One 'Wintry' Summer Trek!

Here I am back from our third expedition to Damavand. Looking back, I feel relieved. Relieved because it was so close to not happening! Being a small company (well it’s just me) with not much money to advertise, and only relying on friends spreading the word, it’s been tough. I wanted it to happen so badly though! Every expedition is close to my heart. It gets born as an idea. It becomes a thing in planning and all I wait for is the actual expedition! When it happens, when I am finally on a flight going to Iran knowing I have a team joining me, that’s when it gets exciting! The months of planning, organizing, taking into consideration all the factors that come into play, numbers, dates, costs, hoping you have got it all planned to perfection. Until two months prior to departures, the team and the numbers were not quite fixed yet. One person had to pull out but luckily her space got filled by another friend so in the end, I had four people, the minimum with which we could run the expedition with. We got the visa approval numbers towards the end of July. As the numbers were small, I didn’t personally travel to Vienna for collecting the visas and instead posted the passports to a friend in Vienna who collected them on our behalf. By end of August, all was set and ready for our departure. The team was due to arrive on the 5th of September. I had flown to Tehran a few days early to prepare a few things in advance. The weather had been moody in Tehran. There had been snow and thunderstorm in the hills. Temperatures in Tehran were not too high either. So I did worry about the weather. The girls, Rachel, Sofia and Laura all arrived together in the early hours of the 5th followed by Paul who managed to get another flight after missing his connection in Vienna. I met them at our hotel in Tehran and after check-in and a little post flight rest, took them out for a walk in the nearby Sayee park and Vali Asr street, visiting the well known Tavazo shop (nuts and sweets) and Shah-re ketab (book shop).

Next morning (day 2) we met with our guide Amin at the hotel and set out to the north of Tehran to visit the Sa’d Abad palace , home to the last king of Iran. As we entered the palace and were gently strolling past the first building or two, we came across a gathering by the building where Ostad Farshcian’s miniature paintings are exhibited. It seemed to be an opening ceremony. As we stood there to watch, we suddenly spotted Iran’s foreign minister, Javand Zarif, walking in to greet the old legend, Farshchian. We were all so excited to see him particularly after hearing so much about him in the news in the recent talks between Iran and the west. We were all pleasantly surprised by how relaxed the whole thing was and involved minimum formality and security.

From the palace grounds, we also saw our immediate objective, the 3964m Tocal which we were planning to climb the next day in preparation for Damavand later in the week. After visiting the famous white palace, we drove to the base of Tochal where we started our three hour hike up to the Shirpala hut.

The route starts from Darband square marked by a mountaineer’s statue and winds its way through traditional tea houses and riverside restaurants and food stalls until soon the valley opens up and Tehran drops open beneath the path.

After an easy scramble up some rocks criss-crossing the stream that drains into Vali Asr street at its end, the hut comes into view. At 2700m, Sitting on a rocky outcrop with a huge terrace and a helipad, Shirpala is a great spot to enjoy the night views of Tehran. Here we met another team whose guide I knew and very soon we joined forces and the next morning, we all set out for the summit together. I knew this would be a test piece for the team. The temperatures would be warm enough to make the hike rather unpleasant. The altitude would definitely be felt. But also with an ascent of 1200m in one day and a descent all the way back to Tehran, this would be a tough day. We made slow and steady progress enjoying the ever expanding views of Tehran and the plains around this huge capital city. I think it’s amazing that right to the north of Tehran, the flat plains very suddenly rises to almost 4000m to form this magnificent peak at your doorstep enabling people to escape the heat in early spring and dash up the mountain for some skiing!!! But on a weekday in September, the mountain is quiet. No snow can be seen. Only the never ending slopes leading to the summit.
 

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At around 1.30 we got to the summit marked by a metal shelter. It was so calm, so warm and beautiful, we just couldn’t get ourselves to leave. We sat down in a circle, enjoyed our sandwiches and even treated ourselves to a snooze under the warm glow of the sun. I was very happy as the team had not experienced any discomfort with altitude and were acclimatizing really well.


Finally we persuaded ourselves to head down. Now this was one bit I was not looking forward to. I knew the long walk down this mountain will definitely tire the team out. The original plan had been to take the cable car down but unfortunately it was closed. So we had to face it. Down we went, plodding our way back to the hut for a little rest before we go down the final bit. In the hut while my team were resting and eating up, I was drawn into a conversation with the other German team. They had really struggled today and although they had planned to do Damavand, they now thought it was impossible for them to do so. However, Gerald, one of their team members, felt strong and badly wanted to give it ago. As I could speak a bit of German I mediated between my guide Amin and the other team’s guide and decided to take Gerald on board with our team. He was very happy! So we continued with our walk down and had to descend in the dark for the last hour or two. Although it was hard on the knees and required care and a lot of energy, there was something beautiful about walking down in darkness. As the lights in the city flickered in the distance, the occasional barking of the sheep dogs, the scraping sound of the walking poles against rocks, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, the faint singing of our guide Amin, you feel quietly alive. That night we all slept well!!

