At our base camp with the golden-domed mosque, a breakfast of eggs and salad was prepared, followed by some quick organization of our gear. Within the hour we were ready to begin our trek up to the Bargah Sevom refuge sitting at 4,200m.
This was the last hurdle on the Southern Route on the mountain before pushing for the summit of Damavand – the highest volcano in Asia and the 12th most prominent peak in the world. I was a little concerned that the last time I had camped or slept at that extreme level of altitude for a prolonged period of time was on Kilimanjaro 3 years ago. I had summited Khuiten in Mongolia and Toubkal in Morocco in the past year but I stayed briefly at their summits of 4,400m to quickly pose for some pictures and then headed back down almost immediately.
At the summit of Tochal (a mountain I had summited a few days ago in Tehran to adjust to the high altitudes and acclimatize), I felt slightly icky and nauseous at the top (3,900m) although that feeing dissipated quite quickly as soon as I ate lunch. Thankfully, there were no lingering effects from that climb and I was hopeful I had acclimatized at that altitude and would not suffer whilst resting in the night at the shelter.
We packed our larger duffle bags with all the equipment and clothing we didn’t need, and loaded them onto the mules to take them up to the refuge. I left my camera in there and didn’t use it for the remainder of the trip as soon as I discovered I had a portrait mode on my iPhone 7. My backpack became significantly lighter and it made the hiking much more comfortable. We started our walk at about 7:30am. I asked my guide Mohamed why we had to leave so early given that the walk would not take more than 5 hours. Arriving early would mean I would have nothing to do for the rest of the day. He told me there were two reasons; the first was that we needed to secure a bed for me in the shelter instead of setting up a tent to sleep outside, which I wholeheartedly agreed with (in hindsight I would have wholeheartedly disagreed – a lot more on that a little later) and secondly, my body would have more time to adjust to the altitude, which was also a valid point. And with that, we began on our way walking at a very slow pace, literally trudging along like snails. Mohamed said he wanted me to conserve as much energy as possible to be fit and ready for the summit climb the next day. I wasn’t complaining because the longer we were walking the less time I would be spending in the shelter twiddling my thumbs.
Slowly we ascended. My nose was starting to get irritated by the remnants of pollen from the famous poppy fields that engulfed our camp.
As we climbed higher, the abundance of flowers and grassy hills lessened, replaced instead with cold wet rocks and some patches of ice scattered around us. The cold wind was a welcome relief as the sun was sweltering. I tried covering up my neck with my bandana but I didn’t notice a small patch of my skin on my neck was still exposed; the bandana folded from the back and wasn’t pulled all the way down. I only noticed the excruciatingly painful burn while waiting for lunch to be served in the shelter while doing what I was in morbid terror of doing since the beginning of the day: twiddling my thumbs.
The air was clearly becoming thinner as my breathing became more ragged but it was still very manageable. It had only taken us 4 hours to walk up to the shelter. We had made very good time; too good for my liking. It was only 12pm and we had another 8 or 9 hours to go before I would start to feel tired enough to get some rest.
Mohamed was going to try and guarantee us a private room because sleeping in the main dormitories was a little intense. There were two floors in the complex made out of cold grey stone. The bottom floor was the main hall where the climbers would come to relax, socialize and eat their meals. The kitchen could be accessed through a side door in the far-right corner of the room. The main dorms were on the floor above; essentially another large hall with about 50 bunk beds lining the walls. I already knew I was going to have a rough night because I was a very light sleeper. All it took was a little whisper or snore to prevent me from drifting off. I still decided to sleep in the dormitories instead of outside the shelter, where there was an army of colourful tents assembled. At the time I preferred to be warm and endure the noise. How I would come to regret that choice.
The Sun was still blazing outside but it was considerably cooler and darker inside the shelter. I changed into warmer gear (thermals and two layers of jackets) and tried to keep warm but I was still shivering so I sat in the kitchen with all the propane flames and cooking oils making the room comfortably warm. Like the shelter on Tochal, climbers were not allowed to stay in there. They could only come in to request drinks or food. Again, my favourite social butterfly Mohamed knew all the employees quite well, so I got the VIP treatment. I was confident he would be able to secure a private room for me in the lower level of the shelter.
