The Zagros Mountains of Southern Iran
Story and Photos by Luca Pandolfi
The inspiration to go snowboarding in Iran came from my friend Matteo Calcamuggi. Matteo had been skiing in Northern Iran in 2014 and he asked me to go back with him the next winter to explore some other ranges he’d seen on the plane ride home
The idea of exploring this beautiful and controversial country attracted me from the very beginning. Iran, previously known as Persia, was the cradle of civilization in ancient times. The Islamic revolution in the late 70’s drastically altered the Iranian lifestyle and soon after the Western world turned against them. Since this time it has been very hard to gain a clear understanding of what life is like in Iran, let alone what amazing experiences the mountains hold. This trip was a special opportunity as I am a lifelong traveler and I love using my snowboard as an excuse to explore new cultures.
The Grand Bazaar in Ishafan.
In mid-February 2015 I found myself on a plane to Teheran, the capitol of Iran. The plan was to spend a few days riding backcountry lines near the Damavand volcano outside of Teheran, then head south with a local guide to go explore another mountain range.
After a half-day rest, we got right into the mountains. We were excited to get in touch with the Persian powder! The first thing we noticed entering the backcountry were the massive piles of avalanche debris - some of the biggest, widest debris piles I have ever seen. Despite the red flag, we were confident conditions had stabilized so we climbed up a 4200 m peak right in front of Mt.Damavand.
Mt.Damavand, the tallest peak in Iran (18,410ft/5610m)
We rode nice cold powder on the first steep and exposed section, then all types of snow (including a few types I never knew existed) on the lower part of the line. The second day we attempted a huge and very aesthetic couloir but the weather turned us back. We had to bail after a couple hundred meters of climbing because it was snowing heavily and the avy danger was getting too high to hang out in the couloir.
Unfortunately the deal did not work out with our local guide. He was more interested in making money than helping us with travel logistics. We decided to carry on with the trip on our own so we went back to Teheran to catch a bus. After 2 intense hours at the money black market we were able to change our money for rials. Money in hand, we bought tickets and jumped on the bus to Isfahan.
Naqsh -e Jahàn Square and Mosque Masjid-e Shah in Ishafan.
No words can express the beauty and magic of the town of Isfahan. The town squares filled with finely decorated fountains and mosques are just perfect to restore the traveler’s soul. The original plan was to go in the Zard Kuh area, west of Isfahan, but we changed plans after seeing a faded picture of the Zagros range, a stunning mountain chain that rises like a wall from the desert. The high peaks of the Zagros hold incredible couloirs.
The language barrier made it very hard to get any information about the Zagros. We finally found a guy who wrote down the name of the village at the base of the mountains on a piece of paper for us. He only spoke Farsi, so using his hands, he let us know it would take two days of driving to get there. Matteo and I looked at each other and hi-fived. We came for adventure and we had found it!
The first taxi driver we hired dropped us off in the middle of the desert as soon as it started snowing! He was scared to drive any further because the road got really slippery and he did not have snow tires. Luckily, half an hour later a car stopped and gave us a lift to the closest town where we spent the night.
After our taxi ditched us in the desert, we hitch hiked to the town of Semiron.
Word traveled fast that we had come to the small town of Semiron. Lots of people came to see us and invited us into their houses for tea. They were very kind people and they helped us arrange a new taxi to continue our journey the next day.
Tea with new friends in the town of Semiron
After four more hours of driving, we arrived at the village at the base of the Zagros Mountains. The landscape was breathtaking as spectacular 4000-4500 m peaks rose up right above the town.The local people were once again shocked to see us and all of our gear, but they were very warm and welcoming nonetheless.
On the road to the Zagros
Communication with the locals required a lot of energy. We used our hands a lot and drew on the ground with a stick to explain what we had come for. After a little while we understood that there was an old bivouac hut in one of the high cirques that could serve as a starting point for our explorations. We made plans to climb up to the hut the next day.
Views of the village
Within an hour of starting the hike our excitement had turned to suffering. For the first couple km we walked through an apple orchard sinking ankle deep into the mud. All in all, it was one of the most tiring approaches either of us had ever done. It took us 6 hours to climb 1200 vertical meters to the bivy hut.