Next day (Day 4) was all about sightseeing! Not much rest for the tired legs as such! But who can resist the gentle stroll in Golestan palace, visiting its beautiful mirrored halls, the old wind catching towers, the marble tombs and thrones. Its quiet garden and fountains patrolled by its ever permanent residents, the cats. “Lets sit down and have a cup of tea” we said after seeing a traditional tea house in the palace grounds! “sorry we’re closed today as the Austrian ambassador is visiting tomorrow” said the owner. “I have got very special British guests here who are very tired and thirsty” I said. “Then come in” he said and the next thing, we’re being treated to lovely tea and cake like real special guests. Typical Iranian hospitality. Next place to visit is Tehran’s grand bazaar. But before, we stopped at the famous Shamshiri restaurant right outside. Lamb’s neck with Fava bean rice is a speciality here! Immediately a flag of Britain and Ireland lands on our table! Another gesture of hospitality! And now the bazaar! A labyrinth of alleys that even a seasoned bazaar might get lost in! We don’t delve deep! Just to get a little flavour of what the bazaar is like! From rows and rows of jewellery shops to stalls selling underwear (ironically sold by men!). Weary faces, curious smiles, crowds and crowds of shoppers, sellers, little boys pushing heavy trollies, young men playing and selling illegal CDs on their portable Cd players. Winding our way through, we popped out into the main square from where we hopped on our van and head to the National Jewellery museum. Here you can see the famous peacock throne which Iranian Nader shah stole from the rich Indian Mughuls along with the famous Kooh-e Noor Diamond which has now ended up in London. Time for tea again. This time in a café where a young beautiful girl served us Borage tea and coffee while we played a round of backgammon. That night, I took everyone to a restaurant where my family joined us to celebrate our Rachel’s very special birthday! Tomorrow the real adventure would begin.

Day 5. Time to head to Damavand! After a little shopping in the morning, we all jump in our van and start our journey towards the mountain. We pick Amin up on our way and head north east towards the village of Polour. As our surroundings gently swells into rolling hills, the road bends its way around the hills until it reaches the pass marked by a holy shrine (Imam Zadeh Hashim) where we stopped for a little tea break. Rain stated falling and with it, a little concern in my head. What would the weather be like when we are on the mountain! Dying to see Damavand, I craned my head right after a tunnel where I knew it will come to view! It never stops amazing me as how huge it is even though two third of it was engulfed in clouds! Excitment kicked in! It’s happening! We pulled our van into the parking lot of Polour mountaineering federation (2270m) where we would spend the night. The building consists of various dormitory style rooms, bathrooms and toilets, a shared kitchen, a café/shop and an indoor and outdoor climbing wall. This is also where one gets the permit ($50) for Damavand. We all settled in our large dormitory quickly picking up the bed screeching the least. :) A very large polish team also arrived with huge packs!! Me and Amin busied ourselves with cooking and last minute purchases for the mountain. Another team arrived after summitting, their guide reporting of the bad weather and snow! Oh dear!! We’ll just have to see.

Day 6. We wake up to a clear sky. Damavand is covered in snow down to the high hut (4200m). After breakfast, we jumped into two land rovers which took us up to the base camp, an hour away. Goosfand Sara as the base camp is called, is at 3200 and is marked by a mosque with a golden dome and in summer, it is normally very busy and often dirty. Not a place you’d want to stay. However the temperamental weather meant that even though it was a Thursday (the beginning of weekend in Iran) it was literally deserted. So Although we had originally planned to avoid the crowd and camp higher than basecamp, we decided to pitch our tents right by the base camp so we can enjoy the facility of running water, and a room to use for our meal in the evening. After setting up the camp, Amin settled down in the room in the mosque preparing our dinner, while I took the team up for a little acclimatization hike. We gently hiked up for 300m above the camp and sat down to enjoy the views and the peace as well as doing little Tai Chi with master Sofia J How I love this section of our route.

