Iraq's First Mountaineering and Climbing School

Milosz Pierwola writes about the birth of climbing and mountaineering in Iraq, and the efforts that his group of enthusiasts have made in founding the country's first outdoor education centre...

Imagine taking the entire history of Alpinism and compressing it into just one decade. This is what is happening in Iraq right now with a culture that is only just beginning to discover the sport. From the first recreational ascents by Iraqi nationals, to the invention of gear and tools made by hand without access to modern equipment, to spectacular ascents guiding disabled people to the country's highest summits, mountain climbing is exploding onto the scene. And along with this explosion in interest, demand is growing for structure, organisation, and education – a demand that I am attempting to meet alongside the mountaineering crew Destey Lutka, in establishing the first climbing school in the history of the country.

Climbers gathering at Hazar Merd crag.  © Aso Golmohamad
Climbers gathering at Hazar Merd crag.
© Aso Golmohamad

How new is mountaineering in Iraq? It is only in recent times that mountainous Iraqi Kurdistan has experienced a period of relative peace. Dating back centuries, this area had a complex history with pressures that prevented outdoor recreation. Then, in 1991 the Kurdish Uprising laid the groundwork for autonomy that facilitated the return of refugees; a peace that has lasted since. With peace and stability, the first mountain climbers appeared around the year 2000.

Siamand Ahmad is one of those first mountaineers and a member of the Destey Lutka Crew ("Peaks Mountaineering" Crew). He is one of the premier climbers in the country, regularly appearing on television and recognised as a leader in the sport nationally along with his partner and founder of Destey Lutka, Hawraz Raza. In an interview, Siamand explained the rise of popularity in the sport; a history that is largely oral at this point. From around 2000 until around 2008, there were fewer than 60 climbers and they all knew each other. These were mostly people who had knowledge of the mountains from work such as shepherding or military experience. From 2008 on, more climbers appeared and brought this number to about 100 people who regularly climbed to the most notable summits. Then, in 2014 the arrival of social media sparked an explosive reaction that has not showed any signs of slowing. Between 2014 and 2019, images taken from mountain climbs became accessible to everyone on mobile phones and inspired a tidal wave of outdoor recreation. Today, Siamand estimates that over 2,000 people climb in the mountains per month; an increase from from 100 to 2,000 in just five years. Unsurprisingly, this steep rise in climbers has led to problems that put both the environment and participants at risk.

Siamand Ahmad.  © UKC Articles
Siamand Ahmad.

Presently, there are practically no resources available in the country that teach about responsible outdoor recreation. There is no elementary education such as a Scouts program, no native language books or even online resources, and no stores that provide proper gear. In this respect, with practically no exposure to proper outdoor practices, the common problem of unprepared individuals that persists even in some of the most respected destinations, is exacerbated. Climbers mistake the process and don't prepare, often hiking without adequate water or clothing and following trails they have no knowledge about in an environment where daytime temperatures often exceed 40ºC, but can drop below zero at night. In addition, practices such as Leave No Trace are wholly ignored, and trails rapidly become damaged and littered with rubbish. But, the problem becomes significantly more dangerous when climbers put themselves in danger and require evacuation and rescue.

There is no mountain rescue in Iraq. If a climber becomes lost or injured, the situation can rapidly escalate into a life threatening one. Though most of the mountains in Kurdistan are within range to catch a cell phone signal, calling for emergency services only connects you to the police who are dreadfully unprepared for such a circumstance. As Siamand describes, few if any of the police have any experience hiking themselves or know the trails, and when they do show up, they are wearing Oxfords.

An exploded mortar shell found on a trail near the Iran border.  © Milosz Pierwola
An exploded mortar shell found on a trail near the Iran border.
© Milosz Pierwola

Did I mention the land mines? One of the unfortunate souvenirs left by the historic conflicts in the region is the copious amount of munitions scattered in the mountains, much of which is still live. Fortunately, most dangerous areas are well known and limited to the borders of the country. Unfortunately, this knowledge is still largely known only by remote villagers and few surveys have been conducted that are accurate enough to provide any reasonable certainty as to where's safe. According to accounts from the climbers in Sulaymaniyah, there are literally millions of mines still buried in the mountains on the border of Iran and Turkey, and few if any efforts are being made to remove them.

Addressing these challenges is made much more difficult due to a lack of organisation in the country. While there are plenty of climbing groups that are each contributing regionally, there is no official national body to provide structure and enforce appropriate environmental and recreational protections. Therefore, even where concerned actors can agree on appropriate behaviours, there is no penalty for not following such behaviours. With 2,000+ people completely new to outdoor recreation, it is easy to see that the significant majority of these individuals wouldn't even know where to look for such rules.

