Iranian women, scaling new heights, eye Everest

In May, they hope to be the first Muslim women to reach summit.

Even before Farkhondeh Sadegh reached the 7,161-meter (23,494-ft.) summit of Mount Pumori in 2001, she knew she would have to return to the Himalayas.

"We could see Everest all the time we were climbing," Ms. Sadegh says. "I looked at it and said: 'I will climb you.' "

Three years later, she is preparing to take on the world's highest mountain with a group of top Iranian women climbers. "It would be the first time a Muslim woman has climbed Everest," says Leila Bahrami, a team member who scaled Pumori with Sadegh.

Success would put the team in an elite as rarefied as the atmosphere at the mountain's 8,850-meter summit, "Fewer than 100 women have climbed it," says Bahrami. "It would show the world the potential of Muslim women as sportswomen."

It would also raise the profile in Iran of women's sports, which have surged in recent years. This week, Tehran is hosting the All-Women Games for Muslim and Asian Capi- tals, in which 600 women from 17 countries will compete in events ranging from marksmanship to swimming.

The games are the outcome of a search by Faezeh Hashemi, vice president of Iran's National Olympic Committee and a daughter of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for religiously acceptable ways to legalize women's sports.

She initiated the Muslim Women's Games, held every four years, in 1993. Men may not attend, either as judges or spectators, so the athletes are free to compete in normal sporting garb.

Ms. Hashemi later campaigned for Iranian women to be allowed to play soccer. They now have a federation that competes before women-only crowds.

That marks significant progress from just eight years ago, when vigilantes made headlines for beating up a group of women cyclists in a Tehran park while chanting abusive slogans against Ms. Hashemi.

Today, many men support women's involvement in sports, though the issue remains controversial with traditional and powerful clerics, who see such activity as provocative.

Iran sent only one woman to Athens Olympics: a teenage markswoman in the 10-meter air-pistol event. Her passion at school had been gymnastics but the dress code meant she could not compete internationally.

A men's team from the Islamic Republic first scaled Everest in 1998. But the sport, long popular with Iranian men, has gained enthusiasts among Iranian women, along with golf, skiing, and even paragliding - activities in which the need to keep the body well covered is not a serious hindrance to performance.

So when the Iran Mountaineering Federation threw down the Everest gauntlet last year, 69 women responded. A series of grueling tests, most recently earlier this month at an icefall in the Rudbar-e-Qasran area near Tehran, whittled contenders to 14.

Another preparatory camp is scheduled for the end of this month, and seven or eight women will eventually challenge Everest in May. The $400,000 needed to pay for the expedition is to be raised from the private sector.

Bahrami and Sadegh, who each have a decade of mountaineering experience, are confident but well aware of the perils of taking on Everest.

"I think I can summit Everest, but there are always unpredictable events out there. And I have not been in altitudes over 8,000 meters," Sadegh says.

Her group's final push on Pumori was overshadowed by tragedy. Just days before they reached the summit, five experienced young Spanish climbers were killed by an avalanche on the same mountain.

"I was upset, but I tried not to think about it and just concentrated on our target," says Sadegh, who is a graphic designer.

The Iranian women, accompanied by an Iranian man and three Sherpas, had better conditions.

"Pumori wasn't as difficult as I thought," Sadegh says, "although we were late on the summit and I was worried about going down."

In Iran, the Alborz mountains that loom over northern Tehran are dotted on the weekends with hikers, climbers, and skiers from the sprawling capital. The range is home to Mount Damavand, a dormant, snow-covered volcano which, at 5,671 meters, is the Middle East's highest peak.

Mohammed Hajabolfath, editor of Iran Mountain Zone (http://www.mountainzone.ir), a website for climbing enthusiasts, estimates there are some 50,000 women trekkers in Iran. About 4,000 are keen mountaineers, of whom about 100 are considered international contenders.

Bahrami and Sadegh, both single, took up climbing more than a decade ago while at university. Bahrami, who works for the Oil Ministry, says her parents support her ambitions: "They know it's very important me."

But they are also aware of the dangers: Nearly 190 climbers lost their lives on Everest between 1922, when the first deaths were recorded, and last year. About 2,200 reached the top over the same period.

Pumori, nicknamed "Everest's Daughter," offered invaluable training for Farkhondeh and Sadegh. The peak, just five miles from Everest, is considered one of Nepal's easiest 7,000-meters-plus peaks, but experts say that weather conditions can make its avalanche-prone slopes perilous.

Reaching the top of the world, Sadegh says, "will be a very good thing for women in Iran."

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