DAMAVAND Trip Report, August 10 - August 18, 2007.

Before the Trip, Preparations.

Red Tape and Climbing Permit:
Unlike Ararat, the Iranians have got it right. There is no buraucracy associated with climbing this mountain. They do charge all foreign climbers US dollar 50, equivalently Euro 40 for a permit, however this can be paid at base camp or on the way to the high camp area. Your name is taken down and you receive a portion of the "ticket" that is torn out from a pre-numbered book. There is no requirement that one hire a guide or buy any services. Thus, each party can do what seems best and most appropriate. Service of various levels are readily available. Of course, even if one can be (and like to be) completely self-supported, it may be reasonable to buy a few services as this certainly helps the local economy. You may hire a guide, just a mule transport of some gear or any service that suits your plans. We bought some logistics (transportation) services, a mule for moving backpacks to high camp as well as renting a tent in high camp.

At the time of our visit, 12000 Iranian Rial was about one Euro, that is one NOK was equivalent to about 1500 Rial. Near the Caspian Sea as well as in the Tehran airport, the rate offered was much worse, 11000 or in some places only 10000 Rial to one Euro. The currency has 10000 and 20000 bills as its largest units and one therefore ends up with a pretty large number of bills. Observe that credit cards are not accepted (in any practical sense) anywhere, not even in 5 star hotels. However, both Euro and US dollars are widely accepted as payment alongside of the Rial. A somewhat confusing thing to tourists, is that prices for products and services are often quoted (implicitly) in "Toman", this unit is 10 Rials. Thus, if somebocy says that the price is 3500, it may very well be 35000 Rials. In Tehran, (and elsewhere) one often quotes the price in units of 10000, thus a taxi driver might say that he would drive you to your destination for "6", meaning 60000 Rials.

On the first part of this trip we climbed Ararat, you can read the report here.

Day -2, August 10th. Travel from Turkey to Iran.

We woke up around 0700 after the previous long and hectic day. We had already checked out where the mini-bus service to the Iranian border was located. It is not difficult to find, around the corner from a gas station. Ask around and you will be pointed to its location. This service runs about every 30 minutes and the price is only three Turkish Lire (1.5 Euro) per person. We loaded our packs on the roof rack and after a short wait we were on our way. Well, not quite, it seems like the local buses puts priority on filling the seats with customers, and then goes about making the vehicle ready for operation, not the other way around. Thus, we first drove to an address where we could fill up disel, not a gas station, but some rather local place where a man appeared with a hand carried container. Then a U-turn, as we drove in the opposite direction in order to find a place to adjust tyre pressure. All this took time, in many countries one would take it for granted that a (mini)bus driver would prepare his vehicle before taking on a full load of passengers.
The trip to the Iranian border (location N39:24.732, E044:22.616) was quite quick. The border is located in a col along a ridge at about 1465 meter of elevation. The view back to Ararat from a slightly different angle served as a good farewell to Turkey before getting on with our next adventure. Exactly how to cross the border was and still is a bit unclear. We just followed a few others in front of us, passing various checkpoints. The whole crossing took perhaps 30 minutes before we were in Iran. I changed 20 Euro right there (street change) and got 240000 Rials. Right then, we believed this was a pretty bad rate, however, as we later understood, this rate was perfectly ok. A "pirate" taxi drove us directly to the bus terminal in Maku. You pay "too much", however still inexpensive by European measures and this is certainly by far the most efficient way. This terminal was at the far end of town when coming from Turkey. The location is N39:17.111, E044:32.445, elevation about 1170 meter. We bought seat number 26/27 on the next bus to Tabriz leaving at 1200. Adjusting the time 30 minutes forward helped shortening the wait. The bus tickets were 7 NOK each, or 0.88 Euro. Obviously, we were now in a country whith low transportation costs.
No complaints about the bus, even a non-smoking bus. We travelled at about 100 kilometer per hour, but with a few stops the travel time was still close to 4 hours. Arriving in the bus terminal in Tabriz, we immediately got a taxi to the hotel El-Goli Pars. The afternoon was spent exploring the swimming pool downstairs. In Iran, they maintain strictly separate hours for men and women using the pool. Luckily, Friday afternoon as well as Saturday was reserved for men only. Due to the early descent from Ararat, we were one day ahead of schedule. Therefore, our plan had been adjusted and we needed to spend two nights at this hotel in Tabriz.

