Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


This was the second Ski Mountaineering Expedition that I led to the mountains of Iran. The team comprised 13 members of the Eagle Ski Club.

Here are two complimentary reports of the trip. The first written by Venetia Wingfield and the second by Nick Thomas.

David Hamilton


Eagle Ski Club Iran Expedition 13-28th March 2004

By Venetia Wingfield

The ESC expedition to Mount Damavand (5671m) had everything: spectacular powder, breathtaking mountains, blizzards, sublime Islamic architecture, tricky politics and some chaotic Iranian logistics.  It was an adventure of high spirits for an eclectic group of climbers and skiers led by David Hamilton, one of Britain's pre-eminent ski mountaineers.

Tehran, memorable only for its sprawling mass of traffic and an unexpectedly kitsch jewel encrusted globe (commissioned by one of the Shahs when flush with oil wealth and now locked in the treasury vaults), was dismal.  We left it under a thick blanket of unseasonal snow as soon as the group had assembled.  Isfahan, in contrast, welcomed us with the start of the new year celebrations: an expanse of blue tiled mosques and barely imperfect beauty.  Spellbound, I adjusted my headscarf and we embarked upon the expedition proper.

Onwards to the remote village of Chel Gerd in the Zargos range, accompanied by Hosforo and Majeed who were to look after us with flair throughout.  They brought with them Masoud and his wife Mary, both veterans of the Iranian Everest expedition, with whom we jumped through street fires in an impromptu ceremony to ward off evil before gaining altitude.  For three days we skinned and skied under their sometimes haphazard guidance - high above the endless desert in snow like sticky sugar.  Mention the wicked Zargos Mud to John Barnard even now, and he'll almost certainly turn weak at the knees.  Then the cloud closed in and the snow started falling.  Some were encased in a tiny spartan hut at 3470m located after some difficulty in the failing visibility  - the quality of our old soviet maps inspiring small confidence.  Their attempt on [name, height] thwarted, they nonetheless collected tall tales of daring-do whilst the rest of us languished in our base camp refuge spinning yarns from different adventures and practising search and rescue in the whiteout.  We didn't need David's sobering reminder that in the event of any accident we could depend only on ourselves.

The Alborz mountains (stretching all the way to Turkey, and a long time haunt of smugglers and fleeing refugees) provided our last opportunity for acclimatisation.  We travelled North and saw another Iran in the resorts of Shemshak and Dizim, havens of liberalism, up to the minute Iranian chic, throwbacks to the 1970s, and hip music blaring from car stereos: my hejab became ever less modest.  Here we met oil barons and ski champions, academics, bankers and journalists - and made friends.  An air of festivity stifled lift queue angst, the boys got in trouble for chatting up girls.  We enjoyed decadent hedonism.  For two days we revelled in untracked feather light powder, boot packing above the lifts, skinning for hours along ridges and up precipitous slopes; floating down endless, heavenly wilderness terrain all too quickly.  Antony and Julian picked out the wildest routes they could, our elders provided notes of caution where they needed to.  Nick, armed only with an old coat hanger and a cigarette lighter mended broken bindings with characteristic ingenuity.  With Damavand ever towering in the distance we ticked off summits in a dizzy haze [3718m, 3280m, 3520m].

For the less frivolous there was an unguarded hut at xx m, a hefty supply of stale flat bread and substitute ham, and the possibility of an attempt on [name, 4182m].  Ronald and Bas were the only two intrepid enough to forego a good dinner and a warm bed for such uncertain joys, but they summited with ease, and descended in less than dreamy crud pleased that they had proved their mettle.

And then our rehearsal was over.  We piled into the bus once more heaving our cumbersome luggage of skis, rucksacks, ice axes, cameras and a growing number of carpets and made our way to Polur.  Here we ditched all but the most essential bits of gear and started our ascent of Damavand by road over a dramatic gorge and past houses carved out of the mountainous scrub.  Later, when the road became too precarious, we continued on foot, already stooping under the weight of our loads.  Finally, in the last heat of the afternoon we fixed our skins and climbed, reaching a concrete bunker and golden domed mosque at Goosfand Sara (3025m) just before dusk.   Blessed with bright sunshine and calm winds the following day we made a steep and intense climb upwards to the Bargah-e-Sevom shelter (4219m) where we holed up for the night before pressing on.  At dawn, in perfect conditions and accompanied by our steadfast Iranian friends Masoul and Majeed, we skinned (ever more slowly) as high as we were able - donning crampons for the final 600 or so metres to the summit (tip: walk like John Wayne).  Light headed from exertion in the thin and sulphurous air, we were rewarded with arctic temperatures and fabulous views.

