As Iran slowly opens up to the world, local canyoneers are working hard to develop the country’s potential.
THE PLANE TOUCHED DOWN AT TEHRAN’S IMAM KHOMEINI International Airport at close to midnight. It was June, and the Islamic world was observing the holy month of Ramadan. I quickly made my way through immigration to the busy arrivals hall. It was not long before a tall, slender figure with big, penetrating eyes and olive skin – true Persian fixtures – approached me, her Farsi accent noticeable through her grammatically polished English: “Welcome to Iran! We’re very excited to show you our country.” Her name was Tina Andayesh, one of the most active of Iran’s canyoneers. She had also taken charge of my itinerary: hearing of my experience in the field, she had planned a cross-country, two-week road trip sampling the best canyons of each region. Her busy social media profile had told me she was integral to the scene in Iran so I asked her about the community while she drove through hectic late-night traffic. “In the past, the local mountaineering federation has invited organisations such as the French Federation of Speleology and American Canyoneering Association to come over and give us technical knowledge, which has supported the creation of a small canyoning community,” she replied. They are now eager to show the country’s potential to a wider audience and establish it as a reference for canyoning in the Middle East. “We really need more canyoneers to come visit, experience our outdoors and share with the local community,” she concluded. There are two main mountain ranges in the country: the cooler, greener Alborz in the north, and the massive, deserted Zagros range arcing from the west to the south, with some peaks reaching 4,000m. Tina’s plan would take us to both areas, with the Zagros offering more chance of multi-day descents, tracing limestone canyons from springs to the main flow of the rood, or river in Farsi. She explained that very few are located close to large cities, making logistics difficult and entailing arduous approaches, either on foot or through precarious off-road sections. Most take more than two days between departure and the beginning of a descent.
Rood not to
After a week of preparations in Tehran, it was time to take the road. Our first stop was the Alamut region amid the Alborz Mountains, north of the capital, to descend two canyons – Asemanrood and Chakhrood – and rendezvous with a group of 15 canyoneers. Here I met Tina’s partner, Amir Jelvani, Iran’s most prolific canyoning instructor and explorer. Despite our language barriers, his contagious personality turned us instantly into friends, and we were quickly discussing preferences in gear and techniques. The descent of Asemanrood presented a good mix of verticality and whitewater challenges, allowing us to develop team dynamics and discuss best practices. The large group was split in two, with me floating between them to observe, document and exchange. The flat upper section featured small pools which – at a lower water level – would present no danger. But it was still early summer and higherthan-average flows had been the norm. It wasn’t not long before I arrive at an obstacle to find panic ensuing: three people drowning due to their poor assessment of the situation, having jumped into a highly-aerated pool featuring dangerous hydraulics while wearing heavy backpacks. Luckily, all managed to escape with the help of the team. Later in the day I spoke to Jelvani about the episode. We agreed that Iranian canyoneers were very eager to expand their portfolio of rope techniques but often overlooked their whitewater skills, counting on traverses to overcome these obstacles. As canyoning has grown in popularity in Iran, so does the number of participants who naively assume their limited knowledge is sufficient for complicated scenarios. Despite these shortcomings, Jelvani and his team continue to spearhead the development of the sport in Iran. They have established a training programme to reinforce safety standards but most of their time has been dedicated to re-bolting the country’s main routes to European standards (using double anchors). Characteristically, the investment in this material
has come from Jelvani’s own pocket. “There is a big demand for canyoning training courses, but as long as we don’t develop a safe, local industry, the local market will not take us seriously.”