Day -1, August 11th. Rest day in Tabriz

This day was unplanned, due to our descent all the way back to Dogubeyazit in order to celebrate the 31st. birthday of our guide Hakan. We enjoyed a late morning, then breakfast (spelled "Break Fast" in our 5 star hotel), before taking a walk in the nearby El Goli park. We measured to highest point in this park to be about 1630 meter, location N38:01.392, E046:22.076. This elevation was actually higher than expected and good news with respect to our acclimatization efforts. We proceeded to have lunch in a restaurant located in the middle of a rather large pool of water somewhat lower down. The menu listed their "Top Kebab" at 57.000, we had about 200.000 left and went ahead and ordered this from the menu. Our surprise was genuine when the waiter presented a bill that totalled 239.000 Rials. It turned out that they had charged "extra" for salad and soup that were served without any questions asked. On top of this, a hefty 17 percent service had been added. Add in some water, non-alcoholic beer and two bottles of coke and - voila - dishwashing next? I proposed that they should accept a 20 Euro bill, but not here - US dollars would be ok, but we had none. We managed to produce well over 200.000 and the restaurant decided that a small discount would be in order - problem solved. We headed straight back to our hotel and exchanged another Euro 40 into 480.000 fresh Rials.
The afternoon was spent on the Hotel's Internet Cafe. They charged about 100.000 per hour, but it was nice to catch up on email, reading news and generally touching base with the world at home. Iranian authorities had censured away access to the Bergen local newspaper as well as several national papers, however the "Dagens Næringsliv" as well as "VG" were available to read. Similarly, the hotel room had both CNN and BBC-world available so it seems hard to believe that the authorities really block out news from other countries. We concluded the day with our second dinner upstairs in the revolving restaurant. This time we ordered a "Top Sirloin" steak, a great mistake as any meat ordered would be presented in the form of an extremely flat (no more than 5 mm), and extremely well fried piece. Conclusion: One is better off exploring yet another variation of Kebab - the meat is still very well cooked and extremely flat, but it is Kebab.

Day 0, August 12th. From Tabriz to Base Camp.

We got up early and took a taxi to the airport, no problems whatsoever. The airport was quite small and easy to navigate. Luggage was checked and boarding cards obtained. Unlike western airports, there was no identity check, all we had to show was the tickets for the flight. Flying in Iran is not expensive, this flight, lasting a bit more than an hour, was 20 Euro for each full priced ticket. The flight was a bit late, mainly due to late arrival. A rather large Airbus with two aisles and almost full.
The airport is quite close to Tehran, and we got a good view of this large city with about 12 million people as we prepared for landing. We arrived in Tehran and Mr. A. Soltani was there as promised. We quickly transfered to his car and were on our way to Damavand. I did not want to waste time in Tehran on organizing our onward travel to Damavand, so this excellent service was something I valued highly. Along the way, Soltani told us about Tehran, about the nearby 4000 meter mountains and about the route we were taking in order to avoid traffic and get to Damavand. Soltani needed more gasoline along the way, a quick stop and I took the opportunity to fill my fuel container with about 0.5 liter. A rather insignificant cost, gasoline is about NOK 0.66 per liter in Iran, or about 0.08 Euro/liter. This is by far the lowest price I have seen anywhere in recent times. I suggested that we should have lunch together before reaching the mountain and Soltani immediately replied that this was a good idea. There were two restaurants, one in the outskirts of Polour, the village that we should drive to, another about 30 minutes before getting to Polour. I suggested that we have lunch as late as possible, making us drive to Polour.
Lunch was perfect and served outdoors in traditional style. We all sat on carpets on top of an elevated platform with the food in the middle. I told Soltani exactly what we needed and he quickly organized this by using his cell phone. We needed a place to store our large bag with excess luggage. We needed transport to Base Camp, we needed a tent at High Camp and that was about all.
We quickly had the following information:

Mr. Ali Hosain Khani, - manager of the Iranian Mountain Association Polour Camp.
                        A place to store extra equipment, one can also rent a room here.
Mr. Mohsen, - a young guy that was responsible at Base Camp,
                        We did not really see him.
Mr. Hosein Gholizadeh, - would provide us with Mule transportation to High Camp.
                        A price of 15 Euro was agreed.
Mr. Hamid Baqerpour, - responsible at High Camp.
                        Would provide a tent at High Camp and sell us the proper climbing permits.
2 drivers, one from the Polour Camp to the turnoff, then a Landrover with driver up to Base Camp.
                        The first driver later drove us to the Caspian Sea,
                        while the second driver also transported us back down from Base Camp to the Polour Camp.

