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Volume 56, Number 5September/October 2005

In This Issue

Ararat for Sport - Written by Louis Werner, Photographed by Kevin Bubriski

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At the base camp of Mt. Everest, Tunç Fındık, one of only two Turkish climbers to have reached the summit of the world’s highest peak, sends e-mail. “Weather improving. Views clearing. Everyone strong and healthy.” And for this expedition, he adds, that is success enough: He and the six amateur climbers he is leading—all Turks— plan to stay put, enjoy the view and acclimatize in preparation for a future, higher, climb.

Fındık works for Explorer Turkey, one of his country’s small but growing handful of alpine guide services. In recent years, professionals like him have popularized climbing on Turkey’s own high peaks and written new guidebooks. Long a skiers’ paradise far from Europe’s crowded slopes, Turkey has seen a rapidly growing interest in climbing up mountains rather than sliding down them. From the toothy Kaçkar Mountains in far northeast Turkey to the Ala Dağı Mountains in the Taurus chain along the Mediterranean and on to the high volcanoes of eastern Anatolia, the call of the mountains is heard year-round. It is among those volcanoes that Turkey’s highest summit, Mount Ararat, rises some 4270 meters (14,000') off the surrounding plain to a height of 5137 meters (16,695').

Fındık’s co-leader on the Everest trek is Ercüment Kurtoğlu, who just a week before had “summitted” Ararat with another group of Explorer clients—among them a Saudi Aramco World author and photographer. He first started climbing while at Hacettepe University in Ankara, where he spent all his free time with the student mountaineering club. After trying unsuccessfully for several years to hold down a real job, he realized that his true happiness lay in the mountains. He signed up with a university friend, Ertuğrul Melikoğlu, who had just started the first guiding service aimed at the Turkish market. That was something of a gamble because, until then, most climbers in Turkey were visiting Europeans seeking treks off the beaten path. But it paid off: Now, Turks account for most of the service’s business—people like Şule Öncel, a 52-year-old dermatologist and mother of two who has surprised both herself and her friends by becoming an avid climber, even joining Kurtoğlu for the Everest base-camp expedition. When asked why, she has a simple answer: “For the love of it!”

The Climb: Day 1
The lobby of the Hotel Isfahan in Doğubayazit, a border town at 1600 meters’ elevation (5200') on a plain south of Mount Ararat, is a typical climbers’ hangout, strewn with rucksacks and decorated with summit photos and mountain-club pennants. Those setting off for the mountain are both overequipped—knowing that the packhorses will do the heavy carrying—and overwound with the energy of anticipation. Those coming down from a climb are subdued, grateful for a hot shower and a glass of tea. A truck takes our group to the village of Eli, another 300 meters (975') up from town. We’re taking the southern approach to Ararat, the “classic” route, following a largely ice-free shoulder strewn with glacial deposits. This route is a nontechnical walk-up—that is, it does not require climbing hardware like pitons, chocks, hexes or ice screws. (Higher up, we will use ropes to keep us together.) Before we reach the village, a passing rain cloud turns the weather raw, but by the time we reach horse packer Ahmet Çoktin’s farmstead, the sun is out again, burning hot through the thin atmosphere.

A nine-horse pack string is to take the gear to base camp, 3200 meters (10,400') up and six hours away by foot. Kurtoğlu, as fit, well-equipped and gung-ho as any guide in the California Sierras or the French Alps, reminds us to drink at least three liters of water along the way and to put away Gore-Tex and Polar Fleece warm-ups. This is cotton T-shirt weather.

We all fall in step behind Kurtoğlu: four Turks, two Swiss and two Americans. Hakan CoŞkun, a 28-year-old pharmacist from KahramanmaraŞ, and Taner Tuna, a 27-year-old Istanbul cheese wholesaler, look like tough-as-nails “gearheads” with their Global Positioning System (GPS) gadgets and their daypacks with built-in hydration. They are both active volunteers with their local search and rescue associations, ready any time to rig their ropes and rappel off earthquake-tumbled buildings or isolated rock faces.

