The squad crosses the road. They are intent on the march, despite a lack of herd and shepherd. That some are speckled, spotted, or streaked makes me smile. After all, this is the village of Haran, the exilic home of Jacob the trickster (see his shenanigans in the text of Gen 30:25-43). It is a place where goats, sheep, and humans have co-existed for millennia.
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 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.
“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?
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.
Tents are pitched on the graveled slope of High Camp. Tommy sorts out the arrangements: I will bunk with Greg; Brad with Keith; Tanner with Tommy. Wilkerson, who continues to struggle, will have his own tent. We bend the poles, stretch the nylon, and lasso the rain-fly to large boulders. In the process, we discuss domestic strategy.
Horses packing gear to High Camp.
We arise to a cool and breezy dawn. Some lingering sprinkles fall throughout the morning as we pack our gear. Everything is folded, rolled, tied, and zipped. Today we move from Low to High Camp.
I awake in the Low Camp to the sound of rain. The droplets collect, trickle down the fly of the dome and drip where a zippered door should to be. The clothespin fix that I had hoped would secure the door has failed. The door flaps freely in the wind, occasionally brushing me with a sloppy kiss. I look up. My socks sway from the overhead pole. I, and everything I own, am soaking wet.
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.
The rutted road that climbs up from Çevirme demands a shift from wheels to legs. Leaving the comforts of settled life behind, we pick our way into Ağrı Dağı’s foothills. I look right and contemplate a flat-roofed structure of stone and mud. Two women eyeball our group as we follow Celîl around the corner. I make note of the moment; this is the edge of the permanent. We enter the world of the mobile. Bones and ankles take the place of brakes and axles. Before me is the summer grazing ground of Kurdish pastoralists.
Doğubayazıt, our cowboy town, is the launch point for those who attempt the summit of Ağrı Dağı. It specializes in essentials: a bed to sleep in, a hot meal, a supply store, and, of course, the gendarmeriewhere climbing permits are issued. Nothing (except maybe Chinese-made shoes and Turkish cotton T-shirts?) is offered in quantity, but it can be found if you know where to look. That is the important part. Forget a wool cap? You can find it in Doğubayazıt. Forget your crampons? You can find them in Doğubayazıt. Forget your beef jerky? Be sure to check the expiration date.
I stand on the terraced roof of our hotel and scan the horizon. Doğubeyazıt (Daroynk to Armenians) reminds me of the Great American West. Could this be Wyoming? Perhaps. It is a cowboy town, a trucker town, a mountain town, a border town. It is gritty in appearance and demanding of all who pass.
After a short visit to High Camp, we return to the comforts of Low Camp. It is an uneventful descent of about two hours duration. I pick my way through the boulder-strewn path and realize that the trekking poles are more valuable going downslope than they were going upslope.