Mount Ararat (Turkey)
By: Richard L. Carey
Agri Dagi - 5137 meters (16,854 feet)
Mount Ararat is perhaps one of the most famous mountains since it is mentioned in the Bible as the landing place of Noah's Ark after the great flood. Mount Ararat, known as Agri Dagi in Turkish, is in far eastern Turkey less than 10 km from the Iranian border. It looms over the town of Dogubayazit, the nearest sizable town and starting point for most climbers. The mountain was climbed by many thousands up until the 1980's when the PKK (Workers Party of Kurdistan) started a campaign of terrorism in southeastern Turkey. The kidnapping of tourists, bombings in Istanbul and some resorts, and Turkish military operations effectively shut down the eastern area including Mount Ararat for some fourteen years.
A turning point was reached in 1999 with the capture of PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who was hiding in the residence of the Greek ambassador in Nairobi, Kenya after being expelled from Italy. Although under a death sentence he has cooperated and renounced the use of military force. His aims have been reduced to recognition of the Kurdish language and culture within a greater Turkish state. The Turkish parliament is considering abolishing the death penalty to gain entry to the European Union.
Although there is still a large military presence in eastern Turkey, with many checkpoints on the highways, travel is now safe and tourism is resuming. Our guide, Sinan Halic, was with a large group of 35 Turkish climbers who made the first ascent of Ararat in many years on February 23. 2000. He also led one of the first foreign groups in August 2002. This was a successful trip with five climbers from Singapore reaching the top. Photos of this trip are on Sinan's web page at:
I learned of Sinan from a posting on the Internet and started planning a trip to Ararat in July 2002. My friend Shelley Rogers wanted to go, but I didn't get any other climbers wanting to go at that time. Sinan agreed to lead a trip with just the two of us and also to include some sightseeing after the climb. A positive recommendation from Faye Lee of the Singapore group was encouraging so we made the commitment. Then we applied to the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles for a visa and mountaineering permit. This was a long frustrating affair and after many emails and phone calls we realized the consulate wasn't going to get a permit in time so we suggested they just give us a standard tourist visa, which now costs $65. Sinan said he had approval from his end so we felt confident it would work out.
We left San Diego July 1st and after a night in London arrived in Istanbul the 3rd. After two busy days of sightseeing we flew on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Ankara then after a plane change continued to Agri. You realize how big the country is since the first flight was 45 minutes and the second one hour and 45 minutes. At Agri we were picked up in a minivan and drove southeast 90 km to Dogubayazit. This is a dusty border town on a major highway into Iran that is not attractive on first sight. The view on both sides is of groups of crude block buildings next to rows of large cylindrical fuel tanks. Fuel is brought in from Iran and winters are severe so storage seems important. One guidebook says a main source of income here is smuggling. Turning off into the tight cluster of shops on a rectangular grid of streets that form the center of town, we didn't see any tourists and the streets were crowded with men and boys, very few women to be seen. Our accommodations were at the Hotel Isfahan a place once quite popular with climbers and now attempting to rebuild its business after a dearth of tourists for many years. A large tour bus of Germans at the hotel indicated there were other tourists, we just hadn't seen them yet. Our room in a new addition was large and handy for spreading out our gear.
Dogubayazit has a wide range of stores and several ATM machines and Internet cafes. My Point Loma Credit Union card worked fine in this remote corner of the world and we became millionaires as we collected Turkish Lira. Each dollar yields 1,600,000 Lira. Sometimes it was difficult to tell apart a 500,000 note from a 5,000,000 note; but merchants were helpful and didn't try to cheat us. Later we purchased food for the mountain at a Hiper market that had an extensive choice of chocolates, nuts, dried fruits, pastas, some dried soups and a curious product called "women's paste" made from forty different herbs and spices. It only came in a one-kilo box so we didn't buy it. There was also a men's paste to enhance virility, something I didn't really need on this trip.