Doing time in the Zagros
With a better understanding of the team’s strengths and limitations, we moved south towards the remote routes of the Qashqai nomads in the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari region, in the heart of the Zagros range. It is here that the crown jewel of Iran canyoning is located: Tange Zendan, Farsi for Prison Gorge, impressive limestone layers violently pushed up by the collision between the Eurasian and Arabic tectonic plates. The route requires at least two days to complete. The dry, open and sunny upper part consists of multiple rappels and lengthy boulder fields which slow down progress, while the lower, aquatic section provides the thrills with narrow gorge sections filled with jumps and whitewater swimming. It was still early in the season so we were to be the first to descend it, in high water and relentless summer heat. The latter led to a decision to start late afternoon, walking and scrambling down the dry gorge to the first drop. We pulled the rope just as the day becomes night, all of us having rappelled down to a ledge with enough room for our team. We collected water from a natural spring right beside us and brewed up chai on the fire, ate and then laid down to sleep beneath the stars. Tina removed her headscarf and took shelter in Amir’s arms. The mood was light: here there were no rules or protocols. The outdoors had united us and set us free. The next day began slowly as we made our way down the upper section, with easy rappels up to 25m and plentiful downclimbs. Amir was constantly evaluating the current anchors and choosing which ones needed to be updated on their next descent – there was little time for bolting on our schedule. At approximately 3p.m., the canyon opened up and took a left turn leading to a wide, grassy knoll. What we saw from there left us all speechless: it was Kerodi Kon, a majestic 100-metre-plus tributary waterfall dumping considerable flow into our gorge. The spray and wind draft generated by the water was such that we struggled to make our way to the belay, we were screaming in order to pass-on instructions to each other. Sa’eed Mohammadi, an experienced local mountaineer with 10-plus descents of the canyon mentioned it was by far the highest water level he had seen there. The water levels meant the upcoming section – the narrowest and most committing of the canyon – would take significant effort. “There’s a particular rappel which will be very difficult in this flow and with the current anchors,” said Mohammadi. Jelvani therefore commanded the team to settle down for the night. In the morning, we walked to the start of the lower section. From there, the challenges were plenty. Jelvani jumped across a scary-looking whitewater pool leading to a dangerous pour-off: we held our breath but even after he succeeded, progress was slow as we managed the backpacks and ourselves over each obstacle. Jelvani always led the way, counting on Mohammadi’s insights on the canyon configuration to make decisions. After plenty of small jumps up to 5m and short rappels, we reached the crux: a 15-metre fall called
Abshar Dogholou (Twin Waterfall in Farsi), where the existing anchors meant a rappel directly under the heavy flow. A detour was set-up to allow an abseil between the two veins of water. Despite that, the pool below was another big threat due to heavy water movement. From the top, I watched as Jelvani rappelled and disappeared under the curtain of water. Seconds stretched out as we waited for a sign he was safe. Suddenly, I felt the rope go slack: he was off and in the pool. A hard swim got him past the danger zone, and from below he set up a guided rappel for the rest of the group. At approximately 6p.m., the gorge opened up and the canyon joined the Deraze Rood river, signalling the end of the technical section. We pushed on, aware of the 11-kilometre return trek, filling our water bottles in the last available spring and following the river as the sun set. Exhausted from the day, we agreed on another night in the wild. It was incredibly warm as the surrounding boulders blasted back the heat accumulated during the scorching day. In terms of thrills, Tange Zendan had really delivered and we recounted our adventures as we feasted on the remainders of our food and the fire burned down.
Down to politics
Throughout our road trips, we discussed the challenges facing canyon in gin the country: “The difficulty is to set and enforce a standard for commercial operators,” Jelvani told me. He mentioned numerous accidents due to negligence of unqualified guides, a result of a lack of official control which sees random operators popping up everywhere. “The solution comes with a difficult collaboration with the local agencies and federation: this is far from being their priority but we have to start working on it now.” An example of this lack of standards can be found in Reghez, a beautiful and relatively easy canyon, three hours northeast of Shiraz. One of the most popular in the country, its combination of beautiful white limestone canyon with plenty of jumps and scenic rappels, and the relatively easy access means it has huge commercial potential. I saw for myself how local ‘guides’ take advantage of this, leading large groups while lacking basic equipment – let alone knowledge – to perform rescue manoeuvers on rope. Politics complicates things too: “Importing canyoning-specific equipment is still costly due to current trade regulations and limited quantities,” says Andayesh, “making it prohibitive for people to get their hands on gear. Those who can afford it will buy through parallel import from China, the UAE and Europe.” Local suppliers produce their own versions of backpacks, descenders and accessories, some of international standard. “We are working to become the hub for canyoning in the Middle East, offering structured international courses in the region, but we’re pretty much alone on this effort,” says Andayesh. “Collaborating with international organisations and our local federation is a must for this plan to go ahead”. For now at least, developing Iran’s canyoning remains an inside job.
NOTABLY DETAILED The team uses their caving mapping skills to create accurate topographies of the canyons. Seen left is a map of Tange Zendan, giving heights of drops and types of obstacles faced.
DYNAMIC DUO Amir Jelvani (left) and Tina Andayesh, the couple leading the development of canyoning in Iran.
CHAI TIME The outdoors allows a more intimate and personal connection than is socially acceptable elsewhere. And a get-together always means absurdlysweet tea and unleavened bread.