Jenn Flemming - Iran

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alpine Climbing in Iran

By Jenn Flemming


“What could possibly go wrong?” asks Chris Weidner, my climbing partner, as I join him at the top of the last snow coulier. Our gear is buried here, eagerly deposited yesterday when plans of rock climbing seemed reasonable.

“For a group of Americans in Iran? Nothing!” I answer what has become our trip’s motto, and I begin to dig through the fresh powder.

Just then, the clouds momentarily part and Alum Kuh emerges, glistening ice and snow-covered ledges and crack systems. The massive, 1,000-foot tall face, looms above us, drenched and intimidating in these conditions. Just yesterday we had stood beneath the face, gazing upward and selecting routes to climb. We had stashed our (rock) climbing gear, hiked out to the shelter, and set our alarm for 3am.

But the weather turned, and by midnight our camp is being alternately drenched in rain and snow. The rest of the team, members of the American Alpine Club climbers exchange in Iran, are camping at the base of Alam Khou. Chris, Mohammad (our base camp manager), Majid (our cook), and myself drink tea and enjoy good company in the warmth of our shelter. Mohammad tells us stories of his adventures climbing solo on Nanga Parbat, incredible details of Persian history and culture, and wonders at our lack of interest in 1990’s Swedish heavy metal.

This trip to Iran is half of a climbers’ exchange program between the American and Iranian Alpine Clubs, orchestrated over the past few years and culminating in our adventures at Alum Kuh. After a year-long process to acquire visas, we found ourselves suddenly escorted through the city of Tehran, winding along its hectic streets, headed for the mountains with thirteen American and as many Iranian climbers.

The premise of the trip is beautiful in its simplicity: a group of human beings brought together by a shared passion for climbing and in spite of immense difference in politics, religion, and culture of our respective countries.

I am incredibly impressed by the effectiveness of such a trip. Our Iranian hosts are kind, gracious, and enthusiastic. And Iran is absolutely beautiful. The Arborz Mountains are reminiscient of the Alps - striking rocky peaks jutting from lush green valleys. Wildflowers dot the green, while glaciers melt into cascading rivers below. As we gain elevation on the hike in to Alum Kuh, golden granite spires emerge. Ridgelines extend in all directions, and, far below, the Caspian Sea is a blue, faint haze.

On day one, Chris and I set out for one of the unclimbed buttresses, circling the base in search of the perfect line to the summit. We finally settle on a slabby arete, splattered in orange lichen that will lead us up to a beautiful roof system. The line is aesthetic and the cracks look perfect; we set out and are pleasantly surprised by the ease with which the route is climbed. A few pitches later, we are sitting on the summit, waving to our friends below who are teaching the Iranians crack climbing technique. We call the route Cafe Mohammad, after our new friend and incredible base camp manager. It is a lovely three pitch 5.10+, an ideal grade to be repeated by the Iranian climbers’ contingency.

The plan is then to climb Alam Khou. However, ill-equipped without crampons or ice tools (we were told none would be necessary) this seems highly implausible. Representing the American Team, super-accomplished alpine climber Mark Wilford and another of our hosts, Mohammad Bahrevar, make a winter style, 13-hour ascent of the German Route on Alum Kuh. In the summer months, the pair would have jaunted up this route almost entirely unroped in just a few hours.

Upon the team’s descent from the mountains, we do the next logical thing. We go sport climbing! The Iranians bring us to Pol-E-Khab, a limestone roadside crag almost indistinguishable from the hundreds of miles of stone we have been winding through in our jeeps. The potential for development here is fantastic, and the climbing is steep, long, and wildly fun.

Our remaining few days in Iran are spent touring the ancient capital of Esfahan - we gape at blue mosques, giant squares with horse-drawn carriages, and pigeon towers. As a group of rowdy, independent-minded climbers we are poorly behaved on our official tours and certainly test the patience of our amazing guides. Time and again, Iranians stop us to ask where we are from. Upon discovering we are American, we are welcomed and even thanked for visiting their country.

A final series of dinners and ceremonies draw us back to Tehran. Our hotel is located a block from the former U.S. embassy, and members of our group are chased away from the elaborate anti-American murals that adorn the walls outside the dilapidated old building.

The trip to Iran was one that I feel privileged to have been a part of. For all the slack I caught from friends and family (you are going climbing where?!), the single most defining aspect of this trip was the incredible hospitality, kindness, and friendship extended to us not only by our hosts, but EVERY Iranian we met along the way. The primary goal of this trip (to overcome political barriers, perceptions, assumptions, etc. and climb together) was, in my mind, exceeded ten fold.

A few of the female climbers and I are already planning another segment of the trip; this one to focus on developing greater climbing skills in the female sect of the Iranian Alpine Club. I am looking forward to going back, because in the end, for a group of Americans in Iran, everything went just right.


Photos: Jenn Flemming, Chris Weidner, Greg Crouch, Mark Wilford, Mohammad Noroozi



Adrian Hurst, Friday, September 9, 2011

Thanks for this great a report. I know how excited David Thoenen was about this journey and I hope it could be a start to more productive communications between our two countries. Thank you for being climbing ambassadors.

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