The hotel stored our duffels the next day and we piled into the minivan and headed east on the main highway to Iran. There is a military checkpoint a few miles east of town and we were waved over by the armed guards. Sinan took our passports in to the office and sorted things out with the permits we had been working on for two months. This whole process is rather Byzantine and I was glad we had a Turkish-speaking guide to get us through it. Fortunately it didn't take too long and we headed further east about a half mile then turned left on a dirt road through several villages and up the flanks of the mountain to a house at Eli at 2000 meters. Here we left the heavy gear with a horse packer and started walking up the road.
There were numerous goat herder settlements along the way and we were met by girls who were motioning to their cheeks. Sinan says they wanted sun cream which we had, but not extra to give away. At another cluster of tents we stopped and had a glass of yogurt with a family. They had some noisy dogs that were kept away by one of the men. The guidebook warns of encounters with these generally unfriendly dogs. It is best to make sure the Shepard sees you coming and not to get between the flock of sheep and the dogs. This problem ended past this point since the sheep are not grazed any higher up the mountain.
We heard of a large Spanish group climbing the mountain and they passed us coming down. The amazing aspect of this group was that 17 of them were blind and we learned that all but one were successful in reaching the top the previous day. They walked in groups of three or four holding onto a long pole with a sighted person in front. We soon reached camp 1, a grassy flat by streams coming out of a snow bank at 3340 meters, and set up my tent. Then it started to rain just as we finished with the tent so we ducked inside. This would be the pattern each day, clouds building in the afternoon and rain or hail for an hour. This huge mountain makes it's own weather, since down in the town it generally stays dry with little chance of rain all summer.
Later a group of ten Slovenians arrived and then another group with some Brits, a Canadian, a New Zealander, and two Americans. It was obvious that word had spread about Mount Ararat now being open for climbing. We also met two friendly Turks from the northern part of the country and one was a doctor who spoke good English. The next day we hiked up to camp 2, a cluster of cleared tent sites in the boulders at 4150 meters. We had planned to carry our gear to this camp, but Sinan made arrangements to have a packer take some of the gear. There is a staging area just below camp 2 at 4100 meters that is the limit of horse travel. There are a couple of tent sites there, but we carried our gear in several trips up to the better site 50 meters higher. Camp 2 sets on a rocky rib next to a deep gorge to the east with unstable, eroding walls. About every half hour there is a crash of falling rock. When you are in the tent it sounds like it is coming your way. One soon gets used to it. Others were there first so we didn't get the best site in the boulders.
At camp 2 we met four climbers who summited that day. They were in the clouds at the top and did not see a thing and one experienced older man complained about their local guide who got them lost near the top and couldn't find the summit. It turns out that he had never been to the top before. The climber says the guide also didn't know how to put on crampons. This confirmed what Sinan said that some local guides are not experienced and don't speak English, which would be a real handicap. Most westerners find Turkish very difficult to learn since there are few words that have any resemblance to English.
That night I didn't sleep much due to a combination of altitude and awkward sloping surface. We decided to take a rest and acclimatization day while the Slovenians and most of the others go for the summit. They were all on their way by 4:00 a.m., slowly going up the snow slope above camp. The area really should be in another time zone since by 4:00 darkness is fading and the sun rises soon thereafter. The summit was buried in clouds so it didn't look good, but later the clouds cleared and we saw them disappear over the last ridge.
We had a leisurely breakfast and watched them come down. It turned out to be an excellent day and out of 16 climbers all but one make it. One British guy has a dog and the small German Shepard did OK making the summit too! They reported good snow and no one used their crampons. The Slovenians didn't even have a rope, which is not the safest practice. Most needed about 4 1/2 to 5 hours to reach the top, but one especially strong guy escorted a climber down from about half way then went back up reaching the top in 2 1/2 hours! We exchanged addresses with one friendly Slovenian and he invited us to his country. They all wished us success and headed down.
