Monday, August 12, 2013

The most absurd ascension to Damavand

Tonight, our mood is low in our appartment in north-central Teheran. Nata doesn't talk to me, she seems angry but there is little I can do. I have accepted the too obvious fact that Nata's thinking is too exotic for me to comprehend. As Picasso piece, too many interpretations.

She tries to organise a last minute plan for the ascention. We have almost nothing. No equipement whatsoever. We used to have nuts for energy but I lost them in Georgia, that was definitly my fault. I am thinking that she is the only experienced mountain climber that would attempt an ascention in such unlikely conditions.
Consequently, she might be the only mountain climber whose decisions I trust almost without a second thought. I don't like these self-conscious people who have their way of doing things and are oblivious to thoughts of others. And while Nata sometimes appeared as such on several occasions, I see no other who tried that ascension with me; not even Ilona. I really appreciate her wanting to try even thought every bet is against us.

There is a huge difference between planning something stupid reckless and actually doing it. I am something in between; I like staring at recklessness face to face before I recognize it.

Only downside and it is a geat one: Nata is in a hurry. She has other plans in Iran and she has to be back in two days. She wants to do a fast ascend and actually I like this solution better too. However, I am not repeating my mistake on Aragats. I hurried up too much then because I didn't want to make Ilona wait. I got caught in a storm as a result and I will not repeat my mistake again. In a general sense, I don't like risking my life. On a journey like mine, I might risk my life for others; I have accepted that; but I choose these people carefully and the person who we would be risking our life for by hurrying  is not among them.

In the morning we pack chaotically. Nata cooks some rice and potatoes. There is almost nothing in that appartment and we do our best to improvise our mountain food. Well, Nata does, I am just walking repeatedly between the fridge and my backpack. The best option for me was to score some food. I asked the neighbors for sugar (my imagination got stuck) and got a giant bag full of sweets and bread.

We leave Teheran very late. Our interactions are formal. It's a sad end but when I look back, I just think that she being briefly part of my journey was a wonderful story. And if we climb that mountain it would be a wonderful conclusion. Curtains closed. So I am not sad; actually, I smile. Life is beautiful precisely because it has stories in it. I could wonder about Nata's mood but I decide to give it up. Ilona used to say: Sometimes, you have to learn to ignore a woman's feelings if you want to better a situation.

I do find out, however, the reason of Nata's mood. Pretty abruptly. She gives me a speech that is just too much too quickly to make me feel anything. She has read parts of my blog. I think some parts about Armenia. I have hurt people intentionally by my writing in the past but I have never hurt someone so much and so unintentionally. She hates that I have exposed my vision of her, including personal details and my hypothesis about her life and being. From what she says, I feel like having written mein kampf. Pretty shitty feeling but I guess, deserved. I could debate here about writing methods and what should be in a blog and what not but this is not the issue here.
I am now 100% sure that our story stops here, we are not meeting in China and even less in Russia. Shame.

However, there is something wonderful about Nata, she is the queen of second chances. It seems that no matter the argument, the matter the evil you do to her, she'll forgive you. A unique quality I have never seen before to such extent. Later, I would understand that growing up in the heart of the Soviet Union makes you deal with so many extreme assholes that if you hold a grudge over anything less than murder, you may soon find yourself void of any friends for having too strong morals.
So maybe our the story hasn't ended yet. Maybe this another side of Nata I don't know; still something to discover.
We hitchhike towards Polour, the base village for ascention. Hitchhiking feels better, almost natural. My farsi is still non-existant but I manage somehow to understand some important parts or to explain the concept of hitchhiking with minimal use of the magic word: salavaati. Surfing on religion; that would be cheating.

We stop somewhere mid-way, on a mountain settlement where our driver takes gas and invites us for lunch. The extreme heat of Teheran is giving way to cooler, more comfortable temperature. We are expecting a few degrees below zero at the top of Damavand. The only downside of all this is that our driver must make a deal with some guy who is supposed to come with some money and he insists of showing us the whereabouts without fully understanding the concept of hurry.
The whereabouts are basically a flea market with a lot of rusted iron things of various sizes.
At last, his contact comes and even gives us a hitch further.
We stop in mid-way at some mountain settlement

The next ride invites us for an iranian version of shashlik, meat which they cook on burning coals. Since she's vegetarian, Nata didn't eat anything so I had a mountaineering dinner just before ascension. The guy is routinely frustrated since all that sheep meat is there mainly to impress the girl and I end up eating all of it.
The guy cuts some more sticks of from a nearby tree and Nata whispers somethings along the lines of "motherfucker" because he is hurting trees. I guess that nullifies the theory about ever forgiving Nata unless you count tree cutting as murder which might very well be the case.
It is getting too late, we are not making it to base camp today. Plus, we still didn't find a group to join. This is my fault because I am not respecting Nata's hurrying up. I don't really believe it is possible to reach base camp before nightfall.
I wonder why I don't want to try? Am I more reasonable than Nata? Or do I want us to fail? Or am I being childish and disrupting the future romantic reunion of Nata and Jay just for the sake of annoyance? Usually it is a combination of everything.

