The Peaks of Persia

Sharing the rope on a rare expedition in the mountains of Iran

Vahid Salemi / AP

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.”

In Iran, over the past decade, the sport of climbing has exploded in popularity—and on reflection, it’s easy to understand why: Iran isn’t an easy place to have fun.

The government regulates most aspects of public life, dictating acceptable dress, films, theatrical performances, and music. Censors monitor television, radio, and newspaper communications for politically and socially seditious content. Kisses are edited out of movies. Cellphone service and Internet access exist at the government’s pleasure. There are few public spaces in the towns and cities, and those places are strictly patrolled. A recent mass squirt-gun fight between young men and women, deemed “un-Islamic,” ended in arrests and detentions.

Chafing against restrictions, many Iranians find outlet in the spacious, rugged landscapes of their ancient and beautiful country. On Fridays and Saturdays, the Islamic weekend, and on holidays, people flock to the countryside; the more adventurous are compelled farther afield, into hiking, canyoneering, peak bagging, and technical rock climbing. In such an authoritarian society, the ability to control one’s own destiny is a rare and precious thing. Climbing delivers that ability in significant measure: by and large, around the globe, the vertical world exists beyond government. In it, individuals conform to rules of their own making—and bear the oftentimes harsh consequences of their mistakes.

Sheima Shadman, one of our host climbers, is a lovely 36-year-old woman whose warm, brown eyes and careful, withdrawing smile demonstrate the tensions of her existence. She trained as a computer engineer but found the career stifling. Shadman now serves as a climbing guide, spending most of her working days on Damavand, Iran’s highest peak, which she climbs about 35 times a year. A sticker depicting Rosie the Riveter decorates her aluminum water bottle, and she dreams of exploring the world’s great ranges. “Mountains is free land,” she told me. “Everybody in the mountains is member of this same country.”

Our situations were wildly divergent, but I felt I could understand a motivation of the Iranian climbers. The controls they face brought to mind my time as a West Point cadet, when I discovered the allure of climbing. For me, the sport’s super-charged, magical intensity provided relief from the stern regimentation of horizontal existence. One young Iranian hiker we chanced to meet on Mount Damavand put it this way: “Up here there are no men with long beards and mustaches.”

Two weeks after Alam Kuh, in Sar Darband, a desert canyon in the eastern Alborz Mountains lined with precipitous limestone battlements, I enlisted Amir Hossein Yosefiyan, a 22-year-old just finished with his obligatory military service, and Abdul Hami Aauani, a 62-year-old physical-education instructor, to join Alvarez and me and our interpreter for an attempt on an unclimbed thousand-foot buttress.

As we ascended, the coarse gray limestone roughing the skin of our hands, we worked through a serious language barrier toward some form of a climbing system that kept us safe. Raptors rode updrafts next to the cliff face, and pinwheeling swifts careened around us, whooshing like fighter planes. After eight hours, the angle relented. On the summit, we admired the pastel colors of the desert—gray, light green, tan, and occasional red, with ridgeline behind ridgeline fading into the distant horizon. Aauani flexed his muscles. We had shared an adventure, a success. “Thank you, thank you,” he beamed, and we shook hands, having transcended a great gulf of distance and culture.