The plane touches down as we approach midnight. It’s June, and the Islamic world still observes the holy month of Ramadan. At Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, I quickly make my way through immigration to the busy arrivals hall. It’s not long until a tall, slender figure with big, penetrating eyes and olive skin - true Persian fixtures - approaches me, her Farsi accent noticeable through her perfect English: “Welcome to Iran! We’re very excited to show you our country”. Her name is Tina Andayesh, one of the most active and passionate Iranian canyoneers and the organizer of the itinerary: a cross-country, 2-week long road trip experiencing the best canyons of each region.
Through our earlier contacts and her busy social media profile, I could tell that Tina was deeply involved with the activity in Iran. I begin to ask her about the local canyoning community while she drives through the hectic late-night traffic in Tehran: “In the past, the local mountaineering federation has invited organizations such as the French Speleology Federation and American Canyoneering Academy to come over and give us technical knowledge, which has supported the creation of a small canyoning community” she replies. They are now eager to show the sport’s local potential to a wider audience and make efforts to establish the country as reference for the activity in the Middle East. “We really need more canyoneers to come visit, experience our outdoors and share with the local community” she concludes.
In regards of canyons, Iran is pretty well set-up. The country’s topography presents 2 main mountain ranges: the cooler, greener Alborz in the north and the massive, deserted Zagros range spanning from west to south, with some peaks reaching 4,000m. Tina’s plan would take us to both areas, with the Zagros the one offering the most potential: lengthy, multi-day descents in stunning scenery, tracing the limestone canyons from springs to the main flow of the rood, or river in Farsi. The remoteness of these places often requires arduous approaches, either on foot or through precarious off-road sections. Very few canyons are located close to large cities like Tehran, Shiraz or Isfahan, making logistics difficult. Most will take more than 2 days between preparation and descent and each trip is organized like a true expedition.
After a week of preparations in Tehran, it’s time to take the road. Our first stop is the Alamut region situated amidst the Alborz Mountains range, north of the capital. We’re here to descend 2 canyons - Asemanrood and Chakhrood - and rendezvous with a group of 15 canyoneers during the next 2 days. It is also here that I meet Tina’s partner, Amir Jelvani, who is Iran’s most prolific canyoning instructor and explorer. Despite our language barriers, Amir oozes sympathy: his contagious personality turns us instantly into long-time friends, and we’re quickly discussing preferences on canyoning gear and techniques.
The descent of Asemanrood would allows us to develop the team dynamics and discuss best practices, presenting a good mix of verticality and whitewater challenges. The large group is split in 2, and I float between both in order to observe, document and exchange. The flat upper section features small pools which - at a lower water level - present no danger. This is not the case, as it’s still early summer and higher-than-average flows have been the norm. It’s not long until I arrive at an obstacle and panic is ensuing: 3 people were drowning due to their poor assessment of the situation, having jumped into a highly-aerated pool featuring dangerous hydraulics while wearing their heavy backpacks. Luckily, all manage to escape with the help of the team. Later in the day I speak to Amir about the episode. We agree that Iranian canyoneers are very eager to increase their portfolio of rope techniques but often oversee the development of their whitewater skills, counting on traverses to overcome these types of obstacles. As the canyoning activity grows in popularity, so does the number of participants who naively assume their limited knowledge is sufficient for complicated scenarios presented in the canyon environment.
Despite the shortcomings Amir & his team continue to spearhead the development of the sport in Iran, having established a training course program which supports the growth of the local community while reinforcing its safety standards. Most of their time has been dedicated to re-bolting the country’s main routes to European standards (double anchors); the investment on this material has come from Amir’s own pocket. “There is a big demand for canyoning training courses, but as long as we don’t develop a safe local industry, people will not take us seriously”.
With a better understanding of our team’s strengths and limitations, we begin to move south towards the remote path of the Qashqai nomads in the Chaharmahal & Bakhtiari region, in the heart of Zagros range. It is here that the crown-jewel of Iran canyoning is located: Tange Zendan, Farsi for Prison Gorge. The route requires at least 2 days to complete. The dry, open and sunny upper part consists of multiple rappels and lengthy boulder fields which slow down the progress while the lower, aquatic section provides the thrills with narrow gorge sections filled with jumps and whitewater swimming. Impressive layers of limestone violently pushed up by the collision between the Eurasian and Arabic tectonic plates determine the aesthetics of the canyon. It’s still early in the season and we are the first to descend it in such high water levels.
