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Alum Kuh, A Climbing Appointment with the Islamic Republic of Iran

Alum Kuh

A climbing appointment with the Islamic Republic of Iran

by Kath Pyke, United Kingdom

It’s strange how things turn out. I had never really considered Iran to be my top choice of climbing destination, but September, 1998, found myself and three other women venturing cloaked, hooded, and without an unnecessary inch of flesh exposed through the crowds of Tehran airport. We drew curious stares. Our backpacks and haulsack straps contrasted with the somber scene around us, and even their faded hues formed the only point of color in an otherwise predominantly black-and-gray environment. Even at 3 a.m. the airport was in total congestion, largely due to the fact that meeting a relative on a Saturday night is a highly popular family outing.

As we pushed our laden trolleys toward the exit, we couldn’t help but notice the covered, draped nature of every female we encountered. Not a spare wisp of hair was visible, although in some cases elegant footwear and a flash of denim hinted at the possibility of Western dress beneath the obligatory hejab*.

My State-side friends had been incredulous at the concept of Western women climbing in a Middle Eastern country, and remarked equally on the political timing of our visit. The United States had recently bombed various Middle Eastern venues in retaliation for Taliban hardliner Bin Ladin’s (declared “U.S. Enemy Number 1!” by my local Colorado newspaper) campaigns against the West. Within the week, Iran would mobilize forces and headline its own papers with arguments on whether or not it should declare war on Afghanistan.

As guests of the Iran Mountaineering Federation, we were one of the first Western climbing teams to be invited into Iran since the revolution some two decades earlier. The trip had come about through the British Mountaineering Council International Women’s Climbing Meet, held in North Wales some months earlier. Leyla Pope, a climber with dual British/Iranian nationality, had captured our imagination with a report on something largely unknown to the rest of the world: Iranian women’s involvement in climbing. We were curious to learn more. Leyla secured an invitation from the Women’s Mountaineering Federation and assembled a team. The ensuing group was comprised of Celia Bull, Glenda Huxter, Leyla and me, with a track of first ascents and international expeditions between us.

We had been lured to the country with tales of a “second Yosemite,” and our plans were to climb, and possibly attempt a new route, on Iran’s highest north wall, Alum Kuh. Alum Kuh, at 15,819 feet, forms part of the Alborz Range in northern Iran. Its 2,000-foot north face is the finest in the country; as we later found out, it also has a reputation of being one of the world’s deadliest. In exchange for being hosted by the Federation, we would run a climbing skills workshop for some 20 women climbers selected from Iran’s 24 provinces. The focus of our trip was to explore the climbing possibilities, but as the weeks unfolded it became clear that the climbing was merely a backdrop (albeit serious at times) to an insight into a society’s culture and values—a Muslim society, no less, that actively supports the participation of both genders in rock climbing, though via a segregated approach.

One of the problems for the aspiring rock climber in Iran is that, following the revolution, there has been neither information written about climbing areas within the country nor climbing information exchanged with the outside world. Coupled with the fact that women need to be escorted and covered at all times, it soon became obvious to our small British team that our options were hardly flexible.

Three days later we had met with our hosts and been transported by bus and jeep to the trail-head. By now we had donned our more appropriate mountain hejab (a robust and shorter manteau with headscarves tied in the least hot variation). Sweating, we toiled with hardware and altitude through cloud inversion to base camp at 14,500 feet. A preliminary glance soon made clear what language barriers and pigeon Farsi (Farsi is the official language of Iran-Ed.) had failed to impart: namely, that although Alum Kuh is indeed a steep wall, and one composed of granite, it is hardly the “Second Yosemite” with which we had been lured. No one had mentioned that Alum Kuh was capped by several hundred feet of continually discharging rubble, or that fridge-sized stuff regularly scoured the approach slopes.

The next day (our headscarves by now replaced with equally appropriate, but more functional, balaclavas), a closer look from the glacier reinforced our view that there was not much likelihood of doing anything new. Where potential existed there was significant rockfall, and we only had a certain amount of time. Our teams split. Pope and Bull, along with several extra teams from the Federation, opted for the classic 1936 North Ridge route, a clean(er) and classic alternative to the summit. Huxter and I decided to stick with the north wall proper. We picked an obvious and previously climbed line, but with the added adventure bonus of no route details, let alone indication of grade.

For 15 pitches and 20 hours (the latter due to taking a left when we should have taken a right and descending into the wrong valley), we climbed what turned out to be the 1964 Iranian-German Amralaiy-Rost route, a not-too-demanding V+ 5.9+ with two pitches of A2 (N.B.: Brit aid grade!) and chimney sections complete with thick ice pillars at the back. We carefully climbed around these in the sub-zero temperatures, agreeing that they were better dry than dripping. Not so easy was the 400-foot rubble exit, reminiscent of the more esoteric parts of our own British hero crag, Gogarth.

