We may have a problematic relationship with Iran, yet behind the negative headlines is a stunning country rich in culture ...and bursting with mountains. The 900km Alborz range holds a lifetime's walking, from wild national parks to high altitude trekking on the giant Damavand. Iran expert Shirin Shabestari is our guide.
Far out to the east and in a country that is often in the news for all the wrong reasons, lies a beautiful mountain range. Its peaks and valleys once known and explored by many adventurers and climbers from around the world gradually faded away and got buried behind the overpowering political presence of the country. A political presentation in the west that only focused on its darker, more turbulent side. Iran, the land of opportunities, promises, history and culture, soon came to be associated only with nuclear weapons and terrorism. For decades following the Islamic revolution, the country saw a significant drop in tourism, and its beautiful mountains and foothills were left to be enjoyed only by Iranians and local travellers.
"A non-technical high altitude trek, Damavand is the ultimate objective for hikers who want to experience their first high altitude away from the crowds and tourists"
Born in 1980, the first seven years of my life coincided with the Iran-Iraq war. Yet the mountains of the Alborz range became a distraction and a safe haven during those hard times. Having the head of a mountaineering club as my dad, I was taken up the hills near our house since I was five and a deep connection and emotional bond was created between me and the mountains of the Alborz. I continued climbing until the age of 15 when my dad went through an open heart surgery and stopped climbing. I had to stop too. Life moved on and I ended up settling down in London with my husband and our two boys. I started climbing again years ago and that love for the mountains of Iran was rekindled through my numerous visits to the country. I came to look at the mountains with fresh eyes and deeper curiosity. I have now climbed in the Alps, UK and Himalayas but I have come to appreciate the immense beauty and the unique landscapes of the mountains of the Alborz.
Almost 900 kilometres long, the Alborz range skirts the south of the Caspian Sea, stretching from the Azerbaijan province in NW all around to the Khorasan province in the NE, forming a natural barrier between the dry and hot plains to the south and the green Alpine forests of the North. Its width ranging from 60 to 160 kilometres, the range is divided into Eastern, Central and Western Alborz, soaring high near the centre with the 5610m Damavand as its highest point.
Damavand, a dormant volcano is not only Iran’s highest peak, but it is also the highest peak in the Middle East and the highest volcano in Asia. Only two hours away from the capital, this beautiful iconic peak is the jewel of all the mountains in Iran and one can hardly resist its allure. Yet it is not widely known among outdoor enthusiasts and hikers here in the UK. A non-technical high altitude trek, Damavand is the ultimate objective for hikers who want to experience their first high altitude away from the crowds and tourists.
In the last decade or so the peak has seen many hikers from mainland Europe who have been visiting the country without any restriction. However British climbers did not have an easy access or much opportunity to visit until very recently when Iran’s new president, Rohani came into the picture. His more liberal and welcoming approach to international relations immediately led to a historical deal with the US, the lifting of the sanctions and Britain officially resuming its relations with Iran in 2016. This opened the doors to a lot of adventure travellers.
For more on Damavand, see this film we made with Paul Diffley of Hot Aches. The film explores the role the mountains in my life and shows the first ski expedition I led there in 2015
Although British, Americans and Canadians still do not have the freedom of independent travel in Iran, travelling to the country is now possible and a lot easier so long as the travellers are part of an organised tour and accompanied by tour guides. Many established as well as newly sprung trekking companies and tour operators started offering these organised treks to the peak and before long, British hikers found their way to the top of Damavand and beyond.
Yet there is a lot of hesitation, doubts and questions that occupy the hikers’ minds. From simple concerns about safety (particularly in the current political climate) on one side and lack of information on travel practicalities and the actual trekking and walking routes on the other.
Although some information, blog posts and random videos on Damavand might be found here and there, little coverage is available on the rest of the Alborz. To the east and west of Damavand, many 4000 metre peaks rise high and far creating romantic valleys with beautiful villages and towns nestled among its rolling foothills. The biggest concentration of the peaks above 4000m happen to be in Central Alborz all easily accessible from the Capital via the two major roads (Haraz and Chaloos) offering superb day walks/hikes or multiday treks and crossings.
Alam Kooh 4850m
A five hour drive NW of the capital takes you to the base of the Alam Kooh and Takht-e Soleyman massif. At 4850m, Alam Kooh is Iran’s second highest peak. Holding court amidst a densely packed network of ridges and numerous 4000m peaks, its North Face stretches 700m high from the base of the Alamchal glacier, one of the largest permanent glaciers in Iran. The rock face itself measures around 400m long and has been the playground for many of the leading and aspiring rock climbers and Alpinists from Iran and abroad. The normal route up Alam Kooh is an enjoyable two day trek and it is perhaps the second most visited peak in Iran by foreigners.
