Iran: a country subject to many prejudice and controversy. What better way to find out if any of this is true than travel there myself and climb the 5610m Damavand mountain while I’m there?

Mountain Network

This alpine trip to climb Damavand was organised by Mountain Network. I’ve worked with this travel agency before when shooting their French Alps offerings. My experiences with Mountain Network have been excellent, and I can’t recommend them enough for anyone looking to try a taste of alpinism. When the agency first asked me to travel to Iran, I needed a few minutes to think about it. I’m all for new experiences, but most of what we hear and see in Western media focuses exclusively on negative stories from this country.

Safety in Iran

Luckily, there’s the excellent Dutch TV show called Our Man in Teheran. In this series, Thomas Erdbrink, a foreign correspondent stationed in Iran, tells about daily life in the country. What’s great about the series is that Erdbrink is brutally honest about both the good and bad aspects of life in Iran. He paints a very realistic and credible picture. Based on what I saw in this series and the information provided by Mountain Network, I felt perfectly comfortable taking the trip.

In retrospect, I feel the situation in Iran can best be summarised as a juxtaposition. On the one hand, the country is ruled by a strict religious regime that enforces quite a few laws and customs that absolutely don’t match with those of Western society. On the other hand, and most importantly, there’s the Iranian population. These are perfectly normal people that often disagree with their government’s practices as much as you and I. They have just learned to live with it and keep up their act when they need to.

Without wanting to get into politics, I implore you to not judge an entire country just by looking at its religious and political elite class. What’s more, I haven’t felt unsafe for even one instant in Iran. Honestly, I’ve felt more unsafe at times at night in my own city than I did in Teheran. People are super kind, hospitable and helpful. Moreover, since the tourism industry is hugely underdeveloped in Iran, you won’t have to fight off any locals hoping to make some easy money, which is quite a contrast with some tourist destinations around Europe.

Photo story: climbing Damavand

We’d start our trip with a day in Teheran after landing in the country late at night. We’d arranged a local guide who took care of transport and guided us around some landmarks. Though most of us probably wouldn’t book a guided tour normally, with the language gap, short night and slight culture shock it was nice to get a bit of help on this first day. Next day, we started our trek proper. We embarked on a three day hike to the town of Polour at the bottom of Damavand. This 5610m peak that was to be the grand finale of this trip. After an acclimatisation climb up a lower peak we’d then go up and down Damavand in another three days’ time. Finally, we’d return to Teheran for another day of sightseeing.

In order to make for some super easy reading, the rest of this article will present a bunch of photos with the captions providing some background.

Epic view of Teheran from our hotel, which was located on top of a hill in a huge park dead center in the middle of the city. The 360 degree view of this metropole was phenomenal. The shisha lounge playing loud music all night that was located just underneath our hotel wasn’t.

Starting our trek through Dar valley, which must be one of the prettiest places I’ve seen in my life. Even the European Alps don’t quite compare to this lush and mountainous landscape.

Gearing up in the face of some very black clouds.

One surprise our guides hadn’t quite prepared us for probably were the water levels in the ‘small streams’ through the valley we had to cross. As quite a bit more snow had fallen during the winter, these streams were proper fast flowing and ice cold rivers we had to wade through, with the water reaching as high as our thighs.

Our Dutch guide Barbara enjoying a post hike rest at our mobile camp, that our Iranian guides set up for us each day.

Quite possibly the most beloved guide of them all: our cook, who came up with the most surprising and nutritious meals in the middle of bloody nowhere.

Birthday celebrations, middle of bloody nowhere style.

Measuring blood saturation as a predictor of altitude sickness. This became a daily ritual, and while our guide Barbara implored us not to read too much into dropping saturation levels, it was a relief to see the levels remain steady every time we measured them.

First view of Mount Damavand from close to the Dar valley. Damavand is actually a potentially active volcano, though it hasn’t erupted for over 7000 years. Our route to the summit pretty much followed the right contour of the mountain.

Barbara calling in to Mountain Network HQ via satellite phone.

Day 2 of the Dar valley trek.

Dramatic view down Dar valley late afternoon.

More drama.

One of our guides rigged a slackline between two of the tour’s 4WDs.

Barbara giving the slackline a go.

Packing up our tents in the morning.

Resting during the acclimatisation climb, with a perfect view of our target for the next couple of days. During acclimatisation climbs like these, the goal is to spend some time at altitude, while not exerting yourself too much.

Typical view of a shared bedroom during our stay in the town of Polour, located at the bottom of Damavand. We spent two nights here, allowing our bodies to get even more used to the slight elevation before going up the actual mountain.

Our guesthouse in Polour turned out to feature a full fledged ice climbing training gym in the back. It was also perfectly usable as a makeshift football pitch to host the Dutch-Iranian bi-national championship.

Basecamp on Mount Damavand, which looked like a mosque but was actually just three makeshift sleeping quarters.

Inside the former mosque, I found a tiny sliver of light hitting the wall. I brought in all of my teammates to shoot a dramatic and heroic portrait of each of them. It’s always nice to follow the light and this was a total treat.

The fellowship, en route to high camp on Damavand.

Portrait of Bart, one our team’s members.

Enjoying some downtime in our rather cold sleeping quarters.

Dramatic sundown over a neighbouring mountain ridge. It was right around this time that we got the word from Barbara that we’d be putting in our bid for the summit one day early. We were supposed to take another easy acclimatisation climb part way up the mountain the next day, but bad weather forecasts for the day after meant a change of plans. It was a weird sensation for us, as if both your birthday and a very important exam were all of a sudden moved forward one day.

Our Belgian team member Jelle showing off his moustache

En route to the summit. This climb is actually meant to be a hard hike but not feature any alpine conditions. As I mentioned above though, an exceptional amount of snow had fallen this year, which meant that hike had turned into a proper alpine climb.

Reaching the summit. The yellow haze seen here is actually sulphur that is constantly leaking out of the volcano. Yes, it smelled as bad as it looks.

Harry displaying some proper summit relief.

Ieke being sat down gently on the summit, after fighting her way up there despite the heavy conditions. At this point, I was actually feeling fine myself, but that changed on the way back down. It would appear that I was so preoccupied with taking photos on the summit, that I forgot to refuel and eat a bunch to recover from the climb. While descending, I felt very weak and couldn’t put in the pace I knew I normally should be able to. It did help that rather threatening thunder was making its way over to the mountain, which meant we all had to haul ass back down.

Bart and yours truly enjoying an non alcoholic beer back in basecamp.

What better way to recover from a hard climb than to sweat your ass off in a bathhouse? This one actually involved a little bit too much sweating for our taste, so our guide spent about an hour pouring somewhat colder water into the burning hot baths.

Back in Teheran, we paid a visit to magical Darban street. Located in the far North of the city, this street is entirely filled with bars, restaurants and tiny shops and stalls. It is built next, on and in a wild river, basically making it look like a 20th century reincarnation of Lord of the Rings.

Said river, and yes, that would be a teahouse / shisha lounge right in the river. You can just make out the girl waving at me here – she actually invited me and my friends over to sit with them. Being the somewhat reserved Westerners that we are, we politely declined and sat down on one of the other platforms. They kept inviting us over though, so eventually we did go over and had some tea together. The warmness and genuine interest of these and many other Iranians was a truly unique thing to experience.
As you can see, the girl isn’t wearing a headscarf here, which might strike you as surprising and outright dangerous. She told us though that you just have to know when and where you can take it off. Same goes for alcohol. As I mentioned above, it’s all about keeping up appearances when you need to, but many Iranians feel more sympathy for Western society than they do for their own government.