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How 3 Mormon Climbers Found Christ, Built International Ties Summiting Iran's Mount Damavand

Even as the trio of Utahns stood atop Iran's Mount Damavand, the highest volcanic summit on the Asian continent, there were at least two prevailing factors almost more astonishing than the incredible view.

First, it was a marvel that Alpine residents Greg Paul, his 18-year-old son Kevin Paul, and David Roskelley, were even granted a visa to enter the Middle Eastern country.

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Greg Paul and his son, Kevin Paul, recently climbed Iran's Mount Damavand as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Image courtesy of Greg Paul.

Second, they were pleasantly surprised by the warmth and overwhelming friendliness of the Iranian people towards them as Americans.

"We had a phenomenal experience over there," Roskelley said. "It was not what I was expecting at all."

Roskelley and the Pauls, all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were permitted to enter Iran during the first part of July as part of "Climbers for Peace," a project designed to bring mountain climbers from different countries together in a spirit of friendship, cooperation, mutual trust, and peace.

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Utahns David Roskelley, Greg Paul and Kevin Paul recently climbed Mount Damavand in Iran as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Here, members of the expedition take a photo together. Image courtesy of David Roskelley.

The three Utahns were joined by three climbers from California, including Fred Ptucha, the man who founded Climbers for Peace in 1997, along with members of the Iranian Federation of Mountaineering and Sport Climbing, a kind of national climbing team, Roskelley said.

"The hope is that next year they could come to the U.S. and climb a mountain like Whitney or Shasta in California, or King's Peak in Utah," Roskelley said. "This is climber diplomacy and it would be really neat since they took a leap of faith and invited us there."

Finding Common Ground

The group of international friends reached Mount Damavand's 18,605-foot summit on July 6, a clear day with blue skies. While taking for photos, the gathering sported green "Climbers for Peace" T-shirts and held the American flag next to the Iranian flag for solidarity.

"Climbing together and being together 24-7 breaks down barriers and you know, by the end of the trip we are one big happy family," Greg Paul said. "That’s the idea behind Climbers for Peace, to go out and bring people together under a common interest. You may have disagreements or political tensions between countries, but go climb a mountain and that kind of elevates you above the day-to-day issues between countries. You see your commonalities, goals, and hopes, and it really brings you together."

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Utahns David Roskelley (middle holding the flag), Greg Paul and Kevin Paul recently climbed Mount Damavand in Iran as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Here, members of the expedition take a photo together. Photo courtesy of David Roskelley.

Due to terrorist activity and poor cooperation with U.S. officials, U.S. President Donald Trump instituted a travel ban on seven countries, including Iran. The ban was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Even after the climbers were granted visas, there was some apprehension about traveling to Iran, Roskelley said.

"You can imagine Americans just don’t go to Iran," Roskelley said. "But my expectations were completely shattered. The people could not have been nicer and it was genuine."

Overcoming Trials

The Iranian charity was abundantly demonstrated as 63-year-old Greg Paul, two years removed from achieving his dream of reaching the summit of Mount Everest, became sick while ascending Mount Damavand.

"The climb for me was pretty miserable," Greg Paul said. "I got sick prior to the climb, ate something that didn't agree with me. But I couldn't be the American-Everest climber that didn't give it a good shot, so I went for it."

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Animals are loaded for the trek up the mountain. Utahns David Roskelley, Greg Paul and Kevin Paul recently climbed Mount Damavand in Iran as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Images courtesy of David Roskelley.

Upon arriving at the high base camp, the Climbers for Peace met another Iranian group with a doctor that spoke English. They treated Greg Paul for acute mountain sickness, even giving him a Dexamethasone injection used for altitude sickness, which helped him recover and reach the summit.

"This is what you use on Everest when you're at 26,000 feet and about to die," Greg Paul said. "I didn't feel like I was dying, just really crappy. But it was incredible the way these people cared for me. . . . It was like the (New Testament parable) of the Good Samaritan playing out."

The hike up Mount Damavand was less challenging for Roskelley and Kevin Paul, possibly the youngest American to ever reach the summit. Aside from the smell of rotten eggs from the volcanic sulfur, it was fairly uneventful but still a thrill to reach the top, the younger Paul said.

"I felt pretty strong on Damavand. We were going pretty slow because we had older people with us, so I felt pretty good," said Kevin Paul, who plans to attend Brigham Young University this fall before considering an LDS Church mission. "There is always this feeling you can't really explain when you get to the top of the mountain, knowing you have done it. It was really cool to have the American and Iranian flags and show the international diplomacy. I've never really climbed a mountain thinking about where I'm from."

Seeing the Spirit of Christ

The Pauls, who toured various cities before leaving, appreciated the chance to see mosques, ancient ruins, and other interesting sites.

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Greg Paul and his son, Kevin Paul, recently climbed Iran's Mount Damavand as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Image courtesy of Greg Paul.

During their travels, Kevin Paul impressed one man by saying he had never smoked, tasted alcohol or tried drugs.

The Pauls later met another Iranian man who had lived in Orem and briefly attended BYU in 1976.

And everywhere they went, people wanted to meet and mingle with the Americans.

"We were told we were the only Americans in Iran and there hadn't been any there in six months," Greg Paul said. "We were a rare commodity."

The authentic Persian food was also a highlight, Kevin Paul said.

"My dad packed a bunch of Top Ramen in case we didn’t like the food. After he got his food poisoning, he wasn’t into it. But I loved it the entire time," Kevin Paul said. "I thought the food was amazing."

His father expressed appreciation for such a rare opportunity and overall wonderful experience.

"The spirit of Christ came through those people who helped me on the mountain," Greg Paul said. "Just meeting these people and seeing they were children of God, that they had the same dreams and hopes and a lot of the same values we had, the bonding we had with people and the friendliness they showed, that was really cool. I definitely felt a spiritual high even when I wasn’t on the mountain."

Roskelley, 49, has also been to the summit of Mount Everest, as well as the highest points on the seven continents. He's now working on the seven volcanic summits, with Mount Damavand number five on his list.

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Utahns David Roskelley, Greg Paul and Kevin Paul recently climbed Mount Damavand in Iran as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Here, members of the expedition take a photo together. Photo courtesy of David Roskelley.

This expedition to Iran was unique for what he learned about the country's religion and culture, as well as the friendships forged. He is grateful to the Iranian government for allowing him to enter their country and will always keep the image of seeing families pushing strollers through a Tehran park with balloons and ice cream.

"With all my climbs it has dawned on me that an even bigger part of the story is just the people you meet along the way," Roskelley said. "Pingpong solved some problems with us and China back in the 1970s. Why can't climbing solve some problems now? I think it would be phenomenal if something as simple as that would help to bring down barriers between our two countries." 

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David Roskelley, seated right, in a tent with other climbers. Three Utahns, including Roskelley, Greg Paul and Kevin Paul, recently climbed Mount Damavand in Iran as part of a Climbers for Peace event. Photo courtesy of David Roskelley.
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