This challenge was in my to-do list since I spotted this beautiful volcano in my first visit to Iran on December 2011, when I attempted a winter climb of Pasand Kooh in Alborz range.
On October 23rd 2012 late in the evening, I left my house in Dubai to attempt a crazy winter climb of the highest mountain in the Middle East and biggest volcano in the North Hemisphere, Mt Damavand (5610m). 32 hours after that I was standing totally exhausted on the top of the frozen crater surrounded by volcanic fumaroles. I did my first volcano on 2010 (Mt Rainier, the biggest in North America), and since then I’m officially addicted to the sulfuric acid. This new challenge was a bit crazier, since I’m was doing a winter climb (2013 season already started) on the second hardest route in a country that is going a bit mad these days (thanks to certain westerner governments). It normally takes 4-6 days to safely complete this climb from Teheran, but I aimed to do it in only 3.
The first challenge on this adventure was to get a Visa on my arrival to Teheran. Right after that, with almost no sleep, I was driving out of the airport with Salim, a Teherani who knows the Mountain very well. We drove for about 4 hours to Nandal village (2400m) where we had some cheese, bread and tea, and sorted out our gear before starting our approach in a shabby 4×4 vehicle to Gusfandsara, and 5 hours climb to or first camp at Takhte Fereydoon hut (4300m). From Dubai Marina to there in just one day. On the following day, Thursday 24th, we did our summit push and descent back to the hut to celebrate and sleep before heading back to Nandal and Teheran in the afternoon.
What it makes this challenge somehow special is the difficulty of the ascent on a winter climb. The winter season in Alborz Range may start from October to November and last to May and April. In this period of the year climbing Mt Damavand is a tough and dangerous business. With strong winds more than 100km/h and freezing temperature below -70°C (-94 Fahrenheit), winter ascent is graded as very difficult. Damavand Weather can change from very cold to disastrous in winter, and moving fast without missing the route is a key point for success.
The day before leaving Dubai, the weather forecast looked quite frightening with temperatures ranging from -12C to -16C (thermal sensation -27C) at the top on the summit day, -6C to -10C (thermal sensation -20C) at the hut. Light snow was expected to fall from Friday, so I had to cope well with the altitude not to delay the summit push.
North-East route is a popular summer route. It goes through the North-East ridge that is called Takht-e-Fereydun. That name comes from mytghological story of Zahhak and Fereydun. There is a hut in this route at the altitude of 4300m. We planned to spend one night in the hut although we had the option to spend two nights there for acclimatization. From then we progress up on the North-East glacier with a fantastic view of the valley and Yakhar glacier right beside this route.
This what we planned to do, considering the limited timeframe and the restrictions set by weather and acclimatization:
- Day 1 (Wednesday 24th): Arriving to IKA Airport (Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport) at 2:30am. Drive from Tehran to Nandal village (2400m) in northern downhills of Mt Damavand. Overnight in a local house. 4×4 drive from Nandal to Gusfandsara. Climb to Takhte Fereydoon hut (4300m)
- Day 2 (Thursday 25th): Acclimatization and summit push from North-East route. Descent and overnight at Takhte Fereydoon hut
- Day 5 (Friday 26th): Trek down to Nandal village. Drive back to Tehran for rest and sightseeing.
- Day 6 (Saturday 27th): Reserve day for bad weather condition or more acclimatization. Overnight flight back to Dubai on Sunday 00:15
Everything run as planned, with the exception of the few hours sleep at Nandal, that we had to skip due to the latest weather forecast that was showing very intimidating winds and snow from Thursday evening, so we had to move fast with no margin for a summit bid on Friday. We left the airport around 3:30am and drove all the way to Nandal village (2400m) where we arrived around 9:00.
We had a light breakfast and moved fast on the 4×4 to our start point at Gusfandsara. That made the whole climb extraordinarily hard and also dangerous, since we were so exhausted when we arrived to Takhte Fereydoon hut (4300m) that we could barely prepare food and we hit the sleeping bag right away.
With no enough fuel the summit push on the following day ended up being the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life.
We descended with strong winds and reached the hut at night when the storm was already forming. That night seemed like the end of the world, with that wind hitting the hut so violently that I thought we’d never make it back to Nandal. We were incredibly exhausted after reaching our summit and we lacked of energy even to melt our drinking water. The altitude and exhausting causes your body to refuse any food intake. I was very worried about the conditions to make it back home safely.
The following morning we woke up under a snow storm, but luckily the worst part happened the previous night while we were already sleeping in the comfort of the hut. I cannot even think on the consequences of not being able to find the hut last night. With no tent, and stoves that would have been fatal.
That day I learnt how close we are from disaster if we are too ambitious and we push our limits a bit too far…