We question some people to see if they are climbers. They are celebrating the end of Ramadan, don't have any clue about any mountain climbing.

I end up finding some people pointing us to a place which is some starting point for mountaineers.
We say farewell out our Iranian host and enter the alpinist facility. The atmosphere suddenly changes. This is serious business, people have high class mountaineering equipment, sleeping bags, crampons and ice axes, and, maybe I should start there; they have warm clothes.
Nata has a light mountain jacket but I have absolutely nothing... merely that blue hoodie from the Armenian rainbow. I wish I hadn't lost my good quality jacket on Aragats.
Besides being under-equipped, there is another obstacle, no easier to overcome: we do not have a climbing permit.
On Damavand, as well as many big mountain climbs, a mountain permit is needed. Here it is fairly cheap, merely 50 dollars per person, but that's about a month and a half worth of travelling for each of us. Plus, as under-equipped as we are, there is a good chance we might not make it anyway and why should we pay to die on a mountain?
"You have no way of getting in," says the leader of the mountaineering facility.
"Military checkpoints at all entries of Damavand," the tourists confirm.
"We're done," says Nata, "we can still go home"
"We are not giving up!" I am besides myself! Nata might be right rationally or she is just giving up on this climb just to go on some boring ride with her newly found boyfriend. Seriously, I don't care how wonderful the sex may be but I firmy believe that mount Damavand is much cooler and certainly much bigger that any type of sexual attribute or romantic experience, "there must be a way! You never trust me so trust me now, for once Nata, I didn't grow up in effing Siberia like you but I am smart too!"
To my great surprise, we don't have a bloody argument, Nata says that I am mistaken, she does trust me more than I know and that surprises me.
"What's your plan?"
I am so used to fight with Nata that I feel a huge sense of responsibility and stake over the proud read-headed princess.
"We'll use the cover of night to cross the checkpoint by the grasslands"
"Last time we did that, we got caught, remember, the Armenian border?"
"And we survived that, didn't we? And they can't get us everytime!"
"We'll get lost"
"We have GPS."
We agree on hitchhiking a car towards the least guarded checkpoint (from our very unreliable intel) and then cross by the grasslands.
As nobody stops, we decide to cover the ground by foot. And that is when something unusual happens.
A red rover, runs swiftly towards us. I makes a few unusual turns before stopping and a man tells us, in English but in a bit bizarre voice. He seems to have a speech defect. His voice is slow and over-articulated, as if his jaw couldn't do all the right moves.
"Do you go Damavand?"
"Maybe yes, maybe, no, who are you?"
"I help you! You trust me I help you!"
"Can you get us to the checkpoint?"
"You have permits?"
"We'll manage. Can you get us there?"
"I help you better. I know secret way."

Turns out our guy is a retired mountain guide who has one of these diseases which makes you lose control over your body over time, which makes you more paralyzed everyday until you become completely motionless. It is tragic, oh so tragic, even more tragic for our newly found friend who's life is the mountains. He can't be confined to a hospital bed, not even happy with a computer, and he can't guide mountaineers anymore. The disease has gotten to such an advanced state that he can't walk anymore. He can drive his re-purposed rover with his arms, not even his hands and speak only slowly.
Very sadly though, I was more focused on the sole goal of climbing Damavand.
"I help you, I help you. Military checkpoint patrols see you! Go to car! Me no problem! Military know me, I disabled, no problem!"

"Great!" I am so happy that my plan worked although, technically that is not my plan at all, that is a huge coincidence which makes no sense whatsoever.
"Wait... Filip, " says Nata, "is it really wise to drive through Iranian high mountain roads with a paraplegic driver? Forget outsmarting the military, this seems a bit crazy... even for me."
"No worries! We've done crazier things!"
"... did we?"

