In “Forgotten First Ascents,” Owen Clarke is digging up cool climbs from the past and talking to the climbers who made them happen. This week: the South Face of Minaret Peak, Iran, 1998.
Just a few days before Al Read left for a climbing trip to Iran in 1998, a column ran in the newspaper about a German businessman who had impregnated an Iranian medical student and been sentenced to death. Local disposition towards foreigners, imagined Read, would be somewhat sour. As his plane approached Tehran, Read became nervous and started going through his pack, trying to throw out things that might be offensive to Iranians. Read was no stranger to international conflict: as a Foreign Service officer, he had served stints in Calcutta during the Bangladesh War (1971) and later in Kathmandu (1974). He left the Foreign Service at the end of three years after being invited to invest in a company which led mountain expeditions into the Himalaya. He went on to start the first white water river rafting company in the Himalaya, as well as worked to save the last Bengal tigers through international tourism. He was anxious that his Foreign service history would come up as a dangerous red flag to the Iranians.
“It was dark when we landed,” said Read. “A bus came out to pick us up, and we were surrounded by guards with machine guns.” While in line to get his passport checked, Read kept moving to the back of the group, letting other passengers go ahead because he was so nervous. Finally, he handed his passport to a large, scowling customs official. “He checked it over carefully and stamped it,” said Read, “and when he gave it back, he looked up with a big smile and said, ‘Welcome to Iran!’ From that moment on, I’d never been to a more friendly place.”
A member of the first team to climb Denali’s East Buttress, Read was the founder of travel company Geographic Expeditions and a co-owner and 20-year-president of the legendary Exum Guides. He has numerous first ascents in the Tetons to his name, and led several first ascent expeditions in Nepal, including Gaurishankar (7,134 meters/23,406 feet) and Cholatse (6,440 meters/21,130 feet). He was also a member of the tragic American Dhaulagiri I (8,167 meters/26,795 feet) expedition in 1969, which saw seven team members perish in an avalanche.
Read and close friend and fellow Exum employee Jean Weiss, an accomplished climber herself, met up with Hooman Aprin in Tehran, another Exum guide born in Iran, and Abbas Jafari, an Iranian climber and guide. Aprin, a climber since the age of 14—when he soloed Mt. Damavand (5,610 meters/18,406 feet), the highest peak in the Middle East—had participated in over a dozen Himalayan expeditions, leading many, and pioneered a new route on Ama Dablam (6,812 meters/22,349 feet) in 1985. He became the first Iranian to summit Everest in 1990.
Read and the others checked out the U.S. Embassy, which had been taken over only a few years back during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
“I’d been in places where we had to put thermite grenades on the safes to burn all our documents,” said Read of his Foreign Service days. The U.S. Embassy hadn’t had time to do that, he noted. They had shredded their sensitive documents before the Embassy was stormed, and the Iranians had painstakingly pieced all the documents back together.
Venturing into the Alborz mountains north of Tehran, the team established a base camp at 11,500 feet in the remote Hezar Chal Valley. The following day, they climbed a new route (III 5.0) on the south face of Minaret Peak (13,770 ft). It followed a snow gully for several pitches, which led into a short segment on loose rock to the left buttress, and another gully to the summit. At the top, Abbas decided that the peak would be renamed Exum Minaret after the Exum Guides.
“It was a real honor,” said Read. “Though I’m not sure if it stuck,” he added, laughing.
The highlight of the trip for Read, however, wasn’t their new route, but an ascent of Alam Kuh (16,200 feet), Iran’s second tallest peak, which he summited with Jafari and Aprin. “We followed a long ridgeline, traversed several little towers. It’s a big massif, the whole thing was fairly wild. The climbing wasn’t hard, but the whole experience was just wild, climbing this peak in Iran.” They spent two more weeks in Iran, doing some climbing and exploring, before returning home.
Aprin passed away in 2015 at the age of 68 due to dementia. Jafari has also since passed away, during a river trip to Nepal, according to Weiss. Weiss now lives in Boulder. A piece she wrote about her experience as a woman in Iran can be found here. Read usually resides in Jackson Hole with his wife, but has relocated to the Bay Area due to COVID-19. The couple travels to Argentina each winter.
“Mountain climbing, for me, was just an excuse to go to these very interesting places,” said Read. “It’s made my life full of great joy.”
Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fresh fish tacos. He is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.