Excursus: Patterson's Climb 1

I return to my office to contemplate the document, “An Ascent of Ararat,” by Ward Patterson. Ward spent a decade between the late 1950s and late 1960s traveling Asia. In that decade, he logged some 65,000 miles on the road, visited 40 countries and exhausted at least three motorcycles. Later, he served as a campus minister at Indiana University and professor at Cincinnati Christian University.

As I lean back into my chair to consider his account of Ağrı Dağı, I find myself drawn back to the slopes of the mountain. Of course, there are many differences between our two experiences, his and mine, not least of which involve time. Ward arrived at the base of the mountain in July of 1967, more than a half a century before me.

The following account was written by his hand.

I suppose many people have climbed it before. After all, it has been “there” a long time. This, however, is small consolation as we gasp the thin air and drag our aching legs toward that now-capped summit that seem to become more distant with every tortuous step. Five steps. I step and concentrate on breathing deeply. Then I move forward with determination. Seven whole steps this time before I grind to a halt. But now I require a longer breather. Five steps and again I rest, bent ever with my hands on my knees. I look up and try to discern the easiest path by which to climb the next yard or two.

I look at the summit, that summit that looks so close and which never seems to get nearer. Six more steps. I try to get my eyes to focus. “Don’t let that dizzy, light-headed feeling get you,” I lecture myself. Seven steps in the dry, crust snow. I wonder if there is a chance I might break through that crust. I feel my face being blistered by the sun and the snow’s reflection despite the protective film of oil I applied just a few hours before.

Children and herder’s tent at the base of the mountain (From the Patterson Collection).

Eight steps and I look down on those dark clouds swirling below and rising up here and there like cotton pillars. I note the wind direction and wonder if we will beat the clouds to the summit.  I dearly hope so.

Five steps. I look through the haze as from an aircraft window. Over there is Russia, there Iran, there Turkey–all alike down there through the blue haze. I look up at that disgusting summit. How long have we been looking at it? Wouldn’t it be awful to have come so far and still not make it! My rubbery legs move up just eight more steps. My shoulders ache from the light, little pack I carry. Yes, won’t it be great to say offhandedly, “Oh, of course I climbed Mt. Ararat, you know?” As if anybody really cared. But I care. And I am going to climb it. This treadmill must have an end somewhere. It can’t go up and up forever. Or can it?

A few more steps. “Clear the head, focus the eyes, watch those clouds, don’t lose your balance,” I silently lecture myself, the sentences coming again and again like sounds from a cracked record. It is difficult here. We labor slowly up the steep incline, nearly blinded by intense glare of our snow world. The mountain drops away dangerously to our right. This is the most dangerous part of the climb, I think. If I started to roll down that incline, could I stop? Could I dig in my elbows, scratch in my fingernails, dig in my boots and stop sliding and rolling before skidding helplessly over the lip of that glacier-ice cliff that is just below. I doubt if I or anyone else could stop. I remember a friend who didn’t come back from the Himalayas because he started rolling down an incline, an incline not so awful as this. We are roped together now, my Austrian buddy and I. My brain continues its lecture,”Careful now, you wobbly legs. Remember that others have climbed this mountain, climbed it and presumably made it down. It has been ‘there’ a long time.”

I try to think of anything that will take my mind off those next five steps. I climb by reflex. I try not to let the question arise as to whether I will take those next five steps, or, instead, give up and go back down.

I think of the comedy of errors that has brought me here. How had it all begun? Well, I suppose it all began with Noah. I move slowly on and look toward the saw-tooth peak, half expecting to see a phantom ship, encrusted with ice and covered with a blanket of snow, nestled just below the summit. With my eyes playing the tricks they are, it would not be too unexpected. I envy Noah slightly. At least he got a ride to the top of the mountain. I’d rather ride than walk any day. A dark cloud swirls below me. Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles up the mountain. On second thought, maybe Noah’s trip was rather terrifying at that.

I think of the hot flats of Ur so far distant and the pit where Woolley thought he found evidence for the Biblical flood. I wear on my head the same Arab chufiyeh I wore when I had looked into the “flood pit” of Ur. How hot it had been there. Now the headgear shelters me from the searing reflection of snow.

To be continued . . .