On January 24th, 2020 the First Climbing School in Iraq in history held its first class (will be covered in upcoming post!). Due to the demand for this sport, the ceremonious occasion was attended well over capacity with 69 students and classes are filled into the foreseeable future. To say that this is a monumental achievement in this country cannot be understated due to the incredible challenges that had to be overcome.
The school was founded as a combined effort between me and the members of the Destey Lutka Crew (Peaks Mountaineering Crew) based in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region. The saving grace came when the non-profit Neighbors 2 Nations agreed to adopt the school as one of its projects at their community center. However, it the collective climbing community that all contributed to what amounts to a well-spring of interest in the outdoors and made it possible to establish this critical program.
From dream to reality, the international team started with an impossible task because of the nature of the country. Iraq is culturally and economically an island, with sanctions such as OFAC placing legal restrictions on gear manufacturers and distributors selling products in the country. In addition, for Iraqi nationals travel to most countries is extremely limited and expensive. Access to information is also limited due to the lack of language resources to translate any training, books, videos, or other materials. Above all, however, is the fact that climbing is completely new to the culture and the risk of an accident turning popular opinion against efforts to introduce the sport runs extremely high; as was the case with the tragic accident of Hawraz Raza.
With that said, the individuals below deserve recognition for their incredible contributions to making the school a reality.
The school is dedicated to the memory of Hawraz Raza, who devoted his life to the sport and is hailed as the Father of Climbing in Iraq. In his 18 years of climbing, he introduced countless men, women, and children and always focused on responsibility and safety above all else. He persisted against all odds, from the very beginning when there was literally zero resources and no one else to climb with. His first time on May 28, 2001, he produced a backpack out of a rice sack by sewing on shoulder straps and climbed using soft rubber shoes with completely flat bottoms. Over the years, Hawraz became one of the most recognized and accomplished climbers in Iraq, founded the Destey Lutka Crew, and originally envisioned a climbing program open to everyone, so that he could share the passion that brought him so much joy.
Hawraz was also the key individual in establishing the first Volunteer Mountain Rescue Team with Destey Lutka. When he wasn’t climbing, he was a police officer and recognized that officials were wholly unprepared when answering emergencies in the mountains. “They would show up to the trailhead in Oxfords and not know what to do next.” Over several years, together with Siamand Ahmad, Hawraz established relationships with police forces across Kurdistan and instructed them to call him and his team when there was an emergency that required climbers. As a result, many successful rescues have been performed and lives saved. His untimely passing was mourned by thousands across the country and memorials continue to be erected in his memory with each major achievement.
Siamand Ahmad is an instructor at the school, the leader of the Volunteer Mountain Rescue Team, and is recognized as the strongest rock climber in Iraq. Hawraz’s partner for many years, together they set the tallest climbing route in Iraq in history, an event that drew major media attention and was covered in this article in 2019. Siamand similarly devoted his life to climbing and spent every single moment outside of his work growing the sport. He regularly appears on television as an authority for climbing, is recognized as one of, if not the experts on all the mountains in Kurdistan, and the entire climbing community looks up to him based on his experience and wisdom. Besides guiding countless groups up mountains across Kurdistan, Siamand lead the first ever blind climbers to the summit of Pire Migron on September 18, 2015. Together with Hawraz, he was also one of the first Kurds to summit the tallest mountain in the Middle East, Mt. Damavand.
Siamand produced the solution to the problem of a lack of climbing equipment in the country, he began to manufacture climbing gear in his own garage. Working as a manufacturer of metal and rubber parts, he had access to equipment and materials that allowed for creative solutions. He started with simple pieces such as anchors and bolts, and continued to produce snow shoes, mountaineering axes, pulley systems, and even a release hook for a rappel rope. It is thanks to Siamand that the sport continued to grow up ever steeper cliffs, and the team had the resources to introduce ever growing numbers of Iraqis to climbing.
Kamaran H. Rasul
Kamaran H. Rasul is an instructor at the school, member of the Volunteer Mountain Rescue Team, administrator for the non-profit N2N that works with refugees and the community, and the individual who brought the climbing school from dream to reality with Milosz Pierwola. Kamaran is an organizer and facilitator, able to identify and connect with practically everyone in Sulaymaniyah and greater Kurdistan. Together with Aso Golmohamed, Kamaran was the first Kurdish person in history to summit the tallest mountain in the Middle East Mt. Damavand. As one of the most active members of Destey Lutka, Kamaran regularly leads groups to the summits of mountains and organizes group rock climbs at the Hazar Merd Cave, where Hawraz and Siamand set the tallest climbing route in Iraq.
Kamaran was instrumental in bringing together the right people to make the school a reality. He connected with Milosz Pierwola and together they coordinated delivery of the donations, international communication between all the parties, construction and design for the climbing walls, and organized the class schedule and curriculum for the school. As the only English speaking Iraqi member of the team, Kamaran was intimately involved in every step of the process, in addition acting as translator for all collaborative efforts.
