CAMBRIDGE EXPEDITION, 1956, TO THE ELBURZ MOUNTAINS, IRAN
J. G. R. HARDING
On June 21st, 1956, a party of six undergraduates, W. J. E. Norton (leader), W. B. Anderson, D. J. R. Cook, K. A. McDougall, J. E. H. Mustoe, and J. G. R. Harding, left Cambridge for the Elburz Mountains of North Persia. Four of us were designated climbers, two naturalists. Twenty-two days later in the calm of Gulhek, the summer compound of the British Embassy at Teheran, it seemed that the long and arduous overland journey packed with incident and excitement had been expedition enough for one summer. In their turn, our two long-suffering jeeps and trailers (once a placid Cambridge blue) had encountered the numerous perils which for us, at any rate, had made the journey to Persia, by way of north-east Turkey, memorable in itself. Dogged by overheating and unexpected mechanical troubles, to say nothing of an awesome number of tyre blowouts, the alarming tendency of our trailers to overturn with little prompting became but another of the accepted hazards which lie in wait for the traveller along the road to Teheran.
Preparations had taken a year. The Elburz Mountains were chosen because it appeared that here was an area within the reach of a small unqualified expedition. From all reports there were still opportunities for mountaineering exploration, particularly in the Takht-i-Suleiman massif which was yet to be visited by a British climbing party with enough time to cover the area thoroughly. Our primary objects were to spend up to three weeks in the Takht-i-Suleiman group and then to discover whether the Orim massif (some 200 miles further east) was really the high and mysterious plateau that certain maps would have us believe. It was indeed fortunate that the Mountain Climbing Federation of Iran had enough information on the Orim area to persuade us that our time would be wasted. An area north-west of Demavend was suggested as an alternative. Reportedly unexplored, there were virgin peaks in plenty on a range which was thought to harbour the eternal snows. This was seized on eagerly as a worthy successor to the now discredited heights of Orim, but we were later doomed to disappointment.
It would be as well to outline a history of the Takht-i-Suleiman group. Situated 60 miles north-west of Teheran, the massif boasts four main glaciers and a number of peaks over 15,000 ft., culminating in Alam Kuh, 16,350 ft., the second highest mountain in Persia. The outstanding feature of the massif is the great northern escarpment stretching from Siah Kaman Kuh to the Lana peaks. Below Alam Kuh, this mighty wall of smooth granite slab rises a sheer 2,000 ft. from the source of the north-east glacier, while on the western side of the Alam Kuh-Takht-i-Suleiman ridge, the west face reaches a height of about 2,700 ft. Here too is a 50°-60° snow and ice slope leading to a breche between a large gendarme and the west summit.
The first recorded ascent of Alam Kuh was made in 1902 by the German brothers Bornmuller. A more detailed exploration of the group was made by D. L. Busk in 1933-34. On both occasions he approached the massif from the south; in 1933, traversing Siah Kaman Kuh to climb Alam Kuh by the east ridge, and in 1934 by the west. In 1936, a German expedition led by Dr. Hans Bobek advanced from the north. They made the first recorded ascent of Takht-i-Suleiman by the south ridge and climbed the small rock peak known as Chane Kuh or Mountain of the Comb. The expedition then proceeded to Demavend, where they spent a night on the summit, but Steinauer and Gorter returned to Alam Kuh to make the first ascent of the north face by the north buttress. Steinauer, who was a member of the party to make the third ascent of the north face of the Grand Jorasses, described this climb as the 'Persian Jorasses5
. In 1954, a Franco-Iranian expedition, led by Bernard Pierre, made a further three ascents on the north face of Alam Kuh, twice by the north buttress and once by the 60° ice-slope which they christened the Ice-Curtain.
Reports by the French expedition were enthusiastic and implied that there were still numerous climbs to be attempted, particularly on the little known Haft Khan Ridge (Ridge of the Seven Summits). To us in Cambridge the potentialities of the area had appeared fcndless but we were not to know that another Franco- Iranian expedition, seemingly intent on clinching the two great remaining mountaineering problems of the Elburz, namely the north wall of Alam Kuh direct, and the north-east couloir of Demavend, were to forestall us, at least in part, as regards our intentions to complete the first traverse of the Haft Khan Ridge. Our plans were to approach the massif from the village of Rud- barek but, unlike previous expeditions, to establish camp on the south side of the group in the great cirque known as Hazar Chal or Place of a Thousand Hollows. From this base we would explore thoroughly the southern extensions of the group and when these had been exhausted, would cross the Col between Alam Kuh and the Lana peaks to set up a subsidiary camp on the northwest glacier from where we could investigate the Haft Khan Ridge and the northern escarpment.
