Just after sunrise on Iran’s volcanic Mount Sabalan, the minarets of a mosque peered out over the expanse of clouds, and cups of hot mint tea made their way around the huddle. The mosque was originally built by American soldiers during World War II, but now it serves as a base camp for the intrepid mountaineers making their way up to Sabalan’s summit at 15,784 feet.
We’d left Tehran on a Friday, prepared to camp out overnight at the mosque and reach the peak on Saturday. As is traditional, our mountain guide had tins of food for the crew. But as we made our way up along the winding roads, I noticed a handful of markets with brilliant tomatoes gleaming from behind fruit stands, and heaps of ripe watermelons spilling out onto the dusty ground. Dismayed at the prospect of eating dinner from a can in the presence of such abundant produce, I asked our guide if he’d let me fix our dinner. We collected only what we could comfortably carry: a chicken, some rice, chiles, mushrooms, a bundle of fresh tarragon, and a pinch of Iranian saffron. The canned foods might have been more practical, but with a little ingenuity and a handy portable stove, a hot, comforting stew was ready in no time.
The morning of our excursion we shared a breakfast of leftovers, tucking the cold chicken and mushrooms into Iranian flatbreads, and topping it with thick yogurt swirled with herbs. We collected crystal clear water from a glacial spring and boiled it for tea. A day before we’d been below sea level, gazing east over the Caspian Sea. Now, seated on blankets atop one of Iran’s several frozen glaciers, energized by the food and tea, and preparing for another ascent, we were looking skyward.