Very efficient indeed! Just the kind of approach that I like. In particular, it is always very useful to have local assistance in agreeing on the price for all these various services. As soon as it is clear to all parties that a final price has been agreed on, this issue is not raised again. I paid Soltani for his services and thanked him warmly. We did not expect to see him any further the way things looked.
The transport was efficient and before long we arrived at Base Camp and were back up above 3000 meter. We quickly located the concrete shelter and decided to follow another advice from Soltani; make camp on the roof and sleep there. We made dinner, the first non-local food since we left Norway, dehydrated pasta from Real in Norway. The sun was about to set and the colors across the valley turned nicer and nicer. It soon became clear that this roof had another advantage; a very nice location for looking at the stars that slowly started to appear. This was the night from August 12 to August 13, predicted to be the very best night for observing the (annual) Perseid meteor shower. The predictions called for about "90-100 meteors per hour, with observers with exceptional skies often recording a larger number." (Quote from Joe Rao, SPACE.com's Skywatching columnist.) We were 3000 meter above sea level and the sky was dark with no moon, certainly "exceptional skies". I pointed this out to Pål Jørgen, however, he quickly fell asleep. I continued looking and quickly observed more than a dozen "shooting stars", a few quite dramatic as they whizzed across a rather large part of the sky above. I fell asleep, but woke up a couple of times in order to adjust my position on my thermarest (in order not to slide off it), each time I saw several more, also observing that "The Big Dipper" had set below the horizon (The Dipper tends to stay up in Norway). The shooting stars seemed to be getting better, but I fell back to sleep and did not wake up before daylight was back. A perfect way to start our next high altitude climb.

Day 1, August 13th. From Base Camp to High Camp.

We slept well on the roof. The slight angle caused Pål to slide off his mat, he complained a bit when waking up about a pretty hard surface, sleeping directly on the concrete. How nice to wake up and look directly at our goal, one could see that the mountain was smoking, emitting sulphur gas. The stove quickly made us hot breakfast and we were ready to head uphill around 0900.
We had a nice hike 1200 meter up to High Camp, arriving there at 1130. We had two brief (10 minute) stops along the way. We quickly located Hamid, he had already put up a tent for us in a close to perfect location. Well sheltered, the tent stood well anchored under a local cliff. He had already covered the floor with several layers of carpets, with our mats on top this would be pure luxury.
I walked around High Camp, in order to get to know the area. Highest up, several workers were busy putting up a rather large, new shelter. Hamid had a nice camp, his tent filled with carpets and pillows. I was invited in for a cup of tea, a Japanese climber was already there. I took the opportunity to pay Hamid for the two climbing permits as well as for the rental of his tent.
Subsequently, we relaxed in our tent before cooking dinner, another serving of "REAL", dehydrated Norwegian food. I had another chat with Hamid in the afternoon, he told me he had climbed both Cho Oyu and Shishapangma. Iranian climbers had also this July for the first time successfully climbed K2. Being a country full of mountains (Iran has 54 Ultra prominent peaks), this country has mountaineering traditions and Hamid up at the Damavand High Camp, sets an excellent example.

Day 2, August 14th. Summit Day.

