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SPEED | 04.27.2018 | Benedikt Böhm

Sea to summit in Iran: From the Caspian Sea to Damavand (5,671 meters)

Supporting myself on my poles, I gasp for breath. Every muscle in my body aches and my legs are heavy as lead. I keep telling myself, just 10 more meters, just five more.... I am literally on my last leg... I’m there! In the thin air, my body slowly recovers with difficulty from the everything I just put it through. But, I am so happy, totally exuberant! The pain and misery of the tough ascent give way to joy and euphoria. The feeling of happiness at the summit can hardly be put into words, you have to experience it yourself.

I stand on the summit of Damavand, the highest mountain in Iran. Behind me are 5,970 meters of vert (19,587 ft.) and 130 kilometers (81 miles) of terrain I just conquered. For 14 hours and 20 minutes, I made my body suffer, my mind numb to the pain. I started this trek on my bike at sea level at the Caspian Sea, changed to running shoes and lastly put on my touring skis. It was a tough battle against myself, and most certainly was one of the most intense physical experiences of my Speed Mountaineering career.  Thankful and satisfied, my eyes sweep one more time across the nearly lunar landscape and down to the azure-blue ocean. I luxuriate in the moment. One more deep breath before I head down.

Sun umbrellas and swimming gear vs. bike and ski equipment

It is Easter holiday in Bavaria. I meet up with my colleague and friend Alex at the Munich Airport at 11 a.m. Among all these travelers, we are quite the oddballs. Loaded down with bike packs and ski equipment, we stand out like a sore thumb from all the swimming and sun vacationers. Not hard to imagine since our "vacation" is quite disparate. Our goal is to head to Iran for a speed ascent of Damavand. We will climb to Damavand’s summit from the Caspian Sea, all in a weeks time – including time for acclimatization and breaks.  Send some luck our way, as this is an extremely tight window, even if everything goes as planned and if the weather plays along!

Just over six hours later, we check into the hotel in Tehran. One more proper night of sleep is on the agenda before we head out the next morning toward Damavand. The highest mountain in Iran is already putting its special spell over us even from a distance. As a free-standing mountain and potentially active volcano, Damavand majestically and effortlessly casts its shadow on the surrounding mountains. Technically speaking, this mountain that still has smoke wafting from it is not a difficult mountain to climb, it can be climbed from nearly every side. However, what we didn’t know about this mountain was the sharp smell of sulfur that surrounds it above 5,000 meters (16,404 ft) - just one more obstacle for us to face in reaching our goal! 

Acclimatization with unfavorable conditions

Afte arriving in Tehran, we use the next few days to get to know the route better and for acclimatization. I trained a lot this winter. Generally speaking, I am someone who can handle altitude relatively well and even with little oxygen can still summons up a performance. What is going to do me in, however, are the current weather forecasts. The summit of Damavand is for the most part completely cloaked in fog. Right now, no speed ascent would be at all possible since the conditions on the mountain are unstable and are changing nearly every hour. We can’t begin to estimate whether we will catch a good weather window or will have to return home without achieving our goal.

With our turmoil of changing feelings, we work our way meticulously from Camp 1 in Reineh, a small village at the foot of Damavand, to Camp 2 at 3,020 meters (9,908 ft). Our small camera team continues to keep up with us along the entire journey, but the weather continues to create huge worries for us. 

Most of our acclimatization time is spent in a small hut at 4,200 meters (13,189 ft). From there, I start the tour up to 5,100 meters (16,732 ft) to get a feeling for our route choice. In general there is very little snow. I finally get to step into my touring skis at 3,800 meters (12,467 ft), which hinders the entire undertaking. I only make tedious progress as the fog is thick, and my morals are in the dumps. I have to constantly overcome doubts about the feasibility of our project. In addition to the unpredictable weather, the small hut has contributed to the endless difficulties we are enduring. The nights are ice cold and moisture creeps unpleasantly through our clothes and sleeping bags all night long. The small gas stove only gives off a little warmth, but nevertheless stinks like the exhaust pipe of an old Unimog.