Excited to find the hut but not overwhelmed by it’s amenities.
We were thankful to find the bivoauc hut but it offered little comfort other than a roof over our heads. The winds picked up overnight and blew hard all the next day. The metal walls of the bivy creaked eerily with every gust.
Inside the bivy hut. Photo - Matteo Calcamuggi
When it finally calmed down, we were frustrated to see that the mountains had been polished clean by the winds. The two long, north facing lines above the bivy that we had hoped to climb looked completely unrideable. The 40cm of light powder that had covered the peaks just a day previous was a distant memory.
We turned our attention to some east facing couloirs that looked to be only a couple hours hike from the hut. Our hope was that if we timed it right, we could find some fun, sun softened spring snow.
Our objective in the Zagros.
To no surprise, the approach took us much longer than expected. Just finding a route through the exposed rockband that guarded access to the upper basin took a couple tries. Once in the basin, the bootpack up the couloir took another 3 hours. The climb was a battle but the feeling of topping out was priceless.
Topping out the first couloir. Photo - Matteo Calcamuggi
On one side of us was the Persian Gulf, Iraq, ISIS and war. On the other side an endless desert. We were just two dots in the middle of the universe with our skis and snowboard. Moments like this are the most rewarding of my life - riding a first descent in such a wild place, far from everyone and everything. What a powerful feeling of being alive!
Dropping into the first couloir. Photo - Matteo Calcamuggi
Matteo carves into the chalk coming off the top.
Clouds rolled in so the snow did not fully soften in the couloir. We found all types of snow but mainly edgeable, hard crust. Thankfully the line was not extremely steep, around 40-45°, but the snow conditions made it somewhat sketchy. On the way down to the bivy hut we found some good snow on the glacier which allowed us to release some tension in the best way possible - making huge turns!
The next day we went up and skied the adjacent couloir. The line was a bit more aesthetic but with the same snow conditions. That afternoon we packed up our gear at the hut and headed back to the village to start the journey back to Teheran.
Arriving in Teheran we had two more days left on our trip so we decided to make another attempt on the long couloir we bailed on at the beginning of the trip.
This time, instead of climbing the line, we decided to go around and hike up the long ridge. This was no doubt the best choice to avoid avalanches and rock fall on the ascent, but it left us with some serious questions concerning the descent.
Climbing to the base of the couloir with Mt.Damavand in the distance. Photo - Matteo Calcamuggi
Like clockwork, an hour and half from the summit the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in. For better or worse, we decided to push on and fought through the gusty wind to the summit. We waited for an hour at the top of the couloir hoping for an improvement in the weather, but no luck, so we dropped in.
For the first 200 meters the snow was creamy and just perfect. As we exited the storm clouds, the visibility improved but the snow got harder and required extra focus. In the middle of the couloir the snow improved again, but we were now getting rained on from above by coin size stones. We rode fast through the bottom section and quickly crossed the river to our waiting taxi using an enormous old avalanche debris pile.
Dropping into dreamy conditions off the top. Photo - Matteo Calcamuggi
Matteo charges through the lower section of the couloir.
While we did not find the best snow conditions in Iran, the trip was an incredible experience both for the riding and the culture. There are endless opportunities for adventure in the mountains of Iran with better logistics and support. The snow is quite strange though. Very dry and two-dimensional with very little cohesion between the layers. You will always have to pay close attention to avalanche danger in Iran.
Exiting the lower narrows of the couloir. Photo - Matteo Calcamuggi
Beside the riding experience, we were greeted with one of the warmest welcomes a human being can have traveling the world. Iran is an amazing country with incredibly friendly people. They have their own culture which does not exactly match western ways, but that is what traveling is all about - being humble, respectful and learning a new approach to life. I highly recommend a trip to Iran for any skier or snowboarder whose heart beats for wild mountains and exotic adventure.
Huge thanks to all my sponsors who help make dream trips like this possible:
SALEWA, JONES SNOWBOARDS, LEVEL GLOVES, SPARK R+D, FITWELL, SCOTT SPORTS ITALIA, CLIFF BAR, VA, CAMP, MYSTIC FREERIDE
Check out more of Luca Pandolfi’s trip reports from the Alps and beyond at www.lucapandolfi.com