I have been meaning to write this story for a while. If you asked me what were the most favourite things I did on my 6 months journey through Asia, here is what I would answer:
#3: cruising through Halong Bay
#2: a several-day bike tour along the East Coast of Taiwan
#1: climbing Shir Kuh in Iran and descending in a snowstorm
Why the hike was my absolute favourite? First of all, because it was a showpiece of Iranian hospitality, where a “stranger” invited and guided me on a hike and even more, lent me all the necessary equipment. Second, because it was a challenging and rewarding experience. Third, let’s be honest, because the whole thing was just freaking crazy. 😄
During the write-up of the article, I saw people evaluating this trail with a “medium” difficulty. I have to tell you: this is for the summer season. In winter, this trail is for experienced climbers only.
This story happened in January 2017. I was travelling in the North of the Iran, when a couchsurfer from Yazd responded to my public request and invited me to climb the highest mountain in the Yazd Province together. I didn’t ask many question. I was sure that I wanted to do this, and convinced that there would be a solution to all emerging issues on the way.
„I have no shoes, no warm clothes and no sleeping bag, but I would really love to go!“, I told him. – „No problem, we will find shoes for your feet and I have some extra warm clothes and a sleeping bag. You will meet Shir Kuh!“, he answered confidently.
Shir Kuh (Persian: شيركوه ) means the Lion Mountain. Its peak is 4055 metres above sea level. Hikes usually start in the the village of Deh Bala, 40km away from Yazd, at around 2580 metres altitude and last 6 to 7 hours.
At this time of the year, it was around 10°C in Yazd at daytime, so you can imagine it to be colder up in the mountains. Even though Shir Kuh is located in one of the driest regions of Iran (➙ see the video of a desert only some kilometres away), the peak is likely to be covered in snow (especially in winter).
Preparing a hike in the winter. [1216m a.s.l.]
I met Mehdi*, my hiking buddy, one day before the planned hike. He is a freelance English teacher in his early 30s and lives with his wife in a spacious, luxurious apartment in Yazd.
The plan is to leave from Yazd to Deh Bala by taxi at around noon, from where our hike will start. We should then reach the the peak at around 6.30pm and spend the night in a mountain hut. The next morning, after sunrise, we would follow the same way back in the valley, where the taxi driver is waiting for us at 12pm.
The night before the climb, we rented hiking shoes for me from an outdoor shop and bought some food to take with us. In the morning we packed the rest.
What to pack:
- I wore: trouser, long-sleeved shirt, termal tights
- for the lower part of the trail: windbreaker and cap
- for the upper part above 3500 metres: fleece jacket, warmer rain jacket, warm hat, scarf, gloves, snow shoe covers
- hiking shoes and trekking poles
- 3 pairs of socks (2x trekking socks + 1x wool socks for the night)
- tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad
- food and water (in refillable bottle)
- sunscreen (I forgot that one and got sunburned in the snow..!)
It wasn’t my first four-thousand-metre mountain, but the first I climbed to without any practice.
I had hiked up to 4000 metres before when I was in Nepal in summer 2014. However the conditions were not so extreme. I didn’t need any winter cloth and I didn’t need to carry any food, leaving aside a tent… I had been outdoors a lot in the previous 4 months when travelling through Southeast Asia and Taiwan, but didn’t really engage in anything too exhausting (except for my extended bike ride along the Taiwanese coast). My last visit to the gym also had been some months ago. You could say I was out of training and had eaten too much (unhealthy) restaurant food. All I had was the mindset that I AM GONNA DO THIS! And if my mind is set to something, it arranges for achieving its goal.
All I had was my strong will that “I am gonna do this!“
The start of the hike from Deh Bala [2580m a.s.l.]
The start of the trail was easy and the weather pleasant. Soon we could appreciate a wonderful view over the valley and gaze at the second highest mountain in the province. The rock formations above us reminded me on the Ayers Rock in Australia. This is how it must look like there: no vegetation, just bare reddish rocks.
Exactly at the foot of the “Ayers Rock”, the trail transformed in a sea of rocks. The path was no longer apparent, we just climbed over or slid off the boulders. I started to wonder how will I manage all of that on our way down… (I prefer going up over walking down.) Mehdi however was very experienced and seemed to overcome all obstacles blindfolded. He formidably led the way. From below it had looked like the “Ayers Rock” was the highest part to scale, yet, as always in the mountains, we took a turn and the whole picture changed.
In fact, we were about to approach the steapest part of the entire hike, among that a difference in height of 300 metres on just 500 metres footpath. We took a short break to refill our water bottles on a spring. Other hikers, who were on their way back, invited us to some pieces of chocolate and fresh oranges. Then, we set out for the winding, narrow path.
At this point, I would like to inform you that all the maintenance of trails and cottages is done by Iranian hiking enthusiasts themselves. The state of Iran has apparently no interest in preserving nature.