The climb provided a good alpine route, perhaps made more special by the area’s remoteness and the experience of spending an entire week above a cloud inversion generated by the Caspian Sea. Afterward, armed with more knowledge, we wished we’d tried something steeper to the right. However, it was too serious a place to spend too much time; we’d had our own close encounters and were all too aware of the number of people who had come to grief under the aforementioned blocks.

Some days later, we did at last find a source of climbing information at the Rhudbarak home of local guide and village hero, Mr. Nagavi (oh, why didn’t the Federation take us there first?!). Nagavi summited Everest last year and is a national figure, though such news rarely makes its way to the States. We sat cross-legged on a lush Persian carpet surrounded by to-die-for sweetcakes made especially tasty after our previous diet of Magi noodles and dehydrated figs. After being plied with somewhat less savory black tea, we were led shoeless into a dim place known as the Visitors’ Room.

It gradually dawned on us that to cross that threshold was to step back in time. The room was bare, but the walls were covered with beaming team photos, visitors’ books and climbing memorabilia with a singular unifying theme: everything was crumbling, curling, sepia-tinted. The photos showed sideburns and shirts with large pointed collars. In short, everything had halted in 1978. Nothing more than half a page in the visitor book separated the late 1970s entries from the scrawl of two Dutch trekkers who had ventured there this year—half a page representing 20 years of total change in a nation’s society, lifestyle and outlook.

We delved into the archives. Records showed that Alum Kuh supports a number of lines, most of which were put up by European teams in the 1960s and ’70s. There are also a fair number of aid lines, some of which could undoubtedly now go free—and those aspiring to visit the area and dabble with Alum Kuh’s deadly reputation will soon have their chance. Things are changing fast, and the presence of the Dutch trekkers was significant: foreign currency is sorely needed, the dollar is foremost among currencies and tourism is a popular word if not yet a frequent phenomenon. 1998 saw the first map produced for the area in 20 years, and it won’t be long before there’s a climbing guide in English. Even while we were in the country, the Iranian government began a series of changes that now make it possible for Westerners to visit without visas or special invitations.

Back in Tehran, we attended to the other part of our agenda. Playing out the role of political pawns, we met a roomful of journalists, all female and all clad completely in black. We hoped to overcome the visa barrier and set up an exchange for three Iranian women climbers to attend a climbing course in Europe, but first we had to meet our workshop commitment and step into the role of climbing instructors. The course would cover rope work and climbing skills and was focused on raising the standards of women’s guiding to that of their male counterparts.

A week later, ten miles from the outskirts of Tehran, we stood beneath a dripping overhang on a hillside with small crags and outcrops. Our group, mostly under the age of 35, was comprised of some 20 women from a range of backgrounds and household incomes, all of whom were remarkably self-sufficient. We worked with interpreters and our ever-increasing vocabulary of climbing Farsi. There was great curiosity, not least on our part. How would it be to teach climbing and wear harnesses over (or under?) hejab?

As it turned out, there was no such issue. The outer clothing is for mixed company, and with no men around and amid the privacy of the rock outcrops, garments were removed to reveal more functional long pants and loose shirts underneath. The head-scarves remained, but by now they were securely wedged under the ubiquitous baseball cap. As the week progressed, even the headscarf was removed in the intimacy of meal times.

We split into three groups to focus on different skill levels and became acquainted with the participants. Shiva Nani, who was training to be a mountain guide, was in the highest skill level group. Though she was accomplished, to achieve that final extra level of tuition required coaching and assessment by internationally accredited instructors and assessors, preferably female. There were no such people in Iran.

I was lucky to take the beginners’ group. The majority were in their teens, and highly motivated. One individual astounded us by occasionally breaking off into heart-rending Persian folk songs. Another member of my group similarly stood out. Samaih Asgar was 15 years old and came from the town of Mashad near the Pakistan border. She had traveled by bus for 36 hours to attend the workshop. She was accompanied by her father and 14- and nine-year-old brothers, gentle, courteous folk who camped modestly and discreetly away from the group for the entire week. Between them, they had one steel locking carabiner and an oversized and fraying Whillans harness that went round each of them twice. By the end of the week, the workshop had become a family affair: the boys became an integral part of our group and the father watched over the climbing gear when we descended for overnight accommodation in Darband. We wondered at the progressive attitude shown by Samaih’s family in their support for her participation in the skills week.

