The road unwinds outside our vehicle. We do the same on the inside, quietly resting after our experience of Ağrı Dağı. My head bumps against the glass, eyes half closed. This, despite the extraordinary landscape.
Just to be clear, it is not my idea. Neither is it the idea of the six. But they go along. All of us go along. This much cannot be denied, although I am certain that some might try to when we get home. Curiosity, more than anything else, is the motivator.
After a brief rest, we pack up the High Camp. The sun is warm but I am too worn down to appreciate it. The two and a half hour descent to Low Camp is a blur. My trekking poles become crutches.
Mustafa’s stew is quite fine. Unless you are ill.
Nothing appeals to Wilkerson. His condition is deteriorating. He finished the acclimatization hike and came to the mess tent at suppertime. However, he is unable to eat anything substantial for a second day.
I think I understand what Viesturs means when he writes, “The mountain decides whether you climb or not.” And yet, I’m sure he would also recognize that there is a point at which the body, apart from the mountain or the mind, dictates a “stop.”
I knew going up Ağrı Dağı would be a physical challenge. I expected it. I prepared for it. I wanted it.
Traversing the cap.
What I didn’t know is that coming down the mountain would freight my inexperience with a new load.
We absorb the view.
The earth is swaddled in grey wool. It is soft and warm and snugly tucked in. The wool obscures what lies beneath.
The steel pole impales the ice. But it too suffers, leaning hard to one side. That the wind is responsible for this awkward state of affairs is obvious enough, though the flags do not show it. Their fabric is all knotted and stiff; frayed ends alone are permitted to dance in this spacious arena. The colors of these standards-of-triumphs-past are are warm, even when frozen. They are a welcome contrast to the palette of blues visible in every direction, including down.
“Leave your packs here,” shouts Celîl into the wind.
“Here” happens to be an apron of ice immediately below Ağrı’s horned summit. We are standing on the apron, two thousand feet higher than the tallest peak in the continental United States.
Roped together, we move slowly. That drop-off to our right is more ominous by the minute. Fortunately the sky is still clear. The glare makes my face feel like it is sizzling on a griddle. At last we are past the place of danger, above the first hump. Now all that remains is that last hump. We catch a glimpse of a spike or cross or something that marks the top, just before the wind picks up and the clouds suddenly enclose us. Everything is now obscured.
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.
Two o’clock in the morning is a time unknown to sensible people. Those who do know it can be counted on three fingers: the profane, the pious, and possibly, the summiteer. The nine men who walk out of High Camp belong to at least one of these three groups already. Before the day is over, regardless of outcome, they will likely belong to one more.
Suddenly I wake. It is 1:30 in the morning on the slopes of Ağrı Dağı. At 13,000 feet it is cold and dark. A light wind is blowing. Uraz hollers down from the mess tent a second time. It is unnecessary.
The next day, I awaited some sign of my party. By evening it became clear that I had been “stood up” at the foot of Ararat. I contemplated the long trip back to Ankara–a total of 2,500 miles–for nothing at all. I looked up at Ararat. I had no special equipment for the climb and the mountain scared me to death.
Mustafa works his magic in the mess tent and dinner is served. Good appetites, for the most part, pull up to the table. The exception is Wilkerson, who was already reduced to fluids before we reached High Camp. Greg now follows suit. He talks of nausea, grimaces at the sight of food, and picks at Mustafa’s offerings on his styrofoam plate.
“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?
The afternoon passes in High Camp. We observe, lethargically, as the scattered clouds race past. One energetic system arrives overhead, threatens, and releases its moisture. It is not a heavy rain and is over nearly as soon as it begins. Afterwards, the sun reappears and peeks through the western sky.
One of the guys shouts, “Look, a rainbow!”
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.
We assemble outside the mess tent at High Camp. Uraz wants to have a look at our ice gear before dinner.
So far on Ağrı Dağı, the challenge (apart from my perverse need for more air!) has been to stay upright while scampering up steep slopes of broken scree. The gravel is thick and ubiquitous. At times, even the sturdiest trailmaster can (for reasons that I cannot yet predict) spontaneously break into a furious dance: he runs in place, feet at times on the mountain, at times in the sky. Gravel sprays in all directions. It is cartoonesque. Such displays are always entertaining when others do it; less so, of course, when it happens to me.
I climb the stairs from my office to the George Mark Elliot Library on the campus of Cincinnati Christian University. I am on a hunt. There is a rare (and ancient) word that has escaped the tools near my desk; this one requires the big muscles of the reference section.