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By Richard Cowper

Intense pain, the most exquisite pleasure: these are often the close companions of the high-altitude climber in the greater ranges, where deep friendships are forged and sometimes ended in conditions of extreme danger.

So it was with me this ski-mountaineering season.

On expedition in the wilds of Turkish Kurdistan death came swiftly to my companion, Alasdair Ross. Without warning, an unseasonally warm high-mountain storm unleashed a wet slab avalanche, instantly killing Ross who was skiing just behind me in a steep-sided gulley.

The immediate consequence for me and other members of our fourteen-strong team was a period of deep sadness, bordering on depression.

How could it be then, that less than three weeks later, I was able to achieve one of my life's ski-mountaineering ambitions, and in a condition close to euphoria?

I was attempting to become one of the first British climbers to ski up and down Mount Ararat (16,952 feet) Turkey's highest mountain and Mt Demavend (18,714 feet) Iran's highest peak in one ski season.

To do this I had paired up with David Hamilton, Britain's top ski mountaineer, who was leading separate teams to the two mountains. Hamilton and I linked the expeditions by travelling overland from Ararat to Demavend, via Dogubayazit in eastern Turkey, across the border to the Iranian city of Tabriz and on to Tehran, the capital, by a long overnight train journey.

The first expedition was struck by disaster outside the garrison town of Erzerum in eastern Turkey on just my second day in the mountains, when Ross, a leading member of the Alpine Ski Club (ASC), was killed.

The tragedy split the Turkish expedition in half, with eight opting to return home immediately. After a rousing speech in praise of Ross from Alun Davies, a former Welsh guard, five other members of the expedition and I decided to continue as a tribute to our colleague a fanatical mountaineer who loved to visit on ski as many wild places as possible during the year.

A week later in a blizzard high on the slopes of Mt Ararat Davies and I said a prayer for Ross just before four of our colleagues, but not us, made it to the top of the legendary ice-covered mountain, where Noah's ark is supposed to have landed after the great flood.

Though pain and sadness had followed us almost every step of the way in Turkish Kurdistan, we felt our decision to stay on had been the right one.

Whether to return home after the death of a team-member on an expedition is very much a personal decision and there is no 'correct response'. A very close friend might wish to go back to try and bring comfort and personal information to a spouse, or to attend the funeral.

But for others an immediate abandonment of the expedition can turn personal sadness into despair and exacerbate a feeling of guilt of having survived when a colleague has died. In a few cases such feelings can lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Hamilton, the expedition leader and a Scot who keeps his sensitive nature hidden, found it extremely difficult to talk openly about the tragedy. But he had commitments to a completely different team in Iran and for both of us our happy experience in Iran was to come as a complete surprise.

One of the more mysterious consequences of my narrow escape from death was an intense, almost religious sense of being deeply linked to nature and humanity, underpinned by a feeling of sensitivity and openess.

Now, less than two weeks after the avalanche, I found myself deeply attached to several members of the Demavend team apart from Hamilton none of whom had been on Ararat. These included Ronald Naar, a Polar traveller and the Netherland's leading mountaineer, who could boast of having climbed Everest, K2 and Nanga Parbat three of the most difficult of the world's fourteen 8,000m peaks. Also in the party was Antony Evans, a brilliant and passionate skiier the Pied Piper of the slopes who with a youthful smile under striking eyebrows, persuaded us to ski the 'impossible' with hardly a second thought. And then there was Vinnie Wingfield, who fixed us with her hypnotic eye and kept us all entranced for a fortnight.

The closeness of our team was simply the latest in a catalogue of surprises during my quest to become one of the first British mountaineers to ascend and descend Mt Demavend on ski. I had been attempting to get permission to climb the peak since 1989. A number of years ago I had even managed to get as far as booking my flight following an official invitation from the Iranian Mountaineering Federation, but work commitments had prevented me from going at the last minute. This was fortunate as all my colleagues were detained the moment they landed in Tehran and sent back to London on the first available aircraft.

Now, despite the war in neighbouring Iraq permission to visit Iran had come at last. Our sixteen-man team first headed for the mountains above the fine twin ski resorts of Shemshak and Dizin in an effort to acclimatise for the attempt on Demavend. There, amid the dreamiest of powder snow, we knocked off half a dozen smaller peaks. On the way back, we passed the lower slopes used by elegantly-attired weekend skiers, remnants of Iranian chic from the days of the Shah, with hip music blasting from car stereos.

At last we moved on by bus and jeep to our main objective and there in the foothills of the country's highest mountain, we encountered yet another surprise: a long spell of perfect weather, precisely the opposite of my experience on Ararat.

On our first Demavend day, as we climbed higher and higher and the air grew thinner a sense of dizzy contentment overcame us. And to our astonishment, at just under 10,000 feet on the great volcanic peak's desolate snow-laden slopes, we came upon an immaculate gold-domed mosque, the Goosfand Sara, deserted by all but eagles and mountain chuffs.

Just as we prepared for our spartan bivouac we were transfixed when the setting sun turned the golden roof into a glorious light-force, silhouetted against the snowy 18,714 summit.

The next long day all fourteen of us made slow, but steady progress with skins attached to the bottom of our Alpine skis to allow us to glide upwards. After an uncomfortable second night, nearly 5,000 feet above the Goosfand Sara, we could hardly sleep, wondering whether the London, satellite-based, forecast of heavy storms might prove correct.

On summit day we rose at dawn to clear, ice-blue, skies and rock-hard snow - a double relief which meant there would be no danger of avalanches. As we pushed on the climbing was sometimes intricate and the air occasionally sulphurous.

After ten hours of draining effort in the oxygen-starved air we reached the top at last. I flung my arms around the two close companions who had got there before me and cast my eyes across the magnificent Alborz mountains, which stretched all the way back to Turkey. All but one of our team made it to the summit.

To celebrate one of the more successful ski expeditions mounted by the Eagle Ski Club on the way back the British embassy in Tehran gave us a garden party in the grounds where Churchill had met Roosevelt and Stalin in November 1943 to prepare for the final stages of second world war.

It was a far cry from the sad contacts Hamilton and I had had with our embassy in Ankara less than a month before, while dealing with requests for information from the Turkish press and arranging for the body of Alasdair Ross to be flown home.



David Hamilton:High Adventure: 004402476395422;email:

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October 1 2004