Living Ice

The head of Ağrı Dağı is covered in living ice. Biologically, I realize this description is a poor fit, but how else can alpine ice be described? It grows, builds, shrinks, moves, melts, and calves. If activity is a measure of life, this ice is unquestionably a living thing.

I think about this as we reach the southern edge of the cap. Three or four hours of hard climbing have passed since we left High Camp. I am too tired to write in my notebook. I focus on making notes in my head. The night sky begins to lighten overhead, the dark gravel underfoot also begins to yield. It is a striking correspondence (above and below) that cannot be coincidental. Celîl calls a halt to the line. We drop, collect our breath, hunt water bottles and additional clothing. We are also told to pull out our crampons.

MZ and Tanner in the morning light.

As recently as eight months ago (March, 2012), a study of Ağrı Dağı was published in the Journal of Asian Earth Sciences. Its author, Mehmet Akif Sarıkaya of Fatih University (Istanbul), offered measures of its living ice. He detailed not just the mountain’s uniquenesses as an periglacial landscape in the Middle East (where such structures are rare), but also the relatively unstudied nature of this magnificent stratovolcano. To date, there are no fixed weather stations on Ağrı’s frosty cap.

Measurements are therefore derived from aerial photography, satellite imagery, and other regional climate collecting sources. Sarıkaya used all of these data to demonstrate change on the mountain. Since 1976, precipitation has remained steady, but temperatures have risen. The ice cap has retreated dramatically, approaching a decrease by one-third (29%). Global warming? Hmmm.

Keith, Brad, and Greg prepare for the final leg.

This retreat is not constant on all faces of the mountain. On the north face (wickedly steep along the Ahora Gorge!) the ice edge has remained relatively unchanged. However on the southern slopes, more exposed to the sun’s rays and less topographically dramatic, the retreat is quite visible. Here we toil in 2012 and here Patterson toiled in 1967. Sarıkaya’s observations suggest that Patterson may have encountered the ice cap at an elevation between 700 to 900 feet below our own meeting. But if you think that he was the disadvantaged one, think again!

View to ice cap above Ahora Gorge. Image from

View to glaciers spilling down Ağrı’s north face. Image from

I can’t say for sure what Patterson experienced (or any others for that matter), but I do know that once we don our crampons and continue upslope on the ice, the effort of climbing eases considerably. The grade seems to gradually decrease on the cap. The rising sun gives us more light to navigate. This offers greater confidence. But most significantly, the scree-scramble of the gravel goes away immediately. The surface may still, at times, be steep, but the surface is smooth, windblown, and unyielding. Our crampons bite into the crust. We walk on water.

Winter precipitation accounts for the snowpack beneath our feet. According to Celîl, this pack is hundreds of feet thick in places. I can only imagine the great weight of this pack as pressure transforms it (analogous to the process that produces metaphoric rock!) into a dense and churning ice field.

Gravity is pulling the whole business downhill, but not evenly. The glacial ice is plastic, moving internally, cracking the crust on the surface. The upper reaches move faster than the base that drags along the rock face, bulldozing and pulverizing everything in its path. It is, in a way, an awkward tumble in slow motion, the top of the glacier gets ahead of the bottom.








Video 1: Sunrise on the southern edge of the cap. Note the satellite cone of “Little Ararat” in the distance.

As I think about all this weight and motion, I have a hard time imagining how Noah’s ark could possibly have survived such conditions. How could a hollow wooden box, older than the great pyramids of Egypt, avoid the crushing force of the ice or not be pushed off the mountain entirely and splintered into a million pieces in the downhill flow? It is beyond my comprehension.

For the moment though, I have other things to think on. The wind is picking up. The temperature is in the teens. The sun is rising and we are walking on living ice.

We are very high, so we move slowly. But we are moving. One step at a time.








Video 2: On the ice cap, ascending to the Western Plateau.