By Babak (Bob)
It is nice to be on skis again. A doctor
we met in Gusfan Sarah-the 3000m hut on Mt. Damavand in Iran-told
me that I had torn a ligament in my ankle. Damn. Seeing my disappointment
at his diagnosis he told me my ski boot would act like a cast.
He said if I taped the ankle well, I could probably make it up.
But what do I know? he smiled, Im only
The blizzard broke on our third morning
at the 4100m Bhargaheh III hut. Having been horizontal too long-good
books taking us only so far-we decide to bust a move and get
the blood flowing. The cloud ceiling is not far above our heads.
Is the storm over or what? Or is this just a break in between
storms? Might as well be using a Magic-8-Ball. Ohh, Magic-8-Ball,
shall we climb today? -Reply Hazy Try Again.
The skinning is nice and Im happy
that my ankle feels decent locked into my boot. The six of us
skin-zag up the wide snowfield and Im trying to get a rhythm.
Falling behind the others, I feel my lack of acclimatization.
In my gimpy state I missed a few of the ever-important accli-days.
An hour up, Nico, Nicholas and Laurent-two Swiss and a Frenchman-veer
right up another snowfield skinning Euro-style. That is, very
quickly. But, where are they going? A ski touring truism: we
all have our idea of an optimum skin line, usually different
from the others. Up higher, the skinning is more difficult and
I start to slip. I decide I must get some of those edge-to-edge
skins. Stephen, Victoria, and I go into crampon mode. Lock and
load, pied plat up what is now wind-board that is very
nice to crampon up. The clouds obscure the summit but a quick
check finds us all feeling well. Victoria has a slight headache
but she is smiling; Im getting my usual high-altitude second
wind; and we are feeling optimistic.
Several hours later the six of us regroup,
all doing well. The weather, however, is slowly deteriorating.
A west wind has kicked up and it is lightly snowing. Our route
follows a huge boomerang shaped snowline with a long exposed
ridge of volcanic tuff on its inside. It is this ridge that we
aim for, as it is a well-needed reference in what is quickly
becoming a whiteout. Steadily we move up snowfields, ramps and
couloirs. It is getting colder and snowing harder.
We duck behind a rock an hour later
at 5300m. The poop has hit the ceiling fan, my hands are cold
and my prescription glasses are fogged underneath my goggles.
It has gone from whiteout to full-blown blizzard in Warhols
15 minutes. Didnt one of the Persian guys down below say
that Messner got thwarted here several years back? I fish out
my glacier glasses and try them-frozen solid. Ohh, Magic-8-Ball,
shall we continue? -My Sources Say No.
It is less then 400m vert to the top.
We cache the skis behind the rock and continue slowly up into
the tempest, the boys in front appearing and disappearing with
every pulse of the thickening wind and snow. I can hardly see
and I notice that Nico is having similar eyewear problems. I
lose a crampon and by the time I sit down and replace it, my
hands are like wood. I cannot get my hands back into my gloves
quick enough, the brutality of having to deal with straps, almost
too much. Another hundred meters up and the futility of continuing
become apparent in the face of this storm. Stephen notices that
the tip of my nose has turned white and with that we beat a hasty
Pythonesque run away! retreat down to the skis. Nicholas
helps me get my second ski on-my wooden claw hands not functioning
well. I fall in behind Nico, who can hardly see, while Stephen
skis towards the volcanic tuff. Im barefaced now-my glasses
done in-and squinting while the ice pellets are stinging my eyeballs.
Ten long minutes later, I ski to an awkward stop and with a,
wah, wa, wait a minute, I realize I cant open
my eyes-they are frozen completely shut.