Öncel and Ahmet Koçak, a 43-year-old Ankara office worker, appear to be much less likely mountaineers. Koçak has never reached a major summit before, and he bought his first pair of climbing boots just a week ago. Öncel, on the other hand, turns stereotypes about both Turkish women and mountain climbers upside down. She is, despite her up-to-the-minute hairstyle and ringed fingers, by now a veteran of high altitudes. Last year, she reached Ararat’s high camp, and, as a warm-up for her quest for the summit this summer, she climbed Suphan Dağı, Turkey’s second highest peak.

On the way up to base camp, we find the rain has not stopped the dust from kicking up into our faces under the freshening breeze, nor has it revived the summer pastures that here and there remain blackened by the fires that herders set to encourage new growth. We contour our path up the foothills at a steady pace. Climbing some three kilometers (2 mi) of altitude in three days is no small burden on the body. Headache, nausea and sleeplessness are common.

The horse packers, wearing the cloth caps, sport jackets and street shoes typical of rural Anatolia, reach base camp long before us, and they pass us again on their way down before we arrive. When we finally make camp, after four hours on the trail, Kurtoğlu praises our first-day stamina. Like all guides, he is sometimes challenged to get out-of-shape clients to the summit. Sometimes this means a summit day of as much as 18 hours of climbing rather than the 10 it takes for someone in moderately good shape.

But one thing he cannot do, he says, is to change a climber’s mind when a climber loses the will to go on. He warns all novice climbers against looking up at the summit too much or down at the plain. Without surrounding landmarks against which to measure progress, the climb can seem dishearteningly as though one were forever walking in place.

We erect our orange, two-person dome tents, and we line up for tea outside the mess tent. Across the boulder-filled ravine and up another shoulder is a larger, all-French group in yellow tents. Above, at about 4200 meters (13,650'), a cloud layer and a snowfield mark the goal of tomorrow’s acclimatization climb. The day after that, we’ll pitch our high camp —the jumping-off point for the summit ascent.

Mount Ararat’s association with the story of Noah and the Ark is unshakable but geographically imprecise. Genesis actually refers to “the mountains of Ararat,” which might mean anywhere in the vast mountainous region south of Lake Van, known to the Assyrians as Urartu. In the Qur’an, Surah 11, Verse 44 says, “The ark rested on Mount Judi.” Only because Mount Ararat—Ağri Dağı in Turkish —stands head and shoulders above all nearby summits did it come to be thought the ark’s landfall.

This thinking stimulated the quest for Ararat’s heights in the early 19th century. The first European known to have climbed to the top was Georg Friedrich Parrot, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu) in Estonia, who reached the summit on October 9, 1829. In his climb, Parrot presumably ignored the warning of Marco Polo, who from a distance determined that “the ascent is impracticable on account of the snow towards the summit, which never melts, but goes on increasing by each successive fall.” Parrot also paid no heed to an 18th- century French botanist, Pitton de Tournefort, who was the first European known to have attempted the climb, more than 100 years earlier. “Having come so far for the sake of flowers,” de Tournefort wrote, he stubbornly went against the advice of his guide and kept on alone, but was finally frightened off the mountain by the sight of “tigers.”

Ararat's monochrome code of volcanic tuff has rarely elicited esthetic praise; more often, it's been the opposite.

In 1876, the Englishman James Bryce reached the top, but accused the mountain of “vexacious quixotry,” because incoming clouds snatched his hard-won view just as he gained the summit, though not before he saw below him “the whole cradle of the human race, from Mesopotamia in the south to the great wall of the Caucasus.”

But the mountain itself, whether seen from below at a distance or from close-in on a climbing route, does not present a picture-postcard beauty. It is a largely monochromatic cone of volcanic tuff and pumice whose summer icecap is shrinking, like alpine ice worldwide. It rarely elicits words of esthetic praise, and often quite the opposite: Lord Kinross, Atatürk’s most famous biographer, called Mount Ararat “one of the most dismal and disagreeable sights on earth.”

Denis Hills, a climber who conquered it three years running in the late 1950’s, wrote in My Travels in Turkey, his book about Turkish mountaineering, that “for me, Ararat would be a dead and ugly monster were it not for the scraps of life that quicken its loins—the scattering of wild flowers among the coils of incinerated rock, the ice of cold water trickling reluctantly through little mossy dells, above all the black tents and coarse pastures of the herdsmen, the odor of cattle and the scalding glasses of tea. Those, for me, were the real attractions of Ararat.”

