The second International Rock Climbing Festival to be organized by the Iranian Mountain Federation and Iranian Alpine Club, took place in mid October on the magnificent ca 2700m Bisotun.
The southeast face of Bisotun, in western Iran's Zagros Range, is a vast and complex 1,200m high limestone wall, variously reported as up to eight kilometres in width.
Currently there are approximately 60 routes, leaving plenty of space for additions. The rock is outstanding - generally sound, well featured and highly abrasive, the latter almost uncomfortably so.
Several huts are situated on terraces a little above half-height on the face, and routes to the summit are generally considered to require two days.
Many established lines do not climb to the summit but reach logical conclusions part way up the face, from where relatively easy descents are possible.
The first International Festival at Bisotun took place in 2010 and was well attended. This October around 100 Iranian climbers hosted 52 foreign visitors.
The vast majority of foreign participants were French (there is a long tradition of climbing here by the Groupe de Haute Montagne), but Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland were also represented.
Current economic sanctions, as part of an effort to discourage Iran's nuclear program, have ensured that obtaining a visa is more or less impossible for those holding only UK or USA passports.
However, there was one British participant, Gus Morton, who travelled on his Irish passport and kept very quiet about the fact that he worked for nearly 30 years as a nuclear safeguards inspector.
Foreign participants, often in the company of local climbers, enjoyed excellent climbing in relaxed company. Most Iranian climbers are middle class and well-educated, and despite a general feeling that current sanctions are unjust, appeared incredibly open and friendly to foreigners.
Several new lines were completed during the meet. Nineteen year old Sebastien Bouin from France and 25 year old Hassan Javadian (a former Iranian climbing champion) put up a five-pitch bolted line with a crux of 5.14b. They hope to finish it at a future date.
Hassan Gerami and Hamid Safaghi, assisted by Amer Ezoji, Hossain Hizomker and French guide Leslie Fucsko, completed the second part of Festival Route. The first part was climbed during the 2010 International Festival. The bolted climb now has 12 pitches up to 5.12c. Maybe they will complete it to the summit during the third festival?
Slovenians Luka Lindic and Marko Prezelj, French Sam Beaugey and Emmanuel Pellisser, and Iranian mountain guide Hesam Karaji climbed Golden Spatula over two days. The 1,100m route to the top of the mountain was completed with trad gear only.
Anthony Hall and Julie Heller, an Australian couple on their honeymoon, climbed a new 250m route with Iranians Ehsan Mirtaghi and Shokouh Pariai. Honeymoon was rated 5.11a/b.
Jean-Yves Ferrandis and Hervé Qualizza climbed the 11-pitch Black Lizard (500m, with difficulties from 5.8 to 5.10a), while Tunc Findik from Turkey and Shahram Karaji (Iran) put up two, one-pitch routes; Welcome to Bisotun (62m, 5.10a) and Caravanseray (60m, 5.10c).
Two short pitches of a little over 20m were equipped and climbed by two Iranian women, Maryam Bahrami-Nejas and Parvin Jahanbakhish.
The first route on the Bisotun face was Abarmard, put up in March 1969 by Ebrahim Babai, Kiumars Babazadah, Gholamhossain Vahabzabeh and Bijan Sadeghi. The following summer another was added by Austrian Hari Rost and Iranian Sadegh Karbasi.
As far as is known, the first British ascent of the wall took place in 1976, when Ernst Renner, and Middle East aficionados Mick Shaw and Tony Howard, climbed the Anglo-Swiss pillar (5+ with a little aid).
Their line follows a series of pillars right of a rightward slanting chimney system roughly in the middle of the face. They climbed the route over two days with a bivouac on a large terrace system at approximately half-height, finishing 100m to the right of the summit.
Today, there are fully bolted routes, routes with belays equipped and possibly one or two pegs in pitches, and then those that require placing ones own gear throughout.
Recent visitors have remarked that if Bisotun was in another, more accessible country, it would be a world famous climbing destination.
However, there is no guidebook, so foreign climbers will be largely reliant on locals, a good source of information being available at the "climbers' cafe" below the cliff.
Apart from lack of beer, politics and religion had no impact on the event, and the response from participants has been highly enthusiastic. There will probably be a third festival in October 2014.
Thanks to Gus Morton, Marko Prezelj and the event manager Ebrahim Nowtash for help with this report.