Climbing Iran's Mount Damavand: The last corner of the Earth
It was a little after 4am when Peter Burke stepped out of his tent and onto the ice in the foothills of the Elburz mountain chain in Iran.
Even in the pre-dawn gloom, he was acutely aware of standing in the shadow of mighty Mount Damavand, which at 5671 metres is the highest peak in Western Asia.
Somewhere out there in the darkness lay its snow-covered summit and Peter faced a tough 1320m climb to reach it. The Wellington civil servant was a long way from home, and he knew he had a big day ahead.
"Your mind can play tricks on you with high altitude climbs," says Peter.
"I was excited and nervous, and there's always a thought in your head, 'am I going to make it'."
Peter has a long tramping pedigree beginning with the Hutt Valley Tramping club, but didn't discover high altitude climbing until ten years ago when he trekked to Everest base camp in Nepal.
"It blew me away," says the 57-year-old. "I fell in love with the mental and physical challenge of mountain climbing, of being exhausted but pushing through the fatigue and carrying on."
Since then, he's knocked off Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (nearly 6000m) and Mount Cayambe in Ecuador (5790m).
The trip to Iran was booked through Adventure Travel in Wellington, and came about after Peter's quest to climb a high altitude mountain in a far-flung country he hadn't yet experienced.
Although avoided by tourists for decades, the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers lead to the lifting of most sanctions and its reconnection to the rest of the world.
Travellers, in particular from Europe, are now finally understanding the lure of Iran, known to many as the jewel in Islam's crown. Rich in history and culture, some of civilisation's biggest names – Cyrus and Darius, Alexander The Great, Genghis Khan – all left their footprints on its soil.
Tourists are drawn to Iran's Persian architecture, friendly people, and breath-taking scenery that stretches from high mountains to soulful deep deserts where Asiatic cheetah still roam.
Long before Peter began his research on Iran, it was in his mind a country better-known for its deserts than its snow-covered mountains.
"No one told me I was mad for climbing Mt Damavand, but they did seem surprised I was climbing a snow-covered mountain in the middle of the Iranian desert."
The morning of his ascent, Peter and the four other British and American climbers with Exodus prepared physically and mentally for the seven-hour climb ahead.
Mules and porters had bought their gear to base camp, and now each porter donned a daypack, a head lamp, and was roped together for safety. They set off before 5am, in darkness and in silence.
"No one said anything, I think we were just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other." After walking in the dark for 90 minutes, the sun came up and stunning vista around them gracefully revealed itself.
Iran is one of the world's most mountainous countries, its landscape dominated by rugged mountain ranges separating various basins.
The Elburz Mountains (also known as Alborz and Alburz and Elborz) in northern Iran stretch from the border of Azerbaijan along the western and entire southern coast of the Caspian Sea and finally run northeast and merge into the Aladagh Mountains.
"The view was dramatic and absolutely lovely," says David. "We were surrounded by high hills, and barren brown arid land. Everything was just so stark."
Over the next six hours, the icy path underfoot changed to snow, soft rock and yellow sulphurous volcanic scree. Peter says at times it was a tough climb, with a few scrambles on all-fours.
He focused on reaching the summit and put his trust in the Exodus and local guides. Along the way, they told the group tales of Mt Damavand, which holds a special place in Iranian history.
The picture-perfect mountain is the focus of several Persian legends, and has even been suggested as a resting place for Noah's Ark. Just 72km northeast of Tehran and dominating the skyline, Mt Damavand's great height and classic volcanic shape grant it a dominating presence.
Although it hasn't erupted since the Holocene about 7300 years ago, it is said to be in its final stages before becoming dormant. Warm mineral springs at its base and the absence of extensive glaciers are evidence of continued internal activity.
Peter says the last hour to the summit involved walking through deep snow, and it was slow-going even with poles. As the group approached the crater rim, the smell of sulphur became strong.
Fumaroles within the snow-covered crater belch out a noxious brew of gases from the centre of the earth.
"Everyone was getting tired, but the desire to reach the summit was strong," he says. The guides also had their eye on approaching storm – and urged the group to keep moving.
"We could see the rain clouds, and the mist obscuring the summit," he says. "Everyone kept going, for all of us that was the ultimate goal."
Finally, seven hours after they'd left base camp that morning, the exhausted group of climbers reached the summit.
"It was an amazing feeling," says Peter. "There was hugging and cheering, it felt like a massive achievement."
By then however, the weather had deteriorated, and ominous cloud obscured their view of the Caspian Sea. For Peter, exhaustion was superseded by triumph – but only briefly.
"Within minutes we knew we had to turn around and get back down again before darkness fell. We knew were exhausted and had to be careful - the descent is often where things can go wrong. We were thrilled to be at the top but at the same time we thought, let's get back to base camp and really celebrate".
After a four-hour trek back to base camp – through slush and deep snow – and the tired but exhilarated group arrived at 5pm – almost exactly 12 hours after they'd left in the dark that morning.
Back in Tehran two days later, the climbing group enjoyed a free day to see the sights. They visited most of the main attractions – many of them Unesco World Heritage sites - there were few queues and barely any other Westerners.
"I got asked for my photo a lot, not only because I'm Western, but because I'm tall," says Peter.
His hotel wasn't far from the US embassy, which was famously laid siege to during the uprising against the Shah in the late 1970s.
"The iconic slogans were still there, along the lines of 'Down with America', and 'Evil Empire'," he says.
And although some of the climbers had been concerned about their safety before they left home, Peter says they were all made to feel very welcome and the local people were friendly and hospitable.
Although the country's strict alcohol ban meant none of the climbers could celebrate conquering the summit with a cold beer, their guide did take them out for breakfast to a café in Tehran that specialises in the local favourite, boiled sheep's heads, hooves and brains, known as kaleh pacheh.
The eyes, eaten with salt, cinnamon and lemon, are a particular delicacy. For Peter, the experience was a challenge, but he embraced it whole-heartedly as a fitting finale to his Iranian experience.
"I had some cheek, tongue and tendon and sinews from the leg, and I will say the smell was sickening but I survived the experience."
Peter used Adventure Travel to make all his arrangements, for more information on hiking adventures or travel journeys contact Wellington Adventure Travel 04 494 7180 or email firstname.lastname@example.org