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Climbers for Peace trio bound for volcanic peak in Iran

Dave Wahlstrom, left, Fred Ptucha, and Xavier Polk, all of Santa Rosa, pose for a portrait at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Trailhead at Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, June 28, 2018. The trio are departing Friday for a peace mission to climb Mount Daravand in Iran next week. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

Three Santa Rosa men are embarking today on a mission to climb a world-famous mountain and promote peace in a land many Americans would consider off limits.

Their goal is to stand at the summit of Mount Damavand on July 7. At 18,605 feet, it’s the highest volcano in Asia and rated the 12th most prominent peak in the world.

No technical climbing skills are required, but breathing the thin, cold air at high altitude — where the lungs take in 40 to 50 percent less oxygen than they do at sea level — is the greatest physical challenge.

And then there’s the political challenge.

Damavand, a graceful volcanic cone cloaked in snow much of the year, including now, stands about 50 miles from Tehran, the capital of Iran, one of the seven nations on President Donald Trump’s travel ban and the one he called in withdrawing from the nuclear deal last month a “murderous regime.”

Fred Ptucha, a retired financial advisor, acknowledged at Tuesday’s Santa Rosa City Council meeting the venture to Iran is the “most audacious goal in terms of political risk.”

But it’s the 11th expedition for the Climbers for Peace group, co-founded by Ptucha in 1997, and the mission is about extending an olive branch and perhaps, he told the council, making “another tragic war in the Middle East less likely to happen.”

Three Climbers for Peace members from Utah will join Ptucha, 75, and the two other Santa Rosa men — Xavier Polk, 65, and Dave Wahlstrom, 71 — in Iran. They plan to climb with a group of Iranian mountaineers and unfurl the American and Iranian flags at Damavand’s peak, which takes in a view of the Caspian Sea 43 miles north on the Iranian coast.

That gesture, filmed by Al Jazeera, “will send a powerful message of cooperation,” Ptucha said.

His group calls it “citizen diplomacy,” and the concept is simple: Ordinary people from countries whose governments have been at odds train together, “build trust and cooperation and then summit a big mountain.”

Previous expeditions have gone up Mount Olympus in Greece, Mount Elbrus in Russia and domestic peaks at Shasta, Rainier and Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

Iran, also known as Persia and home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is one of 11 nations the State Department advises travelers to avoid. In Iran’s case, the risk is “arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens” and those who visit are advised to “draft a will.”

Ptucha said he feels safe going there on an invitation from the Iranian Mountaineering Federation, which also offered each climber $650. A professional guide and a group of seven or more Iranian mountaineers will join them on the slopes.

Several friends have been to Iran in recent years and report that Iranians “are very warm,” he said.

Ptucha and other group members planned the same trip last year but weren’t able to secure visas from the Iranian government.

The expedition’s schedule calls for four days of acclimatization, going higher up Damavand each day, followed by a day of rest and then a 10- to 12-hour push to the summit and back, Ptucha said.

Wahlstrom, a retired social worker, called the mission “a small bridge of goodwill” between the two nations.

“People are people; they’re not my enemy,” he said, describing Trump as “an extremely belligerent president who alienates people all around the world.”

A backpacker and marathon runner, Wahlstrom said it will be a “huge challenge” to make it up Damavand.

Polk, a clinical psychologist, said he’s excited to go after missing the Climbers for Peace expedition up Elbrus in 1997. A trail and marathon runner, Polk is legally blind but with good peripheral vision and can see well enough to follow a mountain trail.

Carrying a daypack up to 18,000 feet is the biggest challenge, he said.

Polk has made three climbs at Mount Shasta without reaching the 4,180-foot summit.

Damavand is comparable in difficulty to Shasta — with an added 4,500 feet to the top, Ptucha said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.