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.