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Off-Piste in the Axis of Evil

Off-Piste in the Axis of Evil

Travel
By Eric Segalstad
posted: 05/31/2005

We find the offices of the Iranian Ski Federation three floors up an outdoor staircase of a drab concrete building in downtown Tehran, the capital city. A door leading into the office opens, and an old man peeks out. He introduces himself as Assadollah Shemshaki, president of the federation, and insists we sit down for some chai. I'm in Iran with three friends on a trip into what has been called the Axis of Evil. For years, I've heard the odd skier rave about the wide-open, nearly deserted mountains of Iran. Finally, I decided to see for myself.

In the office, my friends Gorga, Falch and Jonas share a loveseat. I sit on a low stool. A glass case displays dusty trophies. Old ads from pre-revolutionary times hang on the walls. During the 1960s, Shemshaki skied for Iran on the World Cup circuit alongside Jean-Claude Killy. But after seizing power in 1979, the late Ayatollah Khomeini prohibited skiing, along with most other sports, though that has now changed.

"We tell our government that it should market our mountains as a destination, but they don't listen," Shemshaki says sadly. "We used to host international races, and Killy regarded Dizin as his home away from the Alps. Nowadays, nobody in the West seems to remember that we have mountains."

The Dizin ski resort is in the Alborz Mountains, a two-hour drive from Tehran. A sign at the base reassures patrons that skiing is now officially "agreed to" by the mullahs who rule the country. I walk up to a tiny ticket shack and hand over a few rials. As a non-Iranian, I pay double-about $4 per day. Three T-bars, a double chair and two lifts with a tired army of small, red, egg-shaped gondolas serve the slopes. Steel wire holds the sliding doors together in most of the two-person eggs, but I try not to think about it.

The runs snake down the treeless slopes at a leisurely pace. The surrounding out-of-bounds terrain, however, is unbelievable: tight chutes, steep meadows and a mesmerizing 14,000-foot peak just north of the summit lift. "We need to ski that," Jonas says. But first we need a place to stay.

After inquiring in the rental shops on the dirt parking lot, we find Hussein, who offers us an apartment down the hill for $20 per night. For a few more rials, a driver blazes us up and down the mountain road in his red Paykan, an Iranian car manufactured from old British blueprints.

With the entire ski area visible from the base, it's easy to spot the best lines. From the top lift, a two-minute traverse leads us across a windswept meadow and down to the prize: a mile-long out-of-bounds ridge with dozens of chutes. A bowl works as a natural sluiceway to take us back to the lower T-bar. The liftie, a man in his 40s with a week-old beard, smiles at us on our first few runs. By the second day, he opens up: "Very-very good!" From then on we high-five him after each run.

Outside the aging base area, daring young women display carefully applied make-up. Some flirt with the men, technically a crime. A young man named Aziz tells me the Revolutionary Guard doesn't enforce Shari'a, the strict religious law, on the slopes, though the resort still segregates its liftlines by gender. Dizin's isolated location and resort atmosphere provide a liberal refuge for the lucky Iranians who can afford to be here. The ski resort is as good a barometer as any of young Iranians' desire for change.

Iran is officially dry, but contraband booze is available, though sometimes of lethal quality. There's Russian bathtub gin, and Chechen whiskey in recycled brake fluid containers. A group of young men at the parking lot offers us the goods, but we politely decline.

Midweek we eat lunch outside the cafeteria, facing the tempting off-piste peak. We're busy pointing out possible lines when a veiled woman wearing dark sunglasses approaches. "The ski patrol says you have to ski in the slopes," she says in perfect English. Two shy ski patrollers, wearing old red-and-black one--piece ski suits, watch from 10 feet away. "If not, they can't guarantee for your safety."

As much as we want to obey the warning, the skiing is too good to stay on the corduroy. We come down from an out-of-bounds chute adjacent to the main slope a couple of hours later and run into the ski patrollers in the lift line. We feel like disobedient schoolboys, but they're all smiles, pointing excitedly at our tracks above. I guess they just had to make it clear that out-of-bounds means you're on your own.

By the fourth day, skiing the looming peak north of the summit lift is overdue. The shop employees look at our preparations with curiosity. They've never seen avalanche beacons before. We ride the egg-gondolas to the top. From there, the ascent is steep, but easy: two hours of hiking the ridgeline. Time to drop in.

Without a word, I push off. Ten turns later the bowl widens to a vast snow field. I cruise through it, leaning into the turns, spraying the powder high. Columns of rock rise from the snow. I swirl between them, landing in a narrow chute, making quick turns and avoiding the rocky boundaries with a margin of a few feet. I shoot out the end like a pinball.

We ski one by one, meeting at the bottom, ready for the 20-minute traverse back to the base area. We're greeted like rock stars in the parking lot. People shake our hands, gesture wildly at our lines, grin and snap group pictures with our cameras.

On the way home, I recall what Shemshaki said about Jean-Claude Killy; how Killy loved the Iranian people and these mountains as much as he loved his native Alps. There's a difference between a regime and its people. Regimes have an implicit expiration date, while human benevolence doesn't. Ultimately, it's visiting foreign places that shatters preconceptions and replaces them with opinions based on experience. I didn't see evil in Iran. Only friendly people in a culture distant to ours. And, as a bonus, I skied some incredible lines.

FEBRUARY 2005

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