Later I went looking for the bathroom. Outside behind the building and down a few pretty steep steps, followed by a small but slippery trail of rock and sand led me into a miniscule hut comprised of three stinky cubicles. My bladder gulped. Going to the toilet at night was going to be a problem I foresaw with dread.
The idleness of just sitting around made me drowsy and I must have dozed off at some point as Mohamed woke me up to serve me lunch.
As I groggily opened my eyes and wiped the drool off my face, the mighty Iranian climber Babek strode into the hall, throwing his bag down and adjusting his gear, his chest bursting out, brimming with a sensational aura. This celebrity mountaineering psycho had literally just made it to the top of Damavand (starting from the Federation Camp) and down to the shelter in about 7 hours, and he was still intending to go all the way back down today. He skipped into the kitchen to restock on some supplies, before throwing his bag on his shoulders again and marching out of the shelter to head back down to civilization. Everyone in the hall, including myself, was left dumbfounded.
I finished my meal and noticed I was starting to get cold again. A mild headache was also developing, which I blamed on the racket all the climbers were making in the hall, hoping it would subside when their mewling did. As time wore on though, the pain seemed to be getting worse. It was at that point I realized the altitude sickness demons were coming out to play. My nerves started to kick in and I wondered if my body could actually withstand the high altitude of Damavand.
I drank tea to keep warm and hydrated then continued to drink more to kill time, the slowly moving hours suffocating me slowly. By the time dinner had come around I was on my 6th cup. I made small talk with some of the Iranian climbers who all looked at me attentively when I told them I was Arab. More curious than intimidated, they asked what made me want to come here, if the weather was better back home in Dubai, if our food was tastier than theirs and what time we intended to start the summit push. I became a mini celebrity in the shelter after they discovered I was half-Palestinian. Some of the climbers even requested to take selfies and reassured me that I was going to make it to the top even if they would have to carry me. My discomfort eased.
At sundown it was time to retreat to the dormitories. Mohamed had unfortunately been unable to secure a quiet room as there was a larger private party whose team leader also had a strong rapport with the shelter manager. I disagreed with the decision because I felt entitled to being a higher priority than 9 travellers climbing together. Unfortunately, my argument was voided immediately by Mohamed who told me to go to bed.
My head was still pounding as I walked up to my room. I told Mohamed I did not want to stay another night in this shelter and that we would come all the way down from the summit to Gosfood Sara camp. He smiled and promised that if we made good time we would go all the way down to the camp with the golden-domed mosque; on the one condition that we make it to the summit. Otherwise we would have to spend another night in the shelter and try again. He was semi-joking and the thought of spending another place in this chilly, dark locale triggered my anxiety again. My bed was located at the far end of the room by the window so I wasn’t flanked from all sides by other mountaineers.
It was 8:30pm Mohamed and I agreed that we would wake up at 4am to start the climb early and get to the summit before the sun came out and inflicted chaos on our physical and mental health. I was already feeling tired and 8 hours sleep sounded exquisite, to make the climb with sufficient energy reserves.
I slipped into my bed, but I was still cold sleeping next to the window. I decided to sleep with most of my layers on and made a little fortress with my other clothes to protect my head. There was a lot of indistinct chatter reverberating around the room; like school children blabbering to their classmates before a teacher walked in to a classroom. ‘It will be ok,’ I thought. Eventually this nuisance would drown out and I would be able to fall asleep. Woefully, that did not happen.
