On a travel to Zagros
In the end of the 1960's, the world’s deepest cave, Gouffre de la Pierre Saint-Martin, was 1171 meter deep. It was only a few years earlier that PSM, ranked second, had passed 1000-meter in vertical difference, but already the hunt was on for the next thousand-meters, the next world deepest. Expeditions were launched to all corners of the world, and in the early 1970's it was time for the Zagros mountains in Western Iran to be visited by British cavers. The Zagros mountains were one of the really promising areas, with large areas of karst and 2km reliefs. Already the first expedition in 1971, nine men and two women in a Landrover and a mini-bus, was quite a success. They travelled, via the Balkan states, Turkey and West Iran, to Kermanshah and the Kuh-e Parau where they quickly found the entrance to Ghar Parau.
They explored the cave to a depth of about 740 meters, where they at the top of a pitch were forced to turn back. The depth potential was estimated to at least 1700m, and a year later the British returned with a full-scale and heavily financed expedition, 16 people strong. This time with the aim of exploring the next thousand-meters and set a new World Record. They failed both. The first recon-trip down the cave reached the previous year’s turning point, bottomed the pitch and, a few meters further, was inexorably stopped by a muddy sump. Ghar Parau had paraued, and only became 751 meter deep. Recurring expeditions during the 1970's, from UK, France, Italy and Poland, all failed in finding a deeper cave[5, 6]. During the 1970's another movement took place in Iran; the patience with the increasingly more unpopular shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his hated security service SAVAK started to run out, and in December 1978 the Green Revolution that would overthrow the reign of the Iranian shahs began. But after only a year with the smell of freedom, a new darkness lowered over Iran. Ayatholla Khomeini and his revolutionary gardists strengthened their power over the country and enforced sharia laws. The foreign caving expeditions all stopped and the Iranian caving milieu became nearly extinct. It was not until the late 1990's that the international expeditions returned, and after a first Czech expedition in 1997, Iranian caves and cave areas have been visited and explored by Germans, British, Czechs, Spaniards, Swiss, Italians, Russians, Ukrainians, Austrians, Polish and a few other nationalities, but now together and in cooperation with Iranian cavers and speleologists[6, 7]. But Ghar Parau is still by far the deepest cave of Iran.
And there I was, one day in mid-May 2010, on an Iran Air-flight on route to Imam Khomeini International Airport outside Tehran. For me it was something of a surprise trip. It was only three months earlier, during a visit to Kraków, I was asked if I wanted to join a brief recon-trip to Iran. The purpose of the trip was to find an area for the Polish cavers to return to with a full-scale expedition later in the year. We would stay in the Zagros mountains, focusing on the areas around the city of Kermanshah in the province with the same name in Western Iran, not far from the border to Iraq and just south of the province Kurdistan. The expedition leader was Marcin “Qb” Kubarek who I already knew from earlier. Recently turned 28 years, he was the second youngest, but also the most experienced, with participations in expeditions to Norway, Montenegro, the Kanin massif in Slovenia, Lamprechtsofen, Feichtnershachthöhle and other deep caves in Austria, and not to forget the National Geographic sponsored expedition to Eastern Islands. Besides that he is the only one of us foreigner who has been to Iran before, the previous October together with some cavers from Kraków on a first recon-trip. Our expedition was thus the second in order. From Poland we had two more cavers with us. One was Bogusław Wypych, 30 years, caving instructor and works like so many other polish cavers with rope access. With his long pony tail he was the one of us who attracted most attention on the streets; on the flight to Tehran he was even adviced by a fellow passenger to cover his hair before she realised her mistake. The other Polish participant Zbigniew Wiśniewski, or Stanley for short, was with his 45 years the oldest full time member of the expedition. Also he is an experienced traveller, with trips to New Guinea, Mexico and the Eastern Islands. The age, or perhaps good life, has taken some of its toll but Stanley nevertheless managed to keep good speed. In addition to us four foreigners there was one Iranian caver, Alireza “Ali” Balaghi. 26 years old he was the youngest of our full-time participators; serious, engaged but always close to a joke and smile. From time to time we had company with both local cavers and climbers from Tehran. A couple of days even a botanist from Tehran, Jalil Noroozi, joined us.
