Persian ‘pitch’ perfect

Hanniah Tariq offers a number of reasons why you should look to our neighbours on the Iranian plateau if you're planning a climbing trip

To the more privileged in our society only Europe or North America pass as acceptable climbing destinations. I had not thought of Iran as an option either. But then last year I got a call from an old friend, an alpinist from France, asking to accompany a training and evaluation module for a group of Iranian mountain guides. Citing his “French disposition towards laziness” I was offered a free ticket to do the dirty work (any kind of paperwork is considered ponderous by many guides it seems). It seemed like a terrific opportunity – so off I went to get my visa. But as the trip got closer, more and more people cautioned me that it is too conservative a place for a female to be traveling for rock and ice-climbing alone, even though I was going to join a bunch of local guides. And consequently, as I packed I was far more concerned with appropriate clothing, comfortable scarves, shirt lengths and pepper spray rather than with actual equipment. Lonely Planets were bought and friends who had been there previously called frantically for advice. It was hilarious how little I really knew about our neighbours or what the experience would be like. I was frankly just quite miffed that I would have to spend the entire time with a scarf on or that actual ‘morality police’ (Guidance Patrols of the Iranian Law Enforcement Force) might show up. No joke: you can get arrested. And so, with many friends’ warnings still ringing in my head I boarded my flight to Tehran.

Guides climb a pitch on the Behistun

The pleasant surprises began right at the airport where I was immediately struck by how confident Iranian woman were in the public sphere. Scarves and long shirts notwithstanding, these women moved around in a smiling, self-assured way their Pakistani counterparts rarely display. They look everyone in the eye when talking and often smile and talk to strangers on the street – like my very large mountaineer French friend who was asked constantly on the streets of Tehran where he came from. I had been worried about being the only woman among 12 Iranian guides and their French instructor. But as I saw these women mill about, the very antithesis of the ‘oppressed’ sketch that had been drawn for me, I began to relax.

The first leg of the trip was to a heritage site: the Behistun Tower in Kermanshah, in the west of Iran. An all-night bus takes you from the crowed city center of Tehran, and as you wake up slowly taking in the scenery outside the window, you are in a desert. It is hard to miss the Tower as you get into town, its 5 km expanse and 1,200 meters of upright limestone rock is a sight to behold. Sport, traditional, multi-pitch, beginners and bouldering – everything can be found on this one imposing structure. However, it also has sections protected by UNESCO as it is home to the Behistun Inscription, carved into the limestone by Achaemenid ruler Darius the Great. It is a site of great historical importance and the 15m by 25m carving, about 100 metres high up on a cliff, is proof that Iranians have been climbing since the dawn of time – or so one of the guides joked as we walked past.

Fesenjan - a rich stew of duck, walnut and pomegranate sauce

The senior-most guide then turned around and motioned that I could remove my scarf. When I looked hesitant he offered up this gem, "People, Police, State. Not the same. We are the People"

Making our way to the pitches my scarf kept flying off and I was struggling to keep up when some of the guides started laughing. We were all experiencing a language barrier as most of their English was rudimentary and my Persian non-existent. The senior-most guide then turned around and motioned that I could remove my scarf. When I looked hesitant he offered up this gem, “People, Police, State. Not the same. We are the People.” As it was a relatively deserted place no one cared, all they wanted to do was offer the woman with them the same unhindered chance of climbing as the men.  During the rest of the trip all women we came across climbing the tower displayed various levels of modesty. I even saw some in long shorts. But the Iranian climbing community seems to graciously allow everyone to be themselves and the women come in all forms. Farkhondeh Sadegh, part of the first Iranian women’s duo to make it to the top of Everest in May 2005, did so with a scarf on her head. When heckled about it, she famously retorted that ‘our scarves keep us warm’.

Another pleasant surprise is that language barriers breakdown very fast for Pakistanis in Iran. Even the linguistically impaired like me can start to learn very fast - especially when it comes to basic needs. The words for ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ are nearly the same in Urdu and Farsi – as are so many others! Admittedly, though, I used the second word a lot more than the first throughout the climb (the limestone on the tower gives great grip but is very sharp and many cuts were dosed by Aloe Vera by the end of the day). Fruits and vegetables mostly also seem familiar. For example, shouting the word in Urdu for ‘apple’ (seb) to one of the guides got me an apple as well as lots of surprised laughs. It does turn out, however, that swear-words, which inevitably escape your mouth when you are on a pitch that is above your capability, need no translation. They can be delivered with gusto in English and are understood with a lot of fraternal laughter.

Mashing up some Dizi

As days passed by another huge surprise for me was the food. In Pakistan if you think about Iranian food the mind conjures up a delicious kebab with some fluffy rice. However, in Kermanshah I had some great chicken stew with preserved lemon and a chutney made of pomegranate seeds that I spent months trying to replicate when I got back. In Gilan province they serve duck filled with walnut sauce that I still dream about. In the Ardabil province tiny shops offer a delicious local soup which they called a Dizi or Abgousht. It requires much commitment and patience to prepare from both the cook and the customer. I saw two of the guides get a beautiful-looking broth with what looked like meat and chickpeas, warm and piping. Then to my horror they bashed it in a claypot with a wooden pestle till it looked roughly like a lumpy Haleem. A time-tested way of having this soup, I am sure, but I chose to annoy everyone and have it without the extra viciousness inflicted. In Tehran, you will find an actual Haleem but it is garnished with cinnamon and sugar – me pouring lemon juice and ginger on it instead and then asking for some coriander was probably a greatly upsetting sight for my hosts.

Kermanshah - the veiw from the Behistun Tower

The next stop on the trip was to climb Mount Damavand, Iran’s highest peak. It is a non-technical mountain (a volcano really) which most people in reasonable shape can accomplish. We were not that lucky of course, the weather turned and we had to return to the small town at its base. And there lies another amazing little secret surprise for climbers going to Iran. Natural hot springs run under some of the mountains. So, if the mountain defeats you, you can always go have a soak in the healing warmth of the soothing and mineral rich-waters at the base of this stratovolcano and forget all about your troubles. Our last stop was for ice-climbing at Mount Sabalan, the third highest mountain in Iran, a short flight from Tehran. The approach to the mountain is green and lush, with many nomadic tribes still carrying on their old way of life in small villages. But the ascent to the top of Sabalan is not for the faint-hearted. A long trudge in the snow and then an ice-wall stands in your way which the Wildlings from Game of Thrones may find quite familiar-looking. It was a grueling day with only 3 of the 14 making it to the very top. But the climb was worth it anyway.

Mount Damavand

If the mountain defeats you, go have a soak in the healing warmth of the soothing and mineral-rich waters at the base of this stratovolcano and forget all about your troubles

When we got to camp that night I finally found a similarity in our climbing cultures. After everything I had been surprised by on the very eventful trip, this was most entertaining. As the last one to wander up, I heard our normally calm, very professional mountain guides arguing vehemently in Farsi. The team which had come up earlier had left some food and provisions for us to survive the night in comfort, but the exact location was lost due to heavy snowfall and was now being heavily disputed between the two groups. Then someone realised he had dropped his ice-screw somewhere on the way up. And the French instructor yelled at everyone for taking too much selfies. I was the only one laughing at the end, but it finally felt like climbing at home!