The volcanic rocks make ideal little spots to sit down, lean back and take it all in. The smell of oregano and wild mint infused with the fresh mountain air. The walkie talkie coughs into life! Amin reminds me that it’s time to come back down! Dinner will be ready soon! If only I could be called for dinner like that every time J Aftera lovely meal of Spagetti Bolognese, we crawl into our tents and settle down for bed. Me and Rachel in one tent. Sofia and Laura in another. Gerald, the German guy, in his tent, and Paul and Amin decide to sleep in the mosque. It was a peaceful night.

Day 7: Around 7 oclock I wake up to a beautiful sunny morning. This is the first time we saw Damavand beautifully. We were all out taking photos.

The golden dome of the mosque shining in the morning light. The valley engulfed in dancing clouds. After breakfast, we packed up the camp, and left our big duffles and packs for the mules to carry up to the high hut while we started our hike up to Bargah-e Sevvom (high hut). The first half of the hike is rather gentle, crossing a river bed once or twice through meadows and rocks. After the second river crossing, the path gets steeper zigzagging its way to the side of a ridge that would take us to the high hut. We took regular short breaks, fuelling as we go with nuts, juice and biscuits.
 

As it was Friday, we met a lot of Iranian groups coming down the mountain. They were all very friendly, often curious asking where the team were from, wishing us luck. After 4 hours of a slow and steady hike, the hut came into view. Just below the snowline, sitting on a little plateau. The team were starting to feel the altitude. There was definitely more huffing and puffing! But there we were. At 4200m, this was the highest they had ever been and apart from being a little out of breath, none of the team were suffering from any signs of altitude sickness which was great. It was crowded inside the hut. The polish team had occupied half of the communal room. There were a few Iranians sleeping in one corner. Some Hungarians sleeping in another. We found a few chairs for the team to sit on while me and Amin shuffled a few things around and made space for a few tables and chairs. We had booked the private 6 bed room for our team which was still occupied as the team who had their stuff in it had still not returned from the summit. More and more people came down from the summit, all exhausted, all complaining about the wind and the cold and the snowy conditions. Finally our room was emptied and the team could settle down and make themselves at home as we would spend the next three nights here. The hut remained busy that night as a lot of climbers were too tired that night to go down after their summit attempt. Some were even sleeping in the corridors.
 

Day 8. In the morning, most people left the hut apart from us and the large Polish team. Our plan was to go up to around 4800m for acclimatization. For me and Amin, this was again a test piece to guess how well the team would do for the final summit push, particularly as the team had never been to this altitude. We set out around 10, following Amin’s gentle, slow and steady plod. As we reached 4700m, it was obvious that Laura was struggling. Although Laura had an athletic background but recently she had not been able to keep up with her training and on this trip she had really pushed herself to the limit. It was amazing how determined she was and even though she sometimes was in pain or too tired, she just kept going on! We all agreed that she’d stay behind for the summit day. It was a little sad but at the same time, we knew it was the right thing to do and I was truly proud of what she had achieved so far. So we sat down at 4700m, the team relieved to hear that is as far we would go that day. I sat down in a corner and played some of my favourite music. Something I don’t do often at all. Previously I hated listening to music on the mountain. Thought it to be disrespectful to the peace and tranquillity of the mountain. But on this occasion, I really enjoyed it. I remembered my dad, who I knew would have loved to be there now. His smile, wistfully looking around remembering his good old friends. A few tears rolled down my cheeks. Time to go back… We have done all we can now to increase our chances for the summit day. It’s now time to go, rest, wait and give it our best shot. I knew it would be a sleepless night…

Day 9: At 3.30 I jolt up in bed, heart racing. It’s time. I crawled out of the warm sleeping bag and busied myself with the usual summit day routine, checking stuff in my pack. There were thunderstorms early in the night but now it was calm. The sky was clear. The stars everywhere. We knew the weather forecast and that was a slight concern. It was going to be like every other day. Snow showers in the afternoon. We decided to head up and at the first sign of bad weather, head back. I hadn’t slept at all the night before. I felt my stomach turn. I wasn’t hungry. I knew everyone else felt pretty much the same. I forced a little bread down with some sweet tea and prepared to leave. The Polish team who had also consulted with us about the weather had already left. We set out around 4.30 and could see their headtorches an hour ahead of us. There was fresh snow on the ground but the air was so calm! My hands were cold (as always). Normally I find it the first hour of the summit day really hard, but that day I felt light and easy. I wasn’t out of breath. I was happy to be on the move. We had a few breaks on our way as the sun rose to the east and Damavand’s shadow fell on the plains to the west and over Tehran. We plodded on and on, the steps getting shorter, breaths getting louder, breaks getting more frequent. Yet the pace was good and steady.

 

Soon we reached 5000m and passed the frozen waterfall to our right. We had one final steep 150m before we reached the south summit and the final push over the summit slope which is dotted with fuming sulphur vents.