The Climb: Day 2
Morning dawns windy and cloud-covered. Hot tea and a breakfast of cheese and tomato and lavash bread await. Our tents stay put today while we head up to the high camp, where we will clear new tent sites, rebuild rock walls and then come back down. The mountaineers’ adage, “climb high, sleep low” is our marching order, for after a big altitude gain, the body needs as much recovery time as possible at lower elevation. As we gain height above the base camp, we look back to see clusters of other tents on Ararat’s farther shoulders. These are the camps of Kurdish herdsmen who bring their cattle and sheep up above 3000 meters (10,000') each summer to enjoy cooler temperatures and rain-fed pastures until the weather turns bitter around the autumn equinox.

These herdsmen have watched increasing numbers of climbers ever since Turkish authorities officially reopened Ararat to mountain sports in 2001. But I wonder if they would likely respond to us as they did to Denis Hills when he spoke with a group of herdsmen in 1958. “Why was I climbing Ağri, they asked. ‘For the fun of it,’ I replied. ‘There is no fun up there,’ they said, ‘only ice.’”

As we climb, the grass quickly turns to scree and gravel, loose and dusty footing as the pitch angles up. I find no solace in Parrot’s observation that “whenever we ascend a mountain and have the slope immediately before us, we think the angle of acclivity much greater than it would be found to be by the plummet.” Never mind “angle of acclivity”: This is just plain steep. Kurtoğlu is not calling for rest stops often enough for my taste.

By the time we reach the site of the high camp, rain clouds and wind have socked in the view. Kurtoğlu recommends we stay warm by hefting heavy stones: Pumping blood at altitude speeds acclimatization, he says.

We also have a visitor at the high camp: Ahmet Ali Arslan, who at 58 is the living legend of Ararat alpinists. He is here in celebration of the 40th anniversary of his first successful ascent on August 28, 1964, a feat he has since repeated 51 times. He is a veteran of all of Ararat’s routes, from north and east as well as south. Now, he keeps the United States Geological Survey up-to-date on the state of the mountain’s ice cap by sending them annual, same-angle summit photos.

“Ararat is melting,” he says, speaking through a formidably bushy mustache. “Soon enough there will be no summer snow cover at all.” Arslan has a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in folklore and has studied Ireland’s and eastern Anatolia’s common beliefs in elves, giants and shape-shifting sheep thieves. He says, with a twinkle in his eye, that predators both magical and four-footed haunt this mountain.

But he is dead serious when he states his desire to investigate the so-called “Ararat anomaly,” a large, ice-covered formation in a snowfield on the northern slope that appeared “ark-shaped” in a recent satellite photo. Next year he hopes to co-lead a scientific expedition to the site, if he can persuade the Turkish government to permit a group of international climbers on that route.

After an hour, we descend, and reach patchy sunshine at 3800 meters (12,350'). Trekking poles make the descent more stable in the slippery switchbacks. As we near base camp again, it is a pleasure finally to get one’s footing on the grassy slopes.

Rain comes on hard that evening. The mess tent has only a postage stamp-sized covered vestibule, so after dinner we tuck ourselves into our domes and listen to the storm beat against the well-staked rain flies. Sleep comes easier than the night before.

The Climb: Day 3
The day starts leisurely with time to dry out our tents and roll up our sleeping bags. The pack animals have returned, ready to move our gear up to the high camp. With them is a mare and her four-month-old colt, who is recovering from a near-fatal mauling at the fangs of a wolf earlier in the summer. Strings of Lithuanian, Russian and French climbers move past us. The snowless summit of Küçük Ağri Dağı, or Little Ararat, is just below us to the east. Ahmet Ali Arslan had spoken yesterday of swimming in its crater lake, but it must have been a fast dip: Standing water is icy at 2700 meters (8775') even on the hottest summer day.

Soon after setting out, we cross paths with a group of descending Iranians who have been chased off the last pitch to the summit by foul weather. Kurtoğlu and the Iranian guide share notes about climbing Mt. Damavand which, at 5670 meters (18,430'), towers over downtown Tehran. After “bagging” Ararat, most Turkish climbers set their sights on Damavand or on Mt. El’brus in the Republic of Georgia, the tallest peak in the Caucasus.

