti-climactic end; enveloped in cloud, we had no sweeping views of the land below and no fresh mountain air.

Instead, an acrid smoke contaminated each breath, as fumaroles within the snow-covered crater – the reason behind the rocks’ jaundiced colouration – pumped out a noxious brew of gases from the centre 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.

As the last of our party breached the crater rim our guides, conscious of the scatological weather, forbade us from walking to the true summit, at the southern end of the crater. Even so, at 5,650m, we congratulated ourselves at being the highest earthbound people for thousands of miles around. To find humans suffering at higher altitudes you would have had to travel east to the Pamirs, west to the Rockies, and south to Kilimanjaro.

In a fit of clarity that belied my exhaustion, it struck me then that Damavand was indeed an appropriate symbol of the multifarious melting-pot that is modern Iran. Heightened over millennia by the eruption of successive layers of lava, this is a mountain borne of ferment and upheaval. Like the country in which it resides, a hostile reputation had disguised a place that was magnificent to behold and engrossing to explore.

For now it merely slumbered, a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.