Hawzhin Muhammed Salih
Hawzhin Muhammed Salih is the first female climbing instructor in Iraq and the first Midde Eastern Woman to climb Lenin Peak (7,134 m). She started climbing in 2015 when her life was much different, and attributes the healthy and inspirational life that she leads now to climbing. She regularly climbs with groups of children, inspiring the next generation of climbers and demonstrating by example that the outdoors does not discriminate against your weight, gender, ethnicity, etc. Her passion for climbing is unmistakable, and she accepted the role of instructor instantly and with honor. She taught the second class ever in the school, and her influence is evident in the fact that half the class was attended by women.
Aso Golmohamed is an instructor at the school, member of the Volunteer Mountain Rescue Team, and influential public figure for climbing in Iraq. He graduated university as a sports instructor and immediately set his sights on climbing. He has since become invaluable for international companies that operate in the mountains, setting ropes and guiding teams to remote peaks. As a result of holding one of the only professional climbing jobs in the country, he has appeared on TV on commercials and interviews, is recognized as one of the authorities on climbing and one of the most accomplished climbers in Iraq, and is the first Kurd to summit the tallest mountian in the Middle Ease, Mt. Damavand with Kamaran Rasul. His success has enabled him to be one of the few Iraqi nationals that has traveled abroad to climb international peaks regularly.
Miran Haje Salih and Sirwan Amir
Miran Haje Salih is the leader of the Sagrma Mountaineering Group and the founder of the first mountaineering shelter ever constructed in Iraq. After becoming stranded in a blizzard overnight on the summit of Mt. Pire Migron near Sulaymaniyah, Miran recognized the critical need for a place of safety on the popular mountain. Over six months, he consulted experts on the best design and purchased and collected materials. When the cold winter months relented, he was accompanied by Sirwan Amir and together they portaged the supplies, ultimately accompanied by greater and greater numbers to accomplish the task.
Featuring a thermometer and wind vane, the shelter is constructed with a steel frame, zinc and iron roof, and fiberglass walls, measures 3 x 4 meters and 2 meters tall, and is adorned on the outside with a memorial for Hawraz Raza. The opening ceremony attracted over 200 mountaineers and climbers, all of whom had to hike up to the location of the shelter on top of Mt. Pire Migron.
Karox Ali and Ari Othman Ahmed
Karox Ali and Ari Othman Ahmed are responsible for the translation and publication of the first climbing instructional book in Kurdish in Iraq. With no experience, Karox and Ari became frustrated at the lack of academic resources for climbing in the country and set out to produce the first climbing instruction manual. They obtained the rights and permission for Iran’s #1 climbing book, and over two years traveled to universities all over Iraq to obtain the help of professors in making translations that were as accurate as possible. A challenge they had to overcome was the fact that their language lacked many technical terms and jargon for the sport, meaning that groups across Kurdistan were already using different words for the same things. The need for a standard for all terms became evident, and one free copy of the book will be distributed to each climbing group in the country to address this issue.
Bryar Faris and Rukan Ahmad
Bryar Faris and his fiancée Rukan Ahmad met each other through climbing and in April of 2019 opened the first ever outdoor and climbing gear store in Sulaymaniyah (Instagram @froshgay_kazh). Before them, the only way for anyone to find climbing and mountaineering equipment was to go on a fishing expedition in the vast bazaar in the center of the city. With no producers or manufacturers distributing in the country, gear only found its way in lost among literally tons of discarded junk brought in by container from other countries. These containers would make their way to the bazaar and be picked apart by various salesmen; but, unfortunately due to the unique nature of the equipment, and the unfamiliarity of the salesmen, the gear would be lost among miscallaneous piles. Bryar and Rukan decided to take matters into their own hands and rent a space for a shop where they collected as much climbing equipment as they could find. In the beginning, they offered a mismatched collection of whatever was available, but the store has thrived since and now offers lines of products brought in by individuals from countries such as China. The store is actively seeking legitimate professional gear to meet it’s high level of demand.
Omer Chomani is the owner of the first Adventurer Travel Company in Iraq, VIKurdistan.com which stands for Visit Iraqi Kurdistan. Omer is a critical influence on outdoors culture in Iraq because presently people do not attach a value to outdoor recreation. Because access to nature is free, and most destinations can be reached fairly easily, there is a perception that those who devote their lives to becoming experts in the outdoors do not deserve compensation. In fact, it is often the case that Iraqi nationals become frustrated with individuals who “try to make money” from being guides, and it has been the standard that all such individuals must work as volunteers. In spite of this, Omer started his business in 2012 and specializes in mountain activities such as climbing, hiking, and skiing. He has found success in hosting international trips for such companies as the North Face, Daily Mail, Telegraph, New York Times, and many adventure magazines. While his income from international clients has enabled him to grow, he has a major undertaking ahead of him to become a leader by example that careers in the outdoors are the future.
Nabil Musa is the Head of Waterkeepers in Iraq and will be guest teaching classes on conservation, preservation, and ecological responsibility. Nabil has a long history of supporting progressive ecological policy and actively participates in cleanups and other restorative projects. He has also started to guide water rafting trips and brings an awareness about water, precipitation, and the delicate balance of hydrology in the mountains. He has acted as an advisor on the project and aspires to participate in a larger and more permanent capacity.