A translated Jack London novel was the
reason my dad---in 1958 at the age of 22---left his home in Shiraz,
Iran, to come to America. Mom followed two years later. Its
strange to contemplate: how a chance reading of a book could
forever change our family destiny. But it did, and my bro and
I ended up being born in Los Angeles as opposed to Shiraz. My
brother and I didnt really feel at all Persian growing
up in the suburbs of LA-our family as Norman Rockwell as the
rest of them on Melba Ave. (Ok, that is an exaggeration-more
like Ali Rockwell than Norman.) Although they spoke to us often
in Farsi (the Persian language), to which we would answer back
in English, they didnt push the culture upon us. And when
my dad would occasionally tell stories of the homeland it was
like, dad, who cares? Im going to the beach. Got
20 bucks I can have? Its shameful to think about
now, but in those days, my brother and I hardly thought about
Iran. And at the time no one in America gave much thought to
That, of course, all changed in 1979. Iran
was very much in the news and soon every American had an opinion
about it. The US backed Shah was in exile and the Imam Khomeini
had returned. The Shah was a puppet of the West, the Ayatollah
proclaimed; and America, the Great Satan. I was with my friend
Mike on our first out of state ski trip, to Colorado, when we
watched the events unfold on live TV.
Who is the bearded guy? Pass me a
Guy named Khomeini, hes an
Aya-tollah. Did you throw the burritos in the microwave?
Yeah, dude. Nice having a 7-11 across
the street. 24-hour burritos. Throw another Coors, this ones
Bob, youre a camel-jockey.
Whats up with all those Eye-rainians?
Dont know, but they sure are
tripping. They must really like this Khomeini. Should call him
And so it went, skiing powder at Monarch
during the day, Coors and burritos at night. To me, Salida and
Reynoldss apartment were as far away from the drama being
played out in Iran as man was from landing on Mars. At least
we had cherubic Alfred E. Neumann look-alike Ted Koppel to lend
humor to the situation. Turkey and Iraq border Iran to the west;
Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east; several former Russian
republics and the Caspian Sea to the north; and the Persian Gulf
to the south. Geographically speaking, the common conception
of Iran is one of vast deserts. (Ive never jockeyed a camel,
but my Swiss wife has). While this is certainly true, about half
the country is mountainous. The two main ranges being the Zagros-situated
west of the Old Persian capital of Esfahan-3000 to 4000m peaks
with awesome touring potential (some Frenchmen heli-skied here
last season). And the dominating Alborz range, to the north and
sandwiched between the huge capital of Tehran (pop. 12 million)
and the Caspian Sea.
I had first heard about Irans
highest mountain-the permanently snowcapped dormant volcano of
5671m, Damavand-from Sohrab, a friend of my dads. He told me
about a handful of medium-sized ski areas nestled in the Alborz.
Then he spoke with special reverence about Damavand, proclaiming
with nationalistic certainty that, it is one of the ten
highest mountains in the world! I was like, dude,
youve been smoking too much tariyak. (I have recently
looked up some stats and there is something like 3000 peaks and
sub peaks over 6000m. worldwide) Still, Damavand is at a respectable
elevation of around 18,600 feet.
I was suitably intrigued, but my dad quashed
all thoughts with a theyll-throw-you-in-the-army-if-you-ever-go-there
Fortunately, the situation has changed
of late. In the past few years the government has pensively begun
to promoting tourism again. President Khatami (who was recently
reelected by a landslide) seems to be leaning in the direction
of eventual normalized relations with the West. And me, well,
I finally saw a picture of Damavand and was stunned by how awesome
it looked to ski. I figured it was time to visit the homeland,
so to speak.
Flying in from Europe via Frankfurt, our
crew of six arrived in Tehran at two in the morning. Word was
that Iran had a bountiful winter-more snow then they have seen
in several years. High-altitude corn snow was what we were after
and we were confident that our April 2nd arrival date would be
spot on. Except for the dubious look passport control gave me-the
American with the Persian name-we cruised through customs and
were on a minibus rolling out of a seemingly deserted Tehran.
The drive to the small hamlet of Puloor
was in spooky darkness, the only lights penetrating from our
vehicle. We crashed hard in front of the fire, Mohsen-our local
mountain guide-stoked up in the hearth of the small but comfortable
home that was arranged for us.
