Part 3 of this blog can be found here. This blog covers my Mount Damavand climb.
On Wednesday, 5th August 2015 I wake up on a concrete floor in converted stables. Sleep has been OK, if broken. My ageing body is not used to sleeping on a thin blow up mattress. It was warm enough to sleep just in a sleeping bag liner, though someone has opened a window during the night.
I celebrate by changing my underpants for the first time since going to Tochal! As I stir I feel a lump in the softshell top I had been using as my pillow. A familiar pattern shows itself creeping out of one of the sleeves. Although I am more awake than asleep, it takes a moment or two to register and for my brain to compute. Joy! It’s my buff. My curiosity as to how it got there is overtaken by the relief of having found it. It’s surprising how small things can change the mood for the day, though I do not disclose to my team mates my discovery. I wonder if they detect any change in me?!
Breakfast is served. As this is largely fried eggs, I make do with cake and a couple of bananas. Today we will ascend around 1,200m (4,000ft) to camp 2, known as Bargah Sevom. Unfortunately Neil decides he will not be coming with us. He has been suffering from intestinal and fitness issues. So a taxi back to Tehran is organised for him. He will wait for us back at the Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel.
It is, as forecast, a beautiful day as the bags and food are loaded on to the mules. We will just carry day sacks.
One advantage of the Ferdowsi was the availability of the internet. Many sites, such as BBC News, Facebook and other social media channels, are blocked in Iran. However, our trusty mountainforecast.com was not. This was a service we had used in South America last year and their forecasting did not seem to be too bad. So before leaving the hotel I had obtained the most up to date information. Unfortunately the forecast for our summit day attempt in two days was not promising; the day before was not forecast to be much better. Today would have been a good day!
We leave the camp before the mules but they pass us after 40 minutes. We will next see our bags dumped up at camp 2. The dusty path zig zags up easily. There are lots of people around. Thursdays and Fridays are the weekend in Iran, so we guess that some were taking a long weekend.
Here is a very foreshortened view up towards the summit on our way up to camp 2.
And here is a shot looking down to camp 1 (on the extreme left of the picture).
We have a couple of stops on the way and after around 4 hours we arrive at Bargah Sevom. This was the first permanent camp to be built on Damavand. The original shelter is still there, but a new larger shelter was constructed in the early 1990s above the original one. Terraces have also been created on the hillside to pitch tents. We will be staying in the newer shelter. Here it is.
Shortly after taking this picture my camera packs in. In the shelter, even after fiddling around with it for a while I cannot get it to work. The automatic focus has gone and I drain the battery with the attempts to revive the camera. Thank goodness for mobile phones and their cameras. I am not happy, but there you go.
Here is the view from the entrance to the shelter.
And some more gear being deposited by mules.
Then I get in the way of the view.
We are shown to our room by the entrance to the building, a dormitory with three sets of double bunks. Being located there it is a bit noisy. And nosey people keep opening the door to see what/who is there! The first task is to have some tea, cake and digestives in the communal dining area. A large group of Poles come in, loud but good natured. We have a brief chat with them. They intend to make a summit attempt on Saturday as they have not been anywhere else to acclimatise. Whilst we are having our tea it starts to snow. It does not last long, but the temperature here is noticeably colder than anywhere else we have been.
We then fester until 7pm when our dinner will be ready. A conversation then begins about the possibility of making the summit attempt the following day. None of us seem to be suffering any ill effects from the altitude. But we leave things as they are.
The shelter is getting busier so we decide to bag places in the communal dining area at 6.30pm. It is as well that we do because it is packed. People who are camping come in to warm themselves up. Some who have not pre-booked accommodation in the shelter and do not have tents would sleep on the floor here. There is also a small shop where provisions can be purchased.
The meal is lamb and rice with a date sauce – there are the stones in it to prove it! It is pretty tasty. As we are eating a man with a pipe starts up. This leads to some dancing and general merriment. Here is a video to show it.
A bit of a cultural hit! This lasts 20 minutes or so and the place clears out soon after it finishes. We dwell over orange tea and the remnants of more non-alcoholic beer that we have had with the meal, if only because it is warmer in the communal area. The sun sets and it becomes dark at around 8pm. At about 7.15pm a generator is switched on and provides power for lights and power sockets. Occasionally it cuts out. Darkness then envelops the place so we have to switch on head torches. But it does mean that I can re-charge my phone when we get back to our room.
So that night I go to bed anticipating a 9.30am start for our acclimatisation walk the next day.
I sleep solidly for 5 hours until 3am. I am then disturbed by people who are moving around in the building preparing for their Damavand climbs. So I lie there slightly frustrated that I cannot get back to sleep listening to conversations I cannot understand occurring outside the window.
