Words and photos by Vanessa Beucher
Who would have imagined that the first person from the Middle East to participate in a Freeride World Qualifier would be Mona Seraji, a pint-sized snowboarder from Iran? Mona's story is fascinating; she’s come an incredibly long way to get where she is now.
Let's go back in time to the first part of her life growing up as an Iranian girl. Mona tells me she feels very grateful to have been born and raised in an educated and open-minded family. Her mother is a very active person, who spends time in the mountains every week.
She describes her childhood with a mix of excitement and nostalgia: “I started skiing as a very young kid but one day when I was 20, my skis fell off the racks of my sister's car and got smashed. This small mishap turned out to be a significant event in my life."
"One day… my skis fell off the racks of my sister's car and got smashed. This small mishap turned out to be a significant event in my life…"
“It was almost the end of the season and a short while after, I was out with my mother to buy some heels for a wedding party but my attention got caught by a ‘Sale’ sign in an outdoor shop. I walked out with a snowboard instead!"
It was the start of a dazzling passion, which would never leave her. Snowboarding in Iran was really in its infancy at that time and Mona became one of the pioneering female snowboarders in the country, if not the actual pioneer. Snowboarding with men had a massive impact on her riding, as she had to push it really hard to keep up.
Over the years, she was more encouraged than tested by her male counterparts and treated with a great sense of respect, despite what stereotypes of the country might suggest. She says: “Being a woman, and an Iranian woman on top of that, has never really been that much of a big deal for me."
She is still riding with the same group of tight friends and exploring different areas of Iran together with them. To her, it is truly one of the best feelings to be riding with a bunch of friends who know each other so well and share precious moments in the mountains.
But Mona also felt the need to share her passion so she decided to become a snowboard instructor. She says: “To achieve that goal, I had to travel outside of the country. In 2009, I made up my mind to go to Switzerland and registered for a course to become an international snowboard instructor."
"Her visa got rejected but she did not give up…"
Unfortunately, her visa got rejected but she did not give up. Three months later, during the same winter, she managed to fly to Italy, being the only foreigner attending the pre-selection process but she did not make it through to the final phase of the exam.
But there was absolutely no way she could let go of her dream. During the summer of that same year, she participated in a six-week course in New Zealand and managed to go back home with her international instructors’ qualification! “I still remember very vividly how my heart was pounding at the time of the results. And I had a hard time opening the official envelope."
Her family did not really accept her life choices in the beginning but when they saw her achievements in snowboarding, they started figuring out that maybe it was her way of being successful in life and began supporting Mona to the fullest, which is never been more true than today.
She says: “Since the beginning, it has been relatively easy for me to make a living as a female snowboard instructor. My achievements in the country and outside of Iran are definitely a good asset for me."
Last year, Mona played a pivotal role in the Koh I Noor project, the name meaning 'Mountain of Light' in Farsi. Over two weeks, she and an international team of women, including Estelle Lecomte, Swiss former snowboard competitor on the FWQ, Ilina Arsova a Macedonian Alpinist and artist, Oksana Chekulaeva, a Russian professional snowboarder and mountain guide, and me a French photographer and journalist, explored the Alborz range in Northern Iran. Read the full story here.
We discovered the incredible potential of these mountains and met an amazing community of passionate riders. Seraji said: “It paved the way for creating strong links and a true friendship developed between all of us. We hope to make more projects together in the future." Mona wanted to come to Europe and participate in some FWQ events, and the Swiss association We Ride in Iran were keen to help.
After sending applications to different embassies in Iran and Switzerland, Mona managed to get a one-month visa and flew to Europe at the beginning of January 2016. She says: “My state of mind just before departing was a crazy mix of excitement and stress. But most of all, I felt so stoked to have the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself in unfamiliar mountains and demanding terrain."
On top of that, she had absolutely no idea of what level the other female European riders would be. But just participating in these events was in itself a big achievement. She says: “I felt very honoured to make history by being the first person from the Middle East to ever participate in a FWQ event. I would love that not just Iranian women but all the women around the world feel that they can take control of their lives and should start following their dreams, that all the ladies out there be passionate about this beautiful life we just get to live once."
"My state of mind just before departing was a crazy mix of excitement and stress."
First stop was Verbier during the Freeride Week. It took some time for winter to eventually start but heavy snowfalls came in early January. She says: “I remember very clearly conditions were tricky during the first competition with low visibility and avalanche risks. I was so stressed but Estelle [Lecomte] was there to check the face with me and give me some good advice with her experience in competitions."
Mona managed to rank fourth out of nine, slightly missing the podium, a great achievement for her first contest. Encounters with other female riders, including French phenomenon Marion Haerty, were very warm-hearted. Two days later, the second competition was held on the same face to secure the avalanche risk. The weather was absolutely perfect this time, with the fabulous surrounding peaks bathed in great winter morning light.
“But this time, I had to deal with more stress and got fifth place," she says. During her week spent in Verbier, Mona also had the chance to ride the amazing local terrain, together with a local ripper called Tamara, and Maude Richon, a charging snowboarder and Swiss boardsports journalist.
She gained some important forest riding experience, as the terrain is often above the tree line in Iran. The following week took her to Chamonix and its jaw-dropping mountains. “I have to admit I felt such a deep sense of awe and respect gazing at the Mont Blanc range. Conditions were still tricky though, this time I had to deal with ice and a much steeper face than in Verbier."
Estelle was once again her biggest supporter, advising, comforting and pushing her and Mona ranked fourth once again! She would have obviously loved to reach the podium at least once as a symbolic feat but what an accomplishment for her first time participating in the Freeride World Tour Qualifiers, especially when you think that less than three years ago, she severely hit her back while snowboarding and had to go through spinal surgery and a long painful recovery.
The time she had left after these three competitions was devoted to pure pleasure of simply riding and meeting new people, especially during the Laax Open. As she had been our guide in Iran the previous winter, it was dear to our hearts to show her our home spots and favourite places: for Tamara, it was the forest of la Tzoumaz below Verbier, Estelle led her through the magical terrain of Chandolin in Swiss Valais; I was delighted to show her and Estelle my home spot of la Grave, the legendary freeride mecca in the French Alps and Maude, together with renowned Swiss mountain guide Gilles Sierro, showed us the enchanting wild beauty of Arolla.
From splitboarding to couloir riding, those two days in what is called the 'Magic Valley' were an unforgettable experience for all of us, strengthening our riding and friendship bonds at the same time.
“As Maude perfectly summed it up one day, our cultures and paths in life are different but we have exactly the same state of mind when it comes to riding." And at the end of the day by the fireplace we had touching conversations about our deep love for the mountains and the challenges of living such a life as a woman.
"My long term goal would be to find a young, talented Iranian woman, coach her for international contests and eventually send her to the Winter Olympic Games."
Estelle played a pivotal role in this project. Mona thought she did not have the level to get to the FWQ but she vigorously convinced her that she did and Mona's dream gradually became reality. And now, what is Mona Seraji's next dream? “My long term goal would be to find a young, talented Iranian woman, coach her for international contests and eventually send her to the Winter Olympic Games. Determination is key: it has always been my motto. My biggest wish is that everyone out there never give up on themselves and keep on dreaming."
Mona Seraji is a super-inspiring woman and snowboarder, who shows that no matter where you’re from if you want something hard enough you should go for it.