Amir assembles the team taking in consideration the conditions. Due to the relentless summer heat the decision is to start late afternoon, walking and scrambling down the dry gorge until the first drop. We pull the rope just as the day becomes night, finishing up the first rappel and entering a steep limestone gorge; pure water begins to run as a trickle originated from a natural spring directly beside our campsite: a ledge with enough room for our team of 7 to brew up chai in the fire, rest our packs and lay down to sleep beneath the stars. We exchange laughs, camaraderie, and a bite to eat. Tina removes her headscarf and takes shelter in Amir’s arms. The mood is light, there are no rules or protocols; the outdoors have united us, set us free from routines and establishment.
The next day begins slowly as we make our way down the upper section, with easy rappels up to 25m and plentiful downclimbs. Amir is constantly evaluating the current anchors and choosing which ones need to be updated on their next descent of Tange Zendan; there is little time for bolting on our current schedule. At approximately 3pm, the canyon opens up and takes a left turn leading to a wide, grassy knoll. What we see from here leaves us all speechless: it’s Kerodi Kon, a majestic 100m+ tributary waterfall dumping considerable flow into our gorge. The spray and wind draft generated by the height and force of the water is such that we struggle to make our way to the belay; we’re screaming in order to pass-on instructions to each other.
The increased water levels meant tackling the upcoming section – the narrowest and most committing of the canyon – would take significant effort and would lead us into the evening. Sa’eed Mohammadi, an experienced local mountaineer with 10-plus descents of the canyon mentions it’s the highest water level he had experienced here, “by a lot”. “There’s a particular rappel which will be very difficult in this flow and with the current anchors” says Sa’eed. Amir commands the team to settle for another camp.
The morning begins with a short walk on the river bed leading us to the start of the lower section. From here, the challenges are plenty. Amir jumps across a scary-looking whitewater pool leading to a dangerous pour-off; we hold our breath, waiting for the outcome. He succeeds, but progress is slow as we manage the backpacks and ourselves in each obstacle; Amir always leads the way, counting on Sa’eed’s insights on the canyon configuration to make decisions. After plenty of small jumps up to 5m and short rappels, we reach the crux: a 15m waterfall called Abshar Dogholou (Twin Waterfall in Farsi), where the existing anchors meant a rappel directly under the heavy flow. A deviation is set-up to allow a rappel in between the two veins of water; despite, the pool below was another big threat due to heavy water movement. From the top, I watch as Amir rappels and disappears under the curtain of water. Seconds seem endless as we all wait for a sign that he’s safe. Suddenly, I feel the rope go slack; he’s off and in the pool. A hard swim gets him past the danger zone, and from below he sets up a guided rappel for the rest of the group to descend. In terms of thrills and excitement, Tange Zendan was really delivering it. At approximately 6pm, the gorge opens up and the canyon joins the Deraze Rood river, signaling the end of the technical section. We push forward aware of the long 11 km return trek after the canyon, filling our water bottles in the last available spring and following the river as the sun sets. Exhausted from the day, we agree on another night spent in the wild. It’s incredibly warm for an evening, and the surrounding boulders blast the heat accumulated during the scorching-hot day. We feast on the remainder of the food and remember the 2 last days of adventure as the burning fire reduces to ashes.
We talk about the development of canyoning as a commercial activity in Iran: “The difficulty is to set and enforce a standard for commercial operators” Amir says. He mentions numerous accidents due to negligence of unqualified guides, a result of the lack of official control which sees random operators popping up everywhere and running trips with dubious standards. “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” he adds.
An example of this lack of standard can be found in Reghez, a beautiful & relatively easy canyon located approximately 3 hours northeast of Shiraz; it is one of the most popular in the country. The beautiful white limestone carved by the crystal clear water results in a steep gorge, with plenty of jumps and scenic rappels, all of this within relatively easy access. This combination results in huge commercial potential and local “guides” take advantage of this, taking large groups without the minimum safety standards. I observe many of said “guides” without basic equipment – let alone knowledge – to perform rescue maneuvers on rope. I remember Amir’s words about the development of the activity on a commercial level and understand how big of a task lies ahead of him.
In addition, the complicated political scenario has slowed further development of the activity in comparison to other parts of the world. “Importing canyoning-specific equipment is still costly due to current trade regulations and limited quantities, 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” she adds. In contrast to this situation is the development of local suppliers who produce their own versions of backpacks, descenders and accessories, some of which is up to worldwide standard. As we continue our trip, Tina, Amir and I discuss the future and sustainability of the activity in Iran. “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 Tina. “Collaborating with international organizations and our local federation is a must for this plan to go ahead”. At least for the moment, the development of canyoning is still an inside job.
Gus is a canyoning instructor, trainer and photographer based in Bali, Indonesia. His active participation in international expeditions and high-profile descents have produced epic accounts of canyoning and inspired many to follow their passion. Gus is the Editor of Re:belay.com