At some point I drift off into a disturbed slumber. Stu is up before 8am and returns to the room to report that the guides are suggesting going for the summit now. The forecast for the next day is now worse. Indeed a big fall of snow with strong winds is likely.
I don’t feel best prepared – I should have got up and left at 3am! Indeed the normal departure time is between 5am and 6am. We are told to aim to leave just after 9am. With just fried eggs for breakfast I am stuck with cake and tea.
The clients are ready for 9am but the guides are not. It is still chilly at this hour. It is also a beautiful day. In this photo the “cloud” in the centre is in fact steam from fumaroles high up on the mountain.
Eventually we get going at 9.30am – very late. Most commentaries tell you that it takes between 5 and 7 hours to climb from the shelter to the summit. And then a further 3 to 4 hours to descend. We set off at a steady pace. Arrvind says he will plod along at the back and will do his best. After an hour or so we have our first proper stop. By now Arrvind is 5 to 10 minutes behind. Majid announces he will stay with Arrvind and Mehti will look after the rest of us. He also says that at 5,000m Mehti will see how things are going and decide whether or not we will continue. Also, there will be no second chance tomorrow if we go above 5,000m but fail to summit. So the pressure is on!
As I fiddle around, head down, with my rucksack Mehti and the other four set off. By the time I realise what is happening and have finally sorted myself out they are already 200m ahead of me. I start off again trying both to catch them up but also not to over exert myself. Over exertion can bring on altitude related problems. I never catch them.
The terrain under foot is typical of volcanoes. Loose scree is interspersed with ribs of rock on a fairly steep consistent gradient. The scree is not as bad as we had found in South America so it is not always a two steps up, one step down experience. But you do have to be alive to your foot placement. I grit my teeth and for an hour or so I have them in my sights but then they disappear. I do drop Arrvind and Majid after about 20 minutes.
I am not alone on the mountain though. I start to overtake a few who are on their way up and then, eventually in greater numbers, pass others on their way down. The broad slopes have a myriad of trails weaving around and over the rocky ribs. I do wonder, if a decision were made to turn around, how on earth this would be communicated to me. I grow a little frustrated and annoyed that they do not wait for me. But on the other hand I meet some people who I might not otherwise have done. Basically I am climbing the mountain by myself.
There are few obvious features on this ascent. However, one is a 12m high frozen waterfall at 5,100m. This is fed by a small glacier above, snow and moisture from clouds which freezes on contact. It never flows.
As I pass groups I give a hearty “salaam”. My accent is an obvious give away and normally I receive an enquiry as to where I am from. When I provide my reply I am met with a mix of friendliness and slight bewilderment as to why an Englishman is climbing Mount Damavand by himself.
As I scramble up one particular rocky rib I pause to regain my breath. Here a German passes me on his way down. His English is poorer than my German but we converse in a fitful manner. He has made it to the top but is tired. His colleagues are ahead of him – I know the feeling!
Shortly after then I meet an Iranian guiding a party of eight. He is most concerned about my welfare and wants to know how I am. He asks where my guides are and warns me of the poor weather that is forecast. I assure him I am alright and I know about the forecast. I am tracking my progress on my GPS so if the conditions worsen I can make my way back to the shelter by following the route shown on the GPS. He seems satisfied but I gain the impression he might have tried to persuade me to turn around if my answers had not been satisfactory.
Around 5,200m, still 400m below the summit, I start flaking, not because I am physically tired but because I am losing energy. Although I eat and drink my stops for breathers become more frequent. I am able to measure my progress altitude-wise on my GPS. Progress seems painfully slow. All the traffic now seems to be making its way downhill. Vague sulphurous smells waft in the stiff breeze. On and on I go. It becomes as much a matter of willpower. The sky starts getting cloudier and what I assume to be the summit is covered. But there is still mainly blue sky.
I pass a few more people. No-one overtakes me. A few groups are sitting, some people are lying down (possibly asleep). It is impossible to tell whether they are on their way up or down. Ahead I see a young chap. He is moving slowly. Eventually I catch him up. He is Iranian without any English. He offers me some water which I accept because it saves me having to take off my rucksack to get mine. He is trying to tell me something. I work out that he has a headache and that he wants to know if I can help him. As I am carrying Ibroprufen, I can. I give him a tablet plus some nuts. I have a tablet too as a prophylactic and gobble some nuts.
At this point we are about 150m below the summit – perhaps up to an hour away. Here is the view up.
