I had expected sun-drenched rock, but early on we found ourselves standing shin-deep in fresh snow below the north face of Alam Kuh, the second-highest peak in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A storm then swept in from the northwest and hemmed us into our tents, pounding the cirque with snow pellets, lightning strikes, and continuous thunder. Forty-eight hours later, we went climbing.
A bitter wind drove snow through the Alborz Mountains that morning, blurring the contrasts of the landscape: the colossal drop to the glacier on our right hand, the racing gray sky, the vague browns of distant ridges, the pale greens of far-off valleys. In front of us, a rock ridge ended in a bleak alpine plateau. Beyond, clouds wrapped the peak toward which we were scrambling—the 15,912-foot summit of Alam Kuh.
We were part of an unlikely expedition in the late spring of 2011, members of a climbing exchange between the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Club of Iran, clinging to the slopes north of Tehran. Somewhere, in the political tempests below, a pair of American hikers still languished in Iranian captivity, but alongside Stephen Alvarez, from Tennessee, and Mary Ann Dornfeld, a Coloradan, I was climbing through the storm at 14,500 feet with two Iranian companions: Saeid Mahmodi, a chef in his flatland existence, and his wife, Mahsa Hokamzadeh, one of Iran’s best female rock climbers. (Three other Americans and one Iranian were on different parts of the mountain.) The language barrier precluded nuanced communication, but our shared passion for high and wild places allowed us to begin building relationships.
The outing was the brainchild of David Thoenen, a retired computer-systems consultant who chairs the American Alpine Club’s Southern Appalachian Section. Inspired by his Persian wife, and by the club’s history of conducting climbing events with “hostile” nations (the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Slovenia during the Iron Curtain era, and a recent women’s exchange with Communist China), Thoenen undertook the colossally complex task of creating this goodwill expedition. Quite apart from foreign relations, Iran’s own history with climbing is fraught. The sport was once a nexus of anti-Shah dissent, and after the Iranian revolution, the new government feared that the rebellious impulses of young, well-educated people drawn to mountain adventure might end up directed against the Islamic regime. Officials began keeping watchful eyes on the country’s many local climbing clubs.
This attitude of suspicion was readily apparent in Tehran, where anti-American graffiti adorned the walls of the former U.S. Embassy compound, and a downtown mural covering a 10-story building showed an American flag, skulls in place of stars, bombs falling out of the ends of unfinished stripes. Down With the U.S.A. was painted across it in 10-foot-tall black letters. Leaving the city, we stopped along the road to pick up another Iranian climber and rebalance our equipment. Spilling out of our vehicles, we began snapping pictures, unaware that we’d stopped in front of a battery-manufacturing plant owned by the Iranian army. And equally unaware that taking photos in the vicinity of the plant was illegal. Three guards and their boss, dressed in ominous black, stormed out of a gatehouse and hauled off two of our Iranian hosts. Ninety minutes later, we were still sweltering on the hot pavement when suddenly the security team returned with our hosts. To our utter amazement, the guards convened a roadside ceremony and presented us with a verse from the Koran in an ornate frame—Sura 68, Ayat 51 and 52, a citation typically deployed to protect the faithful from the nefarious eyes of unbelievers. A token to ward off evil, it was intended as a gift to speed us on our way. “In Iran, you never know what’s going to happen,” one of our hosts, Abbas Sabetian, explained, shaking his head. “You have to be ready for anything.”