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Text and photo by Alexei Serov
Ghar Parau: past and present
The history of Ghar Parau begins in September of 1971. A British expedition of 11 members came to Iran to explore the mountain terrain around the town of Kermanshah, and, especially, the Kuh-e-Parau massif. The organizer and leader of the expedition – John Middleton – presumed, that the Zagros Mountain range was rich with karst and caves of different size. He based on maps of Survey of India (1:250,000) that were made after the World War II by the British and enlarged to 1:25,000 scale and on geological maps of British Petroleum company (1:500,000), an annex to which clearly stated, that this region has massive limestone massifs and resurgence through karst snake-holes.
An expedition was mounted in September of 1971, British cavers in two cars – a LandRover and a minibus – crossed the Channel, drove through the Balkans, Turkey and reached West Iran and the town of Kermanshah.
The British team consisted of good and experienced cavers and good organizers. In the past they explored such deep caves as Gouffre Berger and Gouffre Pierre St Martin (France), Antro del Corchia (Italy). At that time they already had the world depth record in mind and, searching various karst areas of the Pirenees, Italian and Austrian Alps, explored caves in Greece, Yugoslavia, Canadian Rocky mountains, Mexico, Peru and Himalaya. In this sense the Iranian mountain range of Zagros. It was the first visit to Iran, or “Persia”, as they used to call it, for the British cavers. None of they knew the terrain or had any contacts in Kermanshah, all contacts had to be made straight away.
The base camp of the expedition was situated at the foot of Parau massif. The team made an attempt to explore and map the spring and resurgence wells around Kermanshah, but this gave no serious results, as well as search on the close Kushkelen plateau. The Kuh-e-Shahu massif nearer to Iraqi border seemed interesting, but there was no time to explore it. The group ascended Parau through Mangalat village, the loads were partly taken up in rucksacks, partly on donkeys. When the base camp was transported to the plateau, the commander at a military base in Kermanshah promised to help out with a helicopter. The helicopter had really taken off with the load, but weather conditions and strong wind made the pilot turn back.
This year the explorers were better prepared – in the Geographical Institute in Tehran they managed to copy the aerial photographs of Kuh-e-Parau massif, in Tehran and in Kermanshah they had already some acquaintances on the radio and TV, who were interested in the on-going exploration.
This time the English failed again to hire a helicopter and had to carry loads on their backs and use donkeys. Successfully on the plateau, the team instantly began to rig the cave. To pitch 23 there were ladders with safety ropes, at the bottom of pitch 26 they found a good place for the underground base camp. The team descended further and… were stunned to run into a sump at -750 m. No one could believe, the cave would play such a nasty trick on them. The cavers tried to traverse the pitch 26 in the upper part, but the walls were very mudded and slippery, such climbing required special techniques and equipment. Cavers used their torches, but no other ways to avoid the sump were seen. The sump itself prooved to be narrow, deep and with muddy water. There was a meander above the sump chamber, a caver tried to move along it using pitons for safety, but did not reach the end – no wonder, he had 12 meter deep pit below him and not much belief that his pitons would hold.
After the unrigging the team gave 3 more days to explore the terrain to north-east from Parau and the north plateau. It proved to be rich with snake-holes and karst, but many shafts were plugged with snow and debris – an interesting object for exploration, but it also needed much time, patience and luck. “If there is Ghar Parau, then there should be other deep caves in the depths of massifs Kuh-e-Parau, Kuh-e-Shahu, Kuh-e-Naraman, in other mountains to the south-east and the the north-west from Kermanshah” – writes the leader of the 1972 expedition David Judson in his book “Ghar Parau”, that he published in 1973 after returning from Iran. “The Zagros mountains have a great speleological potential and are barely explored – they preserve an interesting challenge for the next generation of speleologists”.
Further materials about speleological exploration in Iran are harder to find. For instance, it is not known if any exploration of Ghar Parau was lead from 1973 to 1978. It could be presumed, that after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978 no caving teams worked in the region, and in the following years the Iran-Iraq war made any expeditions impossible.