The bus, a not very new Volvo, took less than five hours from Qazvin a couple of miles from Tehran where we stayed overnight at Ali's house. Kermanshah is a lively city with three quarter of a million inhabitants in the province with the same name, less than 140km to the border of Iraq. For the few tourists visiting this part of the world Kermanshah is mostly famous for its more than 2500 years old akameneidian rock reliefs in Behistun, the rosetta stone of the cuneiform script. But we were no tourists and did not visit Behistun (but we did pay a visit to the thousand year younger sassanidian reliefs at Taq-e Bostan). During that trip, just then and there, it was more exciting for us that we were passing only a few kilometers from Ghar-e Parau, but we did not stop there either. We wanted to concentrate on the rather sparcely investigated neighbouring area of Kuh-e Shahu. The most interesting areas, just across the border with Kurdistan, we did not dare to visit because of recent conflicts between government forces and Kurdish separatists. We started our recon-trip with day-hikes, on the first day tough (in blazing sun, over 1000 foot difference in altitude, full caving-packing on the back), we found nothing. Not the coming day either, if we don't count a couple of small cave of up to twenty meters in length with a lot of sediment and boulders. They surely continued in length, but not without digging. I spent a couple days to browse through the vegetation of the subalpine zone with Jalil, before he had to return to Tehran. Some of the Iranian cavers and climbers who joined us in Kermanshah made some attempts to reach an opening we could see far up in an inaccessible cliff, but they did not make it. Some of the Polish and Iranians went to Paveh close to the Iraqi border to check out Bel Cheshmeh, a big karst spring with a water flow of 4000 litre per second. At least there were huge hydrological systems in the karst, the water pushed up from completely water-filled passages, but where it began its journey underground is not known. This seems to be rather common phenomenon in Iran, relict caves ending in sedimentplugs and large karst springs, something that most expeditions since the seventies have experienced. We visited one tourist cave, the just over 3 km long, horizontal and waterbearing Ghar Qurie Qal'eh.
After only a few days we were done exploring the areas interesting for us around Kermanshah, apart from the ones inaccessible in Kurdistan. Left was a massif just outside Kermanshah and we headed off on a three-day trip and the buss let us off a bit from the foot of the mountain. We had seen pictures of a snow-filled sinkhole, which meant there was some potential for caves in the area. We have 700 or 800 meters of steep and warm difference in altitude to the pass and a couple of sweaty hours in the dry and rocky landscape with no tress or other shrubs than thorny astragalus ahead of us. And then we reach the pass at 2400 m and we can take our first look over the U-valley. What we see tough does not make us happy. The valley, a few hundred meters below us, is covered with deep sediment. On the other side of the valley we see limestone sticking up, but it looks frost-blasted and cracked out. No openings to be seen. We feel cheated, this was the last area we planned to visit and we haven’t even been away for one week yet. Our backup plan is going to be Luristan. Most of the Iranians, who came along, don't want to stay up on the mountain over night, but we don't feel like going down right away, we want to map a known and researched but unmapped cave a bit further into the valley, and then go down early the next day. Stanley and I decide not to do any caving that day, I take a trip along the mountain ridge down the valley alone. After some kilomenter I reach the valley and the little creek running through it. I see an opening a bit further way which probably only is a niche, but I still head towards it. The entrance leads directly into a side passage with a large chimney six meters straight up into the air. To the right the passage continues to a one and a half meter high wall which leads out into the valley, to the left to a small bottleneck. On the other side is a small room, I can easily stand upright, the floor is flat and dry. It smells strongly of smoke in the cave and there are some fireplaces. All in all the small "niche" is about 50 meters long and one of the nicest relict caves we found during the trip. On the way back towards the pass, where we decide to spend the night, I fetch some water in the creek. It is teeming with life, but it is ok for tea and cooking. None of us got sick during the trip, despite eating salads, drinking carrot juice with ice in it and water from the barely flowing small creeks. We spent the night under the stars on the windy pass on the six small sleeping spaces Stanley has put in order, bedded with mountain parsley. The sky was burning red at sunset; there is a sandstorm in Iraq.
As we anyhow were up on the mountain, we decided to spend a day going up the valley and at least try to find sink we seen pictures of. We went with no particular order, sometimes separately, sometimes together. This way we found several opening to relic caves, most of them were only niches, either they ended in nothing or big boulders, or they made a turn in the mountain and ended up outside again after some tens of meters, gossiping about the once-have-been long caves around here. I go in my own thoughts back from a fully blocked sink and nearly missed an opening hiding a few meters to the right. There is a shaft of a few meters with a continuing path on the bottom, the most promising, we have found so far! Qb is disappearing in the other direction but called over to my opening. He climbs down the entrance precipice and soon reaches a larger shaft. We don't get any further without equipment. We find yet another entrance precipice only a few feet away. Exploration and mapping will have to wait until tomorrow. However, we have a problem: most of our rope and the drill was taken back down by the Iranians on the first day...
