The first five thousand meters

I read once that you relive a trip 3 times – when you organize it, when you complete it and then when you tell the story of it. It’s time for my 3rd and last time!

I’ve traveled quite a bit but I have to admit, for the first time the anxious anticipation of an upcoming trip was replaced by slight fear and a new unknown feeling – the one people like Mallory experienced before they leave for the summit of Everest. It all started on our way to climb a peak in Bulgaria in the summer of 2012 when we quietly, as if daydreaming, discussed the idea of attempting to climb Mt. Ararat in Turkey. At that time no one even had a vague idea about the details of this endeavor but someone mentioned it’s over 5000m which instantly put it on our radar. We had no idea how to plan such an expedition, except that we were determined to do it in 2013!

The group in a journey like that is usually fluctuating – for one reason or another one joins and another decides to drop out. In the final draw there were seven of us – and our sincere friend – THE vehicle. After a couple of months planning over a lot of beer and endless conversations, getting to know your mates and almost daily changes to the plan… the time came! 31st July 2013 ca. 19:30h!

We gathered with a clearer idea now – we’re going on a round trip around the Black sea during which we’ll try to

Sofia - Istanbul - Samsun - Trabzon - Mt Ararat
Sofia – Istanbul – Samsun – Trabzon – Mt Ararat

climb Mt. Ararat – the highest in Turkey (5165m) and Mt. Elbrus (5642m) – the champion of Kavkaz, Russia and Europe. At that point I thought we were being very ambitious especially since most of us never so much as tried anything like that abroad. And so around 20:00h on the last day of July we left for Istanbul. Crossed the Bulgarian-Turkish border at midnight – I have the feeling that the border control authorities were highly discouraged to thoroughly inspect our luggage after checking its size and volume – and around 1:30h we were in Turkey.

Bulgaria was behind us, before us only the adventures! Next stop: Northeastern Turkey. The whole next day we traveled alongside the Turkish seaside which is a beautiful route! (Not that we had a lot of choice though – this is still the only possible way to Ararat. The peak is in the border area with Armenia. Turkey and Armenia don’t maintain diplomatic relations because of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and so there are no other options.)

Beach in Samsun
Beach in Samsun

That night we pitched our tents at a deserted beach near the city of Samsun.

Unfortunately for us, throughout the trip it was the holy month of Ramadan so the local fast food – kebab – remained for us only a reason to come back. Not long after we set up our little camp, a stranger parked his car nearby and walked to us carrying 3 melons. These were apparently a gift he brought because he saw us camping. One of the boys had thought of bringing Bulgarian souvenirs along so we returned the favor. To be honest – he did offer a better place for camping as well, but we were already too tired to move everything. Our feast of sausages, olives, bread and a couple sips of rakia put us to sleep in no time. Except for the few bulls that passed by us, the night was calm and quiet and the next morning brought the new goal for the day – to reach Doğubayazıt, the town where the climbing of Ağrı Dağ will begin.
We got up earlier the next day and around 8:00 we were already en-route to Trabzon. Before us were 800km to pass – almost all of the Turkish Black sea cost where the little picturesque towns were very impressive. The generosity of the locals was unbelievable – they would buy us coffee and tea just because we were “neighbours”. Next stop was the town of Erzurum – administrative center of the area with mixed population of Kurd and Turks – and to get there we had to pass the Pontic Mountains in Anatolia. It was amazing how many new little towns with university campuses we noticed while passing the mountain. After a couple of hours driving we were at 2400m and from there it was all the way down to Erzurum. We continued East and while the view was getting more and more stone and desert-like, the houses were small, stone-made and unique; on the sides of the road you could see piles of animal excrement the locals were using for heating due to the lack of wood. Just before nightfall before us stood out Dogubayazit and so after a 12-hour ride we were moments away from meeting our guide – Musa – at the local bus station. In an instant the locals surrounded us eager to help! We merely mentioned Musa’s name and someone called him to come pick us up – he drove in literally in a couple of minutes and apologized for being late! For better or worse he only spoke Russian so our communication with him from now on was up to only two of the seven of us. An experienced local guide is a must when you go on a trip like that – Musa was recommended to us by friends who used his services in the past. Turkey doesn’t issue permits for the climb of Ararat to foreigners because of the conflict with Armenia so you must find a guide. I imagine climbing without one would be harsh too – he’s not only helping you on your way up but also checking that you won’t violate any rules in the meantime, an improvised cop of a kind.  The price for hiring a guide and sleeping in their camp (but in your own tent) is around 300 euro per person. If you want food and other “extras” – better double that. However, Ararat is the easiest peak for everyone who wants to overtake a 5000-er. There are people who conquered it on their first or second mountain trip ever! At this point tea had become a tradition for us so after grabbing a cup we all went to bed. The aim for tomorrow: reach the first base camp at 3200m.