I closed my eyes on the first attempt and was slowly zoning out, only to be audaciously disturbed by the gentleman who was supposed to be sleeping on the bed above mine. He decided it was finally time to go to bed an hour after everyone else had. Rather than quietly placing his bag on the floor besides my bed, he launched it with a large thud startling the other surrounding sleepers, and then proceeded to open it ruffling through what felt like a million plastic bags. A giant Eastern European man sleeping in the bed next to mine shot up and berated him in his Balkan dialogue before turning his to head back round to sleep. This offensive man did not stop there though. He then proceeded to take off his clothes right in the very narrow space between our bunk and the window. His hairy thighs were dangling in my face and he didn’t take his socks off which had a repugnant smell. Instead of climbing the bed from the ladder which was positioned at the base for that precise reason; this man thought he was a Hollywood stuntman who could push himself off the window with his legs and launch himself up on the bed. He failed miserably the first time and I did not dare close my eyes for fear that he might slip onto me. I let out a loud ‘Tut’ to emphasize my dismay at his idiocy. On the second try he made it and bounced around the top shaking and creaking the bed, startling a few more sleepers on the top row. Eventually, he quietened down and managed to lure himself to sleep. At this point the sensation to go to the bathroom struck again. I had only just gone an hour before slithering into bed. I tried to hold it in and sleep through it but the pervading sense of disquietude made it impossible. I slid into my mountain boots, pulled on my headlamp and walked outside to the bathroom. Surprisingly, it was pleasantly cool outside in the starry black night. A nice fresh breeze caressed my face. I finished my business and then stepped outside to gaze at the mountain standing proudly before me. It looked so perfect, there were no clouds blockading the view in the pitch-black sky. Beautiful white waterfalls streamed down the slopes and a small whiff of smoke protruded from the summit. I savoured a few mesmerizing moments of tranquillity before turning back with dread to the dorm.
I got myself comfortable back in bed but it was too late. The giant had already submerged into a deep but volatile slumber; the sounds emerging from his nostrils and gaping mouth confirming this. Like a booming trombone almost bursting my ear drum, the snores came in full force, wave after wave. I looked out of the window up to the starry sky and asked God why I was being punished. There was only person snoring in the entire dorm and I was the lucky victim positioned next to him. I shuffled restlessly in my bed trying to find a pattern to his disturbing breathing so my brainwaves could adjust to these amplitudes. Unfortunately, these sounds erupted randomly at different speeds and inflections. To compound this already dire scenario, the consequences of those countless cups of tea were kicking in and I needed to go to the bathroom again.
Fatigued and annoyed, I slid into my mountain boots again, pulled on my headlamp again and headed out into the cold again. Just as I did a short while ago, I looked up and admired the mountain for a few idyllic minutes, before walking back into what I quickly decided was hell on Earth.
The snoring did not stop but since I was getting very tired my mind was beginning to drown out his noise out of self-preservation and I slowly switched off. I envisioned myself standing at the open gates of fantasy land, about to step inside and once again, I was unfairly robbed of my dreams. After scouting the dark like a bat using echolocation, I deduced the new disturbance to be three irritable voices having a very intense and passionate whisper fight a few bunks above and away from me. Nothing could be so important to be discussing with such intensity at this hour apart from perhaps a jealous tussle? They even managed to awaken the sleeping giant next to me from his slumber as his snoring abruptly stopped (I guess that was the silver lining). I tried blocking them out but they kept going and going… and going. Suddenly, I felt lots of movement of shuffling in the dorm and I was certain other climbers had awoken from this discourteousness.
Interrupting this night time ballad was once again was my incessant need to go to the bathroom. 4 times in 4 hours. By now it was midnight.
My planned eight hours of supposed energy conservation had now been slashed in half. I cursed myself, the inconsiderate half naked man above me, the Eastern European next to me and those three shameful faceless idiots. I clenched my fists and mini punched my mattress a few times before burying my head into my pillow and shouting obscenities. I had no choice but to slide into my mountain boots again, pull on my headlamp again and head out into the cold…again.
I retreated back to my bed exhausted. The three cretins were still bickering and the giant Eastern European had resumed his symphony of nasal opera but thankfully my body finally succumbed to mental collapse. I could not pinpoint the exact moment I passed out but I was awoken by the shuffling and stumbling of footsteps and zippers of bags opening. With one eye open I squinted on my phone to see it was 3.45am. I was ecstatic that this night of horror was over. The blood rush kicked in as I jumped out of the bed and prepared all my gear and descended into the main hall to meet Mohamed for breakfast.