While Qb and Bogus rig the cave, Stanley and I are mapping. Ali made a trip to the foot of the mountain and back early in the morning to retrieve the drill, so rigging goes quickly. Mapping goes rather fast too, we are using a prototype of a new version of CaveSniper, a Polish point-and-shoot-compass/clinometer. The cave slopes down steeply, and soon we are on the top of a nice free-hanging shaft, 18 meters deep. At the bottom are a few bones from the killed animals below a steep wall covered in sinter/flowstone. The cave continues a bit, but gets more and more narrow, more and more boulders lying around. About 60 meters underneath the entrance one can squeeze trough a narrow crack and have a look down into a water-filled room with the bottom at some five-six meters. Deeper we don’t get. It is possible to climb up the flowstone to a couple of stalactite-filled rooms, but even those end in nowhere. It is beautiful, but no more than that.
After three nights under the stars between clouds passing by and a three-quarter moon it is about time to hike down the mountain. We are done with Kermashah for this time. The morning after we take the bus to Khorramabad in Luristan.
Khorramabad is a small town squeezed into two low mountain ranges, in an area where humans turned up soon after emigration from Africa about 50 000 years ago. The famous Lorestān bronzes are of course much younger, about 3,000 years old, and many of them can be seen at the nice little exhibition in the Falak-ol-aflak Castle which dominates the skyline. We start with meeting representatives of city and provincial climbing association (governed by the sports ministry), and as in Kermanshah we are sponsored by a minibus and accommodation. But the first night we camp out, halfway up to an area where a man from the village below the mountain knows of a deep shaft: almost bottomless and with big continuations, how he knew about it is a question tough. Going from the village to the mountain we were hitch-hiking, seven people with packing, on a small tractor. Only by a miracle we survived the journey! The morning after we continue up the scree to the top plateau and shaft which proves not to be bottomless, but about 45 meters deep. It was first when we begin the rigging that our guide, the man from the village, realized that we were thinking of climbing down the shaft. Had he known we were that mad, he had never shown us the place! All he now could do was hoping that we, against all odds, make it through in one piece... which of course we did. The shaft was not much of a cave, it ended in a snow cone and the little corridor leading deeper was soon blocked by boulders and sediment. Tens and tens of swallows had built their nests in the shafts enclosing walls and flew outraged above our heads. They had also created a guano slope up to a small opening about six meter up in the shaft wall. This time the corridor ended in a small room with a dry lake and beautiful stalagmites and sinter. The traces of the former water surface could could clearly be seen. We escaped the tractor back to the village but were invited to tea, ice cold mountain mint flavoured dugh (drinking yogurt) and fruit in our guides home.
We got a tip about a cave that could, as far as we understood, be up to 500 meters long but stops in water which interfered with further exploration. Now we had already learned not to fully rely on our informants. Qb was getting really disillusioned by now and was rather disappointed that we not already in Kermanshah had found an area worth further exploration. But we took our minibus and got help from a guy who knew the area and where the cave might be and off we went towards Alashtar. We ended up in a small village at the end of the road, where we occupied a room in the village's last house. They were relatives of our guide and looked at us with great suspicion. The hike from end of the road went through a wonderful but narrow valley along a large creek, small fields and orchards climbing up the sides of the valley. After half an hour of easy hiking we got to the spring, a small pond that had been built by American engineers’ years before the revolution in order to provide the village with drinking water. The spring water is around ten degrees cold and flows out of the cracks about a meter below the pond surface. A little further on is a small opening, which should be flowing at high water levels, but we only get 20 meters inside. A few hundred meters into the valley is the cave we are actually heading to. An entrance chamber, a small shaft and a room. Yet another shaft - but filled with water. The continuation of the corridor can be seen under the water surface. The cave was not 500 meters; with one of the side corridors we reach a length of 74 meters. Qb is quite disillusioned and cannot even think about mapping the cave and stays outside in the shade of a boulder while Ali and myself do a quick mapping.
So that is it? The result of our expedition? We practically only have two days left and we are going to relocated to somewhere outside Dorud, an hours crazy taxi drive from Khorramabad. The taxi starts by driving on the wrong side of the road and it just continues getting worse and worse. In Dorud we were supposed to stay in a sports center. but a group of policemen were going to stay there overnight too and because we are foreigners we are of course classified as security risk (for the policemen that is) and had to stay over at one of Alis climbing friends. His elderly mother left the tiny apartment, we do not know where to, so we could be alone or because it actually fit her schedule. We take a taxi to a small village just outside Dorud the morning after and hike towards the Kuh-e-Pariz-massif. It’s an interesting place, the top consists of conglomerate but local climbers know of several shafts, the largest should be around 100 meters wide. We take the lightest possible packing and get company of a stray dog. We started early and ate our breakfast at a small source flow. Stanley and Hossein Boueini, a young and enthusiastic caver from Tehran who had been with us the last few days, stay at the creek while we continue up towards the plateau with two local climbers. For some reason the Iranians didn’t want to leave Stanley alone. Could it be because Luristan has the reputation to be the most dangerous province for tourists and travellers in Iran? Lurs live up to it, at least if you believe Iranians from other provinces.
