The Low Camp

Celîl shouts into the sleet, “Lit’s goooo.” The thunder rolls as if to emphasize his words. We scamper between the stony bumps of Ağrı Dağı’s backbone. Visibility drops as does the temperature. In the case of the latter, it is a thirty degree drop.

Sleet falls on the open face of the mountain.

Thirty minutes pass and we continue up and into the elements. I check my GPS. We are nearly at 10,500 feet. My hiking boots, socks, and pants are completely soaked. Why did I leave my cold weather gear with the horses? Fingers and face are tingling. I worry. Then I worry for Brad. If I am feeling this cold, I know he must be worse. How much further can it be to the camp? We have been on the trail now for six hours. A glance at Celîl reveals nothing. He continues to pole the ground steadily:  tik . . . tik . . . tik.

We crest one more ridge and, thankfully, the base camp emerges through the mist. It is a cluster of multi-colored tents huddled under a rocky knob. I holler and slap at Tanner. He grins, slaps back. Then, as if on cue, the sleet eases and stops. Go figure.

The first base camp emerges.

Our experience earlier in the day led us to believe that we were not alone on the mountain, but I had no idea until this moment that there would be this many others. How many climbers are in this camp? 20? 30? 50? Later, I would learn that not all the tents are occupied at the same time, but clearly our goal to summit “Ararat” is one shared by many people from many different countries. I begin imagining a continuous line of people walking up and down from the pole in single file. What a horrible thought!

Many years ago I climbed Mt Sinai by night. I was thrilled by the thought of summiting that sacred mountain at sunrise. It would be just me, God, the memory of Moses, and my favorite soundtrack from “Field of Dreams.” As it turned out, it was me, God, and 400 Koreans. One perched on every open rock . . . gripping a camera. Hardly the stuff of heavenly rapture.

Here, on Ağrı Dağı, I knew that all climbers are forced to follow a single trail both up and down the mountain. This is due to a variety of reasons including political sensitivity and physical security. Connected to the stipulation of route is the demand that all climbers sleep in one of two designated camps. The camp now looming before us, at 11,023 feet, is the “low” camp. Above us, invisible in the mist, is the “high” camp.

The mess tent.

We walk into Low Camp. It is a muddy, sloppy, and wonderful arrival. As expected, the horsemen are here ahead of us and have set up the mess tent. Hot tea is being prepared. In the meantime (and in the weather lull), Uraz tells us that we should pitch our personal tents. He roots the them out of the wet pile that came up by horse, gives them a shake and distributes them.

Keith and I will bunk together this first night. We go to work on our tent. The cold inhibits our fine motor skills, but we manage. We position it between boulders, keeping the side doors away from the wind. The zipper on one door, however, has failed. I put two clothespins to hold it in place (sortof) and pray that the wind doesn’t shift. Afterwards, I open my backpack only to discover that it is not as waterproof as I was led to believe. I pour the contents onto the ground. My wet gear tumbles out in a waterfall. I retrieve my duffel bag. It is the same way. Everything is wet (except my sleeping bag which is in a compression sack). I drape what I can on on the rocks. I wring out one pair of socks and underwear (for tomorrow) and hang them inside my tent. They now drip on my dry sleeping bag. “This is not a good start,” I say aloud. My breath is visible.

Tommy is unflappable.

A quick inventory of our group reveals that we are dented but not damaged. Brad has survived his afternoon ordeal and is in good spirits. Greg is slightly nauseous. Keith is moving slowly. Tommy is unflappable and Tanner is twenty years younger than the rest of us. He will be fine. I am just cold. But the hot tea is ready.

We drink in the mess tent and joke about the possibility of bringing our wives on this adventure. Brad says that Cheryl would have been OK with most of the day. Except the sleet part. “No,” he drawls. “That would have been a dealbreaker.” We laugh. Another round of freezing rain begins to fall on the tents.