The five days spent in Teheran were hectic, but sweet indeed compared to the rigours of the outward journey. Our sincere thanks must go to the Ambassador and other members of both the Embassy and British Community in Teheran who so kindly entertained us. Time seemed very precious, for in a country where it means little the battle for permits and permission was waged relentlessly. Had it not been for the concerted efforts of our liaison officer, Captain Akbar Ghaffari, the Mountain Climbing Federation of Iran, a member of the Iranian Cabinet and the sheer 8b influence of H.R.H. Prince Gholam Reza Pahlevi, the Shah's younger brother, our stay in Teheran would undoubtedly have been longer.
On the 19th of July, the first jeep crossed the Elburz watershed and by midnight we had established a camp near the village of Rudbarek, our roadhead. For 24 hours it had rained solidly and when the second jeep arrived 24 hours later, it was to find a miserable and disconsolate advance party crawling out from under dripping canvas erected in a sea of mud. It was not possible at that stage to appreciate the charms of this delightful Kurdish village of truly Alpine character.
Early on the morning of the 21st, our mule train arrived. Numerically impressive, it took a virtuoso display of bargaining by Captain Ghaffari to persuade the muleteers to view our needs in proper perspective. Many hours later ten mules, ten muleteers and appendages started up the valley of the Sardab Rud, choked in the insidious Caspian mist, which had been with us since our arrival and had restricted our much-longed-for view of the mountains to the flanks of the valley, richly covered with the magnificent beeches and oaks which make up much of the Mazan- deran forest.
It was shortly after the long delayed start that two climbers suddenly appeared ahead of us, rushing hot-foot down the precipitous track. They were members of the 1956 Franco-Iranian expedition, and they told a story of storm and stress. Their attempts to climb the north face of Alam Kuh, avowedly the main object of the expedition, had not met with success though a number of subsidiary climbs had been done, and one of these happened to be the traverse of the Haft Khan Ridge: this we found out only after returning to Teheran.
That evening, camp was pitched at 8,000 ft. As darkness began to close in, the mist and cloud suddenly lifted to reveal ridge upon castellated ridge towering high above. The approach march took a further two days before Base Camp was established at 13,310 ft. high up the Hazar Chal. Our progress was held up by a mysterious ailment which struck at the very core of the expedition. Certainly general unfitness and the altitude played their part, but what was prepared for us by Captain Ghaffari and described as 'typical Persian cooking' undoubtedly took its toll of those of us with weaker constitutions. An expedition based on the south side of the massif has one great advantage in that mules can carry supplies to a considerable height without undue difficulty. On the northern glaciers this is impossible owing to the rough terrain, and it has always been necessary for expeditions to man-handle their supplies and equipment for the last 3,500 ft. or so. This is apt to be tedious, because there are no porters available in Rudbarek.
Having left the tree-line at 8,000 ft., our caravan had followed the well-worn trade route up the Sardab Rud, which eventually crosses the 13,900-ft. Hazar Cham Pass (Pass of a Thousand Windings), one of the highest passes west of the Hindu Kush in regular use. It was difficult to persuade the muleteers to forsake the oft-trodden path for the snows of upper Hazar Chal, but our cajolery, which eventually gave way to curses, had its effect and after one temporary sit-down strike our equipment was unloaded and the muleteers paid off with instructions to return in 16 days.
Base Camp was situated on an isolated patch of grass, later to become carpeted with flowers as the melting snows retreated under the fierce heat of the Persian sun. The harsh ridges of snow and rock rose up on all but one side into an ever-vivid sky. That evening the atmosphere was full of the promise of things to come. To the immediate south-west, the challenging rock tower of Gardune Kuh stood sentinel over the camp. Our excitement was made complete that evening by the appearance of a great brown bear silhouetted on the top of a slope of snow but 200 yards away. Far away to the east, lay the white cone of Demavend, faintly discernible in the clear evening light, its solitary "snows in cold contrast to the lesser summits which cluster around it.
In truth, the mountaineering at Hazar Chal was disappointing. The teething troubles of getting fit and used to the altitude could not explain away the shortage of good climbs. Extremes of temperature had left the rock treacherous and the scree all-pervading. We covered the ground quite thoroughly but had little to show for it. Climbs included:
(1) Ascents of Alam Kuh both from the east and west ridges. These were little more than exhausting scrambles, but gave us our first panoramic views of the massif. Outstanding features were the two northern glaciers, heavily bestrewn with moraine; the great abyss of the cliffs of Alam Kuh, and the promise of the Haft Khan Ridge with its clean white granite, a welcome change from the brittle limestone we had experienced.
(2) The ascents of Gardune Kuh, including what was almost certainly the first ascent of the north-east gully. This climb being marred, as were others, by the extreme rottenness of the rock-a particularly unpleasant hazard in the restricted space of the gully.
