With the rain that has fallen on Ararat over the last few days you might have thought that the Ark would float once more, or at least be swept down the mountain in a torrent of water. On Monday, the day before our ascent of the mountain began, there was a huge storm with torrential rain. The water rushed down the mountain gathering force and momentum so that by the time it reached the bottom of the mountain it was a force to be reckoned with. Eli village took the full brunt of the surge. Fortunately the water took the easiest route, the road, and spared the houses. The road, however was completely destroyed. Our vehicles could no longer go to the normal start point for the climb 150m above the village but only to the village itself and that was not without difficulty.
Disembarking from our vehicles after the bumpy ride, we prepared ourselves for the 1300m ascent up to base camp. It is a relatively gentle slog, first up the dirt road and then a good path up to the camp. Parts of the dirt road proved more difficult than normal because of the boulders strewn across it and in one place a gash six to eight feet deep along the road and almost the full width of it.
I stayed at the back picking up stragglers who were struggling for a number of reasons. We seemed to always have one or two suffering with stomach problems after a couple of days in towns. It was not an unpleasant walk although looking up to the summit was daunting for some. It towers above you, getting steeper all the time. The snow line was considerably lower than my previous climb in 2010 and this added to the anxiety. Everybody realised that this was not going to be like anything they had done before; this was going to be serious.
The lower slopes of Ararat were much greener this year and there were several nomad camps dotted about. As we passed them hoards of children came to meet us trying to sell us scarves which they had made, and requesting, not always pleasantly, for sweets, pens or money. The girls tended to be quite reserved but the boys were much more aggressive and rude. With one group I had to give them a warning glare before they would back off.
After four hours or so we reached camp, a crowded selection of tents pitched anywhere where there was a flat place or where one could be created. These tents tend to stay in situe throughout the climbing season and were beginning to show signs of wear and tear.
Our second day on the mountain was an acclimatisation day with a walk up to 4000m and back to base camp. There were a number who were not very well so we gave them a rest day. They had already been up to 3700m in the Taurus Mountains; a rest would be far more beneficial. Our main concern was with one student who had been ill before leaving the UK and still had a lingering cough, a temperature and all the symptoms of a chest infection. Whilst we hoped to at least get him to high camp we realistically did not expect him to summit.
Leaving five of the group behind the rest of us set out to climb up to 4000m. Ildrum, our mountain guide set an excellent pace that allowed everybody to stay together. The pace was broken when Aliza felt dizzy and sick. I opted to take her back to camp. She would gain nothing by going higher and it was important that she was fit for summit day as it was her seventeenth birthday, one she will never forget if she is successful. The rest of the group were back in camp by lunch time and enjoyed their picnics in warm sunshine.
Things changed very rapidly. We soon found ourselves enveloped in cloud rising from below and the temperature dropped dramatically. The rain soon followed, gently to begin with and then torrentially with large hail stones. The thunder was constant and boomed just above our heads as it moved horizontally across the mountain. This really tested the tents and a number were found to let water in, mine included, which had puddles forming on the groundsheet. I have no idea where it was coming in but I noticed it in time to make sure that essentials such as sleeping bag remained dry.
The storm rumbled on for a couple of hours and then disappeared into the distance. The rain came and went several more times into the night but nothing as heavy as the first downpour. What effect would this have on the lower slopes?
Most of those who had been ill were improving and we had hopes for everybody except the one with the chest infection. I decided that I would go no higher than high camp but look after any who went no further or who returned early from the summit attempt. It was logical as I was the only member of the team to have been to the summit before and I did not want to deny anybody else the opportunity.
In the morning Jenny still had serious concerns about the chest infection and felt it unwise for him to go higher. Although I had prepared him for the news, it is never easy to hear but he took it well. I gave him the choice of staying put in base camp or going back down to Dogubayazit. He chose the latter so while the rest of the group prepared to go up to high camp and beyond, I and my patient prepared to descend. It was a motley crew we went down with, a Turkish woman from Istanbul, a Turkish man married to a Kazak Russian who cried all the way down because she felt she could have made it to the summit. She could hardly make it down from base camp, let alone climb up. There were also three Bulgarians, one a chain smoker, an overweight man constantly on his mobile and his wife. It took us over four hours to reach Eli and a lift back to the hotel. My patient seemed relieved to be off the mountain and can begin to get himself better without his body having to suffer the extremes of Mt. Ararat.
