Climbing Damavand

Climbing Iran’s highest mountain, the volcano Damavand (5670 m), and what unexpected surprises it can hold.

Shortly before the summit of Damavand

A mountain climb often brings unexpected surprises and in this case it was due to the anniversary of Khomeini’s death and the four days of holidays that led to a veritable exodus from Tehran towards the beach. At the bus station we met a desperate climber from Tabriz who wanted to share a taxi with us. The buses were simply not running because there was so much traffic. After a tough negotiation with the driver, we set off for the “Iman Khomeini memorial jam” and covered the entire distance in stop and go. In such a traffic jam, there are not as many cars next to each other as there are lanes, but rather as many as will fit on the road (including the hard shoulder) without leaving the smallest gap. At every exit, people try to overtake on the right and the cars pushing back in do not exactly stimulate the flow of traffic. At a construction site, like many others, we drove relatively quickly on the closed half of the motorway until we came to a tangle of wrong-way drivers and cars stopped crosswise. We couldn’t go straight on because there was no bridge, so instead we jostled our way to the other side over a steeply ascending sandy track, where some cars touched down on stones or got stuck. It didn’t get any better after leaving the motorway. We went over a pass, on the right there were broken-down vehicles and people every 20 metres looking for cooling water, and on the left the lane of oncoming traffic was used mercilessly. When someone actually came from the other direction, nothing worked at first. The police had no choice but to close the road to oncoming traffic!

When we finally arrived in the village of Polour, we had a truck take us to the starting point of the hike, a small mosque, where we and our new friend spent the night.


We spent the following night in a completely overcrowded bivouac box surrounded by a tent city. The holidays had led to a veritable mass migration up here as well. We realised that you can’t expect the consideration that you might know from a Swiss mountain hut. People chat loudly until late at night, make tea, listen to music on their mobile phones or make phone calls, shine lamps around and pack their backpacks, and as soon as the last one finally lies down, the first ones get up again. In the meantime, two unpleasant characteristics of our new friend also appeared: Not only did he have a loud voice, but he also talked without full stops. Only later did we realise how much he was taking us in, bragging to all Iranians that he was our friend. It went so far that he would push his way in when we were talking to someone else. Or he wanted us to wait for him before we passed a larger group who should see that he belonged to it….

We set off early because we wanted to avoid the crowds and we climbed quickly, thanks to the acclimatisation walk the day before. It was freezing cold and because of the wind we hardly took any breaks, so we were soon standing at a proud elevation of 5670 m. I immediately started to shiver, the cold got to me more than the altitude, and we hardly had time to let our eyes wander over the Alborz Mountains or to watch the sulphur clouds billowing out of the mountain.

The volcano Damavand is enthroned on the chains of the Alborz Mountains (cf. my book The Formation of Mountains). What can be seen from the summit are mainly high, long mountain ridges without any notable incisions or peaks. The ridge just opposite, for example, stretches 40 km far at about 4000 m above sea level. Damavand towers over them all, but even its glacier has certainly seen better days, there are only a few snow fields left.

The other hikers make a funny mix, there are professionals training for Piz Lenin, but also inexperienced ones who obviously have no idea of the dangers of altitude. Particularly funny was a group that seemed to be carrying whatever equipment they could find, no matter how useful it was. One had ski goggles on (in the best of weather before sunrise), two were wearing helmets and the fourth wore a climbing belt with all sorts of gear dangling from it….

We made our way back down in one go to Tehran, where we also said goodbye to our new friend. We will probably decline his invitation to visit him. In the end, I couldn’t stand the chatter and the “mister” any more than I could the tasteless soft cheese on dry bread.

Read on

Backpacking trip Middle East and Caucasus 2008
Climbing Damavand
Caspian Riviera