We were a strong team: Nico, who had arranged
this trip, is Swiss and the mountains and skiing run through
his blood. Frenchman Laurent resides in one of the largest ski
areas anywhere-le Trois Valleès-and he takes advantage
of the fact most everyday. British Swatch Proteam member, Victoria,
rules on her splitboard knocking off peaks from Mt. Blanc to
the volcanoes of Kamchatka. Her boyfriend Stephen grew up in
Geneva but is American.
Stephen is one of a few Americans who is
a Swiss UIAGM mountain guide. I have been getting my ski fix
for the last ten years over here in Verbier, Switzerland. The
five of us have done a lot of great trips together. Rounding
out the team was Swiss raconteur Nicholas. He is a talented ski
mountaineer from a land where ski touring is almost a national
We awoke in the early afternoon to sunshine.
Everyone but me stepped outside to get a lay of the land. In
a bad case of timing, I had somehow hurt my left ankle in the
days prior to departure. The next day it was as swollen as an
overcooked frankfurter and painful when weighted. All I could
do was to stay calm, ice the ankle, and think positive thoughts-not
easy as I watched my mates leave for an acclimatization ski.
I spent the day getting to know the support
team and practicing my Farsi.
I understand the language well and speak
it decently. (The language came back to me, much to my surprise,
pretty quickly over the course of the month we were there.) Mohsens
calm demeanor masked his mountaineering experience-his first
and foremost love being the mountains and guiding people amongst
them. We tended to listen to his every word as he arched an eyebrow
and gave us his best Omar Sharif look. He had traveled extensively
in Europe, Asia, and Africa in his previous job with an Iranian
telecommunications company. For him, a definite perk of his old
job was being able to climb mountains in the countries he visited.
I had a preconceived notion of the Persians not having much of
a clue about climbing and skiing. In fact, there is an Iranian
Mountaineering Federation that had, for example, sent a team
to Cho-Oyu several years back. Ski touring, mountaineering and
even sport-climbing are becoming more and more popular. Ehson-his
eldest son and a carpenter by trade (carpenter-mountaineer; even
here)-dreams of traveling and climbing as his father had.
This was a recurring theme with the young
Persians we met throughout our stay: the difficulty of obtaining
visas to (and affordability of) travel. That, and the question
we got asked most often: how much we westerners earned. Ill
give you an example. Behrooz, our interpreter, is a geologist
studying at Tehran University. The difficulty of even getting
into T.U. is astonishing. (And will be getting worse-46% of Irans
population is under the age of 15, a result of the devastating
8-year Iran-Iraq war.) He told us of mandatory 12 hours a day
studying to even have a hope of getting accepted. (I thought
back, ruefully, to all the days I cut school with Big Tim to
go skiing or surfing. Jeez.) He now studies and works full time
as a geologist. He earns $100 per month. He can think of no better
thing in life than to travel and study volcanoes, his specialty
and passion. The problem is that between finishing university
and his as of yet uncompleted mandatory two-year stretch in the
army, he is looking at a minimum six years before he can even
think of getting a passport.
Upon the teams return, it became apparent
that we needed to get up to altitude. The team found the snow
down low to be rotten-not only hard to ski but dangerous as well.
As for me, it looked more and more as if I wasnt going
anywhere. My mood-like an out of whack metronome-was alternating
between depression and being pissed off.
But two days later we found ourselves packed
into a jeep and a beater Paykan, (Irans version of the
venerable Dodge Dart) rolling through Puloor, past the tiny storefronts
selling huge wax-paper backed wheels of fruit leather, handmade
brooms, and childrens rubber balls, and up the surprisingly
well maintained road high above the Havaz River. I had been popping
anti-inflammatories like they were Good N Plentys
for the past two days. They seemed to be working. Unfortunately,
plenty was what we didnt have. I had my first views of
the massive volcano and it looked a long way up. Abruptly, we
turned up a rutted dirt road, our weathered driver rocking the
steering wheel like the veteran Paykan jockey he was. Like a
snake on the moon, the road wound up the volcanic, lunar landscape.