After mastering the never-ending climb of the steapest part, we reached the first of two mountain shelters at around 3500 metres altitude. The shelter offers several rooms for sleeping and a water spring. Since it was 5pm by now and the day slowly drew to an end, we had to take a decision: Would we call it a day or continue to the peak accepting the fact that we might have to walk in the darkness? And if we stopped now, would we climb to the top tomorrow or descend from here? (Our taxi driver would be waiting for us at 12pm, so tomorrow it would most probably not be possible to make it to the top.)
Should we abandon our plan to reach the summit or continue to the peak despite the fact that we will have to walk in the darkness?
I didn’t overcome all those obstacles on the way here to give up now. No, I was determined to make it to the top. Equipped with my headlight, I was looking forward to our next adventure.
Reaching the snow line [3500m a.s.l.]
We took a short break to prepare ourselves for the next leg of the trail, which basically ment to switch from summer outfit to supreme winter (in my case two jackets, two scarfs, a hat, gloves). The surrounding area was adorned with white patches and appeared to berather flat. Mehdi announced that from here onwards the walk wouldn’t be as difficult. This was true until we sank deeper and deeper into the snow. Crap, from far it didn’t appear to be this much snow. Good that we had brought our snow show covers along.
The snow slowed us down substantially. On top of that, we already had been on the way for a long time – without any bigger meal (only the small treat before the steap ascent and some dates now and then). We got so weak that we had to take a break approximately every five minutes to regain our strength. Also it was so cold that we couldn’t sit down (or the deep snow would just wet our buttocks) neither eat (or else our hands would have been frozen). So we continued, little by little, step by step.
We had been wandering around in the darkness for 2 hours already, when we suddendly arrived at a deep cleft. Now it was official: we were lost. The snow covered the trail and none of the (sparsely sown) red bars that mark the trails was in sight. “The antenna [=the peak] must be on the other side of the inclination”, Mehdi announced. So we followed the cleft looking for an option to cut across the other side. The inclination eventually flatted and we were able to cross.
We followed the general slope uphill, which seemed hopefully a way to reach the peak. Another 30 minutes had passed, the cold wind still lashed our faces, but no sign if we were back on track. We couldn’t curb our despair any longer. We were lost and exhausted and hungry and cold. We sat down in the snow and Mehdi conjured up a bag of chips from his backpack. Usually I’m not a fan of greasy chips, yet I have to admit, that on this day on an altitude of almost 4000 metres and an outdoor temperature of -20°C, this bag of chips was like a life saver to me and really, really tasty! When we got back on our feet, Mehdi was sure that we were short from the end of our destination, the second shelter. With new strength and new courage, we continued our path.
At the summit of Shir Kuh in winter [4055m a.s.l.]
Shortly after, we spotted the lights of a city deep down in the valley and took a left turn. From here, Mehdi knew the way. It was just over a kilometre to the finish line. The underground changed from deep snow to stony and iced. Only on the last hundred metres, we could see the antenna mast that marked the highest point of Mt. Shir Kuh and which we had been dying to see for the past hours. It was 8pm by now and we finally had reached the summit at 4055 metres above normal zero. We did it – hooray! We have climbed one of the ten highest mountains in Iran. I looked down at the lights in the valley and imagined what a sublime view we would have for sunrise in the next morning.
In front of the antenna mast was a small hut that would be our shelter for the night. The hut had a max. 15m² room and a tiny entrance hall (to hinder the snow from entering the interior). The interior was very plane: concrete walls without insulation, a tiny window and the floor carpeted. (You can find a picture of the summit here.) Due to the freezing cold, we pitched our tent inside the hut to shield us twofold from the wind. We removed our outer jackets, changed our wet trekkings socks for try wool socks, lit a light inside the tent and dived into our sleeping bags. It was time for our well-deserved dinner. There were boiled potatoes and onions, a whole tomato, and Iranian bread with tuna and corn.
After dinner we went to bed. It would be a lie to tell that we went to sleep. With a temperature of minus 20 degree Celsius (outdoors as well as indoors), falling asleep is hard. We pulled the sleeping bags over our heads in order to store some of the heat generated through our warm breath. Outside, the wind blew fiercly, we could feel the cold air enter through the zippers of the sleeping bags. I took my phone to send an “I am fine”-message to my boyfriend, when I noticed that all my battery was discharged due to the coldness. The whole night, we tossed and turned on the hard ground, rather resting than sleeping.
The next morning in a snowstorm. [4055m a.s.l.]
The next morning, we got up at 7am, took down the tent, packed our stuff and wrapped ourselves up. It was too cold and too early to eat, so we decided to eat at the other shelter on 3500 metres altitude. At 7.30am we set out for the descent. I was looking forward to the reward of my hard labour (a stunning view over the valley), but when we opened the door, a snowstorm blew cold, humid air into our faces and blocked any possible view. What is more, everything was covered in snow and our tracks from yesterday were wiped out. Knee-deep we fought our way through the snow.
