Persian Cats – Freeskiing Iran

Back in 2008, Eva Walkner went to Iran in search of powder and culture, and to film a sweetspot for Nike ACG. She found both and also managed to get arrested twice for wearing a beanie – here’s the story she wrote for our magazine

Words by Eva Walkner, photos by Peter Mathis/Nike ACG

We’re sitting on some awkward old wooden chairs in a dingy little room at the police station, palms sweating like pupils waiting to see the headmistress.

Pictures of the former leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Seyyed Ali Khamenei embellish the bare wall. None of us dares speak while two policemen check our passports under UV light and outside armed men patrol with machine guns. Our guide Mohammad translates the guard’s questions, “What does your government think about our nuclear plans? What’s the name of your President?” and so on. After our very diplomatic answers it was the turn of Peter Mathis, our photographer, “Are you married?” He shook his head and the two men started to laugh and said, “Well, isn’t it time now? We could offer some local women for you.” Finally the ice was broken and the two Iranian policemen seemed to be quite nice. We had a laugh together. At least they think it’s funny and after all they don’t get many Europeans in their police station. We get off lightly with just a record in their diary and a one-off experience, for now.

Contrary to the pervading stereotypes not all people in Iran are tough and fanatical. When we arrive in Tehran we encounter two different worlds. One where women are wearing traditional hijabs, and another world where (usually younger) women are wearing pink shoes, lots of make up and colourful head scarves, which just cover the back of their heads. The girls of this younger generation giggle, give us friendly looks and blow kisses.

The next morning we go to a small jeweller’s shop to change some money. The shop owner is wearing a lot of rings. He leaves briefly and returns with a suitcase full of money, as if from a scene in a really bad movie. We headed off to the mountains and the ski resort of Dizin with our millions stuffed in our luggage. We can’t wait to feel the first Iranian snow under our feet. About two hour’s drive north from Tehran, Dizin is where the high society gets together to escape the busy city. Skiing is definitely the preserve of the rich and beyond the reach of most people. We see young girls without head scarves in clothes that are trendy, crazy and full of colour. They wear the same snow brands we have in Europe. The women are dressed to kill and wear heavy make up and the guys behave especially cool – not much of a change from home then! The lifts, however, are different – they’re super-slow and look like they may be old second hand lifts from Western countries. We have some problems with our wide freeride skies in these small egg-like cable cars. We have to take them inside but they poke out and the doors won’t close properly. A funny sight, not just for us, but for the chuckling lift attendants too.

The women are dressed to kill and wear heavy make up and the guys behave especially cool – not much of a change from home then!

We’re quite surprised at how good at skiing and snowboarding the locals are on-piste. They don’t have a freestyle park but they play around and do jumps on the slope. But the three girls from the west with their wide freeride skis and colourful ski suits are still getting a lot of curious looks. On-piste we find perfect conditions but we want to check out the off-piste skiing. Unfortunately we’ve had some bad luck, as the weather had changed a week before our arrival. Instead of minus temperatures we find springs temperatures, instead of great powder we find a layer of wind-blown crust, and instead of fresh snow we find lots of sunny weather, though at least that’s great for taking pictures.

So we tried to find some hidden Iranian powder and get lucky finding some great conditions in blown-in chutes and wide gullies. We find untracked perfect lines not far from the lifts, it seems as if freeriding is entirely unknown here, which suits us! We decide to return to Mt. Damavand in the evening. This is the highest mountain in Iran at 5607m and still an active volcano, so we think we might find some more perfect powder there.

We have to rush a little because the lifts will close the next day and they’ll put up some road blocks, though we have no idea why. But it’s too late, the road is already closed with a three metre pile of snow and earth dumped across the middle. It resembles a wet snow avalanche. Fortunately we’re able to bulldoze a two metre track between the pile of dirty snow and the shear drop, which is just wide enough for our car. We get around the road block by the skin of our teeth.

