Excursus: Patterson's Climb 2

The piece that follows is drawn from the notes of Ward Patterson. It recounts his experience of Ağrı Dağı in the summer of 1967. Documents and photographs of  Ward’s travels are located in the George Mark Elliot Library of the Cincinnati Christian University.

“And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.”

The “mountains of Ararat”? Is it not rather the mountain of Ararat? This 17,000 foot peak on which I now labor, is it not marked Mt. Ararat on my excellent British Bartholomew map? Despite the fact that I now labor up this, the highest mountain in both Anatolia and Europe primarily because of its traditional associations with Noah and the ark, I am aware that this twin-peaked adversary is only the highest of a range of “mountains of Ararat,” a range rising in eastern Armenia and lying about halfway between the Caspian and Black Seas . . . .

Yayla children at the base of the mountain. The term yayla refers to the summer pastures of semi-nomadic peoples in this part of the world. (From the Patterson Collection).

I suppose it is natural enough for the tradition makers to pick the highest and most impressive of the mountains to call the mountain of Noah. And indeed it is a dramatic mountain if ever there was one. There are few mountains in the world which rise from such a low base to such a dizzying height. The plain below has an elevation of about 3,000 feet, so my friend and I have 14,000 feet of work to do. It is a grand peak, standing virtually alone and unrivaled, rising like an ancient tree stump from the plain. From below, the 3,000 to 4,000 feet of snow that covers the peak on this July day looks deceptively close. Also, from below, it is difficult to discern the wide plateau that circles the mountain on the western side.

Yes, it all began with Noah and the fact that the ark came to rest in the mountains of Ararat and that tradition has picked this, the highest of the mountains to be Noah’s mountain. As I toil up, I wonder why they couldn’t have chosen one of the lower peaks to do the job just as well.

My mind goes to teenage memories memories of reported sightings of an ark-like object on the mountain by World War II fliers. I remember expeditions trying to discover the ark being denounced and hindered by Russian authorities. I recall reports that Russian fliers themselves had reported sighting the ark–just before the Czars were overthrown. All of this brings an air of mystery, international intrigue, and discovery to my present attempt to scale Mt. Ararat.

More immediately my climb began with a conversation with an energetic chaplain at XXX Air Force Base near Adana in southern Turkey. This chaplain, Captain Christian, had a keen desire to climb Mt. Ararat. In fact he had scheduled an expedition with some other air force men for July the 8th. Playing it none too coyly I wrangled an invitation to join them. From my point of view, it was ideal. They had the tents, sleeping bags, special rations–and Captain Christian would be there to make all the arrangements. I might even ride a horse almost to the top and then trot up to plant the flag and all that. They were to leave Adana and I was to leave Ankara. We would meet at Dogubayazit, near the Persian border, at the base of the mountain.

I rode “Ree” my 20 year old motorcycle the 1300 miles of the Black Sea route to our destination. It was a very difficult trip, through rain, rough mountain roads, and horrendous corrugated tracks that shook nuts and bolts loose from poor Ree. The front fender broke loose, braces to the sidecar broke, the new battery demolished itself, sprocket bolts came out, the sidecar torsion bar collapsed. The second day I rode 17 continuous hours, stopping only for gas and a quick snack. The third day 14 hours were spend in the saddle. When I arrived my hands were so swollen from the beating of the handlebars that I could scarcely close them.

Patterson on “Ree.” She is smartly outfitted for international travel (From the Patterson Collection).

Arriving at Dogubayazit just after sundown, I set about finding my friends, the fellows with all the plans and equipment. No one spoke English. Our meeting point was to be the governor’s office where we were to get our permit. No one understood what I was trying to say. Have you ever tried to say “Governor’s Office” in sign language? I was utterly helpless. So all I could do was ride up and down the dirt streets of the town, hoping my friends would spot me. Nobody spotted anybody. After several futile passes through the village, I gave up and ate my supper. At length, fortune smiled and I met a young major who understood my gibberish. He asked soldiers stationed in the town if my friends had come and they said no. I was afraid I might have missed them by a few hours and that they might be planning to climb without me, but nothing more was to be done. Exhausted, I collapsed on my cot in the police station.

To be continued . . .