The final summit slope. Sky as blue as ever
We noticed a great dark cloud hovering to the east but it was very slow moving, almost still. The summit was completely sunny. We were almost there. We reached the south summit and left our packs by a pole to go light and fast. Amin lead the way through the vents. This last section is always hard. It feels like it never ends. The Polish team had reached the top by now and were heading down. Then out of blue, I felt a snowflake on my face and some clouds rolled in. Amin announced that we should speed up and would not have more than 2 mins on the summit. I felt/heard a little concern. We must have gone for only 5 more minutes when we were completely engulfed in clouds. I looked at my watch. It read 5511m.

Me and Amin decided to give up on the summit and head down as quickly as possible. We did not want to take any chances. The team immediately agreed apart from Gerald who was a little disappointed. But even he realized how serious the situation got after 5 or 10 minutes when we heard the first lightening! Right next to the Polish team who had huddled together as if to discuss something, Amin was standing, probably 5 meters below me and all of a sudden I saw him throwing his walking pole. He then shouted at me to tell everyone to throw their walking poles away! I shouted back at everyone urging everyone to do some immediately! Later I realized he hadn’t thrown his poles but rather was hit by a lightening which shot his pole out of his hand along with his glove. Thank God he wasn’t hurt! He then orchestrated an epic walk down! He shouted out, asking me to take the team down the snow gully below the south summit, keeping 5 or 6 meters distance from each other. We had to throw any metal object we had on us and as soon as we heard a thunder, we would kneel down. He himself went to fetch the packs. He threw the packs towards us and ran ahead down navigating through the white out. I was damn scared. The hood of my down jacket was buzzing with electricity!! I realized I couldn’t find my sunglasses. I thought they might have dropped! The snow blizzard was in full swing now. Amin immediately took off his own glasses and shouted at me to put them on! I had no choice! I felt terrible! I urged the team to run down as fast as they can. There was a lot of soft powdery snow and the gully wasn’t too steep so a slip wasn’t consequential. I just wanted my team down!!! Amin would run down, kneel somewhere safe and wait for me to confirm all team members are coming so he can set off again. I had to make sure everyone was following me with a safe distance between us. If two of us were too close and a lightning hit one, the other would be hit too! When the thunderstorm ceased, I just sat down and let my head drop in my hand… That was so scary. I was so thankful for Amin for bringing us safely down. By this point, Sofia, Rachel and Paul had mastered the art of bum sliding! It was the fastest and safest way down! In an unbelievable one hour, my team were safely back just above the hut! When that came into view, the relief I felt was immense. That was one epic walk out! Thank God everyone was safe and thanks to the bum sliding, the team were not even tired. We were in the hut sipping hot soup at 2.30!!!! The Polish team weren’t back until 5.00! What a day! 

 

Day 10: I woke up to a sunny morning! It was my birthday! I smiled at the secret thought. I was happy. I felt relieved but also sad that it’s all over but once again, I have to walk down this beautiful mountain which never stops surprising me. I wanted to take my time. There was no rush! We pottered around the hut, having a lazy breakfast. After a random phone call at breakfast, everyone suddenly started singing happy birthday for me!! A lovely surprise! After packing and organizing we finally started our walk down at 10. Very soon Damavand’s summit was engulfed in clouds again but where we were, there was only sunshine and a gentle pleasant breeze. The quiet and the peace occasionally disturbed by two eager young Iranians singing folk songs on their way down. Everything seemed pleasant!! I have a terrible voice but even I wanted to sing and I did, only so I can hear! :) As we got nearer the base camp, I felt I wanted to fly. I apologized to the team and picked up the pace. I started running, jumping and hopping over little rocks. That feeling of being light and feathery, being one with nature and above all the freedom… The rain started falling as we crawled into our landrovers waiting for us. We looked back and bid farewell to the majestic Damavand. I felt it smile. It definitely gave me a wink! 

Running down Damavand

Running down Damavand


So there we are! Another expedition. Another set of memories engraved in our minds. Every time, I ask myself if I should accompany my expeditions each time. I am so glad I did and I intend to do so as much as possible! Coz every one of them is different! Each Is amazing in different ways. The friendships that are made. The comradeships that are built. Memories that will never be forgotten. As I write these last few words, I can’t help but smile and in my heart, be grateful that it happened. Thanks to everyone who made it possible and thanks to my incredible team who fought on, pushed themselves, and always smiled and never failed to miss an opportunity to joke and giggle! And above all, thanks to the amazing Amin who worked super hard, looked after us and kept us all safe!

A happy me on the descent…