From the plateau at around 2700 meters altitude we have a wonderful view over the valleys below. Small villages lie scattered like small lightened-up spots on sides of the valleys with hardly any trees. To the South-East we see Ostran Khus snow covered tops competing with the sun in shining contest. In a few spots on the plateau the rock breaks to daylight and on those some shafts and small caves have been formed. Some of the caves have speleothems but also lots of blocks freed from the conglomerates. It is a beautiful conglomerate with many different sizes and colours of rock, from small grains of sand to large stones, almost small boulders. The matrix is very likely calcium carbonate. But the rocks as they loosen from the matrix very effectively block the small cave we found, and the longest is probably not more than twenty meters anyhow. The shaft is deeper but how deep we will not get to know as we don’t have any equipment with us. And how to rig a conglomerate in a safe way? Suppose the bolts will be torn out as soon as they are in the least loaded… So we won’t get to the big shaft. And it is big. Surely a hundred meters long, between 30 and 40m wide and at least 50 meters deep. A climber from Dorud is said to have been down there, which was partly snow-filled, and has seen that it continues into the mountain… But exploration of the plateau shaft has to wait until another time! Nevertheless it was a nice ending to our otherwise failed and mood-lowering recon tour. On the way down from the plateau we climb through a half-shaft, nowadays an outer wall. From the spring where we ate our breakfast we could see a big opening in the wall just below the plateau but we guessed it was just a ground niche. When we arrive at the niche we instead find a quite impressing cave opening, about 20 meters wide and ten meters high with a one meter stonewall blocking the opening. The big entrance continues 30 meters in and at the far back ends in a couple of tall chimneys in the roof. To the right and left are some narrow corridors. One leads to a small chamber with beautiful massive stalagmites and a possible continuation further up. The other corridor leads up a steep, beautiful, yellow flowstone and continues a small corridor with rim stone ponds, the innermost still filled with water. It’s not much of a cave, but very beautiful.
So that was it? A few 60-meter shafts, of which one ended into a hundred meter long cave, a few relic caves and one conglomerate shaft we could not get down. Yes, that was it, in terms of caving. It was not what we were expecting or hoping, but we got to travel around a wonderful landscape. Our hopes in Iranian hospitality were met many times over. Even it does not seems too easy to find the deep and long caves that surely do exist in Iran, the country attracts doing more trips, to re-visit our new friends, to experience an ancient history, fascinating flora and high mountains. And there are caves, somewhere...
We would like to thank The Iranian Mountaineering Federation for support and sponsorship by local organizations in Kermanshah and Luristan. We would also like to thank all the Iranians who let us stay in their homes and spent time with us!
 But they were not the first to explore caves in Iran. Already in the 1940's the Swedish physician Knut Lindberg (1892-1962) visited Iran for biospeleological research, see Rabbe Sjöberg 1975. Knut Lindberg. Grottan 10(3): 3-6 [in Swedish].
 Ghar is persian for cave, kuh is mountain.
 The British Ghar Parau Foundation was founded by the surplus from the 1972 years Ghar Parau Expedition, and is still today supporting international caving expeditions.
 D. Judson. 1973. Ghar Parau. New York/London: Macmillian Publishing. 216 pages.
 The deepest caves found in the 1970's were, together with Ghar Parau, the 315m deep Ghar Shah Banu and the 308m deep Ghar-i Cyrus. They were until recently the three deepest caves of Iran and are all in the same area in the province of Kermanshah. Recently a new deep cave, Som, have been explored to a depth of more than 400m. Somewhat surprisingly Som is in the eastern part of the Elburz massif.
 E. Raeisi and M. Laumanns. 2009. Iran cave directory. Second Edition. Berliner Hölenkundliche Berichte Band 37. 143 pages.
 Diffuse drainage to the karst aquifers seem common; together with the steep topography and rapid uplift the underground water courses may not join to passable passages until they reach considerable depths. The Zagros mountains are still growing mountains, creating an intensive erosion and a lot of sediments filling in the caves.
 There is considerable potential for cave development in conglomerates. Bob Gulden (http://www.caverbob.com/other.htm) lists several long and deep caves in conglomerates. The longest is the 58km long Bol'shaja Oreshnaja in Krasnojarsk, Central Siberia, and the deepst is a cave in Honduras, the 386m deep Pozo del Portillo.
Translation from the Swedish original to English by Manuela Scheuerer and Johannes Lundberg 2010.