About three hours later we reach our place to stay for the night in the city of Polour. We could only go at 60km/h, so even small distances become long driving missions. The next day we start at the Imam Zadeh Hashem Pass. Hours pass by before we start hiking up the mountain, due to the curious crowd of locals surrounding us. They’re asking for autographs, pictures and even for our phone numbers and women are kissing our cheeks. People here are incredible friendly and very interested in us and our lives back home. “Tell the people at home who we really are and that most of them have a wrong opinion about Iran and the people here,” a man asked us. The star was our cameraman, Helli Vorraber, who had about 20 young blushing Iranian girls forming a special queue to get an autograph and picture with him.

By the time we broke free to ski a few good lines it was pretty late and the coarse-grained spring snow wasn’t the best for riding bold lines. We decided to drive further to Nandal Village located on the north side of Mt. Damavand. On a small dirt road, packed with about 300kg luggage our off-road vehicle did a really good job. But we realised it would take almost a day of hiking to reach the great faces in front of us and time was tight, so we had to pass.

Coming from the mountains and still reaping the benefits of wearing a beanie instead of the tight headscarf, we’d been caught by the moral police within the city Mahmood Abad.

Our road trip then lead us towards the Caspian Sea, where we had the unpleasant experience with the police detailed earlier. Coming from the mountains and still reaping the benefits of wearing a beanie instead of the tight headscarf, we’d been caught by the moral police within the city Mahmood Abad. They spotted us in our car and asked us to follow them to their office. As soon as we’d allowed thoughts like “it’s getting more relaxed” or “it’s not so strict here” to creep in, reality had caught up with us and dumped us back down to earth.

After a detour to the sea and the fish market in Chaloos we kept on driving towards the mountains around Kelardasht. In general the country suffers a lot of pollution and dirt but what we saw here was particularly poignant. Our track led us through a really nice forest, where the first flowers were starting to bloom and we soon forgot about all the rubbish we’d seen up until now. We were spellbound from the spring flair until we discovered a large trash-dump right in the middle of the forest. Eco awareness or living in close touch with nature are foreign concepts to many Iranian people, which is almost unimaginable for us.

We’d found the best snow conditions in Dizin, so we decided to head back there, though a short stop at the gas station in Nessa brought us into trouble again. Coming straight from the mountains we’d been still wearing beanies instead of the obligatory headscarf and run straight into the moral police again. The same game started, with us following them to the police office, giving in our passports and waiting. But in contrast to the first time we saved some time by giving about 40 euros bribe money to the police officer. Later we worked out that radical south Iranian women travelling to the north had seen us at the gas station and must have complained about us being so permissive by wearing a beanie instead of the headscarf. Madness.

Later we worked out that radical south Iranian women travelling to the north had seen us at the gas station and must have complained about us being so permissive by wearing a beanie instead of the headscarf. Madness.

Passing through breathtaking landscapes over the Kandovan Pass we arrived back at Dizin, the biggest ski area in Iran. The conditions were pretty good even though it had got quite warm. Two days of quite good skiing in imaginary powder puts smiles on our faces.

The last destination on our road trip was the salt desert. Seven long hours of driving and a stop over in the architectural village Kashan behind us, we pitched our tents in Maranjab. In total solitude all we encountered was a huge, old Caravanserai inhabited by three Iranian men. People from the cities around come here to spend their weekends and smoke Schischahs or opium or just to relax in the quiet and get some distance from city life.

We’ve never skied on sand dunes before so are really looking forward to it. Even though a sandstorm of about 100 km/h whips up, we hike the sand dunes and have fun skiing down, starting in a hockey position to get enough speed to get a turn in on the sand. With a bit more speed and some imagination it could come close to perfect powder conditions.

At almost the end of our trip, we need to explore the Iranian capital Tehran, and what really scares us there is the traffic. Iranian people ignore red lights, one-ways or traffic lights and drive however they like. One of their favourite activities is honking their horns. “Who tries to be a polite driver here in Tehran, might never get anywhere,” our guide Mohammad informs us. A quick detour to the “Freedom Tower” and the typical and famous bazaar brightens our last day within this heavily populated city.

Iran is an exceptionally charming country with two faces. The delightful and affectionate soul of the people contrasts with a world marked by commandments and prohibitions. We got to experience both sides. I would recommend Iran to everybody, not just for the skiing, but as a great life experience.

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