Beyond Alam Kooh lies the historical Salambar pass and the valley of assassins so famously described by the intrepid explorer, Freya Stark who travelled solo to this part of the country in 1930 and 1931 (check dates) on her way crossing down to the Caspian sea. The route now is one of the few historic crossings that takes hikers from the dry fringes of Southern Alborz to the lush Green coastline of the North. Further west, another beautiful trekking route starts from the city of Zanjan, winding its way up and through the range over a few days, ending in the most beautiful and atmospheric village of Masouleh where each house’s balcony forms the roof of the house below.
Far west and Sabalan 4811m
The range stretches far to the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia joining the Caucasus. Although technically not in the Alborz, Iran’s third highest peak, Sabalan is located in the NW not far from the furthest stretches of the range. An isolated peak, an extinct volcano, its shimmering blue crater lake has greeted many Iranian climbers. For Iranian Azeris, it is a symbol of pride, its foothills infused with tunes of Ashiq music sung and played by the Shahsavan shepherds and nomads that roam around the area.
The far east Alborz
On the other end of the range, the eastern Alborz lies low forming some of Iran’s most well known national parks. Jahan-nama, Khar-touran and the huge Golestan national park, are home to many endemic species of trees, and are remnants of the ancient forests from the Ice Age. They are also home to a rich variety of wild life such as the Caucasian/Persian leopard, bears, and boars. Far less explored and visited, this corner of the Alborz would offer any hiker a true sense of being remote. Off the beaten track, the paths are less established and local guides a must. A true gem for anyone who does not particularly enjoy a big dusty plod up a high peak, and much rather carrying a heavy pack, walking for days deep into forests and plateaus with a real affinity with nature and the wildlife.
When to go
June, July August are the best time to go anywhere above 4000m including the three highest peaks. The lower approaches and valleys can be very hot in July and August however weather is very reliable at this time of the year and the chances of a storm or persistent showers very low. It can get very dry and hot lower down and a lot of the springs and streams could potentially dry so finding water can be a real issue in the middle of summer. May and June are the ideal time if you are planning a trek that is at an altitude range of 2000-3000m. The valleys would be gushing with melt water, and covered with wild flowers. October and early November can be a good time to explore the forests of the NE where autumnal colours are at their best but this might be highly weather dependent and could get potentially very cold.
Guided or solo?
As British, American or Canadians, you will need to be part of a package tour organised by an agency. You will be accompanied by a tourist/mountain guide for the duration of the trip. Any other nationality can travel independently in Iran. The hiking paths are fairly clear and well-trodden on the major peaks and often you would come across Iranian climbers particularly on the weekends (Thursday/Friday). But avoid going alone if the weather is unstable. There are English speaking, highly experienced and qualified mountain guides that work independently as well as in joint collaboration with trekking companies and agencies through which you can book your trek. The Mountaineering Federation in Iran can be a good source for info and contacts.
Rest days and sightseeing
Tehran is rich culturally and historically with many palaces and museums to visit. There are some great hot springs near Damavand and Sabalan that could be perfect for recovery. Tabriz is a major city in the NW with many historic sites worth a visit, including world’s biggest covered bazaar (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Not far from Tabriz, Kanvodan is village formed of cave dwellings. An incredible place to visit or even stay a night. A trip down to the Caspian Sea is a must if you end up on the northern side of the Alborz. Badab-Soort springs near Semnan or a day trip to the deserts in the south can offer a real contrasting experience to that of the north.
Where to stay
Damavand has a very well equipped hut on its main route (South) and unmanned huts on the other four established routes (NE, N and W). There are federation huts at the base of Alam kooh and Damavand and most peaks would have an unmanned shelter or hut on route. The national parks however do not have huts and the only option would be to camp. You are allowed to pitch a tent anywhere.
Getting there and around
British Airways and Iran Air fly direct to Tehran. Other airlines offer great flight connections to Tehran, Tabriz and other major cities. Shared taxis and buses are an easy way to travel around. There are vehicles stationed at the bases of the three highest peaks, ferrying climbers to the start of the trek. Travelling by car and public transport is fairly cheap. However majority of the population do not speak English. This though is compensated by their immense hospitality and willingness to help foreigners.
About Shirin Shabestari
Shirin Shabestari, an Iranian-born London-based mother of two, is the founder and director of Persian Pursuits, a UK based company that specialises in trekking, hiking and skiing expeditions in Iran. Growing up in Iran, Shirin climbed extensively with her dad in her early years and holds a close bond with the beautiful mountains of the Alborz. She enjoys accompanying her clients on the treks and introducing the foreign travellers to the beautiful mountain landscapes. She is currently involved with Project Alborz researching and hiking the highlights of the range as well as many of its notable peaks.
Her adventures and expedition updates can be followed on Facebook @persianpursuits (Twitter) and @persianpursuits (Instagram)
For more info see persianpursuits.com