He too was very tired, explaining that he had to share a single bed with his wife and my secondary guide, Shima in one of the staff rooms and with half of his body dangling over the bed it had also been a very uncomfortable night for him. He was still in good spirits – I wish I could see the glass half full in this situation as well. We went into the kitchen and locked the door behind us to have breakfast in peace. The kitchen did not officially open until 5am, but Mohamed was once again able to secure the VIP treatment for us. He cooked some eggs and made some sandwiches and we ate weary eyed and in silence. It was so peaceful and warm in the kitchen. I remarked to Mohamed that maybe we should have slept in the kitchen.
We headed out in the cold and took the same walk I had plodded through four times during the course of the night; to and around the toilet (which I looked at like a scornful ex-boyfriend) and headed up the first slope on our final mission. The serious business started now. The headache I was feeling disappeared under the waves of adrenaline splashing around in my bloodstream as we began our climb on a relatively comfortable slope. It was pitch-dark and the wind was pleasantly crispy. We walked higher and higher and after a few minutes I turned back to see a swarm of fireflies moving about the shelter below. We had a slight advantage in that we started before the majority of the climbers, giving us the freedom to hike at our own pace. There were a couple of dots of light above us that were seemingly within reach of the summit. Mohamed said those climbers must have started at midnight.
We eventually came to a pitchfork in the trail approximately 200m above the shelter. One route carried on quite straightforwardly up the mountain, its trail visible for a long way up. The second route turned right and up in between elevated rocky hills that we would have to climb over. It ran parallel to the normal route. We turned right. Mohamed explained it was a shorter route to get to the same point at about 4,800m before both routes merged again. Before I could intervene about taking another shortcut, he pre-empted my request saying that going up this route in small groups would be more efficient. With larger groups he would normally continue on the normal route. Walking through on these boulders protruding from the slopes meant I had to focus intensively on my footing. This was possible in a small group, especially in a party of two, because all I had to do was imitate Mohamed’s footsteps. There was a steep drop to the right of us and any misstep or slip up would send us down to the Persian underworld.
‘You can do this Fahd! You’ll save more energy which you’ll need when the altitude gets tough.’ I reluctantly agreed and we pushed upwards on the rocks. The trail gradually became a little steeper and greasier as my feet struggled to adjust to the loose stones underfoot. My trekking poles made it easy enough to maintain my balance and push onwards and upwards.
It took us 2 hours to reach the point where the two routes converged. Mohamed instructed me to look up. The sun was beginning to rise over Damavand with its shadow blanketing the Alborz range. It was so beautiful I could not resist the urge to take a million pictures. Unfortunately, this little moment of respite allowed my brain to process the strain my body was enduring. I began feeling lightheaded but I was not sure if that was due to the sleep deprivation, altitude sickness or both.
The slope suddenly shot up and the path became rock-strewn. We clung to the rocks and boulders like barnacles, scraping ourselves upwards. It seemed like we were climbing up most of the route instead of hiking. Like those green power bars you see in the top left corner playing Street Fighter, my green bar was deteriorating very fast. We were by now standing at 5,000m and I was finding it much harder to breathe. I had a painful headache, as if my brain was expanding, banging fervently against my skull. We stopped for another rest and Mohamed pointed to the most distinctive landmark on the route: nestled in the rocks just above us was a beautiful natural sculpture of a frozen waterfall.
‘The Ice Fall,’ as it was aptly named, was exquisite. We continued to walk on rocks but were now surrounded by the white stripes of ice that dressed the mountains I had gazed upon many times on my way in and out of the toilet over the course of the previous night. As the sun was rising, more care had to be administered to our footing. The trail was becoming slipperier from the melting ice on the fringes of these snowy mounds we were walking up against.
There was a triangular shaped ridge in sight above us, with what looked like the summit. Mohamed had already managed my expectations at the shelter explaining the illusion and that in actuality the summit sat sneakily above and behind that ridge. Knowing this crucial little note prepared me mentally. I was getting tired but I could still keep going. We were making very good time and even Mohamed was surprised that I had managed to maintain the same pace all the way through.
‘At this speed, we have one more hour to go.’