Iranian cavers from Damavand Club in Tehran and local cavers from Kermanshah told us, that they constantly went to the bottom of Parau and there even was a dive-attempt, but the diver could not go far in the very narrow sump. We have been to the cave as far as -400. Judging upon what we have seen it is difficult to say, that since the British left in 1972 there was another strong team working in the cave. There were no signs of Single Rope Technique rigging at all, Iranian cavers used a very unsafe old mountaineering equipment and techniques and, to my point of view, reached the bottom putting more hope on luck then on their rigging techniques and equipment. This lack of knowledge of safety rules and techniques had its tragic results – 3 Iranian cavers were killed in the cave. For me it is hard to believe, that using such abseil and ascent techniques they were able to conduct any exploration work below -500. It seems more likely that cavers abseiled to the bottom and climbed up in sport-style and with considerable risk.
Our trip to Parau began on a warm day in the end of October. Two cars – a mini-bus Mazda Bongo and Toyota Prado – took off from Moscow, preparing to cross Russia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Northern Iran and get to the town of Kermanshah. We have waited for our visas quite long and were 5 days delayed, that is why we agreed to drive off and meet our leader with two other guys and our passports at the Mahachkala airport. There was another car with 4 cavers from Naberejnie Chelni and Krasnojarsk, waiting for us in Dagestan already, so we were eager to unite with them and become, finally, an expedition of three cars.
Till Astrahan everything went all right, not far from Dagestan border we had to stop to do some repair-works on the Toyota, but that was settled out quite fast. Early in the morning we were at Mahachkala, happily meeting our friend and our leader – Yuri Evdokimov – with the visas. Now the way to Iran was open. Some hours later we also met our third car – a small all-road Russian jeep Niva, with 4 people on board.
On the Azerbaijan border we did loose 8 hours, but that was nothing comparing to last years record of 40 hours. Driving through Azerbaijan in the night, we met the morning light at the Iranian border in Astara. This time our team had an official status of the Russian Geographical Society expedition and we possessed all the documents needed, perhaps, that fact made it easier to cross borders.
There were 21 people in total, cavers from different clubs and different places of Russia and Ukraine. Krasnoyarsk, Naberejnie Chelni, Kungur, Krasnodar, Moscow, Charkov – many of us knew each other from previous caving expeditions to Crimea and the Caucasus. We also had some very experienced cavers – like Kirill Markovskoy, one of the leaders of Krubera-Voronja project, a member of the Ukrainian Speleological Association and constant participant of caving projects in Abhazia and Turkey. Or our leader – Yuri Evdokimov, who apart from constant caving, did some cave-diving in sumps and had in mind to dive the sump 3 of Parau, if we had a chance. And many others, who went caving constantly in Russia, some had worked below the -1000 meter mark several times. All this gave us hope we could tackle Parau quite effectively.
At the Iranian border we spent 1 day, the formalities with our cars took quite long. Still, in this border-town we had some time to get to know the country and the language, to change money and to take a shower after the long drive. Only three of us were in Iran before – Yuri, Sergei and Anna, for the others it was their first experience.
Two previous expeditions – in 2004 and 2005/2006 were also organized by Yuri. In 2004 he with some friends traveled through Iran by bicycle and last year they drove through the country by minibus, visiting Parau cave, Sarab cave and Alisadr cave in the Hamadan province, the island of Keshm and Namagdan salt caves. That winter in Parau they descended to -400, leaving some ropes in the cave and planning to return. There was not so much rigging done, Yuri reports they put in about 20 Petzl Spit anchors during tat attempt. They stopped due to the lack of time and equipment, but the idea to come back again – not only to Parau, but to Sarab as well - grew stronger.
Thus, not less in number, we set off for Parau. The massif met us with rain and fog, on the first day we got our rucksacks to the grotto above the spring, some returned down already in darkness, others stayed to make a base camp on the plateau the following day. To tell a long story short, this went on for three days. One group carried loads to the grotto, the other took them up to the plateau. The fourth night we slept comfortably in the warm grotto and in the morning walked finally to our tents, standing next to the entrance to Parau. It was foggy and windy, we could not see the top of the mountain, nor the ridges around us. The plateau turned out to be very muddy and after a little walking we carried a few kilos of mud on our shoes. It was decided that our group – 8 people – would live in the hut, while others stay in the tents. By this time there were fewer of us: Simon and Sharry went down the other day. But now we were joined by Yusef from Kermanshah, a local caver and a very strong and fast one – he was to the bottom of Parau many times and holds a record in descending and climbing out of the cave.