And so we climb. The red rover drives fiercely cutting it through cliffs and unpaved mountain roads, some of which nobody uses and thus are not guarded by military.
Our driver juggles with the steering wheel, helping himself with arms, elbows and sometimes even his face depending on which responds best at any given moment. Everytime though, the car managed to stay on track even in the most difficult terrain otherwise I wouldn't be here writing this.
I didn't know what to feel throughout this overwhelming ride. I could be scared to death, I could admire the brave man battling his paralysis the most awesome way, by driving where most healthy men wouldn't or I could just be fully excited and enjoy the thrill. I chose the latter while Nata gasped at every slip of the wheels too close to a cliff.
"We are going to die!" says Nata and she is more angry than scared, angry that she, a mountain guide from Altai is going to die a stupid death following advice from a guy who doesn't have half the experience she does, "We are going to die like dumb amateurs!"
"What is she saying? Is the ok?" screams the driver over the racket of the car as he makes another very close turn.
"Oh you know, she has her woman days." It is a stupid sexist remark but I like being theatrical in a situation where I have nothing too loose because if we don't die falling off a cliff or shot by military patrols on Damavand, Nata is going to kill me anyway, so I better make the most of it.
"Patrols! Get down!"
Nata climbs under the seats and throws the clothes over her and I climb as much as I can under my seat. Our driver races next to a military patrol and passes a very loosely guarded, possibly even abandoned checkpoint... we are in!
"See, I help you! Tell Natalie no be afraid, I help you!"
We stop the car next to an intersection and we wait. Soon, a blue truck comes on and on it other people, mountaineers, some of them. It's not their first time on Damavand and they seem to know what they are doing. Most of them are Iranian and most of them speak English.
They seem to think we are completely reckless but they are too polite to tell us.

"They think we're stupid but they are too polite to tell us," Nata tells me.
We swich cars and board the blue truck. We climb higher, to a mountain settlement from which the trails start.

Our driver points us to his home where he is routinely hosting Damavand mountain climbers. It is a beautiful place, it even has a swing. The mountain climbers prepare a meal, everybody contributes with a bit of their own food.

We also discover that we are not at the end of our worries.
"All trails are controlled. Except one."
There is a huge map of all trails leading to the summit of the mountain and there is a secret one indeed. But this one, since nobody knows about it, will be empty. If we get lost there, nobody will save us because nobody will even know how to begin to save us. And get lost we will, for there is no map of that trail except the one in that man's head, and he isn't in a state where he coud walk anymore.
He moves across the room by stabilizing himself with several objects or pieces of furniture. It is the mountaineers who he routinely helps, that help him to maintain his home where he lives basically alone. There is such unimaginable bravery to this man, bravery so easily hidden by the grotesque of every of his moves. We should not forget that bravery is great but it never cared to win a fashion show.
Nata thinking about options in the alpine shelter
"Please, do not take the hidden trail, " pretty much everyone tells us. And Nata agrees too.
"We shouldn't go." She trusted me with that plan, to get to here. Her words carry a heavier weight even that I know she put up with my ideas until now. I really really don't want to give up. But sometimes, giving up is much harder than climbing. It is another example of hidden bravery, one that shallow people will seldom see.

I remain undecided until the morning, discarding all the wise words of alpinists but Nata's words stay in my mind. That evening, I give my fake fiancé a real wedding ring, symbolically embedded inside a mango, her favorite fruit.

We have a deep discussion after. There is a connection between us, it's ambiguous in nature but it is true. We share a deep bond of trust, one where we trust the other to catch us when we fall and be prepared to catch the other. That is why we are true co-travelers. Not just friends, not lovers, not even brother and sister, real co-travelers. And this time, Nata will prevent me from falling.
I say nothing but deep down, I will not climb Damavand. Not this time.

In the morning, there is a deep fog all over the place. The other mountaineers have gone through the usual trails. There is no way I could see the entrance of the trail in such a cloud porridge.

So we both go back. It is a hard blow for both of us but it is the right choice. We manage to join Teheran in a couple of hitches, the first with a young Iranian girl and her boyfriend (notice the choice of words, Iran actually is one of the few Muslim communities where we have an actual concept of boyfriends and girlfriends). The second is at the back of a pickup that we picked on a highway. All great and happy Iranian people.
Here we see the usual practice of wearing a scarf in Iran nowadays
We manage to get back to our apartment at Nilufar square before nightfall. Ilona is waiting there for me and so is Jay for Nata. They will be going to the Caspian sea and us further east, towards Turkmenistan. But still not yet.