Grinding the Axis of Evil: Snowboarding Iran

Words and pictures by Mitch "Grinder" Malli (title picture by Fabien Khan)
Published July 2007

Iran has plenty of snow and plenty of peaks for a prime powder zone

"What do you mean it snows in Iran?!"

That was how my friend Takayuki responded at our local drinking hole, Bears bar, in good old Japan when I told him I was going on a snowboarding trip to Iran.
This has been the kind of response I have received all my life when it came to the topic of snow sports in Iran, so when I saw the chance to write about my recent experiences of snowboardinng in the Middle East - I jumped at it.
The last time I hit the ski resort slopes in Iran, I was a student on a school trip, so needless to say I was excited to see how much things had changed almost 15 years on. 
When I arrived in Iran's capital - Tehran, it was early March and spring was upon us. I rolled into the new Imam Khomeini International airport, which was much more efficient than the old airport and far less scarier.
I was met by my family and friends, and after all the "Hellos!" the first question I asked was "Is it too late to hit the slopes?". The shrugs and frowns quickly revealed that none of my relatives and friends were in to any kind of snow sports nor had any idea of when season started or when it might end. At this point I made it my mission to find someone who knew more.

soaking up the Iranian culture in Tehran

After a few days of asking around I found out that a family friend had recently taken up skiing and I saw my chance to hit the Iranian mountains with him! I called him up and after a brief conversation on the phone it was all set - I was going snowboarding the next day!
At seven a.m. on the dot the next morning, the door bell rang. Unfortunately, due of my excitement of shredding Iranian snow, I'd not been able to sleep a wink, but it did mean that I'd had lots of time to prepare for my day of snow filled adventure.
My new bestest friend in the entire world was called Hamid, and he picked me up in an old Toyota Patrol and after loading up we were on our way. 
I learned on our drive that we were headed to a place called Ab-Ali which was only about a 45 minute drive from Tehran, which I was pleased to hear as it would maximize our time on the slopes. The drive up the mountain was uneventful, yet the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, the jagged peaks looming ever closer as we wound up towards them.
After what seemed to be a short drive, we arrived at our destination; a muddy parking lot on the side of the road at the foot of a massive mountain. Having lived in Japan for the last five years, where everything is clean, modern and organized, I felt slightly uneasy at the dirty, old and disorganized scene that presented itself before me. I started to wonder if it would be possible to rent a board and boots or if we'd even be able to grab a bit of food.
Hamid reassured me that everything was going to be fine and boy was he right! Within moments of exiting our trusty old Toyota we were descended upon by half a dozen local businessmen, all trying to sell me their wares. They all spoke to me at exactly the same time:

"You need snowboard? You need boots? What shoe size? You want Oakley sunglasses? You want snowboard lesson?"

Tehran's markets bustle by night

Luckily for yours truly, I am fluent in Farsi (Persian) and was able to tell them in precise detail what I needed, but there were no stores or vehicles, instead it seemed they kept all their equipment in what I can only describe as buried wooden treasure chests, like the ones mountain trolls would have had in the movie Lord of the Rings.
I told one of these enterprising fellows, who I'll name the 'Sun Burnt Dude', that I needed a size 12 US boot, to which he replied "try this one"- and held out a worn and battered boot, that looked as though it had seen many seasons of use. Now, I don't work in the footwear industry, but I'm pretty sure that there was no way that I could squeeze my size 12s into this tiny size 9!
Sun Burnt Dude, however was quite confident in his shoe sizing skills and kept insisting it would be fine, so to humor him I tried it on and to his shock it didn't fit, so I left his confused ass on the side of that muddy road and took my business elsewhere. 

looking down on Tehran from the mountains

Finally after about half an hour of asking around I got my gear together, a rag tag collection which consisted of:
1) Size 13 US boots (I'm a size 12)
2) A Burton board from what I am guessing is when Jake Burton's granddaddy started making boards.
3) Bindings from Taiwan which could not be adjusted in any way.
Total price 10 US dollars. I was set and ready to go!
By this time my good friend Hamid had treated me to a full day's ski pass which set him back just US$4 dollars.

looking down on the slopes of Ab-Ali

My excitement grew as I got closer and closer to the lift, then once I got there, surprise set in which was quickly followed by confusion. The lift was like something which looked like what Sam and Bilbo Baggins would have put together to make extra cash before they reached the Black tower. At this point I worried for my life!
The lift had no seats, instead it had several crooked poles hanging off a cable. I have seen skiers use these bizarre contraptions, but never a snowboarder. Those damn skiers! Now, you have to understand, that Japan doesn't do drag lifts. They just don't exist, so up unitl then, I'd never come across them. I looked around to see how everyone else was accomplishing this. That's when it hit me like a brick to the side of my head - I was the only snowboarder on the slope!
I later learned from Sun Burnt Dude that I was the first snowboarder to snowboard in this Iranian ski resort all season and the best way for me to get up the slope was to just hold on to the pole with my hands and be dragged up hill.
Once I got to the very top, I took in the view, it was an awesome two meter blanket of powder snow as far as the eye could see with not a single tree, shrub or bush to get in my way. Coming from Japan where the trees are tight and there's little in the way of open bowls, (at least in Fukui's ski resorts - the area where I normally snowboard) - to have the freedom of Iran's open space was a joy.

Mitch and co. with the vintage rental board

So, off I went to shred Iran's axis of evil powder, and it turned out to be the best day of snowboarding I have had all season.
Pointers when snowboarding in Iran:
1) Sun Block! The sun burns like hell over there! I think there is no ozone left in that area.
2) Equipment. Unless you want to deal with Sun Burnt Dude's whack sense of logic, bring your own board and boots.
3) Extra laces, straps, screws, and bolts. You ain't gonna find any in that Troll's chest.
4) Board wax. The snow is deep and you don't want to get stuck anywhere 'cause there is no help.
5) Transportation. Unless you know any Iranian locals, it is best either to hire a car and driver for the day or make arrangements in advance with your favorite travel agent.
I would like to thank my family, Hamid Sultani and Sun Burnt Dude for an unforgettable experience.

Mitch Malli currently lives in Japan where he pumps iron, MCs, surfs, snowboards and occasionally teaches English.