PANORAMA TAKEN FROM SIAH SANG KUH, 15, 190 FT., OF THE TAKHT-I-SULEIMAN MASSIF.
(3) The traverse of the south-east ridge of Siah Sang Kuh. An enjoyable climb with fine situations, though technically easy. From Siah Sang Kuh itself we had an impressive view of the east ridge of Alam Kuh and the peculiar formations of rock which are to be found on the eastern margins of the east wall.
Smaller expeditions included a reconnaissance of the proposed route to the north-west glacier; a partial traverse of the Lana peaks, which was cut short by a vertical rock wall 200 ft. high, and one or two minor ice climbs. The possibilities of Hazar Chal were exhausted. The time was ripe to put our second plan into operation-the establishment of a subsidiary camp on the little- known north-west glacier. Our party split up; the naturalists were to cross the Hazar Cham Pass to survey the flora and fauna on the southern versant of the watershed, and incidentally to experience and enjoy nomadic hospitality. The four climbers and Captain Ghaffari would spend four days on the glacier.
Our loads were heavy and the Col between Alam Kuh and the Lana peaks was only reached after wearisome step-cutting. The descent to the glacier was painfully slow, for the steep scree, ever ready to avalanche, gave one a feeling of insecurity. Under normal conditions there would have been nothing to it, but the burden of the heavy packs upset equilibrium. As the last man straggled in at 7 p.m., it was almost dark.
Glacier Camp was little more than a bivouac of groundsheets, and the moraine on which we established ourselves was made up of innumerable sharp rocks which had disastrous effects on the air- mattresses. Life on the glacier was in complete contrast to the mellowness of Hazar Chal. Snow and ice, granite and moraine, made a harsh but impressive background to a ludicrously impromptu camp. As the evening sun disappeared behind the Haft Khan Ridge and the shadows rose ever higher up the Lana peaks, a still cold descended. This was the signal to put on every stitch of clothing that considerations of weight had allowed us to bring across the Col; and it only remained for the climbers to retire to their sleeping-bags, though the superb sunsets were always worth waiting for. Glacier Camp was well situated and four days were not sufficient to take in all that was available.
The main object of the first day was the ascent of Takht- i-Suleiman. This included an enjoyable rock climb on Chane Kuh, perched midway along the Alam Kuh-Takht-i-Suleiman ridge. Continuing up the ridge to Takht-i-Suleiman was little more than a tedious scree trudge but we were rewarded by some magnificent views from the summit. It was one of those rare occasions when the Caspian mists had withdrawn. To the north-east and far below us, lay the valley of Rudbarek and the Kalardasht plain; while 30 miles beyond and 15,000 ft. below, was the Caspian-a blur of sea and sky. To the immediate south rose up the great rock faces of Alam Kuh, divided by the ridge up which we had just climbed. This is the ridge which leads up to the north buttress climb on Alam Kuh.
The following day we embarked on what was erroneously believed to be the first traverse of the Haft Khan Ridge. Far less formidable than in profile, the climb deteriorated into a scramble after the first two summits. However, we were given a chance to see what else the ridge had to offer. It appeared that on the east flank there were a number of good climbs mainly on sound rock and sometimes including snow and ice. One such climb undertaken by two members of the expedition was christened Bergschrund buttress. There were interesting pitches and fine situations. This particular buttress was not the most ambitious available, and there is scope for many new routes and first ascents to be made on the north-eastern flank of the Haft Khan.
After four days at Glacier Camp, the food situation gave us little option but to return to Hazar Chal. Time had not dimmed those uncomfortable memories of the scree-slope by which we had come, and my own conviction that a less unpleasant return route must be found was hardened by an impressive display of rock and ice avalanches coming off the Lana peaks close to the vicinity of our intended route back. A reconnaissance revealed that there was, in fact, a superior alternative by way of ascending the Col between the Lana peaks and the Haft Khan Ridge, skirting the south Lana peak, Kharsan, 15,480 ft., descending the ridge towards Gardune Kuh, and then cutting down a snow couloir into Hazar Chal.
Even after our few days' absence, Hazar Chal had changed its colours. The snow patches were rapidly disappearing and banks of flowers were springing up everywhere. Far down the valley, the first flocks of summer were steadily moving up towards our camp. Our time had run out. Two days later, the mules arrived and by the 8th of August we were once more at Rudbarek.
Looking back on those weeks it was difficult not to feel some pangs of disappointment, for our mountaineering achievements were negligible. Admittedly, we had broken some new ground, and an extensive area had been covered both by survey and on foot; but hard gained experience would have given us the knowledge of how best to allot our precious time to the various areas available. It must be stressed that, notwithstanding the severe conditions and the difficulties of transport, a camp on the north side of the massif does give infinitely better access to the good climbs. Furthermore, there is comparatively little available between high-standard mountaineering and mere scrambling, though, for those who can appreciate it, there are always dubious escapades on rotten rock and for these there is ample scope. However, we had at least produced a map of the area, and though many of the heights differ considerably from those of Busk and the 1954 French Expedition, the plotting should be accurate.
