The sun is warm on the morning we set foot on Ağrı Dağı. Now I realize it was a fooler.
We ascend past the camps of nomadic herders, past the children begging for our chocolate bars, and past the occasional shepherd with his flock. The trail, which had been cut with heavy equipment at some point in the past, quickly shook off all memory of the experience. Deep ruts demand a jump or even a full detour. Boulders litter the path. Serious water has torn the ground to pieces.
Celîl picks his way forward without hesitation. He is a human metronome. Tik . . . tik . . . tik. His trekking poles staccato the rock. It is a sustainable pace.
A group of four hikers comes up on our rear, but Celîl is immune to their pressure. When they pass us, I note that their leader has no trekking poles or pack and is wearing jeans and tennis shoes. Such a style choice, of itself, is not a concern, but it does catch my eye and I remember it. Later, when we pass this group again, I am thankful that we have Celîl. Not all mountain guides are equal. Neither are all trekking companies. Much later, we will share our tea with these poor folk when they are unable to locate theirs. I remember reading before this trip that the goal of some guides is to push their groups to the top of the mountain and back down again as fast as possible. I think this must be one. Celîl takes a more leisurely (and organized) approach. While he is not particularly communicative, he is professional.
The first leg up Ağrı Dağı ascends from the village of Çevirme to Low Camp. Horizontally, it is a relatively short journey, perhaps six or seven miles. This number, however, does not capture the whole story. It does not take the vertical element into account (nor the “thin air” factor!). Over the course of this short distance, the trail rises a vertical mile to more than 11,000 feet.
Sustaining this grade (something like 13%?) over the course of several hours (with a pack) is a challenge for the inexperienced (like me). Fortunately, Celîl stops regularly for breaks. I recover just enough to smile when he sings, “Oookaay, Lets gooo.”
In the early afternoon the clatter of hoof on stone reaches our ears. Six horses come up the trail; two young Kurds jump among them. As they approach, I can see that the horses have no leads. Knotted ropes are draped around the necks of two of them, frayed ends dangle down. Control of the group is achieved only by clicks and shouts uttered by the young men, and, from time to time, a slap or thrown stone. Ropes are used, however, to constrain the lumpy bags of gear and supplies last seen that morning in Çevirme. It is good to know that our load has made it this far. Pleasantries are exchanged. Uraz tells us that the bags should arrive at the camp before we do, and, what’s more, the young men will pitch the mess tent for all of us. There might even be hot tea when we arrive!
Clouds close in as the afternoon lingers. Out of the corner of my eye I see Celîl and Uraz exchange worried glances. Soon our visibility decreases and we are enveloped by grey. Rain begins to fall. Celîl stops and calls for rain gear. Those of us who are carrying it, pull it from our packs. I have a top, but no bottoms. Brad has neither. He put his in the duffel that went up by horseback. The rain increases in intensity. Within minutes, regardless of gear, we are all soaked. Then the temperature plummets and the rain turns to sleet. Brad is seriously chattering now. He is wearing nothing more than his hiking pants and a short-sleeved polyester shirt.
Lightning cracks. “Ka-BOOM!” Thunder rolls off the rocks around us. It is like standing on the head of a drum.