The descent was rapid - first of all hurtling down the steep slope with glee, and afterwards, when we had recovered our skis and our balance, pushing through hard breakable crust with weary legs.  One by one we returned to the hut where our charming cook brought us an endless supply of hot tea - made with snow he had been melting the day long - and sweet dates from Bam.  Singing loudly he retired to concoct delicious soup (out of what, exactly?) to supplement our meagre and unpalatable boil-in-a-tin rations heated on a heavy gas stove carried from Polur.   We sat outside in the fading evening sun with disproportionate euphoria.

Our final descent was in thick fog and snow of questionable quality; by mid morning we had rejoined the road to Tehran to celebrate our success. In our absence spring had arrived, transforming the capital: Majeed's sister read us Hafez, steered us effortlessly around the city and shared our lunch in an enchanting Persian restaurant.  Hosforo shepherded us off to join his family for our final Iranian feast.  Knowing that 'near beer' wasn't quite up to the occasion Caroline and Andrew Dunn stepped in, heroically inviting all fourteen of us to the British Embassy for copious amounts of the real thing.  By the time we reached Istanbul and the connecting flight to London we were not in need of the Bloody Marys surreptitiously slipped to us by an airhostess complicit in the expedition's exhilaration.


Ski Mountaineering in Iran - Mt Damavand and other peaks.

By Nick Thomas

Most of the party gathered at Heathrow for our flight to Tehran via Istanbul. We were quickly and efficiently ushered through the chaos of arrivals at Tehran by our hosts from Araz Adventure Tours and then bussed to our hotel to sleep for what remained of the night. At breakfast we met David and Richard, who had travelled overland from Turkey. We then had a tour of some of the museums and the first of several wonderful meals. We also got a better impression of the chaos of cars, motorbikes, people crossing and people waiting for shared taxis that make up the capital's road 'system'.

Monday started with an unexpected surprise, it was snowing in Tehran. At the airport there was total chaos - we managed to check in for our flight to Esfahan, but later it was cancelled, despite other flights starting to go. After retrieving our luggage and having lunch we boarded a bus that had been hastily arranged for us. Following a long drive through the bleak desert, we arrived at Esfahan a little after 8pm and stopped for well over an hour. We hadn't a clue what was going on as our driver spoke no English. Eventually the problem was sorted out - the driver didn't have the right permit to enter the city after 8pm. We were starting to discover the meaning of Inshalla (if God is willing). Finally arriving at the Hotel we unloaded, had dinner and a late night walk round the beautiful Emam Khomeini square. We had a proper tour round the square and its mosaic covered Mosques and palace the next morning - a wonderful sight. At a traditional tea shop most of us indulged in the water pipe. After a bit of carpet shopping and look at the scenic bridges over the Zayandeh river we left for Chel Gerd. As it was getting dark a police car with flashing blue lights overtook, then preceded us for a while as we speculated on what it was up to, before stopping us. It turned out that someone had pulled strings and got us an escort - we had stopped to pick up Masoud, one of our guides, and his wife Mary. We also did a bit of fire jumping (an ancient Zoroastrian tradition) to celebrate the Iranian new year.

Chel Gerd is a poor looking village where we stayed in a surprisingly large sports centre. We formed three groups and as the short drag lifts weren't running skinned up to the 2800m ridge to the west. Majeed (our skiing guide), Bas, Oliver, Ronald and myself had intended to head up towards a hut after crossing the dam, but changed plans and eventually joined up with Masoud and Mary (on foot), Richard, John, Simon and Mark. We took a rather up and down route across the valley between the ridge above Chel Gerd and the higher peaks, with a couple of streams to ford before crossing the bridge and heading back along a mud road. We discovered that the reports from two years ago of the uniquely cloying nature of the Zagros mud were not exaggerated. The others probably had more fun yo-yoing on the ridge behind the sports centre.