One such consequence of the absence of enforcement and protections for this region is financial loss. Much better organised foreign outfitters currently offer trips into Kurdistan for international tourists. They offer guides, trail knowledge, necessities and amenities such as appropriate gear, as well as travel into and within the country. However, because financial transactions take place between the outfitters and tourists, they are invisible to the people of Iraq. In addition, there is no incentive to hire local guides or use domestic services, especially since such tours take place almost entirely in the wilderness. This results in a negative impact on the development of wilderness tourism in Iraq.

Iraqi mountaineers proudly unravel their flag on a summit.  © Milosz Pierwola
Iraqi mountaineers proudly unravel their flag on a summit.
© Milosz Pierwola

Fortunately, an initiative is forming right now that is a major step to addressing all of these issues: establishing the first climbing school in the country's history. This initiative is being headed by me, Milosz Pierwola, and Kamaran H. Rasul, member of Destey Lutka. Kamaran is an administrator at a highly successful non-profit that founded two community centres in Sulaymaniyah. These centres serve as the ideal location for education and organisation of the first mountaineering collective in the country, with the potential to bring together all interests, connect with international mountaineering resources, and serve as a base for climbing and outdoor education.

The community centre, where the school and a climbing wall will be based.  © Milosz Pierwola
The community centre, where the school and a climbing wall will be based.
© Milosz Pierwola

The community centre is the ideal location for a climbing school given its purpose in the community. Established in 2006, the Family Centre Rapareen is located near the centre of the city and easily accessible by foot or public transportation. It is open to all, regardless of nationality, gender, religion, age, etc. In fact, the centre provides transportation to refugees and offers classes to both children and adults in basic areas such as reading and writing, English, and Arabic. However, the goal of the centre is to identify and provide education in areas of highest demand – and so the centre offers ballet, martial arts, sewing, fashion and design, and even music classes taught by the most famous Kurdish musician who volunteers at the centre. In addition, it has a dental clinic that provides affordable care for the most vulnerable communities.

Iraq's first mountaineering school.  © Siamand Ahmad
Iraq's first mountaineering school.
© Siamand Ahmad

However, the community centre is not just classrooms as it has over 5,000 ft² upon which we are constructing a climbing wall. The design came together as a collective effort with multiple international wall construction experts. It will be made of locally sourced materials so that repairs be made easily, and designed for Iraq's unique environment that includes extreme temperatures that regularly exceed 40ºC with blistering sun, a rainy season, and extreme winds. A major advantage to this location is also security, as the centre is fenced and guarded 24 hours a day. This will enable overnight outdoor instruction for children so that, in addition to climbing, they can learn wilderness survival skills and camp overnight under supervision, close enough to home so their parents feel safe.

In addition to being a location for education, the centre will be the base for the first Volunteer Mountain Rescue team in the country. Destey Lutka founder Hawraz Raza is a police officer and together with Siamand Ahmad they have provided their contact information to police in the event of mountain emergencies. The effort has been a major success with numerous rescues and no casualties to date. The most recent operation discovered and evacuated of a group of 9 who became lost and stranded during a snow storm. Destey Lutka intends to use the community centre as a place where training for rescues can take place.

Ropes used by Hawraz Raza for all his expeditions; without any alternatives, he still uses the shoes to this day.  © Milosz Pierwola
Ropes used by Hawraz Raza for all his expeditions; without any alternatives, he still uses the shoes to this day.
© Milosz Pierwola

The basis for climbing education in the centre will be Iran's top mountaineering instruction book. Although the members of Destey Lutka are self-taught, acquiring professional training much later in their careers, their intention is to provide the highest standards of education in the school. For the past two years, members Karox Ali and Ari Othman have made it their personal mission to bring such a book to Iraq. With no prior experience, they acquired permission from Iran to translate their #1 recommended mountaineering book and personally traveled to universities all over Iraq to solicit professors for accurate translations. In many instances, words for gear, skills, and mountain features simply did not exist in the native language, so they had to carefully create new temporary words. The translation is now complete and Karox and Ari is sourcing funds to publish the book and distribute it to the mountaineering groups in Iraq.

