Alam Kuh & Mount Damavand

Posted 21st July 2014 by David McGuinness

We drove west from Tehran on Sunday morning having arrived in the very early hours of Sunday morning.  My group consisted of my two brothers, Stephen and Niall and a friend of Niall’s, also called David, “David C” for this trip. We were picked up from our hotel by our mountain guide, Moghadam, our driver (and also a mountain guide) Jafar, and en route in Tehran we picked up our cultural guide, and translator – as Moghadam and Jafar spoke very limited English – Shole.

The next morning after an early breakfast we left behind Jafar’s minibus and were instead collected by a blue pick-up for the bumpy ride up to Tang-e-Galu at about 3200m. The windy road passed through a stunning landscape of lush green – as the early morning mist burned off – revealing a valley strewn with boulders and dotted with azure glacial lakes. As the road climbed the vegetation thinned and the houses grew less frequent until there were no more. Here there were only occasional shepherds with their flocks, goats and sheep. On arrival at Tang-e-Galu, Moghadam and Jafar strapped the camping equipment up to mules and a local farmer ascended with them ahead of us.

We passed through the Central Alborz range on our way to the staging post of Rudbarak in the Western Alborz, stopping for a delicious lunch on the banks of the azure waters of Carag dam reservoir. The drive took about 5 hours, gradually climbing up to about 2200m, the temperature dropping to a more comfortable range after the heat of Tehran. After a tasty dinner of river fish and a selection of meats, vegetable and, of course, rice, as well as some local specialities we returned to the hiking lodge where we watched one of the duller World Cup finals at the expense of a full night’s sleep. The match didn’t really warrant it and our wish of a decisive outcome in ninety minutes was not to be.

We started our climb. We crossed gushing rivers that ducked in and under vast glacial sheets, on either side of a stunning valley that wound slowly north. After almost four hours we reached our camping spot, Herascal, at around 3800m, a spectacular sheltered spot surrounded by high mountains on all sides, and set up our tents. Moghadam prepared lunch while we took a short nap in the sun. After lunch we climbed up to Lashgarak Lake, a beautiful glacial lake, just shy of 4000m by way of acclimatisation, negotiating some snow, some tricky scree and a little ice. Niall and David C were feeling the effects of the altitude when we came back to camp and so lay out in the tent for a while. After a wholesome but cosy dinner in the biggest tent (as it was getting pretty cold now) we saw the moon rise above the mountains and light up the whole sky. We retired to our tents to sleep around ten.

The next morning we woke at 5.30 after a somewhat fitful sleep and after breakfast and tea we started up Alam Kuh, Iran’s 2nd highest peak after Mount Damavand. David C, who had not been at altitude previously, was still feeling the altitude and decided to sleep it off instead of taking any chances so myself and my brothers set off with Moghadam and Jafar. Shole, who was also feeling the altitude a bit stayed behind with David C. Stephen and Niall suddenly started feeling the altitude at around 4400m and decided to turn back, so Jafar accompanied them back down. For Niall this was far higher than what he had been previously and Stephen had been higher but by vehicle, not on foot. Another day to acclimatise would have been prudent in retrospect.

I continued on with Moghadam to Alam Kuh peak at 4850m. The 360 degree view from the peak was sublime. A group of three Austrians, the only others we saw climbing Alam Kuh, arrived at the peak just after us and we shared some celebratory snacks. Given the perfect conditions I was surprised there were not more people on the mountain. As we walked down Moghadam was in victorious humour and his smile lasted all the way back to camp. He even showed me various bumps he had sustained on a 20 metre fall he had had climbing when one of his students had not sufficiently secured his rope. He seemed proud nonetheless. Battle scars.

When arrived back, Stephen and David C were doing well but Niall was still suffering a little. We had lunch and rested for a while. Niall was doing a bit better when we were ready to continue back down but we decided to send his bag down with a mule as a precaution and we walked slowly back down to Tang-e-Galu and caught our bumpy blue pick-up back to Rudbarak, where we had an early dinner and turned in.

Wednesday was a driving day, heading east along the Caspian coast to the Eastern Alborz. We stopped for a short dip in the Caspian Sea en route. Shole joined us, though she wasn’t supposed to, but in full clothing. She was a bit of an independent spirit and clearly didn’t like playing by the rules of the regime. She was a little like our Iranian mother on this trip and even started calling us “her sons”.  The Caspian water certainly felt like the sea with its waves and salty water and Moghadam and Jafar waved us back to the vehicle after about twenty minutes. I couldn’t make out if their nervousness was of us being in the water or of Shole’s behaviour.

We had not had any difficulty due to it being Ramadan, until now, as our guides had been catering for us, but it did take us a while to find somewhere open in the Caspian towns but after a few disappointments we found a place with a courtyard hidden from the street where they were happy to accommodate us. Shortly before Rineh, our stop for the night, we stopped at Bolemun caves, multi-story man-made caves believed to date back to Sasanian times, when they were used as hideouts from various invaders. In Rineh we treated ourselves to ice-creams and Niall and David C, having decided to only climb as far as Bargah-e-Sevom, Damavand’s equivalent of a base-camp, picked up a cheap badminton and chess set to amuse themselves with while myself and Stephen attempted the summit. We had a quick look in at the unusual-looking mosque before going back to our lodge for dinner and bed.

As it was Thursday, the first day of the Iranian weekend, in this particular instance a long 3-day weekend, we decided to start early to ensure we got a dorm bed at Bargah-e-Sevom. A pick-up brought us from Rineh at 2020m to Gusfand, the starting point, at 3020m, in 45 minutes. To be extra sure of beds Jafar set off alone up to the camp, moving significantly faster than he could have with us in tow. We had a lentil dish for breakfast – something people have done here for centuries before going up into the mountains – and set off. The climb was steady, through a rocky terrain punctuated with red poppies, the spectacle of Damavand peak looming above us right from the off. There were lots more people on this route than Alam Kuh but the vibe was very friendly, communal even. I was surprised that it was almost all Iranians. I had expected to see some other foreigners.