THE NORTH FACE OF ALAM KUH, 16,350 FT., TAKEN FROM TAKHT-I-SULEMAN.
But here is an area whose essential attraction is not simply derived from that first tempting glimpse of Solomon's Throne, which compels us to seek out those delectable mountains rising so clearly above the green valley of Rudbarek into the fierce Persian sky. It embraces a fascinating background, which must become an integral part of the experience of any climbing expedition. Here, in Rudbarek, are a proud and courteous people still living their lives within the framework of a feudal tribal system. They and their village are as yet unspoilt; their log-houses built from the trees of a mighty forest which stretches down to the very floor of a valley, where the cold foaming waters of the Sardab Rud rush through green fields in which cattle graze and where the haystacks rise on stilts. Here, too, is a paradise for naturalists. Leopard and tiger still roam the forest; while bear, ibex and mouflon can be found above the tree-line. We have happy memories indeed of four glorious days, when the inevitable corned- beef hash and tinned peas were supplanted by mouflon steak.
After a brief but harrowing sojourn on the shores of the Caspian Sea-for the mosquitoes make life a misery where the Elburz rise immediately from the narrow coastal plain swathed in humid mists and tropical jungle-all eyes were turned towards Dema- vend. Always at the back of our minds was the climb that Bernard Pierre had considered the second great problem of the Elburz; the north-east couloir of Demavend, described by him as ' an Alpine problem of the highest order'. Having reached Rehna, we were to discover that two of the French party were already engaged on this climb, which eventually fell to them. In "fact, the couloir, which includes 3,000 ft. of ice, was probably beyond our own capabilities so there was little to grumble about.
Due to five hectic days of mechanical failures and financial crises, time was running out; but it did seem reasonable to try the suggestion of the Iranian Mountain Climbing Federation to explore the area north-west of Demavend. This area can claim nothing of mountaineering interest. There were mysterious nomadic tribes; opportunities for the naturalists to collect and for the surveyors to survey ; but the fabulous mountains which we had heard about did not exist. We returned after seven days to Pulur with the positive knowledge that here at least were no hidden prizes for the mountaineer. It only remained for us to climb Demavend, and by the rigid time-schedule which was beginning to bind our lives, there were only 24 hours in which to do it.
Demavend, 18,600 ft., the highest mountain between the Hindu Kush and the North Atlantic, is an extinct volcano, and although climbed every year by a score of people, its very dominance over the lesser peaks of the Elburz make it a mountain whose challenge is not to be ignored. At 10-45 p.m. the cloud level was down to 8,000 ft., and the six of us left the roadhead to align ourselves in the general direction of the mountain. As yet there was no moon, but by midnight we were well above the cold grey cloud-sea, which had flooded so completely the valleys far below. Ahead lay the bulk of Demavend, its snows a luminous pyramid against a black sky. It was only after 15,000 ft., that we began to feel the effects of altitude and our lack of sleep. The last 3,000 ft. took a disproportionately long time and progress was not helped by the sickening sulphurous fumes which are to be found on the upper reaches of the mountain. By midday, most of us lay gasping on the ill-defined summit, staring woodenly at the yellow fringe of rock which marks the edge of the crater. The swirling cloud disclosed little beneath us, and I was feeling sick. Cooking the evening meal alongside our jeeps at 7 p.m. that same evening, I could only reflect that the joys of Demavend were mainly objective.
For an expedition which can claim to have achieved little of mountaineering significance, it is perhaps presumptuous to put forward views on the mountaineering potential of the Elburz Mountains. Our own experience was a trifle disappointing, because the few great climbs of the range were beyond our scope and, apart from these, there is nothing of great merit. Certainly there are stern rock faces to be conquered, and doubtless winter and spring in these mountains will transform the brown hills of summer into an Alpine wonderland; but only in the Alam Kuh massif and on the northern slopes of Demavend will greater mountaineering be found.
I do not consider the Elburz sufficient in themselves to warrant a full-scale mountaineering expedition. But for a motorized party en route to the Himalayas, seeking either a period for acclimatization, a break in the long journey or simply an excuse to visit this truly fascinating area, there are problems of a very high order, such as the north face of Alam Kuh, which still await ascents by British parties; and the same applies to the north-east couloir of Demavend.
Mountaineering in Persia is fast increasing in popularity. Although its inspiration has largely stemmed from the example of European climbers, particularly the French, there is already a nucleus of capable and experienced mountaineers who may fittingly be the first to overcome the problems of the Elburz which yet remain unsolved.