Sverre Aarseth
Mountain skyline
All-Round N-Body Guy, Mountaineer and Wild-Life Enthusiast

Expedition report: Mt Sabalan 1978

In early April 1978 I spend an extremely windy night with little sleep in the small town of Ardabil, Persia (the last year of the Shah). It is the start of a mountaineering adventure which became a matter of survival. Hotel facilities are primitive so I dine on three omelettes after a five hour bus ride from Rasht via Astara, close to the Russian border on the Caspian Sea. Climbing up the hills one could see observation towers and a strong fence to prevent escape from the Soviet Union. Next morning a helpful local secures a bus ticket for my next stage, some 90 minutes in the direction of Tabriz, of ancient tapestry fame.

The bus stop called Lara consists of a road-side cafe. I find myself alone in this god-forsaken place because my Tehran contact has had to call it off; his wife is one week overdue giving birth. Instead I am armed with a rough sketch map and some words in farsi for my onward journey to Mt Sabalan. This proves sufficient to negotiate a jeep drive of about 25 km which takes an hour by local road to some thermal pools named Gotor Sui. A return trip is negotiated for three days later by making signs in the sand. After enjoying the warm pool I set off up an obvious valley which soon becomes snow-bound. It is getting cold and windy during the gradual ascent. I notice animal tracks going in the same direction and realize they must be due to wolves. A soldier at Ardabil had warned me of dangerous wolves in these mountains but it is too late to turn back now. The tent is up by 7 and cooking has to be done inside (I manage to burn a hole in the floor by spilling the fuel). In the event I go to bed fully clothed and hope the tent will not collapse on me in the fierce wind.

Next morning is still quite windy and bleak but I have come a long way and don't have a spare day for taking it easy. I make a late start around 9 without being able to see any high parts. The scenery on my right look a bit wild so I carry on further up the valley. Without any directions I can only hope that the main peak will be situated at the end and in any case there are no helpful cairns or tracks showing the route. Meanwhile the cloud level is lifting and by 1.30 I reach the top of a ridge which offers good views. Now it becomes clear I have climbed the wrong mountain and the big one is facing me on the other side of a saddle. It is so windy that an effort is needed to hold the camera still against a rock to capture my adversary.

Down at the saddle an hour later the visibility is reasonable so I decide to have a go in spite of the time. Without knowledge of altitudes for camp or the earlier ridge, it is difficult to make an estimate. Now the weather starts to deteriorate with increasing cloud cover and gusting wind. To save time, the crampons are kept on while negotiating scree slopes and minor rocks. My estimates for reaching certain points are slipping badly but I am determined to make it. The weather turns really wild, with icy bits and even rocks uplifted from the ground bombarding my hood, and dark pieces are scattered on the snow. Several false summits are reached and it starts to get dark. Moreover, the last drop of water is finished just before I attain the summit cairn. The true summit is also confirmed when I see a small crater lake, maybe about 100 feet below. So here I am on top of Mt Sabalan at 4811 m, in a storm with little equipment for survival. It is 8.50 p.m. and darkness, assisted by menacing clouds, is approaching rapidly. On the way up, I take a compass bearing to a rock outcrop, some 300-400 feet below the summit. Descending to my target, I get blown over for a second time.

Now begins the worst night of my life. I go behind some large rocks but the wind comes from all directions. There is a kind of protected area, but it has an open hole pointing towards the summit. However, I have no choice but to stay put since it would be suicidal to carry on down, even with a torch (which is left behind). I stamp my feet up and down 30 times every few minutes but it is exhausting and thirsty work at this altitude. The outer mittens are iced over so it is too dangerous to take them off and ease the crampon strap pressure on my soft hiking boots. During the night, my head is held inside the small summit sack and the Goretex jacket is only closed up by the velchro until it comes loose. Staying awake becomes a struggle, especially after the two previous stormy nights.

With no idea of the time, the night seems endless but eventually it dawns and I gather up my things and set off using a conservative compass bearing to avoid some tricky parts. Unfortunately most volcanos look similar in every direction so it is not surprising I overshoot the camp site. It is a desperate struggle walking uphill again and I am greatly relieved to find my camp at 11. Part of the tent is collapsed due to the raging storm, with several broken poles (later replaced at no cost by the manufacturer). The priority is to brew some warm drinks before the feet are inspected. It is an alarming sight - at least half of every toe is nearly black and without feeling. I pack up and move slowly down, reaching the thermal pools at 6. Amazingly, I find inspiration in the beauty of a crocus field near the pools and even manage to take a picture.

Now I am faced with a real dilemma, namely whether it is a good idea to expose my frozen feet to the warm water. I can't take the chance to be told later that salvation would lie in such an action, and this logic decides the issue. Besides, I am utterly exhausted and begin to hallucinate by hearing voices. Several hours are spent asleep in the pool; then begins the long hike back since I have missed my appointment with the driver (who would not be paid). I am off at 1 a.m. using the head torch but the track is difficult to see and wrong directions are taken which get corrected by the compass. Along the way I come to a river crossing which cannot be avoided. Without boots and socks, the pain is excruciating and the damage done to tissues while carrying a nearly 50 lbs sack later proves to be beyond repair. Another problem is that my eyes are getting weaker. Fighting the snow storm in cloudy conditions without goggles has caused snow blindness to set in and around 5 I lose the track again.

Totally exhausted I lie down for a sleep without any worries about wolves. The track becomes visible at dawn and I continue the agonizing journey. Finally a passing motorbike returning from the pools gives me a lift the final kilometre (which saves me from fierce shepherd dogs) and I reach Lari at 10. Before I can order tea, a soldier points his gun at me and asks for my passport. After a little sleep sitting upright in a hard chair, I catch a bus for Ardabil. The rest of the journey back to Tehran is a nightmare. I can hardly see and nobody offers to help in spite of several desperate pleas. Some antibiotic medicine is finally acquired at a Tehran hospital where they have experience of frostbite, just in time to avert the next danger point in the form of blood poisoning. Then I borrow money from my contact and buy a new ticket for home. A description of the next stage will be left out here, except to say that this epic took place during the first few years of my mountaineering career which could so easily have been terminated.

Sverre Aarseth (1/1/2010)


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