Paiman Berzinge is one of the first female outdoor guides in Iraq. She graduates university with a sports degree and became a professional sports trainer when she discovered an opportunity to become an inspiration and force of cultural change. Today, she regularly guides groups up to some of Kurdistan’s highest peaks, but above and beyond she guides women only groups into the outdoors and teaches girls how to become guides themselves. She is a powerful voice for women in the climbing community and many people look up to her.
Dr. Anwer Ali Dolemeri
Dr. Anwer Ali Dolemeri is an influential mountaineering figure based in the northern capital city of Erbil. He established the organization Kurdistan Mountain Climbing Federation and has sponsored many athletes for both training and climbing. His organization produces a climbing magazine and he is intimately involved in the mountaineering community of Iraq. Dr. Dolemeri made the most meaningful contribution with the construction of a large climbing wall that can be visited at his company’s office.
Dr. Haval Abubakir
An important proponent of climbing in Iraq is the governor of Sulaymaniyah, Dr. Haval Abubakir. He has promoted outdoor recreation with a specific interest in climbing for many years. Dr. Bakr has supported individual climbers with sponsorships that included trips to Iran, promotes athletics in general, and creates laws and regulations that benefit climbers and outdoor enthusiasts. His policies are shaping the future of outdoor recreation in Iraq, and it is a privilege to have him on our side.
Julius M. Kogge, Jay Stearley & N2N Unlimited (501c3)
Early in 2019 this project became real when the non-profit organization Neighbors 2 Nations (N2N Unlimited) recognized the need for a climbing and outdoor education program, and adopted us as one of their projects. Since that time, the country director of the program Julius Metuge Kogge has worked closely with us to develop the program with teachers, classrooms, classes, and providing resources from the two community centers operating in Sulaymaniyah under the organization. Julius has been instrumental in communicating and coordinating across time-zones, cultures, and languages, but above all he has provided the structure for the program to exist. Another instrumental member of the N2N Unlimited Organization is Jay Stearley, a preacher, recruiter, team builder, strategist, motivational speaker, author, and humanitarian. Jay has the incredible power to reach across the world and discover motivated and ambitious teams that can get work done right away. He has produced the largest donations towards the project at this point, as well as professionals who have committed to travel to Iraq as a team and complete construction at the first opportunity. Both of these individuals and all of the members of N2N have carried the weight of this project for a long time, and we are incredibly proud of the work that their organization is doing around the world, and to call ourselves part of the N2N family as well. Thank you to you both!
Milosz Pierwola, Esq.
Last but not least is Milosz Pierwola, Esq., the humanitarian explorer who was instrumental in establishing the school and set aside the last two years of his life to make it possible remotely. In addition to being intimately involved in every step of the process, Milosz has created fundraisers and donation drives and personally collected donations from locations across Europe, sought out and collaborated with climbing wall construction experts to design a 10 meter tall wall for this unique environment including constructing a scale model with expert Jasper de Jong (deklimspecialist.nl), helped produce and organize the curriculum, publicized the project outside of Iraq, and personally drove over 8000 km from Europe to Iraq to deliver almost $10,000 in donations of gear into the hands of the climbers. At the moment, Milosz is working with Marcin Jamkowski, fmr Editor in Chief of National Geographic Poland and Vice President of the Explorers Club Poland, to produce a documentary about this incredible historic feat, and continues to travel around the world to speak about the project and seek further funding and support.
The First Climbing School in Iraq is designed to be fully owned by the people of Iraq and open doors to careers in outdoor recreation in the country. Presently, interest is at an all-time high and classes are full to the point of being over-capacity, but a plan is in place to provide access to every individual interested. Every climbing, hiking, and outdoor group has an invitation to attend the first class for free and members are encouraged to sign up for further classes with a donation. In the interests of creating the first paid climbing instructor jobs, the goal of the school is to compensate the instructors by the end of this year and employ them full time thereafter from fees collected from students. In addition, a team of volunteers is set to arrive in March 2020 to officially begin the construction of the 10 meter tall climbing wall on the grounds of the school, and further support is actively being sought internationally. It is possible to help if you are an instructor and you are interested in doing video sessions with a translator provided, or if you are even interested in traveling into the country where you will get a chance to climb into remote locations that are as of yet unexplored. However all help is appreciated, and you are encouraged to reach out via email at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
The school is the crystallization of a shared dream across the country of Iraq to gain safe and responsible access to the outdoors. In the past several years, we have seen interest in the outdoors completely explode; from around 100 climbers total before 2014 to over 2,000 people per month in 2018 when social media became popular in the country. This trend has not stopped, and the increased risk of a catastrophe can only be mitigated with proper outdoor education and guidance. Though this is a monumental achievement for the country and culture, it is just the beginning and we will see a major transformation in the next decade with a potential rise in international tourism in the event of stabilization and peace in the area. Until then, we can use all the help we can get.
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