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Iranian, American climbers summit Grand Teton in Wyoming
Sahand Aghdaie talks with Lindsey Ross about climbing in Iran after dinner at the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch on Sept. 8 in Grand Teton National Park. Aghdaie was one of eight Iranian alpinists on a climbing exchange between the American Alpine Club and the Iranian Alpine Club. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Jackson Hole News&Guide via AP)

JACKSON -- Abbas Mohammadi calls it "the mountain sensation."

It is a feeling that transcends time, continents and governments at odds with each other.

It is the feeling a person gets from mountain air, towering trees and trails stretching beyond eyesight.

Mohammadi didn't know what to expect when he arrived for the first time in the United States as part of an exchange between the American Alpine Club and Iranian Alpine Club.

What he found was "the mountain sensation" even though he was an ocean away from his home.

Mohammadi and eight other Iranian mountaineers arrived in the Tetons on Sept. 3 and stayed through Sept. 12.

The American Alpine Club occasionally does exchanges with other countries, former president Jim Donini said.

Before the Iranians, the Climbers' Ranch in the Tetons hosted a contingent of female Chinese climbers a few years ago, he said. The club also hosted Soviet Union climbers during the Cold War.

The exchange will work both ways. American climbers will head to Iran in the spring. The club plans to bring a contingent diverse in skill, age and gender, Donini said.

Despite political unrest between the Iranian and United States governments, Donini has no fear about traveling to Iran.

"The human race doesn't differ that much country to country when you meet the people," he said.

The goal of the exchanges is to learn about each other, Donini said. Getting to know each other is more important than the climbing.

"We're all climbers," he said. "We're all in the same tribe."

While in the Tetons, the group visited Yellowstone National Park and spent time hiking and doing some climbing, including a two-day trip up the Grand Teton via the Owen-Spalding route.

For the exchange, the younger Iranian climbers who applied were denied visas, Donini said. The government worried if they came, they wouldn't return. Older applicants, more established in Iran, were given visas. The youngest of the nine alpinists visiting the Tetons was 36 years old.

Abbas Sabetian learned most about American culture while on the trail to Amphitheater Lake. People stopped, smiled and wanted to know more when they found out he was from Iran. When he looked around at the trees and the trail, he got the "mountain sensation."

"I was feeling like I was climbing in my country," he said.

Grand Teton National Park provided accommodations at the Climbers' Ranch while offering a variety of activities, from hiking to technical climbing, Donini said.

In Iran, Hassan Najarian is known for his mountaineering skills. He has climbed six of the world's 8,000-meter peaks. His dream to complete all 14 of the towering mountains was matched only by his dream to climb in the U.S., in part to see the mountains, but also to learn about American climbers.

"All of this just brings tears to our eyes as climbers," he said through a translator. "I look forward to future summits together."

Najarian said he was most impressed by the discipline of American climbers, and also their generosity.

He hopes to one day to return to the U.S. to climb again.

David Thoenen, with the American Alpine Club, helped organize the exchange. He is married to an Iranian and has lived in Iran.

He cares about the country, and as the relationship between Iran and the U.S. becomes more shaky, he wants to find a way to foster friendships.

"I'm a climber and I know climbers," he said. "We might not solve the world's problems, but it's about meeting people."

To organize the exchange, Thoenen contacted Mohammadi, who is the president of the Iranian Alpine Club.

"Mountaineers know no borders," he wrote back to Thoenen about his proposal.

"I knew then it would work," Thoenen said.

"We are citizens of mountain country," Mohammadi said.

The exchange takes that common love of the mountains and forges relationships, reminding people in the different countries they can find common ground. While hiking in the Tetons, Mohammadi was struck by wildflowers that looked similar to ones in Iran.

"There are oceans between these two continents, but the same plants on the two continents," he said.

To Mohammadi, the flowers represented a symbol of similarity between the two countries.

While in Grand Teton, Mohammadi took a particular interest in conservation efforts. He was most impressed with the WAG bags, carried by backcountry users for solid waste. He planned to take back bags to Iran to show people and institute use of similar bags in fragile environments.

"It was the most beautiful thing I've seen here," he said. "You can find beauty in everything."


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