Some time later we came upon an unlikely sight:
a small, domed mosque set in a small courtyard at 3000 meters.
Mohsen announced that we had arrived at Gusfan Sarah and that
we would be spending the night here. Now here was a novelty:
how often do you use a mosque as a base to go ski mountaineering?
I asked Mohsen if he has ever seen any Ayatollahs skinning from
here. He looked at me and said, skin che hast? (What
are skins?) We were surprised to find two other teams-French
and Swiss-at Gusfan Sarah. Thierry, head of the Swiss team, told
us of the big melt-off that happened in the last week.
Seems it was possible to skin from just above the mosque. And
now the snow line was almost a thousand meters higher. The view
from the courtyard was tremendous. Across the deep gorge of the
Havaz River was a high ridgeline called the doh boradar
the two brothers. There were enough chutes off of
this ridge that every member of the US, Swiss and Liechtenstein
ski racing teams, along with every member of the World Free Ski
Tour, would be able to get their own perfect shred gully. How
nice. Huge limestone intrusions rose like armor from the deep
gorge, full of possibilities. Stone shepherds huts, in
use for centuries, dotted the dark volcanic tuff near the mosque.
All three teams headed up to Bhargaheh
III-the second hut-in the morning. Nico and Stephen decided it
wisest to walk up to the hut and back down again to help acclimatize.
I was forced to spend the day reading and listening to Buckshot
LaFonque (Bb-b-b-buckshot!). By the time they returned it had
turned hazy and windy, a big chapeau shaped cloud obscuring the
We moved up to Bhargaheh III the next morning,
a light snow joining the wind. I walked the 1100 meters vert
in my telemark boots to protect my ankle from the rough trail.
I met my doctor friend making his way down. He told me that everyone
had left early in the morning for the climb and all were thwarted
by the massive winds up high. Some had come close, all were now
leaving. That night Mohsen cooked up my favorite Persian meal-khoreshe
qeymeh (split pea stew on rice)-for dinner. (If I only had some
limejuice to splash on the qeymeh, I would have been in heaven.)
And with that we settled into our bags in the comfortable hut.
The storm moved in, full of white fury, and stayed put for two
days. A howling west wind buffeted us every time we stepped outside,
the snow stinging exposed skin. I wondered nervously, how it
would be when we finally started to climb.
My eyes are glued shut, locked as sure
as a maiden in a Tollyboy. The ice is frozen to my eyelids and
I cant just yank, unless I want to lose skin. I yell over
the blizzard to Nico-whom I know is having his own issues-to
see if he can get my goggles out of my pack. Bless his heart-he
gets them out and I throw them on. The relief is tremendous and
after a few minutes, my eyes are thawed. I still cant see
but at least my eyes are open. We continue down in tight formation
winding slowly through the rocks, a lot of side slipping in between
mini hop turns, everything tense for 45 minutes. Im glad
we are on skis. I would hate to have to slowly plunge step down.
Finally it lets up a little with the
loss of altitude. The wind isnt as bad, my hands are warming,
and I can see. The snow is good, too. Check out Laurent tele-ing
Later, back in the now well-populated
Bhargaheh III, our crew is worked. It was a valiant effort all
around considering the horrendous conditions we encountered up
high. Dead tired, I fall asleep to the sound of some local guides
singing lilting Persian love songs.
We bailed off of the mountain the next
morning. It was sunny but very windy. Gale-force up high, we
reasoned. Two non-skiing teams had left hours earlier but were
moving very slowly. We gave them no chance of getting up the
volcano. Halfway down to Gusfan Sarah, however, the winds diminished
and it was positively warm out. Now we were second-guessing ourselves.
The lower I walked, the more that nagging feeling of lost opportunity
gnawed at my stomach. It was a tangible thing that I could see
was affecting some of the others as well. By the time we reached
Gusfan Sarah, I was thinking this was unfinished business indeed.
