In­side job

As Iran slowly opens up to the world, lo­cal canyoneers are working hard to de­velop the coun­try’s po­ten­tial.

Action Asia - - IRAN - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Gus Schi­avon

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.

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