As we rigged to -400, the end of 2nd traverse, we started to understand our time is elapsing very rapidly and there is far more work to be done, then we have imagined to ourselves before. We had to leave time for Sarab cave and some extra time in case we would have any car registration problems on the way back. After a discussion we decided to unrig and spend the three days we had left for search on the plateau. The weather by that time improved, giving us a chance to walk to the top of Parau plateau and to have a look around. We found many entrances on the plateau and took GPS-readings of them. We did not know how many were checked by cavers before, but the whole picture looked rather exiting and perspective, from the speleological point of view.
On the evening of that day we were joined by Kazem Faridyan from Tehran, on the following day guys at the plateau continued to look for new holes, and the five of us – Kazem, Yuri, Sergei, Alex and Anna – went to Tehran by bus. Sergei was going to fly back to Russia, and the three of us were invited by the Damavand Mountaneering Club to make a report on caves and caving in Russia and our expeditions to Iran. Kazem was very hospitable to invite us to stay at his house, and we are very grateful to him and his wonderful family for making us so comfortable, while we were at Tehran. This report was very important for us as well, because we wanted to make friend with local mountaineers and cavers and to interest them in our work in Russia and the Caucasus. The report by Yuri Evdokimov was translated into English and Farsi, we also showed some pictures from previous expeditions and maps of deep caves in Abhazia, like Krubera-Voronja, Sarma, Pantuhinskaya, Napra, Iljuhinskaya. We tried our best to tell as much as we can about Russian caving in the little time given and we hope the audience liked our report.
On the next day I went by bus to Kermanshah, my friends were there already, managing to take all the stuff down in one go. They told that after two days of clear sky the weather played a bad trick on them, it began to snow and the whole plateau was covered by fog. Everyone had to re-settle to the hut and pack up the rucksacks. During the last day they explored a cave not far from Parau, but it choked at the depth of -100 meters. There were many other promising entrances, but the time was short.
After Parau we had only a few days left in Iran, as some of us received shorter visas then others. After visiting Tehran we drove to Sarab cave not far from Hamadan. Our earlier plans to map the cave were now not to mention, we only had time to have a look around the cave. Kazem, Leila, Afshin and their friends came to join us for a day and they took us to see the cave. We did not wear any wetsuits and went climbing all the way. For me personally some places overhanging the water were quite difficult, and only thanks to the help of Kazem’s friend, who climbed brilliantly, we managed to come through and get to the lake. The cave itself impresses a lot with its lakes and many dry corridors. We knew that Simon Brooks had mapped it some years ago, but there are still many undiscovered parts. It seems that Sarab could also conceive a few “presents” for its explorers in future. We also visited the famous Alisadr show-cave, which impressed us a lot. There are some show-caves in Russia as well, many of them astonish with capacities or ice inside, but none have so much open water. Alisadr, I am sure, is a unique cave, which really worth visiting. Alas, only two and a half days at Sarab and we have to drive to Astara and then back home. We have not reached our objectives, but none the less, our trip was very interesting and exciting for all of us. In fact, we have gained a lot, and what is more worthy of all – we developed a great sympathy for Iran and made friends with many people in the country. Without their openhearted and always helpful attitude many things would be more difficult for us, and we appreciate their hospitality a lot. During our stay it always fascinated me, how we, sometimes not speaking a common language or speaking it poorly, still managed to communicate, to explain and to laugh together. I believe, that is because we shared common interests - a love for mountaineering and caving and anxiety for our countries and cultures.
So, I hope this is not the end of the story and we would see each other again, in Russia or in Iran, this time as friends. May I use this article and say again “Thank you” from our team to all who helped us in Iran.
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