I chatted to Shole who was in her sixties but looked younger. She told me about her divorce 15 years previously, when her husband had left her for a younger woman, leaving her with nothing. Women under the Islamic Republic are true second class citizens and her story was quite tragic but she was not the type to feel sorry for herself, and preferred to concentrate on the positives. “My migraines vanished from the first day I was free of him” she smiled. I had been reading Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening and much of what she said rang true from what I had read in that book. Ms Ebadi was a judge in pre-revolution Iran and had first supported the revolution as a means to overthrow an unjust Shah but quickly realised what the clerics had in store when she was barred from practicing law, and had spent the rest of her life supporting and defending women’s rights and those of the downtrodden generally. She won the Nobel prize for her efforts and I would strongly recommend her book to anyone with an interest in life in the Islamic Republic. Shole explained the difficulties of finding another man, and when she found someone she was loath to get married again knowing how vulnerable it left her. Anyway men her age wanted younger women, and older men could not handle her energy. She preferred to spend time with her daughters. She taught me the lyrics of some songs they had sung on the streets when Ahmadinejad had been “elected” for the second time.  She asked mountain rescue if she needed to wear the headscarf as we passed them and they said she didn’t as she was Irish. Now she was “our Mammy” we started to call her “Síle”. She loved it.

After about 4 hours we reached Bargah-e-Sevom at 4200m, where Jafar had secured us all beds in a large dorm where snorers were an inevitability but we preferred this to camping. I would recommend earplugs for this place. It turned out Jafar had been the first up, climbing to the camp in only two hours. He was some machine!

After lunch Stephen went with Jafar for an acclimatisation walk to about 4600m. Moghadam decided as I had already reached Alam Kuh peak I could sit this out, which I was happy about as I was tired and had found the last half hour hard enough. I felt my energy levels low – perhaps I hadn’t eaten enough. I would be sure to for the summit attempt. We had a fairly early night but, to be honest, didn’t get a lot of sleep.

After a breakfast of honey, marmalade, bread, tea and calorie-laden helva we started towards the peak just before 6am. Our pace was slow but steady, stopping about every hour for a 5 minute rest and to stuff our faces with nuts, biscuits, fruit, sweets and chocolate. As we had also noticed the previous day the strict Islamic dress was relaxed up here. Headscarves were mostly packed away. The morality police do not patrol Damavand’s slopes.

As we got higher the views became even more spectacular and our pace slowed but less than most others it seemed as we passed more and more people. The atmosphere was very encouraging, everyone spurring each other on. For some, however, it wasn’t to be. Many were forced to turn back. A girl I had spoken with the night before – who had climbed to the summit on 16 previous occasions – nonetheless started feeling heart palpitations and was forced to turn back about 600m off the summit. You can never take Damavand for granted.

We hit the snow in earnest a few hundred metres short of the summit but there was nothing too difficult to contend with other than the altitude. And suddenly we were there. The summit of Damavand. We had made it! The atmosphere was distinctly party-like. Moghadam beamed widely. “I am very heppy”. He hadn’t expected us both to reach the peak and he was visibly chuffed. Our time getting up there was even good. We were pretty chuffed too. We wandered around the snow-filled crater, drinking in the vibe. A nylon banner remembering some who has lost their lives on the mountain served as a reminder that this was not a mountain to be trifled with. Speaking with Iranians at the top and throughout the trip we had figured out who the two most famous Irishmen in Iran were, and it was certainly not who you expect. First was certainly Bobby Sands, whose death prompted the Iranian president of the time to send his condolences to his family and to rename Winston Churchill Boulevard, where the British Embassy was located (and will be when it reopens again soon) Bobby Sands Street.  The second most common name we heard was Robbie Keane, who they knew as he scored against Iran in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match, and from the Premier League, which is closely followed in Iran. I’m not sure either of those “facts” will ever help in a pub quiz!

After about 40 minutes around the peak and lots of back-clapping we started back down. We were suddenly engulfed in a sulphur cloud which stung our eyes and throat as we scrambled as quickly as we could to escape it. We had something similar to surgical masks which had helped against the drifts of sulphur we experienced on the way up but it was useless against this. When we were at safe distance and had regained our composure we stopped and Moghadam gave us strong, bitter lemon juice to counteract the sulphur. There were no lasting effects but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. We continued back down to Bargah-e-Sevom, had lunch and, after a short rest, we continued down to Gusfand, where we had tea, before being dropped off to Rineh and the ultimate pleasures of a hot shower and a real toilet! We had covered a total of 1400m up and over 2400m down in a single day. We slept well that night!

It was Saturday and our schedule was light so we slept in a little, read on the balcony and had breakfast before heading to a hot springs village where we gave our muscles a little TLC. Shole mentioned that she sometimes stayed there with groups. It is a three star hotel she told me before clarifying. “But not like your three star hotels. Our stars are empty!”. We then drove the couple of hours back to a seemingly empty Tehran, it being the final day of the long weekend and the commemoration of the death of Ali, Shia Islam’s first prophet. After lunch we said warm goodbyes to Moghadam and Jafar, both great guys who had looked after us so well for the whole week. After resting for a few hours in the hotel we checked out and headed to Shole’s for one last dinner, prepared by her daughter, Sarah. Shole and Sarah were supremely gracious, generous and entertaining hosts and we left for the airport a few hours later, fit to burst, but with a warm fuzzy feeling as well.
Iran had won me over some time ago but I could see it had added three more to its growing ranks of admirers. 

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