Woke up around 0400 and started to make breakfast. The primus did not behave well, blew itself out several times. I first blamed the gasoline quality, then realized that I had done a poor job with the pre-heating. A fresh start from the very beginning, soon produced a boiling pot of water. After breakfast, we quickly packed some extra clothing, water and biscuits plus chocholate, then started out at 0520. We took a 5-10 minute rest about every hour and could see the sulphur area above us getting closer. The sulphur was not extremely bad and we could have passed through without any extra actions, but since I carried two gas masks we decided to try them out and get some experience. Each mask needed two filters, "active carbon", that were easily attached, then we proceeded. No question that this helped. I could hardly smell/taste any sulphur and the breathing was not appreciably harder, despite now being at 5000 meter. Soon, we were out on the other side with a clear blue sky above us and the crater within sight. We packed away the gas masks and stolled along on this rather gentle slope. Most of the surface was snow, but only a shallow layer and easy to walk on. We contoured around the vent that produced all the sulphur gas and gained what looked like the highest point from behind. The time was 0930, 4 hours and 10 minutes to the summit, an average gain of more than 300 vertical meter per hour.
Just as on Ararat, the weather was perfect. No wind, blue sky and appreciably warmer than Ararat, mostly due to the later arrival time. The crater was not very large, quite shallow and mostly covered by snow. A single tent was pitched in the middle of the crater. Soltani had mentioned this to us. A single man is "living" (at least for prolonged periods) up here in the crater at an elevation exceeding 5500 meter. He asks for food and supplies from climbers each day and thus somehow manages to get by for periods of weeks at a time. Straight across the crater, there was another point along the rim that looked equally high. We decided to take a walk around the entire crater, visit this opposite point and measure it carefully. The highest rock on the first (and likely official) summit had measured 5622 meter after a long period of sampling. The point across is located at N35:57.318, E052:06.553, and after 300 samples, the best average value read 5623 meter. From this viewpoint, we had a good view back across the crater, from left to the first high point, then further right along the rim towards the point where we were sitting. This difference is too small to decide, however, it is clear (see also the pictures) that these two points along the crater rim are indeed very similar in height. Again, with the assumption that the GPS is (consistently, see below) about 10 meter too high, this strongly supports an official height of Damavand at 5610 meter. In any event, all references to an elevation of 5671 meter should be changed, this is absolutely wrong.
We spent a full 45 minutes on the summit. After a while, our friend and helper, Soltani showed up. This was quite a surprise, as it seemed that he would not be on the mountain at this time. However, plans had changed, possibly somewhat correlated with the seach and rescue that was still going on, looking for two missing Iranian climbers. (It has later been reported that the two unfortunately died on the mountain.) Several more photos of various people at (or near) the summit had to be taken. A large statue of another climber with a pointing arm is located just below the highest rock. This seemed to be the official summit, many climbers did not even bother to visit the highest rock ony a few meter away. Much the same feeling here as on Ararat, you are definitely on top of the world. In fact, so high above everything else that the view becomes very different from a more normal summit view. Most of the horizon will be haze and distant clouds, the best view is distinctly downwards to lower mountains, even lower vallys and a few villages.
All good things come to an end, eventually we had to start the descent. The first few steps downhill are always nice, by looking down one can appreciate how high up one really has been. Soltani showed us an alternative route for the descent. This route would go in the broad gully on the right hand side of the ridge we ascended (when looking downhill). This trail was just loose scree and better for the knees as one would slide a bit downhill with every step. Further down, we would cross left in order to get into the gully next to the lower of the two ridges that we ascended. The descent took very close to 2 hours, so about twice the speed of our ascent.
Back in the tent, we first had some warm drink, then a well deserved nap in a somewhat overheated tent. We had agreed to share a ride back down from Base Camp to the Iranian Mountain Federation facility near Polour. Yet another long descent, before we could install us in a room upstairs. I suggested that we should have dinner together all four, a friend of Soltani had also come down together with us. Soltani insisted on the restaurant that was located quite a distance on the Tehran side of the pass. The traffic was heavy and it took longer than anticipated to drive there. The meal was very enjoyable, so I guess the long drive paid off. We had a rather complete Iranian meal with salad, rice and several specialty dishes to share. The drive back was quite a bit quicker. We had suggested spending the "reserve day" seeing the Caspian Sea. Soltani made several phone calls in order to secure a reservation at a Caspian Sea hotel as well as organizing a car with (a reliable) driver that could get us there. It was agreed that this car should pick us up at 0900 the next morning. The driver had been given a clear message not to overtake and to drive slowly. Traffic in Iran looks (and probabely is!) very dangerous, thus my preference for taking a bus instead of a car. People do drive in a manner that would immediately result in loss of license and charges for reckless driving in Europe or the USA. No passing signs are totally ignored. Passing of the vehicle in front takes place just before blind curves, preferably with one car passing on the inside while another driver attempts the outside. Typically, a truck will appear around the corner and many miracle escapes can be observed, clearly there must be a fair number of cases when the miracle do fail.

August 15th.-18th, Caspian Sea, Tehran and return to Norway.