I leave my new friend behind and start up once more. Within a few minutes I can see Mehti coming down and then the others following on behind. Mehti only recognises me 20 metres away and stops to ask me if I am OK. The others quickly arrive. I have the feeling that they are a little surprised to see me still grinding my way upwards. Mehti offers to accompany me to the summit. The others ask if I want to leave my rucksack with them. I look up at the summit and reckon it will be another 40 minutes. I accept both offers.
My young friend comes by and says something to Mehti. Mehti tells me that he has asked to pass on his thanks for providing the Ibruprofen and he is feeling better.
Off we go. The nuts that I have scoffed give me a bit of energy. Mehti is a strong climber and keeps stopping to wait for me. We trend leftwards up the open slope. The only feature above now are the rocks on the crater rim. We cross a large patch of snow that is slushy in the afternoon “warmth”. The sulphur smell becomes more persistent but never gagging. Most rocks are stained yellow. Occasionally streams of steam cross our route at ankle height. The rocks steadily come closer.
Mehti then turns right and disappears between some rocks. I later find out why.
There I am at the summit. My Mount Damavand climb is achieved. I reach the summit a few minutes before 3pm. Although I have been slower, much slower as it turns out, than the rest of the team I have made the top in 5½ hours which is well within the range of times I have been told to expect. In retrospect I was quite pleased with my performance, especially as I had spent at least 15 minutes with the Iranian lad and perhaps another 10 minutes chatting to the German and the Iranian guide.
Mehti is keen for me to start down. But I have not come all this way to be nagged. We take the obligatory photos.
An Iranian couple speak to me and give me a biscuit. Perhaps I am looking in need! They then insist on me having a photo taken with them.
Some plaques are stuck on the rocks as is, bizarrely, a desiccated sheep which you can see to the right of me on the photo before last. There is also an Iranian flag that I am tempted to wave!
Next I insist on climbing the highest of the summit rocks which I do. Unfortunately the cloud is down so I have no views, not even into the crater. Through the cloud I can just make out the snow in the shallow crater but not the other side which is only 400m away. I also miss out on seeing the large fumarole which spews out most of the gases just below the summit.
Looking later at my GPS track I saw that I spent all of seven or eight minutes in total on the summit. What a long way to go for such a short period and no view! Had we started off at the normal time at sunrise I would have had longer there and a view. Never mind. I later find out that the others have taken just 3¾ hours to reach the summit – I marvelled at their strength. Here are a couple of pictures of them at the summit.
In 10 minutes we are back with the others. They have descended a further 100m or so to obtain some shelter from the breeze and the sulphur. They are keen to move off as they have waited about an hour for me and are becoming cold. Here we go.
To start with the descent is quick as we slither down earth and loose scree. We take a slightly different way down to take advantage of this. But soon we are back to rock and firmer scree with occasional short scrambly down climbs. I am feeling quite emotional at the achievement. Perhaps it was as well that I was again bringing up the rear. Getting to 5,600m after only 5 days was quite aggressive in terms of acclimatisation. The normal recommendation is to get to 3,500m and then gain 300m a day with a rest day after each 1,000m of gain.
I realise that I have not drunk anything for a couple of hours and am becoming quite dehydrated. So I suggest to the others that they carry on whilst I tuck into a Pepsi and look at the views down into the valley. Off to the west is a large lake/reservoir. Ahead of me and to the left is the range of mountains that we could see from the two shelters. I am still higher than them.
Mehti waits for me for a while but once I am past the rocky terrain he sets off. I feel as though I have climbed this mountain largely by myself. I also make quite good progress overtaking quite a few people. From a distance the noise of thunder rumbles and threatening clouds appear to the west though I see no lightning. I am keen to get back to the shelter before any storm hits. I am back by 5.30pm – 2 hours 20 minutes down including the Pepsi stop. The others get there 15 minutes before me. Arrvind is also there. He had reached about 5,200m before turning around because Majid said there would not be enough time to summit and return before dark. That is a shame because with a start at sunrise, he may well have made it. He is remarkably stoical about it all.
As it happens the storm never comes and the snow is limited to a few flakes around dinner time. Our evening meal consists of pasta, salad and vegetables. As is common in such circumstances, I and a couple of the others do not have much of an appetite despite having expended far more calories during the day than consumed. Indeed, Rob eats barely anything. I concentrate on re-hydrating and only manage half a plateful of food.
After dinner I have a long chat with Rob about future objectives. He is off to Mexico in November and hopes to go on to Ojos del Salado after then at the turn of the year. Eventually we are driven indoors due to the cold. We retire to our room where the others are and reflect on the day’s achievements before bed. Tomorrow we descend the rest of the mountain and return to Tehran. The Damavand climb and adventure come to an end.
In my next blog (here) I will conclude the story of my trip to Iran.