Have-a-break tent
Have-a-break tent

After a tremendous effort to get up at dawn and pack all the luggage, Musa’s brother – Nuri, came to pick us up. We got into his bus with 6 Polish folks who were to be our group for the climb. Before noon we were at the meeting point in a “village” (more like a bunch of houses) called Eli, where the shoes were neatly tied, sunscreen was applied and it was ON. Our first pit stop was a small tent, where we were treated to yet another cup of tea to help fight dehydration. At one of the tea tents kids were offering to sell us a map of the Turkish mountains for 25 YTL.

On our way up we stopped to have a couple spoons of honey (Why honey? Mixing honey with nuts of your choice – we did walnuts –  turns it into an energy boost. The only problem here is that it’s heavy and the body absorbs it slower but I’d still recommend it as super affordable, accessible and effective when you’re tired.) and after a 4-hour hike we saw the first tents of the base camp. On the surrounding hills we spotted the base camps of other guides. We were relieved! It was time for rest and dinner under the stars. Surprisingly, no one could finish their meal so we had to throw away food. Following the sunset at 19:30 the activities were very much limited to the traditional for our guides man dance and around 10pm we were all falling asleep.

First base camp at 3200m
First base camp at 3200m

Acclimatization day

Early the next morning – something you need to get used to if you’re into mountaineering – we continued to the second base camp at 4200m. Nuri gave up after a while and surprisingly left us with another guide. The Turkish marketing flair struck again on our way up. At 3800m there were buckets of ice cold beverages – including beer we promised to be rewarded with on our way back. In a few hours we were at the second base camp – it was insane to have lunch above the clouds! After that we had to go back; the weather and the dust around were additionally dehydrating everyone and increasing our determination to balance it out – which we did, at the tent called “Ararat cafe” in our base camp. Musa came to us a bit later and offered us goat for dinner which we politely declined – we couldn’t risk stomach discomfort! While the preparation of the goat was unfolding, we admired the view. The wilderness before us was infinite but still the most splendid sight I’ve seen to this day.

Early morning getup was inevitable on the following morning as well. After breakfast we packed the luggage, the food was loaded on the horses and we were on to the second base camp. Despite of the heavy bags we reached it far quicker this time. As time was passing by our anxiousness of the upcoming attack of the peak was increasing immensely. Nuri came to warn us that getting up the next day (or should I say night?!) has to be at 1:00 am. The stories the morning climbing group shared weren’t exactly helping – closer to the top it was windy and extremely cold and no improvement was expected in the next days.

On the night before the 6th day of our adventure, the mountain wind was putting some serious effort into moving all the tents with us inside! I was one of the lucky few that managed to get a good sleep. Our morning routine included literally fighting the gas primuses in a desperate attempt to boil some water – unsuccessful as it turned out, except for a benzene one which proved to be the best option. We managed to heat some water, packed it in our bottles and left. Unfortunately, most of the groups had already moved up and we were the last to go with the Polish guys and Nuri at about 2:40 – with more than 90min. delay. In spite of Nuri’s constant complaining that we’re slow – we managed to overtake a few of the earlier groups. All you could see in front were tens of headlamps in the dark. Slowly the day was breaking from East and we felt the warmth. The shadow of the grandiose Ararat was behind us.

In the shadow of Ararat
In the shadow of Ararat

The higher we were, the more nauseous I’d feel. Fortunately for me nothing worse happened and the most common symptom of the altitude sickness – the headache – was missing. After 3:30 we were already at 4800m where we needed climbing irons. My fingers were frozen so this took good 10 min but I managed. Up the glacier! Most of the guys were slowly climbing behind me. These last 300m were the easiest part of all and around 7am we were all on top greeting each other. We took about a 1000 photos when Nuri rushed us to go back. It was time to leave the first 5000m of my life!

Five of the seven guys on top
Five of the seven guys on top

Photo copyright – Sofia Mountaineering Club

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