Many of us were keen to go up and stay in the hut, but reports of how many it would accommodate were rather confused. In the end Bas, Ronald, Richard, John, Julian, Tony, Mark and Simon accompanied by Majeed, Masoud and Mary went for the hut and the rest of decided to head up the same north facing valley and ski back that day. To shorten the day we arranged for a pick up to drive us along the now frozen mud road most of the way to the dam. Despite Majeed's forecast of good weather, the sky was looking distinctly threatening by lunchtime, when the two parties met up again. We were not too upset to be skiing down, despite the crust, while the rest finished the climb to the hut near a 3470m peak.

Thursday dawned windy and snowy and there was no point in heading up, so we had a lazy day with lunch at the empty hotel nearby whilst we waited for the others to return. Eventually they appeared after what would have been a nice ski if they could have seen where they were going, with tales of Majeed leading himself over a cornice and the others astray.

After flying back to Tehran we had more Inshalla on our drive to Shemshak - Majeed had told the driver about a 'short cut' which resulted in a considerable amount of backtracking and a late arrival at our hotel, right next to a chairlift. Some even went for a quick night ski on the illuminated piste. On Saturday Bas, Ronald and Majeed headed up to a hut to the east of Shemshak. Tony, Justin, Venetia, Richard, Simon, Mark and I took taxis up to the neighbouring resort of Dizin, enjoying an excellent day of lift served powder skiing in the north facing bowl served by a couple of gondolas and chairs and drags. We then booted up to the peak at 3718m before heading west along the ridge and skiing back to the bottom of a drag lift on the west side of Shemshak. The others did a day tour from Shemshak. The next day we had another good powder run on the north side of the ridge above the top of the Shemshak chairlifts. Then we followed the tracks left by David's group on Saturday's tour along the ridge to a peak at 3280m and then on to a 3520m peak south east of the resort. On the way up we spotted Bas and Ronald just below the top of the ridge opposite as they headed for the peak at 4182m (Majeed had stayed in the hut). After a good ski down and a short skin back up to the top of the chairlifts Tony, Julian and I skied down a west facing gulley before being chased by a couple of very noisy dogs at the bottom. David's group went to Dizin, where they found very long queues and so had less fun than we had. On the route along the ridge back to Shemshak a lone Iranian triggered a small avalanche that hit Oliver as he traversed a steep slope, fortunately not knocking him over. We found that attitudes to Islamic dress standards for women are a lot more relaxed in these reports than elsewhere, perhaps unsurprising given their well off and westernised clientele (we spoke to several people who had spent years in the USA or France).

After another bus ride past a mosque atop a high pass and a good lunch in Polur we left some of our kit in a hall in a small village above a spectacular gorge and were dropped off for the skin up to the lower of the two huts on Damavand, arriving at dusk. We were the only occupants of the large bare concrete bunker next to a Mosque at 3025m.

The next day we skinned up to the second hut at 4219m, which was equipped with bunks. Summit day was yet another fine, calm day. John stayed in the hut as he wasn't feeling too well. We skinned up to around 4800m and cached the skis as it seemed easier to crampon up the thin crusty snow cover. Progress slowed as we got higher, but 13 of us plus Majeed, ? and Rasoul? regrouped at the summit between 3 and 3:30, where we found the expected crater, fumeroles and mummified goats. After admiring the fantastic views across the Albortz mountains we rapidly descended to the hut. The final ski down on the difficult crust confirmed the decision to dump the skis was correct. The next day we could see cloud billowing in the wind off the summit as we skied back down to the road before a good meal in a restaurant on the way back to Tehran.

Our last day was spent sightseeing and shopping in the capital. Thanks to some sterling work by Richard using his journalistic contacts we managed to blag out way into the British Embassy for some real beer (in contrast to non-alcoholic malt beverage) to prepare us for the return to the decadent west. Finally Hosphero (spelling??), who had done a fine job looking after us, took us to his home for wonderful meal before we left for our overnight flights home.

There is clearly a lot of ski touring that could be done in Iran given time, good snow and fine weather. However reliable information on huts and routes is lacking and local expertise in ski touring is limited. It is certainly a country worth visiting and everyone we met was friendly and hospitable.


An Eagle Ski Club Expedition

David Hamilton (leader), John Barnard, Simon Chafer, Michael Coleman, Richard Cowper, Anthony Evans, Oliver Gandy, Bas Gresnigt, Ronald Naar, Jana Nekulova, Julian Power, Mark Serby, Nick Thomas and Venetia Wingfield




David Hamilton
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