After a while we met a group of older Iranians who had spent the night at 3500 metres and were now on their way to the top. When they heard that we had spent the night on the top, they declared us crazy (considering the current weather situation justifiably).
In only 1.5 hours (compared to our 3 hours odyssey the night before) we reached the lower shelter. Yesterday, this place had been green, but now even the shelter was covered in snow. The shelter was more spacious than where we had stayed the previous night and provided several rooms (allegedly it offers place for up to 100 people). For the breakfast we went indoors. Our snack consisted of some left-overs (bread, tuna and maize) as well as some dried cheese balls and dates.
Sometimes nothing can be done but to continue. [3500m a.s.l.]
Then it was time to master the steepest slope – where I faced my toughest challenge on our entire hike. Also the narrow, curvy path was iced up over night. One wrong step and I could find myself some (hundred) metres deeper or get in jured in some other way, so slippery it was.
“And if I have set my mind to something, the universe will assist me, to reach my goals”, I had written credulously in the beginning.
I was scared that I couldn’t do it, that I would fail at this point. My thoughts wandered to my boyfriend at home who told me not to engage in anything too dangerous, to not bring myself in jeopardy. I imagined how powerlessly he would sit on the bed when they told him that I was in a hospital far away where he couldn’t come to check on me, and through how much pain he would be going because the doctors wouldn’t update him often enough about my state.
Mehdi encouraged me and showed me a trick: I should shift the weight of my body on to my heels and press the heels firmly on the ground. One foot after another, I slowly moved myself forward – on wobbly legs and fearing the fall with each step. The danger slowed down our pace dramatically, much to the displeasure of Mehdi, who always was some metres ahead of me. The taxi driver was waiting to pick us up at 12pm and Mehdi didn’t like the thought that he would have to wait for us. I was very sorry but my legs couldn’t carry me any faster.
It took me some time to trust in my abilities and to feel more confident climbing down the steep path. “Now you know the trick, hm? You’re getting quicker”, Mehdi announced, although I still lagged far behind him.
During our descent, we met other hikers who had left Deh Bala in the early morning hours to reach the summit and come down the same day. A bigger group of Iranian men and women** were fascinated by the fact that I, the newcomer, had managed to make it until this point (to ascend and descend Shir Kuh in this weather) and praised me for my courage.
** What surprised me was that I saw very few women in the mountains in Iran, and if, then it was husband and wife.
Slowly I got the hang of the movement. Until we reached the rocky stretch (the “sea of rocks”) that I was worried about passing the day before, I was so “experienced” or secure on my feet that it didn’t present a problem any longer to climb over the boulders.
When we reached the end of rocky section, our taxi driver already approached us with a big smile. He didn’t feel like waiting in the car but prefered to walk a little. While we were still all wrapped up with hat and scarf, he only wore a t-shirt. For the remaining (easy) stretch of the hike, he delighted us by singing and whistling some Iranian songs. We arrived safe and sound back in Deh Bala at around 1pm.
Mission accomplished. What a formative experience!
The following night I would sleep for 10.5 hours, this exhausted I was. We had hiked more than 21 kilometres and overcome more than 1500 metres in altitude. Mehdi was really proud of me and told me several times:
“You are such a strong girl! Nobody can do it for the first time! Especially in winter. 😯”
I didn’t end up having any panoramic view over the region, which is usually why I like to hike (you might have noticed there were really less pictures this time). Nevertheless, I would describe this experience as one of the best (if not the best) of my life. Not knowing where you are going but just follow your passion, overcome obstacles, get creative… I haven’t climbed this high before in one day, haven’t faced such cold temperatures ever, haven’t descended a mountain on icy path, and haven’t placed my fate in the hands of other as serious.
The hike was a formative experience for me. For one thing, that I can reach what I took into my head. That I only have to have faith in myself. Secondly, that it is sometimes good not to ask too many questions and to take life as it comes. Because after every hurdle, you feel stronger.
The vivd memories of this phenomenal hike at the beginning of this year are still very present in my mind. So present, that I finally had to take the time (it took me around 1 week!) to write them down. Also I wanted to have this out of my mind before I embark on another adventurous hiking trip of several days at the end of this week. (You can’t see how my eyes are sparkling right now..!) The trail will lead me and my companion along the “Peaks of the Balkans” from Kosovo to Albania. I say adventurous because the hiking trail is rather unknown and badly signposted.
Whatever you decide to do in your life, make sure it makes you happy.
Greetings from Stuttgart!
PS: What is your favourite adventure you have embarked on so far? What did you learn from it? Tell me in the comments. 🖋
*I am not sure if it is necessary, but I did change the name of my guide and friend for safety reasons.