Anne Gilbert Chase and Brittany Griffith get the beta on Alam Kuh from Iranian climbers Habibi and Sholmaz, friends and partners from Tabriz. During our time at base camp, we got to know Habibi, Sholmaz and many other Iranian climbers, who would come by our camp to welcome us to Iran and the Alborz Mountains, and to talk about climbing, life and politics. We were a fascinating anomaly, but being climbers made us break that down. Photo: Beth Wald
Anne Gilbert Chase and Brittany Griffith get the beta on Alam Kuh from Iranian climbers Habibi and Sholmaz, friends and partners from Tabriz. During our time at base camp, we got to know Habibi, Sholmaz and many other Iranian climbers, who would come by our camp to welcome us to Iran and the Alborz Mountains, and to talk about climbing, life and politics. We were a fascinating anomaly, but being climbers made us break that down. Photo: Beth Wald

Finding Refuge in Iran

By Beth Wald   |   May 29, 2019 May 29, 2019

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.

It was only our second day in Iran, and we were still jet-lagged and disoriented by the noisy bustle and oppressive heat of the Isfahan streets. When we entered the mosque, we were enveloped in dark and mysterious spaces. As our eyes adjusted, they were drawn upward to the huge dome overhead, and we strained to see elaborate mosaics dancing across its vast, curved surfaces. Our guide Mohammed, observably proud of the 2,500 years of Persian culture that is his heritage, told us the history of this architectural masterpiece built over 400 years ago during the Safavid dynasty, a period that saw the expansion of the Persian Empire and a flowering of Persian art and architecture. I found this arched gateway, perfectly framing an intricately tiled façade and the minarets of the entrance “iwan” outside. Inside and out, dark and light, a harmonious repetition of arches, patterns and lines. Photo: Beth Wald
It was only our second day in Iran, and we were still jet-lagged and disoriented by the noisy bustle and oppressive heat of the Isfahan streets. When we entered the mosque, we were enveloped in dark and mysterious spaces. As our eyes adjusted, they were drawn upward to the huge dome overhead, and we strained to see elaborate mosaics dancing across its vast, curved surfaces. Our guide Mohammed, observably proud of the 2,500 years of Persian culture that is his heritage, told us the history of this architectural masterpiece built over 400 years ago during the Safavid dynasty, a period that saw the expansion of the Persian Empire and a flowering of Persian art and architecture. I found this arched gateway, perfectly framing an intricately tiled façade and the minarets of the entrance “iwan” outside. Inside and out, dark and light, a harmonious repetition of arches, patterns and lines. Photo: Beth Wald
Chase climbs toward the light at a private gym in Tehran, a basement apartment transformed into a bouldering cave. As we learned, there are both public and private gyms and clubs. At private gyms, men and women can climb and train together, something that is not allowed at public gyms. In a sense, the private clubs bring a bit of the peaks back to the city, allowing organic relationships and climbing communities to thrive even far from the mountains. Photo: Beth Wald
Chase climbs toward the light at a private gym in Tehran, a basement apartment transformed into a bouldering cave. As we learned, there are both public and private gyms and clubs. At private gyms, men and women can climb and train together, something that is not allowed at public gyms. In a sense, the private clubs bring a bit of the peaks back to the city, allowing organic relationships and climbing communities to thrive even far from the mountains. Photo: Beth Wald
A private climbing gym in a basement apartment in Iran. Photo: Beth Wald
A private climbing gym in a basement apartment in Iran. Photo: Beth Wald
After over a week of travel, Chase works her way up a splitter crack, a warmup before she and her partners tackle Alam Kuh’s big walls. Most of the Iranians we met were aiming to climb the steep, clean aid lines in the middle of the main wall, but our team was in search of a new free line, which led to less traveled terrain and some questionable rock. Photo: Beth Wald
After over a week of travel, Chase works her way up a splitter crack, a warmup before she and her partners tackle Alam Kuh’s big walls. Most of the Iranians we met were aiming to climb the steep, clean aid lines in the middle of the main wall, but our team was in search of a new free line, which led to less traveled terrain and some questionable rock. Photo: Beth Wald
The relationships we forge with our partners in the mountains are deep, unique and treasured, and for many, the mountains are an escape from the pressures of everyday life. But for Iranian climbers, the difference between their time in the mountains and daily life is far starker. Photo: Beth Wald
The relationships we forge with our partners in the mountains are deep, unique and treasured, and for many, the mountains are an escape from the pressures of everyday life. But for Iranian climbers, the difference between their time in the mountains and daily life is far starker. Photo: Beth Wald
The jagged summit ridge of Alam Kuh rises like the spine of a giant granite stegosaurus over dry, brown peaks and valleys that fall toward the cloud-cloaked Caspian Sea, nearly 16,000 feet below. The second highest peak in Iran, Alam Kuh is part of the Alborz mountain range, a high but narrow snarl of peaks and volcanoes that slices across the north of Iran, barricading the moisture of the humid Caspian to the north and casting a sprawling and arid rain shadow across the Iranian plateau to the south. It is a wild, epic landscape and shares its name with the cosmic mountains the Zoroastrians put at the center of the world, through which passed the sun, moon and stars. The Alborz Mountains and Alam Kuh remain a fabled land for Iranians who want to escape, for a time at least, the crowded, hectic cities where most people live. These high peaks are a refuge from the demands, restrictions and state scrutiny that are a daily part of life in Iran. Photo: Beth Wald
The jagged summit ridge of Alam Kuh rises like the spine of a giant granite stegosaurus over dry, brown peaks and valleys that fall toward the cloud-cloaked Caspian Sea, nearly 16,000 feet below. The second highest peak in Iran, Alam Kuh is part of the Alborz mountain range, a high but narrow snarl of peaks and volcanoes that slices across the north of Iran, barricading the moisture of the humid Caspian to the north and casting a sprawling and arid rain shadow across the Iranian plateau to the south. It is a wild, epic landscape and shares its name with the cosmic mountains the Zoroastrians put at the center of the world, through which passed the sun, moon and stars. The Alborz Mountains and Alam Kuh remain a fabled land for Iranians who want to escape, for a time at least, the crowded, hectic cities where most people live. These high peaks are a refuge from the demands, restrictions and state scrutiny that are a daily part of life in Iran. Photo: Beth Wald
Although the sprawling metropolis of Greater Tehran and its 15 million people is less than 60 miles as the crow flies from Alam Kuh base camp, we felt as if we were a world away, the nights bitterly cold and dark. As the moon sets behind the Alam Kuh massif, Mars glows bright and the Milky Way splatters its thousands of galaxies across the indigo sky. Photo: Beth Wald
Although the sprawling metropolis of Greater Tehran and its 15 million people is less than 60 miles as the crow flies from Alam Kuh base camp, we felt as if we were a world away, the nights bitterly cold and dark. As the moon sets behind the Alam Kuh massif, Mars glows bright and the Milky Way splatters its thousands of galaxies across the indigo sky. Photo: Beth Wald