One hour came and went. As we climbed over and around the triangular optical illusion ridge, I feasted my eyes on what was possibly the most beautiful summit of all my climbs to date.
A vast slope up led to a massive crater with a huge gush of continuous smoke floating into the clear sky from the crater. Unfortunately, it was not smoke. It was the sulfuric fumes being ejected from inside the volcano. There were numerous holes in the ground surrounding us on the trail emitting the gas. The smell of rotten eggs was atrocious. As if dealing with the altitude sickness was not enough, we also had to endure this poisonous stench. Ahead of us we could see small figures walking up to the crater then others walking in the opposite direction towards us. They had made it. I was envious but there wasn’t much longer to go. At that point Mohamed turned to tell me that we were not going to go follow the conventional route those distant figures were walking on. Instead, we were to take another detour around the back of the mountain to avoid the gas being blown directly in our faces. ‘Him and his detours,’ I muttered furiously. He also warned me not to sit down or rest any of my equipment on the mountain floor. It was covered in sulphuric acid that could burn through materials. ‘That’s just splendid.’ I went on a muttering rampage.
I initially agreed with the logical and safer decision to take this 15-minute digression, but at this altitude and after virtually no sleep, every minute felt like an hour.
I was exhausted and my head felt heavy looking down focused on my feet, trudging one in front of the other. My breathing felt more like gasping and I was putting more weight on my poles with my body slouched over. My droll reverie was cut short when Mohamed startled me to attention and pointed. I stopped in my tracks and looked around. There I was, standing at the tip of a massive circular cauldron of sulphur. We had made it! I was ecstatic and for a brief moment the pains throbbing in my head and legs had disappeared. We walked over to the endpoint of the regular route, where various flags were placed on the summit mound. Standing out amongst the colourful troupe of national symbols was a placard commemorating Mossadegh – The Iranian Prime Minister ousted by the CIA in 1953.
There were about seven climbers at the top who began laughing a little too enthusiastically for my liking when they realized I couldn’t speak Farsi. Then one of them hugged me and said Tabarak, a hybrid of both Farsi and Arabic meaning ‘Congratulations.’ ‘Mabrook’ I hugged back, as we lined up to take a group photo. Everyone was in great spirits and it was a very pleasant quarter of an hour enjoying the views of the Alborz range standing on top of the country.
Naturally this moment of rapture was too good to last for a satisfactory amount of time. One of the climbers leaning quietly against one of the rock walls of the crater began suddenly and violently vomiting clear liquids like a sulphur geyser gone berserk. The altitude sickness had taken full effect and he had to be helped back down the mountain. I wasn’t feeling too bad at that point but staying longer than 20 minutes on the summit meant the sulphur would start burning our eyes so Mohamed and I also decided to descend. We had made it to the top by 11am. Mohamed called Shima from the summit informing her to make arrangements to take all our heavy luggage down by mule to the golden-domed Damavand mosque. We were going to have a pleasant night’s sleep tonight!
I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or apprehensive about our descent being different to the climb up. We filed behind one another and slid down a scree slope adjacent to the summit route. We flew down the side of the mountain, albeit a little too fast for my liking. Just like on Tochal in Tehran, Mohamed scampered down like the mountain goat he was. I followed but my tall and lanky limbs meant for a mountainous amount of aching pressure being exerted onto my thighs and knees. It was however, a satisfying feeling seeing the other climbers crawling up like ants as we glided down.
I slipped multiple times and there were points when I could not stand, submitting to the avalanche of scree pushing me down on my bottom. I cut my palms and fingers scraping sharp pebbles. Ahead of me Mohamed would stand in the path of my trajectory multiple times to stop me from snowballing. I never managed to knock him over. He seemed like an indestructible wall, his body halting my incredulous momentum.
We had reached the point of convergence of the two initial routes but I could no longer hide my frustration with my legs struggling to stand upright on these ghastly slopes. In a fit of rage I threw my sticks and began swearing loudly. Ever the smarmy Yoda, Mohamed cryptically told me to look behind me. I turned to see a massive line of climbers hiking up on the route. ‘We could be them right now’ he remarked, ‘but you’re halfway done, and you’ve done brilliantly so far.’ I looked up again and spotted the Ice Fall glistening in the rocks that I had admired about 4 hours ago. My nerves calmed.
