Finding Refuge in Iran’s Climbing Culture
Fog from the distant Caspian Sea swirled around us as we left the road, crossed a narrow mountain stream on a rickety footbridge of wornwooden planks, passed a pungent corral full of dank, scruffy sheep, and started the steep climb to Alam Kuh base camp in the Alborz mountain range of Iran. Brittany Griffith, Kate Rutherford, Anne Gilbert Chase and Mohammed Sajjadi, our guide, practically ran up the trail, thrilled to be moving after days on the road, and disappeared into the mist.
Bringing up the rear, I had gone about mile when I came around a corner to find the four of them stopped, as if at some imaginary, unmarked boundary. It was now okay, Mohammed said, to remove our headscarves. We all quickly shed the scarves and took off the loose tunics we each wore over our mountain attire and buried them in our packs. A cool mountain breeze raised a scattering of goosebumps on my bare arms, a strange sensation after all the days that they had been covered, hot and sweating, under long sleeves, and I felt oddly exposed.
For the previous five days, we had explored the ancient cities of Isfahan and Kashan, marveling at the vast domes and intricate mosaics of the mosques and palaces. We haggled with rug merchants in the bazaars and climbed with Mohammed at his local crag, a dusty limestone cliff on the side of the highway in the desert outside Isfahan, named (rather obviously) “Police Wall” for the highway patrol post nearby. On our first evening we even hiked, jet-lagged and perspiring in the unfamiliar scarves and tunics, up the hulking Mount Sofeh that looms over Isfahan, along with throngs of outdoor enthusiasts: women, men and even children. It was dark when we reached an overlook on the peak, where an impromptu party had broken out. A speaker played Iranian music and a group of men danced, arms and hips swaying in sinuous, even suggestive moves. Women watched, some of them clapping to the music, but none joined the dance. All of these places—the street, the bazaar, the mosque, the museum, even the crag and the trail up the mountain—are part of the public space where, under the laws of the Islamic Republic, strict codes (unusual to Westerners) apply, most notably for women but also for men. For Iranians, these rules extend up to the threshold of their homes, their private refuge; for us, the outside world reached right up to the door of our hotel rooms, our tiny private realms. Now, again on the trail to Alam Kuh, the private had vastly expanded, extending up the long steep valley and the peaks beyond.
For Iranian climbers, the camp and the surrounding peaks are a high, rocky refuge from the demands, restrictions and state scrutiny that are a daily part of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is in the mountains and, as Mohammed tells us, also in the desert and other remote, wild places far from roads and from the police that Iranians, especially the younger generation, can reimagine themselves. It’s there that they can create friendships and communities that would be difficult, if not impossible, to have in places where the strict codes of behavior, especially governing the mixing of men and women, are imposed.
This essay was featured in the 2019 Patagonia March Catalog.