Most of the group packed up and headed down so Shelley and I moved our tent to a better site. That evening it cleared up and looked good for our climb, however at dinner my stomach was complaining and I felt poorly. The new tent site was much better, but I still was not able to sleep. At 2:30 a.m. the alarm went off. Crawling out into the dark with my headlamp I stumbled over to a suitable site and experienced the Sultan's revenge, also known as diarrhea, and when I got back to the tent I felt nauseous and threw up with some of it splattering on my pants and boots. It wasn't long before I concluded that I could not possibly make it up the 1000 meters to the summit. So I tried to get comfortable and wished Sinan and Shelley good luck as they headed off behind three Turks at 4:15. I had a touch of diarrhea at camp I and thought I was dumb not to have taken Immodium and Cipro then when I might have stopped the problem.
They had a good climb and passed the Turks on the way, with Sinan setting a fast pace. Some clouds obscured the summit, but they waited by the glacier and when there was a clearing they made the top at about 9:30. Both their cameras conked out in the cold so they had the Turks take a picture with our small American and Turkish flags we had bought in Istanbul. On the descent it was entirely clear and they reached camp at 11:45.
Shelley observed a horse packer take a bag of trash from another group and stuff it under rocks away from camp. We took our trash down and the others probably thought theirs was being taken down too. Later on the trail we saw a horse packer throw down a food wrapper. It was sad to see this happen and observe the lack of care for this beautiful mountain. We expressed our concern to Sinan, but he can't control all the groups. I hope this mountain with all the increased interest doesn't get trashed. There was more litter around both camps than their should be.
We slowly packed up and prepared to head down. About 50 meters down the horse packers were ready to take our gear. I was still not feeling entirely well so it was a long hike down and as usual we got the afternoon hailstorm. Finally at Eli we dumped our gear and the packer, who got there hours earlier, poured some hot tea for us. His son was quick to greet us with the familiar "Hello money" and a hand out.
At the military checkpoint on our way to Dogubayazit, the guards directed us to the back of the barracks. We hoped there wasn't some sort of problem, but they just wanted to greet us and offer refreshments. We all got out of the van and entered a lounge with a TV showing a soccer game and a bug zapper on the table. The men, in their neat camouflage uniforms were all friendly and invited us to a seat and served tea. We just had tea a half hour before and were really tired and dirty, but enjoyed a short visit and then departed for town. Most of the conversation was in Turkish, but one senior officer asked me in English where we were from and how we liked Turkey.
Arriving at the hotel we were greeted by a burly man who said he was the "owner" of Mount Ararat. He congratulated us on our climb. The man was Ahmet Coktin and he has a small shop in town. Sinan says it is necessary to get his "permission" to climb the mountain since he controls many of the horse packers. The whole system seemed rather baffling to us. As long as the military checkpoint is before the turnoff to the mountain it will be necessary to get their permission too. One doesn't want to argue with someone with an assault rifle. I don't know how all the other groups got past the permissions and paperwork, but we were glad to have Sinan smoothing the way.
After a day of rest and repacking at the hotel we saw some of the other sites then headed south toward Van. Three sites near Dogubayazit are worth seeing: the small meteor crater next to the Iranian border, the official Noah's Ark National Park, and the Ishak Pasa Sarayi, a palace completed in 1784 on a hill south of town. With our own minivan, driver and guide we spent the next two weeks touring eastern Anatolia as the Asian side of Turkey is known. We climbed Mt. Erciyes and wrapped up the trip July 26th in the Cappadocia region in central Turkey. A story about this part of the trip and some pictures will appear on my web site at: http://www.peakbagging.com.
Notes on Mount Ararat, Getting there:
The town of Dogubayazit is the starting point for most climbs of Mount Ararat. This is a long way, about 1300 km from Istanbul, and unless you want to endure a 30-hour bus ride the best way is to fly. The nearest airport is in the town of Agn and there are flights from Ankara several times a week. From Agri it is 90 km by road to Dogubayazit.
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