And yes, a couple of the climbers made it up. Ohh, Magic-8-Ball,
will we be returning?-Signs Point To Yes.
Stephen, Victoria, and Nicholas had only
one more week, so we journeyed to the beautiful city of Esfahan
to get our minds off of the mountain and into some culture. After
all, we were in a country with thousands of years of history,
mostly brilliant and some disastrous, yet always fascinating.
Perhaps the best part is that the cultural legacy is entirely
unspoilt by tourism. The days that we spent there were a richness
of sights and sounds. We wandered endlessly through the huge
bazaar, were mesmerized by the Islamic buildings and blue tiled
mosques. We chilled on a comfortable balcony overlooking the
huge Imam Khomeini Square, smoking fruit-flavored molasses tobacco
out of ghalyans (a Persian water pipe), getting seriously into
the Persian state of mind.
We went chaykhunè (teahouse) hopping
for hours on end finding all the best ones, especially the ones
under Esfahans majestic bridges. I quickly fell into a
routine of smoking ghalyans, rapping Farsi with the friendly
locals, and drinking the marvelous tea in large quantities. And
the food had our taste buds reeling from exotic flavor overload
was all too much.
We got back to Tehran and bid adieu to
Stephen, Victoria, and Nicholas. Victoria was ready to leave.
Persian (as well as visiting) women, by Islamic law, must cover
their hair and not show any skin except for the hands and face,
out in public. She was tired of this restriction--of always having
to cover up even when it was very warm out. Many Persian women
--and men-- are tired of this, too. Hopefully these restrictions
will ease in the future.
The rest of us, well, we had unfinished business.
The next day we were back up at Bhargaheh III. Well acclimatized,
we had walked straight up. Sunshine greeted us the following
day and even though we encountered heavy winds and difficult
climbing, we would not be denied this time. We stood on the summit
some seven hours later, said Inshallah, salaamati and merci beaucoup
to the clear sky, tried not to breathe the sulfur fumes, and
proceeded to have a wonderful telemark run down the changeable
snow. And that gnawing depth in the stomach, that feeling of
lost opportunity, well, it floated away on a magic carpet, up
past that great 8-Ball in the sky.
Lying on scripted velvet covered pillows
on the ancient Persian carpet in my grandparent's house in Shiraz
a week later, we lounged and listened to 94 year-old gramps recite
this poem by Sadi, the 12th century Shirazi poet:
If a cloud should rain the water of life,
Never sip it from the branch of a willow-tree.
Associate not with a base fellow,
Because thou canst not eat sugar from a mat-reed.
A note from the author-
This piece was written before President Bushs infamous
Axis of Evil speech. I wrote that: President
Khatami seems to be leaning in the direction of eventual normalized
relations with the West. This was certainly true before
Obviously, things are in a flux at the moment
in the Middle East, as well as the rest of the globe.
Let us hope that all the leaders of the
world will start doing the right thing and let us hope, and work
fervently for, a lasting peace throughout the world---a peace
that will allow exploration and discovery for all peace-loving
Traveling is a wonder, at times so pure
in its wide-eyed simplicity. I am always in awe and childlike
when I journey. Traveling opens up minds, as well as hearts.
And when you can combine it with some telemark action, well,
there is nothing better.
Tolerance is the only real test of civilization.
For more photos, go
Please feel free to check out the links
below and hook up some skiing magic of your own to Iran and beyond
email@example.com (thats me, Bob Mazarei)
And the telemark friends/guides I work with
www.johnfalkiner.com UIAGM Mountain Guide, John Falkiner
www.alpine-guiding.com UIAGM Mountain Guide, Stephen Hadik
www.swissguides.com UIAGM Mountain Guide, Hans Solmssen
www.horizonsnouveaux.com Travel Guru, Nicolas Jaques
to view more Iran images (surf the site as well, all kinds of
Click the lefthand catalog cover, then
Ski et ExpÈditions.