Alborz Mountains ski resorts
Skiing in the Alborz Mountains above Tehran can be one of the most unexpected pleasures of a trip to Iran. There are four resorts within a day-trip distance, all offering equipment for hire. Darbansar (day pass around US$15; 8.30am-3.30pm Jan-Mar), near Shemshak, has three easy slopes and is best for beginners; while the slopes at Tochal (day pass US$13; 8.30am-12.30pm Mon-Sat, also closed Mon during summer) are accessed via the Tochal Telecabin in northern Tehran. The pick of the bunch, however, are Shemshak and Dizin.
Just up the valley from Darbansar, Shemshak Resort (day pass US$17; 8.30am-3.30pm Jan-Mar) has the slopes that will get hardcore skiers most excited. There are six lifts, the longest being about 1450m with a vertical descent of about 500m (some of it at an adrenalin-inducing 45-degree angle) and plenty of moguls. Snowboards are welcome. Boots, skis and poles can be hired for about US$35 a day.
Shemshak is, in effect, a series of villages in a steep-sided valley. It has a lively cafe scene and lodging is usually in an apartment (summer/winter US$50/70), which can be rented from local agents, or for more from agents in Tehran. Midweek is cheaper.
Another accommodation option is Shemshak Tourist Inn (Hotel Jahangardi), a midranger about 400m downhill from ski lifts. It's not special but it is good value; the two singles, twins and a few suites are comfortable and clean. Best to book ahead.
The apres-ski scene here has been described as 'out-of-control and even mind-boggling', but this is Iran so you will need to know someone, or meet someone on the slopes, to be invited to these private parties. That said, the atmosphere under the new Sierra building is said to be pretty warm, with a well-stocked supermarket, fast food and the Balcony cafe-restaurant, which is the place to be seen off-slopes. Private, short-term rentals of the building's apartments can be arranged - ask around in the foyer or the Balcony.
The largest field in Iran and home to Iranian skiing, Dizin Resort (www.dizinskiresort.com) has more lifts than Shemshak but the runs aren't as difficult. Still, with a vertical drop of about 900m it should appeal to anyone feeling the need for speed. With base camp at about 2700m and the upper slopes about 3500m, skiing is usually possible from December until April. Pistes are sometimes groomed and there is plenty of scope for off-piste if you get a fresh snowfall. Apart from Friday, waiting for the antique gondolas, Poma and chair lifts is not really an issue. Hiring skis can be a lottery, with prices theoretically reflecting quality. Skiers we met paid about US$35 for battered skis or snowboards, poles and clothes (but not hats, which are not rented). If you hire a guide they should help you get decent skis.
Dizin also boasts summer activities such as grass-skiing, hiking, horse riding and tennis, mainly on weekends.
Shemshak and Dizin are linked by an unsealed mountain road that is closed for most of the time between late November and May. At those times you will need to go north via the Chalus road, turning off it for Dizin, a trip of 123km or roughly 2.5 hours' drive from Tehran. In winter, you will need chains or a 4WD for the last 10km or so. The cheapest way to reach Dizin is on a Chulus bus from Terminal-e Gharb; ask the driver to drop you at the Dizin turn-off and hitch a ride from there.
Shemshak and Darbansar are about 55km north of Tehran on Shemshak Rd (which links to Dizin via the aforementioned summer road). Savaris and minibuses serve Shemshak from Tehran's eastern bus terminal. However, most people take a taxi for same-day return.
Shaped like Mt Fuji, Mt Damavand (5671m), northeast of Tehran, is the highest mountain in the Middle East. Damavand has many mythological tales associated with it but in reality, it is a dormant volcano that still belches out sulphuric fumes strong enough to kill unfortunate stray sheep. Its image is one of the most recognisable icons in Iran, appearing on the IR10,000 note, on bottles of Damavand spring water and numerous other commercial items.
Most people who go to Damavand do so to climb the peak, and start by heading to the large, comfortable Polour Camp (2270m), built by the Iran Mountaineering Federation and the best place to acclimatise before attempting the south and west face routes. The climbing season is from June to September, or May to October for experienced climbers.
Climbing the Mountain
There are 16 routes up Damavand, but the vast majority of people take the classic southern route. Brief details of the southern route follow. For information on the northern route, talk to the English-speaking owners of Varzesh Kooh who are happy to share their knowledge and put you in touch with guides.
From a technical point of view, Damavand is basically a walk-up. Climbing so far so quickly is its most dangerous aspect, with altitude sickness (watch for dizziness, headaches, nausea and swollen fingers) killing people every year.
Damavand is best climbed in three days, starting at Polour Camp and going 11km by road to Camp 2, then trekking from there to Camp 3 or Base Camp before making the ascent. The Damavand websites have maps and details of the various routes. There is no water en route and no way of booking the hut; on Thursday nights and holidays it is packed with students from Tehran. Bringing a tent, sleeping bag and perhaps a stove (and leaving it in camp during the final ascent) is recommended. Even in July, nights are freezing and it can be -10°C at the summit. It is recommended to fill water bottles in the evening since the water will be frozen when you get up.
In August, you should be able to climb to the peak without special equipment. The summit doesn't require any technical gear but it does require fitness, warm clothes and hiking boots for the loose rocks. Bear in mind that the weather can change suddenly and snowfalls are a possibility, even in summer. Most people return from the summit to Tehran in one day.
After expending all that energy climbing Mt Damavand, you will be pleased to know that just 4km east of Reyneh, at Ab Karm, several hotels have been built around hot springs.
The easiest way to get to Polour village and on to the camp is by taxi dar baste (2 hours, 30km). Alternatively, take a savari or bus from Terminal-e Shargh and get off at Polour village, then take a local taxi to the camp.