We reach high camp in an easy three hours, 30 minutes less than yesterday’s climbing time, then exhaust ourselves trying to pitch the tents in a howling wind. The plain at our feet is obscured by blown dust. The summit overhead is in the clouds.

We reach high camp in an easy three hours, then exhause ourselves pitching the tents in a howling wind.

Öncel, Koçak and Tuna share some afternoon quiet time in one of the tents. “I feel in good shape, mentally and physically,” says Öncel. “I’m confident that my summer tune-up climbs will see me to the top tomorrow. My sons think I can do it, my women friends think I can make it, and I myself know I can. Next stop, Everest!”

Koçak recounts how he was first bitten by the climbing bug. “I grew bored one day last summer on a beach vacation with my wife and daughter. There was a small mountain next to the sea, a big hill really, and I asked a local man how long it would take to climb. Five hours, he said. So next morning I said goodbye to my wife, who frankly thought I was wasting a perfectly good beach day, and stuffed a daypack with bread and bottled water and set off for the top. It was steeper than I had thought, but the satisfaction of finally making it, of seeing the 100-kilometer view and feeling the cool breeze from the top, gave me a taste for new heights. So here I am on Ararat.”

In fact, it was almost as simple as he describes. Explorer often fields calls from curious novices who want to start big, usually with Ararat first. “Buy yourself good stiff boots and warm clothes, and we’ll take care of the rest,” such callers are told. That is just what Koçak did.

And where does his wife think he is today? “Off on some easy hike like at the seaside,” he says with a grin, looking down as the lights of Doğubayazit begin to twinkle in the twilight. “I sent some friends a cell-phone picture from base camp,” he goes on. “They messaged back that it didn’t look like such a big mountain. I answered, ‘Just wait. You’ll get a surprise from the summit!’”

Later, when Kurtoğlu distributes crampons, ice axes, helmets and climbing har-nesses, it finally dawns on all of us that tomorrow will not be at all a day at the beach. There is ice and snow and dangerous wind up there. Novices had better listen closely and learn fast.

The Turkish Mountaineering Federation is a quasi-official body under the Ministry of Youth and Sports that promotes climbing at home and abroad. But its task is complicated by funding shortages, and Turks who want to launch expeditions to the world’s highest peaks are on their own, scrambling for corporate sponsorships or financing their big mountains by leading paying clients up little ones. When they go to Nepal for Everest’s base camp, they say, Kurtoğlu and Tunç hope to sneak up 6812-meter (22,140') Ama Dablan on their own.

A new policy that charges foreign climbers a user fee on Ararat promises to help underwrite the costs of annual camp cleaning and trail maintenance. Even so, the Turkish military still controls all approaches to the mountain, and special entry visas are still required. The kind of reception that Denis Hills received when he expressed his desire to climb Ararat in 1957 is not unheard of today: As he approached the mountain, a gendarme asked to see his permits and asked, “‘What is the real purpose of your trip?’ ‘Sport,’ I replied. He laughed disbelievingly. ‘I have met other gentlemen like yourself—real alpinists,’ he added, looking at my shorts and rubber pumps, ‘who wished to get to the top of Ağri—the last ice crest always defeats them. But I wish you bonne chance.’ He closed the file.”

The Climb: Summit Day
Few of us can sleep. The flapping tent, the unaccustomed altitude and a bad case of nerves keep us tossing through the night until Kurtoğlu’s 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. We set out tentatively. Headlamps show where to put one’s feet, one after the next, seemingly straight up in the dark, climbing alongside the snowfield that appeared impossibly steep. Dawn’s growing half-light soon lets us switch off the lamps. Surprisingly, the strong wind is not a bother. Minds concentrate only on keeping the pace steady and saving one’s breath for later.

The high camp, four hours down, feels like home, and below on the plain, Doğubayazit beckons like a lighted runway calling in a lost aviator.

After three hours, the main straight-up-and-down pitch is finally behind us. And still only halfway! Gentler—but by no means gentle—switchbacks begin to thread up through mixed rock and snow. Another 200 meters up, the terrain flattens, and now Little Ararat looks like a small bump on the road. Haze interferes with what might have been a 300-kilometer (200-mi) panorama, but to the east, three other countries can be seen: Armenia, Iran and Azerbaijan. Before us, the summit snowfield bulges like a whaleback. The slope, finally, turns truly gentle.