At the convergence of the two roads we took the easier route down. The pressure finally was released from my legs as the slopes became more relaxed. We reached the shelter by 2:30pm – almost 10 hours total to do a round trip journey going up and down. Shima had made soup and was preparing to cook lunch for us before we headed down to the Gosfood Sara camp. However, it was at this point that the dreaded altitude sickness I was praying I would evade finally found me and hit me hard. I could not finish the soup, so suddenly was I stricken with the urge to vomit. The heat fumes from the cooking in the kitchen that had diffused into the main hall did not help. I rushed outside the shelter to breathe some cold fresh air. My head was pounding harder and the altitude demons had come out to play and play hard. It was evident I had not been able to acclimatize successfully at the altitude of the shelter. Mohamed came out after to make sure everything was alright and told me he spoke to the manager who had agreed to put me in a private room to rest for a few hours before lunch was served. I thanked him and went straight to the room, a simple dorm with 3 bunk beds, and plenty of blankets and mattresses. The party of 9 (who had stolen this room from me the previous night) were all on the mountain and would not be back for a long while so I would have enough time to recuperate on lost sleep and this horrific discomfort I was feeling.
I rested my head on the pillow and tried to nap but it was almost as if my head was throbbing in sync with my heartbeat. I managed to close my eyes for an hour but was unable to submerge my consciousness in sleep as I could feel the pain searing through my brain cells. I had never really experienced altitude sickness of this magnitude before so it was naturally very worrying for me, speaking as a certified hypochondriac. Restless and agitated, I went outside to get some more fresh air.
Shima called me in to have an early dinner of pasta with minced meat. I had two spoons and as delicious as it was, I could not put anything else in my mouth. There was an internal trampoline coating my stomach. Any attempt to stuff more food down would have bounced back out.
Both Shima and Mohamed finished their meals quickly and told me to make sure I had everything for the way down before we headed out of the Bargah Sevom refuge one final time.
They were a little taken aback that I was walking at a very brisk pace, despite a 10 hour climb and my nauseous demeanour. I was in autopilot mode now. My mind had gone numb and was solely focused on one goal; keep both my legs moving forward until we reached our final destination.
It was no surprise that the moment we descended to the altitude where the flowers grew my headache disappeared. It was as if my brain was shrinking again back to its normal size thus taking pressure off my skull. The sick feeling in my stomach had gone and almost immediately I became ravenous. Strangely, I managed to evade the hay fever symptoms this time walking through the poppy fields, which I put down to my body cells already past the point of exhaustion to force any reaction.
It took us 2.5 hours and, in the final stretch, the physical fatigue had all but engulfed my body. We had walked for approximately 13 hours in one day within a very wide range of altitudes. Thankfully, we all made it back in one piece.
The horsemen stood at the entrance of the camp with our bags ready to collect. It was at that point the emotions hit me – the feeling of an accomplishment that involved enduring pain I had never experienced before was overwhelming to say the least. The camp manager had already prepared the same quarters we had camped at two nights before. An SUV was arranged to pick us up at 7am the following morning to take us all the way down to the Federation Camp.
Shima offered to make some dinner for me before I slept but I refused, lying that I didn’t want to force my stomach. The truth was I did not want to put her through all the trouble, considering that she also did not sleep very well and spent an hour cooking a meal I did not touch.
By now it was 9pm. I laid out my sleeping bag and put my head on the pillow. Uninterrupted, I woke up the next morning feeling rejuvenated and normal. The van had arrived and we loaded our luggage and hopped in; driving down to the Federation Camp to then unload off the van and reload into Mohamed’s car for the drive back to Tehran. It had been an absolutely draining week but I could now look forward to the next few days exploring the country like a regular tourist, with an ecstatic feeling of accomplishment and fulfilment. ■
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Written by: Fahd Abu Aisha
Photos: Fahd Abu Aisha
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