The battered shoes used by Hawraz Raza to establish Iraq's longest route.  © Milosz Pierwola
The battered shoes used by Hawraz Raza to establish Iraq's longest route.
© Milosz Pierwola

Consider that all of the recent monumental achievements in mountaineering taking place in Iraq are done with broken, inadequate, or simply without the right gear. There are no climbing companies that distribute there. Any gear that the climbers obtained was either brought in through personal connections, or, much more likely, found in the flea market after rummaging through mountains of unsorted other junk. The members of Destey Lutka describe that they browse the largest market in Sulaymaniyah at least three times per week religiously, in hopes of coming across something they can use. The vendors don't understand what climbing gear is, so often it is mixed in with completely irrelevant equipment. And when they do find gear, there is no way to tell how it was used or if it is even real, with stories of gear failing spectacularly on serious climbs.

Siamand's workshop gear replicas.   © Milosz Pierwola
Siamand's workshop gear replicas.
© Milosz Pierwola

And whatever gear they can't get, they make. In a stunning demonstration of tenacity and resourcefulness, Siamand shows us his workshop. This is where he takes raw materials and uses hand tools to replicate climbing gear he could not find anywhere else. He makes simple items such as pitons, carabiners, and even complex rope management tools that may not even exist anywhere else. It is with these productions that they just put up the longest protected route in Iraq, an accomplishment that was televised on Iraq's KurdSat News.

Kamaran Rasul and Arya Khanabagi pose in front of the first outdoor gear store in Iraq just one month after it opened.  © Milosz Pierwola
Kamaran Rasul and Arya Khanabagi pose in front of the first outdoor gear store in Iraq just one month after it opened.
© Milosz Pierwola

Another mountaineer Bryar Faris, is taking a different approach and just opened the first official climbing and outdoor store in Iraq. Tired of sifting through the mountains of irrelevant products in the open market, Bryar goes around and instructs other vendors that they should bring any gear that looks like climbing gear to him, and he will buy it from them. His store is already outfitted with climbing pants, sleeping bags, stoves, pots, and other gear. He now stands to be the supplier for the school, and for climbers all over Iraq.

Home-made climbing gear.  © Milosz Pierwola
Home-made climbing gear.
© Milosz Pierwola

But it is not only the men of Iraq that are taking the initiative; women are making just as much progress. One of these leading women is Paiman Berzinge, a sports trainer who has become a mountain guide and inspiration in the region. I conducted an interview with Paiman on top of Mount Pire Migron (elevation 2,611 m / 8,566 ft.) where I met her by chance as she was leading a group of women all training to become guides themselves. In the interview she explained that circumstances are different for women in Kurdistan. While other parts of this region are very conservative, Kurdish tradition places women as mostly equals socially. As a result, she experienced little resistance in her passion for the outdoors, and was actually encouraged along the way. Her story is not unique, with many girls and women of all ages celebrated by Destey Lutka and other mountaineering crews including Hawzhin Salih who is an Independence Climber representing Azmar Mountain. On July 25, 2019 Hawzhin made the first successful Kurdish expedition to the summit of Lenin Peak in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan with an elevation of 7,134 m / 23,405 ft. She was met at the airport by a crowd of supportive climbers and welcomed with an event in the expedition's honour at the location of the future climbing school.

Learning new skills to take to Iraq's crags.
© Siamand Ahmad

With the astronomic rise in interest in Kurdistan's mountains it is obvious that establishing a school is the critical next step in Iraq's mountaineering history. And, in seeing how much of an impact Destey Lutka and its individual members are making, it is encouraging that these are the men and women leading the effort. But they need help. They have been able to accomplish all of this on their own so far, and seek assistance from the global climbing community. The First Climbing School in Iraq is looking for donations, for gear, and even volunteers who are willing to travel to Iraq and teach to help train the first certified instructors in the history of the country. Please visit the project page to find out more information and contact them to find out how you can help.

Read Hawraz Raza's UKC Humans of Climbing story.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Milosz Pierwola

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Well, that's cool. I'd happily donate them some old but safe gear, unfortunately can't find a link to do so on the linked website.

30 Aug

A bit too late possibly, but I am travelling to Erbil, Kurdish Iraq, with work on Sunday morning. If anyone wants to donate some kit I will be at Wiltonfest tomorrow and can take it and donate. If you want to drop off in Bolton that could also be arranged.


(Whatsapp07989903349 )

4 Sep

Very encouraging to hear that peoples efforts are paying off, congratulations!. I still have fond memories of climbing with some of the team in December 2017 at Hazer Merd. We have now been running climbing training for refugees and IDPs with STEP for almost two years, and we are learning a lot. Kurdistan has so much to offer for climbers - so many new routes, so many mountains. As peaceful times have a chance to embed themselves in the region, I hope we'll see a lot more climbers heading out here.

5 Sep

Iain has successfully delivered the stuff we collected: a grigri and 3 belay devices, half a dozen krabs, about a dozen nuts and 3 small cams. Not a lot but we hope it will help.