As the days went by, we realized it was more than just about climbing. Samaih’s father is a teacher, and all his children are being rigorously schooled in English. Samaih is bright and ambitious, though in some ways a little pushy. The word precocious springs to mind. She was always the first to want to do anything, sometimes at the expense of others and her own personal safety. One morning, in her eagerness to examine an instructor’s belay, she soloed up an outcrop only to get stuck on the descent. Only some careful coaxing saved her from a severe fall. But Samaih is challenging attitudes, and if she is to make headway in modern Iran, she needs such an approach. Climbing facilitates that confidence, and we were not there to check it.

Later in the week we ran a bouldering skills session. For some it was their first experience with the discipline. Not so for 24-year-old Parisa Nobari, who has held the position as Iran’s top female indoor competition climber for the past two years. In Iran, climbing competitions are segregated by gender, which allows women to compete without hejab. In mixed company, however, cultural convention dictates that hejab must be worn. For female indoor competition climbers, participation in competitions outside the country is effectively prevented. On this topic, Parisa shrugged and laughed. She was hopeful that one day, constraints would be lifted. Currently, if any Iranian citizen wants to travel outside of Iran, a special visa needs to be obtained, for which large fees are required—something beyond the reach of everyday Iranians. Parisa was less concerned about competing internationally than simply being able to travel freely outside of Iran and meet people from different countries.

The week closed on a high note. It had been a rewarding time of shared experiences and a unique opportunity for Middle Eastern and Western women to meet. In 80°F temperatures, we donned backpacks over hejab and trekked down the hillside and out through the local villages. As we did, we came across a group of men at one of the bouldering areas. They were clad in shorts and vests, their scant clothing the epitome of Western style. Given our sweating and uncomfortable state, the contrast was striking. Shiva, the aspirant guide, smiled wryly and plodded on. To our Western outlook the scene screamed of injustice, but we were not there to judge. The trip had been about insights and opportunities, and it did not seem fitting for minds conditioned in the West to pass judgment on Middle Eastern values after only a few weeks.

Courtesy of a generous invitation, we recuperated from the week’s demands in the privacy of a British/Iranian home. Set in the quieter suburbs of Tehran, high walls hid landscaped grounds, and a liberal atmosphere more akin to pre-revolution Iran prevailed. Our hejab lay crumpled by the pool as we swam with many more inches of flesh exposed. Partygoers arrived, sipped illicit gin, and exited in miniskirts beneath the obligatory cloaked streetwear.

In the last few weeks my entire experience had been dominated by clothing and headdress. Free of this aspect for one afternoon, my thoughts returned to our earlier adventures on Alum Kuh. I talked to someone from the Federation about the fragility of the Alum Kuh region and we discussed the new pressures: the encroaching roads, the mining, the less-than-scrupulous muleteers and the piles of batteries and blackened cans smoldering in heaps next to mountain huts. Changing times call for new approaches, and Iran, with its awakening tourism, needs its own resource management plan as much as, if not more than, our Western homelands. My mind raced with possibilities for international agency partnerships, grant funding and just how far the dollar goes in such places.

Tehran airport was on full alert. We left the country amid heightened security, and from a terminal surrounded by sandbags and antitank missiles. As we did, I pondered why I had dragged a haul sack of effectively unused hardware half-way around the world in search of a Second Yosemite. And I wondered why I had put myself through an experience so uncomfortably dominated by what you wear and how this makes you feel. Mountaineering in hejab is undoubtedly hard; on the approaches alone, you dehydrate faster than in more practical clothing. And in my three and a half weeks in Iran I had not had one conversation with a man other than at the private party. But these are the views of a mind conditioned by Western society. Without knowledge of Iranian society, Western preconceptions of Iran are frequently misguided at best. It would take much more than three and half weeks to come to any conclusion on issues of dress and gender segregation.

By working within cultural dictates, and to some extent supported by the efforts of the Women’s Mountaineering Federation, Iranian women are freely able to climb. Education, per-capita income and international policy may be the greatest barriers to developing those carefully acquired skills any further.

Back in body-beautiful Boulder, the contrast between our two societies is driven home by one singular item—the sports bra. Culture, religion and 9,000 miles separate whether it is viewed as an under or outer garment. It is almost impossible to venture onto Boulder’s rock faces or sidewalks without viewing the omnipresent item. With its sleek line revealing flesh (and sexuality), I am constantly reminded that in other parts of the world, women who climb lead their lives very differently.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Alborz Range, Iran

Ascent: The Almralraiy-Rost route (V+ 5.9+ A2, 15 pitches) on the north face of Alum Kuh (15,819'), September, 1998, Kath Pyke and Glenda Huxter

*Hejab is the Iranian term given to appropriate dresswear in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). In post-revolution Iran, the black, all-enveloping “chawdor” (literal translation: tent) has been replaced in urban areas and among the younger generation with the equally acceptable ankle-length “manteau,” or coat, usually matched by a white or black headscarf.)