Damavand (August 4th – 5th)

Damavand. It’s all in the name. It sounds like a beast, and for good reason – it is a beast. The highest peak in the Middle East and the highest volcano in all of Asia, this 5671metre titan dominates the Alborz mountain range. After climbing Ben Nevis and Snowdon and hiking in the Alps and the Dolomites, I have wanted to climb a proper mountain for years. Ararat was the one I had in mind for a long time in this journey. But that was before I knew it was definitely not advisable to do it without a permit, before I knew of a peak 500+ metres higher where supposedly no permit was necessary…

I met Layla and Farhad a married couple at a party/gathering in a villa up in the mountains the previous weekend. Layla had climbed Damavand once when she at university and Farhad had 5 ascents under his belt. They were up for making another excursion there the following weekend. I tried to coordinate the trip with some German and Swiss cycle tourers, but sadly our programmes didn’t coincide.

It was a super early start in Tehran. We were up at 4 and gone by 5. Couple hours later Damavand came into view. We stopped for breakfast (double fried egg n bread) as sun broke over the peak. We parked up at the some kind of mountaineers’ club house in the valley bottom, and were surprised to learn that they wanted to charge me, Jonny Foreigner, $50 for a permit to climb Damavand. Farhad contested this and ended up offering $20 to support the mountaineers club.

A 1hour “taxi” ride in the back of a truck (15minutes on road/45minutes off road) then took us to the foot of the mountain. It was beautiful but I was told that Spring is the best time to visit for there are poppies brightening up the landscape. It would have been possible to climb from the very bottom but for this you would need to add an additional couple of days. The reason we left Tehran so early was so we could secure a place in the basecamp as opposed to pitching a tent outside. This would make all the difference to our sleep because at 4100metres it gets pretty cold and windy. The four hour walk from the bottom was nice n easy and definitely lulled in me into a false sense of security. Indeed when we reached basecamp in the early afternoon I thought we could nail the summit that same day if we tried. On the way up we were offered a homemade Damavand honeycomb and water energy drink which made for a tasty glucose boost…

We were one of the first groups in basecamp – a recently constructed two storey stone building which could sleep around 40. We chatted to others, slept after the early start, and munched some food. At 4100metres high the plan was to stay here the night to acclimatise to the altitude and leave early the following morning. I felt pretty groggy, partly from the early start but also from the altitude. It was nothing too bad – something like a hangover from drinking too much red wine. I was offered an AMS pill by a guy outside but didn’t really fancy it and declined. Poor Layla was suffering the effects of altitude sickness and was chundering. She was not the only one in basecamp who was too sick to climb. A group next to us gave her an injection which eased the symptoms a touch. We rested some more and watched the sun move across the sky in anticipation of what the West face of the mountain is famous for – the epic sunset. And she didn’t disappoint. Two bands of cloud parallel to the horizon made for a godly triple sunset, mountain tops visible into the far distance. One of the best sunsets I can recall witnessing. After scoffing down a little more pasta I turned in for the night.

A really rough night’s “sleep” followed and I woke up at 4am feeling likely I had put away another 2 glasses of red wine on top of how I felt the day before. We ate a tiny bit of food, put on our thermals, donned our headtorches, did up our boots and readied ourselves mission ahead. Layla wanted to join but after throwing back up some tea it really didn’t seem like a good idea. At 5am we left basecamp and started the mammoth climb in the darkness…

From basecamp onwards it was scree at an ever increasing gradient. Not once did we stop for more than 10minutes on the ascent. We couldn’t have done so because of the early morning temperature. The double thick pair of socks were 100% necessary. I felt like I hadn’t eaten enough. Cheese, walnuts, and wafer thin bread just didn’t provide the energy reserves demanded by this climb. Night turned to day, and after the sun rose we could see Damavand’s giant shadow cast on the valley basin below.

The weather was perfect. Despite this, I still found the climb extremely demanding and my heart was in perpetual warp-drive during the ascent. The higher I went the more pounding my headache became to the point where it felt like some sort of a pneumatic vice.

The last stretch was particularly steep and for every step forward we took, we slid back down a half. Barely any of it was solid, but mostly scree. Farhad announced we were 200 metres from the summit from looking at the altimeter on his watch. I felt so rinsed and energyless that I could easily have given up. Problem was the descent didn’t look any easier than the ascent so I might as well continue, plus how depressing that would have been to be defeated by this sleeping giant. We traversed some snow patches and joined the back of another group which helped drag us (me) higher. Someone on his way down told us we were 20minutes from the summit. I just about had it in me to do it…

At around 1230, 7.5 hours after starting, we finally made it.

I thought the triumph of reaching the summit would eclipse the hardship of the ascent, but in reality I felt so trashed that I couldn’t have cared less where I was. That said it did look pretty cool. Something like an alien spaceship landing site. Snow filled a big bowl.Emerald green rocks formed the backdrop and choking sulphurous smoke spewed over the whole scene. The view was grand but too hazy to see into the far distance. I was too whacked to do the 360°C tour of the summit and after 15minutes mostly spent lying down I turned and prepared myself for the descent…

From previous experience I know the descent is often harder than the ascent, so I was preparing myself for an ordeal. Because it was such a well-trodden path the stones had worn into pebbles and for a large part it was possible to slide my way down half snowboarding, half snow blading. This didn’t last forever though and for the most part it was long and slow walk on very unsteady ground often using the hands for support. I gotta be honest I really struggled, through lack of energy and added effects of the altitude. I’d be interested to know what percentage thinner the air was at the summit compared to ground level. I felt like I wished I had the Salbutomol at hand.

I made it back down for basecamp just after 4. I was happy to learn that I wasn’t the only one who had stuggled making the summit; a group of Polish mountaineers same age as me also suffered the pounding headache and other effects of AMS which hampered their progress significantly.

I was crackered and my face had been burned to a crisp, but we still had to make it back down to the taxi truck. The walk down from the basecamp was nothing but serene. The camaraderie of the adventure had been great to experience. Sunlight glistened off the river valley in front of me. Behind me towered the beast we had just tamed. I was filled with a divine feeling of peace and euphoria…

…I would go as far as saying that climbing Damavand was the most difficult thing I have ever attempted. It was good to get a small window into the world of big mountain climbing. Maximum respect to all those who take on the biggest peaks especially without oxygen….

Conclusion: Worth it, but a total rinse-out.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s