The sunshine is blistering, but here there is no risk of danger from softened snowpack—as there often is on windless, high-summer days. It is too cold here now. No one wants to shed any outerwear, even as exertion overheats the body. Only Gore-Tex windshells stand between our skin and a severe case of frostbite by windchill.

Just when we reach the snow-field and stop to fit crampons onto our boots, a low cloud bank roars onto the summit. What had been stark sunlight turns dark and diffuse. Visibility shrinks to 100 meters, then 50, then 20, then three. Kurtoğlu asks for a steady pace, urging patience for the last 100-meter climb, yet worrying that the deteriorating weather might force us to retreat short of the summit.

The wind, finally, is driving us in the right direction—uphill. Kurtoğlu’s tale of a friend who fell to his death while making this last push to the summit comes to mind. Kurtoğlu tightens our spacing, but also warns that “roping up” may be more hindrance than help at this point in the storm.

Strangely, but fully in keeping with Ararat’s “vexacious quixotry,” the same kind of out-of-nowhere storm harassed Hills. “As the clouds thickened,” he wrote, “we began to stumble blindly in a world of grey ghosts. Then a sudden startling thunderclap exploded directly overhead and a flurry of ice-flakes turned almost instantly into a violent gale of snow.”

Finally, between 100-kilometer (60 mph) blasts of wind-driven snow and ice crystals, poles appear: We’re at the summit. It is 10:40 a.m., six hours after we set out. Kurtoğlu digs out the names registry from a buried box and adds ours with a mittened hand. Hakan CoŞkun unfurls his Turkish flag. As well as we can from behind rime-glazed glasses, we frame and focus photos. We all pose kneeling, pinning ourselves in place with our ice axes like butterflies under glass. This is surely no place to linger.

What view have we missed? For this we must turn to Parrot. “I pressed forward round a projecting mound of snow and behold! Before my eyes, now intoxicated with joy, lay the extreme cone, the highest pinnacle of Ararat…. I found myself on a gently vaulted, nearly cruciform surface of about two hundred paces in circuit which at the margin sloped off precipitously on every side. Formed of eternal ice, without rock or stone to interrupt its continuity, was the austere silvery head of Old Ararat.”

The descent is dreamlike. The wind pushes in one direction and gravity in the other. The clouds slowly thin to gossamer. What had seemed like a slow-motion climb as we reached the summit gradually comes unglued. We can move our feet again without panting and gasping for breath between steps. Unlike James Bryce in 1876, we can see neither Mesopotamia nor the Caucasus now, but the little town of Doğubayazit beckons like a lighted runway calling in a lost aviator.

High camp, four hours off the summit, feels like home, and we are as merry as utter exhaustion permits. Öncel, who did not make the summit, is ecstatic nonetheless with her GPS- certified lifetime high of 4705 meters (15,291').

CoŞkun calls for our attention. “I dedicate this summit to my friend Oğur Uluocak, who died last year on Mt. Ala Arca in Kyrgyzstan. He taught me everything I know today about climbing. He was a great Turkish mountaineer, unselfish to a fault with all his climbing partners and everyone who learned from him. My flag flew for him from the top today.”

Koçak seems particularly happy. “Near the summit I was panting like a dog, and my wrist pulse was throbbing so hard that I felt my gloves were going to burst. Then Ercüment [Kurtoğlu] said we were almost there, even though I could not see anything. Thankfully, he was right.”

High camps always turn in early the evening after a summit. This night, sleep comes easily. Tomorrow will be a long day, packing and descending all the way back to Eli, the horse packers’ village. It will be lovely to get down out of the wind and onto the grass—and to a hot shower and a glass of tea.

Kurtoğlu has another reason to hurry. Tonight, he says, CNN-Türk television is airing an interview with Nasuh Mahruki, the first Turk to reach the summit of Everest and a hero among all Turkish climbers. And as Mahruki speaks about the growth of Turkish mountaineering, Turkey’s highest peaks and the most difficult climbing routes, any Turk who has climbed Ararat has surely earned full rights to bask beside him in glory.

Louis Werner Louis Werner ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer and filmmaker living in New York.
Kevin Bubriski Kevin Bubriski ([email protected]) is a photographer who regularly jogs trails in the Green Mountains near his home in Vermont.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the September/October 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2005 images.