We slept well in the Polour Camp, then departed as planned with our driver around 0915. The area around Polour is not only Damavand, there are nice mountains on all sides. Our driver took us "reasonably safely" to our Caspian Sea hotel named Narenjestan Hotel, outside a city called Mahmoud Abad. They rented us what was called a Villa, a unit in a number of smaller, separate buildings. We essentially got a small two-floor apartment with living room and kitchen downstairs, a bedroom and bathroom plus balcony upstairs. The hotel had (yet another) revolving restaurant on top and a small, but nice beach directly facing the Caspian Sea. Nobody in the reception spoke English and the place seemed a bit over-priced (180 Euro/night!!), compared to what it had to offer. Never mind, we enjoyed being here, how often do you visit the largest land-locked ocean in the world?
Perhaps not surprising, (we were in Iran), it was strictly forbidden to use the beach for swimming. Since this was something we wanted, I asked in the reception about what options were available. There seemed to be a possibility somewhere in Mahmoud Abad. Later, I saw a man swimming from the neighbor property, separated from the hotel by a tall wall extending from the inland street and out onto the beach. I asked about it and to my delight, they informed us that we could swim from that beach. We quickly took our towels and walked around the wall (on the beach side), the neighbor property was "an empty lot", with quite a bit of litter, but the beach was certainly OK.
The Caspian Sea was warm, about 30 Centigrade, its salinity is about 1.2 percent, so about one third of the normal oceans. I measured the elevation very carefully in order to calibrate my GPS and after several hundred sample readings it read elevation minus 17 meter, location N36:36.919, E052:11.021. Not too surprisingly, this is 11 meter too high, fairly consistent with observations in the Mediterranean, in Indonesia and in Taiwan. It is therefore likely that the summit observations should be adjusted down by approximately 10 meter.
The day went quickly and ended with a nice sunset over the Caspian. We seemed to be the only foreign tourists, other guests were Iranian, probabely quite well off to afford what this hotel charged. Women and children could walk on the beach, but not swim. A young couple that wanted to experience the Caspian Sea together, did what couples still leagally can do. They walked out fully dressed, she splashed a bit of water on him, he playfully pushed her and she fell backward on her butt, water to the neck, but happy. I laughed and walked back to find Pål in order to try the revolving place for dinner.
We reserved seats on an express bus to Tehran the next day. The bus would leave at 1400, the only way to reserve/buy tickets (via a 5 star hotel) was to physically go there. This got done by sending a taxi driver, the two tickets cost 76000, while making the reservation ended up being 30000. I was not impressed by the procedure, but the overall cost was of course neglible.
The next day, we travelled to Tehran as planned arriving after slightly more than 4 hours on the bus. We took a taxi to the recommended hotel, Laleh. The taxi ride was rather long and 60.000 certainly seemed justified. Unfortunately, this hotel did not have a single room left due to some conference booking. The reception was helpful and called hotel Bozorg where they guaranteed a room for US dollar 127, the receptionist on call was Mr. Ayazi. Laleh had its own private taxi-service, 65.000 for a drive to Bozorg. OK, obviously a more expensive service. The hotel car took us to a rather large building with a huge lobby, but clearly outside the central part of Tehran. Luggage unloaded, the driver told us goodbye and left. Upon entering this building we discovered two pieces of bad news: 1) this was not hotel Bozog, 2) this building was closed and could not take any guests. Luckily, a somewhat random man there came to our assistance and offerd to drive us to our hotel. Yet another quite long drive and he delivered us outside hotel Azadi, hmm. close enough, not to our target Bozorg, but certainly a good approximation of the receptionist name Ayazi. Anyway, this was a hotel and they had rooms available for US dollar 45. The latest driver asked 70.000 for his service. What we spent on taxis/cars we certainly ended up recovering on the hotel room. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant before hitting the bed.
The next day was spent exploring Tehran. It was hot (39 Celcius) and most stores kept closed since it was Friday. We looked around in the very center, explored the subway (very nice, a ride cost 0.50 NOK, about 1/16 of an Euro) We then took a pretty long walk across parts of the city, the crux of which was crossing a large 4 lane highway on another big highway, then crossing a river where a concrete wall had to be down-climbed. This was hard (YDS) class 3 terrain. Exhausted we eventually returned to the hotel by taxi.
Late evening, we left the hotel and took a taxi to the airport, where we met a Czech couple that we also had seen at High Camp on Damavand, - small world. The travel back home to Norway concluded what we agreed had been a highly interesting and very successful trip.

This trip lasted exactly 14 days, starting and ending in Bergen, Norway. The airfare (9 flights each) came to 1000 Euro per person, we spent an additional 1000 Euro each on the trip itself. The major expense here was the permit/guide cost on Ararat, that came to 450 Euro/person. The extra days (5 star hotels) in Tabriz and by the Caspian Sea, contributed another 250 Euro per person. Obviously, a low budget alternative could easily eliminate this part. This leaves a cost of 300 Euro/person that was spent on local food/drink, transportation (bus/taxi) as well as the somewhat less expensive hotels in Dogubeyazit, Polour and Tehran.
Also, see the detailed readings of heart rate and blood oxygen saturation as plotted here.

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