All or nothing

he days pass without much change in the weather. Slowly but surely our time is running out. On the way back to the Caspian Sea, we treat ourselves to a little break and take a dive into Iranian culture. Our driver, Faiteh, shows us the most beautiful areas of the little city of Mahamouabad. We restore ourselves with amazing smelling meat kebabs, home-made flatbread and fresh salads. Exotic spices and smells swirl about in the air, and we are pushed and jostled in the teeming, bustling masses on the streets. Again and again, we are asked to pose for photo as Instagram is very popular in Iran. I guess blonde Europeans are an appropriately in-demand theme!

Another check of the weather causes us to prick up our ears a bit. Tomorrow, on Sunday, changeable weather is still the forecast, but the trend is improving. For Monday, the radar shows a stable high-pressure system without any storms. This is our chance. We put everything down on one card as our flight back to Munich is on Tuesday.

From 0 to 5,671 meters

I am so keyed up. After only a few hours of sleep, Alex and I start out at precisely 1:03 a.m. on April 10th. I am really driven and feel like I'm in great shape for the coming challenge. We climb into the saddle directly on the beach. The conditions are ideal: not a cloud in the sky, 11 degrees Celsius (52 Fahrenheit), light breeze. Alex is to lead for the first 120 kilometers (75 miles) as cycling is his specialty, and I will draft off him for this section. We cycle many kilometers on the shoulder of the highway to make the best possible progress. We are amazed that at this time of night there are so many people out and about. The trucks roaring past us don’t always make it easy to breathe, as they are pumping out carbon monoxide that we are breathing in as they pass. The first 50 kilometers (31 miles) go well, but after that, it gets increasingly steeper. The unaccustomed stress of cycling is becoming more noticeable to me. Indeed, Alex holds the pace mercilessly steady and high. After five and a half hours on our mountain bikes, we arrive in Camp 1.

After a little rest, we head out for the last 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) on the bikes that takes us over a steep, rough gravel road. We still have 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) of climbing to conquer. Still, the view of Damavand, cloudless, gives me a new burst of energy. After another two hours, we reach Camp 2 at 3,020 meters. Two energy bars and a couple of chocolate cookies later, I am in my running shoes ready for the final ascent. From here, I will continue alone. My heavy legs rejoice for a new type of movement, and I quickly settle into a good rhythm. I blaze a trail through gravel and the first fields of snow towards the next stop at 4,200 meters (13,780 ft).

I am literally on my last legs.

I am already looking forward to the transition to ski touring boots. Climbing quickly on skis is my forte, and despite increasing altitude on this segment of the ascent, this should be the easiest part for me. One foot after the other, I climb higher and higher. Along the way, I manage to outwit my body with a mental trick: I convince myself that I just set out running and don’t actually have 120 kilometers on a mountain bike under my belt. 

Once I reach 4,500 meters (14,764 ft.), the effort gets a lot tougher for me. The air is very thin up here, and I feel like I'm not making any forward progress. The monotonous lunar-like landscape on Damavand positively eats into my energy, giving up is not an option. I whip myself upward mentally, step after step until I can finally see the highest point of Damavand. That offers me an unbelievable burst of motivation. I realize I have another hour until I get there, but knowing that the summit is within reach gives me another mental and physical push.

Just 10 more meters, just five more.... I am literally on my last legs... I’m there! Supporting myself on my poles, I gasp for breath and glance quickly with blurry eyes at my watch. 3:23 p.m. Fourteen hours and precisely 20 minutes later I did it. What an indescribable feeling!

The project in numbers, “Sea to Summit – Caspian Sea to Damavand":


• Mountain bike: 120K (75 miles), 3,300 meters of vert (10,827 ft.)
• Running: 4.7K (2.9 miles), 1,160 meters of vert (3,806 ft.)
• Hike/Ski: 3.3K (2.1 miles), 1,470 meters of vert (4,823 ft.)
• TOTAL: 130K (81 miles) / 5,970 meters of climbing (19,587 ft.) / 14 hours, 20 minutes