above, freedom of the hills a climber at 16,000 feet on MT Damavand
It has been a year since I returned from climbing in Iran. I've had a year to contemplate what I saw and a year to realize that if I want the photographs seen I'll need to publish them here. So look for a few posts in the next month or so with the Iran climbing story in them.
A climbing story might seem unusual for me, after all I am much better known for going down than going up. But remember that my first NG story (the one where I went blind) involved climbing a tall mountain in Peru. Plus a good friend talked me into it by saying "this might be your only chance to go to Iran!"
When the story was assigned I started my crash course in Iran and its mountaineering culture. The first thing I discovered is that Iran has big mountains and that we were going to climb the 2 biggest Alam Kuh (15,700 feet) and Mount Damavand (18,400 feet). The second thing I discovered is that Iran has an intense climbing community. Mountaineering is part of the national psyche. The third thing I found is that many Iranians head into the hills every weekend to escape their horrendous government.
the Ayatollah Khomeini shrine outside Tehran
For Americans climbing (like caving or cycling or any non team sport) is often a small act of rebellion. The mountains are a place that societal norms don't really apply. In Iran it is much the same thing magnified by about a million. There the government IS actually spying on it citizens, tens of thousands were arrested in the 2009 green revolution. Images of the the Ayatollah Khomeini are inescapable. There is always someone in a group informing for the government. The religious police enforce restrict male-female interactions. They force women to wear the Hijab. It is a land straight out of Orwell.
In a land of such tremendous restrictions it isn't surprising that thousands of people flee the cities for the mountains. When asked why he climbs one young Iranian told me "because up here there are no old men with long beards telling me what to do."
"up here there are no old men with long beards telling me what to do" 15,000 feet on Alam Kuh
The religious police simply can't follow people up high. The higher you climb the freer you get. My friend Greg began to refer to it as the Hijab Line. It is a sort of alpine social-climatic zone. The higher you hike, the looser your female climbing partner's hijab becomes, at a certain altitude the hijab comes off all together. That is when the stories start, stories about the Green Revolution, about thousands of people in the streets, about the women on the front lines, about the killings, about prison, about why the revolution failed, about the thousands who fled the country.
above the hijab line, a young Iranian woman defies gravity and the law in the hills above Tehran
The Green Revolution was rolled up with clinical effectiveness. The government shut down cell phone service for weeks on end, the internet was turned off. Police arrested anyone who might be suspicious. Tens of thousands were jailed, the prisons filled to overflowing. The authorities spent months sifting through emails and text messages separating the organizers from the people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. One climbing partner spent 3 months in jail while the police questioned him about every email and text message he had ever sent. Those deemed innocent were simply released without explanation or apology.
heading high toward Alam Kuh
It is only up high in the saftey of a mountain hut, or a cliff ledge that it is safe to talk. Those stories about the revolution and about hopes and dreams for the future aren't safe to tell in the flatland. In many ways the only avenue of rebellion open, maybe the only way to stay sane is to climb.