Meanwhile the rest of the group reached high camp safely and set off for the summit at 3.00am on Friday 3rd August. The cloud was down, it was windy and it was very cold. Only one student felt it necessary to turn back at 4760m suffering from altitude sickness and Omer took him back to high camp. The rest of the group went on to summit at 7.30am but sadly did not have any views. It remained very cold and after only ten minutes on the summit they started the long descent to base camp, all except Jenny, Paul and Omer who came all the way back to Dogubuyazit, Jenny and Paul because they have to be at work on Monday and Omer because he has to begin guiding another group arriving late on the 4th. It is a shame they cannot be with us to the very end and I am extremely grateful to them for making this an exceptional trip.
Twenty one students left Worcester on 14th July and eighteen reached the summit of Mt. Ararat (5137m) on the 3rd August. In addition six of the seven staff also reached the summit. Not a bad result.
The next day we left our lush, green campsite at Sokulupinar and ascended the Tulu Valley. It was very humid and sweat poured from every pore. Kate was suffering badly with blisters, particularly when ascending, so I sent her back to camp with Louisa, who was suffering from the ice cream legacy, to hitch a lift in one of the support vehicles. It was important to get Kate’s feet sorted so that she could tackle Ararat without too much discomfort. With them heading back to Sokulupinar, we took a particularly steep path up to the high pastures above the Eznevit Valley. Having made the ascent the path contoured around the hill, making the walking much easier and more pleasurable. Stopping for lunch among a flock of grazing sheep and fussed by an unusually friendly dog we watched thunder clouds form over the surrounding peaks. There was no sign of the shepherd who was, presumably, sleeping among some nearby rocks. After lunch we descended, gradually at first and then steeply, into the Emli Valley. We were in the upper reaches of the valley surrounded by massive walls of mountain and brewing storm clouds.
Heading down valley on a good path we entered a forest of conifer trees, not growing in plantation style, but randomly. They were not large, perhaps no more than about twenty feet, but it made a pleasant change to the tree free landscapes we had encountered over recent days. The perfume of the trees was noticeably very strong.
Thunder began to rumble around the mountain tops a large drops of rain began to fall from the sky. It did not turn out to be very much as we seemed to be walking away from it all the time.
Camp in the Emli Valley was in a meadow of long grass and flowers inhabited by a multitude of insects and butterflies, the quantity of like I had never seen before. The scenery was stunning with high, rocky walls rising from the valley floor in every direction. As evening drew near the clouds lifted and the sun came out. A perfect end to a perfect day.
The final day in the Taurus Mountains gave us the option of a day walk up to the Alaca Plateau on the southern slopes of the range or having a rest day in camp. The majority chose to have a rest day but those that did take the walking option came back inspired by their day out. I stayed in camp, not just because I was the only leader left, but because I needed to rest my foot. More importantly, I wanted to write the incident report on the student sent back to the UK while it was still fresh in my mind. It was a hot day but very pleasant lying on my bedroll in the shade of a tree in the middle of the field, writing my report. The students had a very relaxed time but were forced into frenzied activity when a brief storm, which had been brewing in the mountains for some time, suddenly let rip. Remarkably all the insects and butterflies suddenly disappeared just before the rain hit, only to reappear once it had stopped. Where do they all go? By evening the sunshine had returned and the day ended pleasantly. Those that had walked were very satisfied with their achievement, while those that rested really appreciated the opportunity to re-charge the batteries before our final challenge, Mt. Ararat, Turkey’s highest mountain.
The next day, while Ellie and I escorted the sick student to Kayseri Airport for a flight to Istanbul and an onward connection to Birmingham, the rest of the group trekked through the spectacular Cimbar Canyon, affording fantastic views of the north face of Mt. Demirkazit.
Ellie and I, on our return, we’re to meet the group in a mountain but in the village of Demirkazit, where we were to have lunch. As we arrived a good ninety minutes before the group we caught up on lost sleep, having started at 5.00am.
After lunch we walked down to the centre of the village where there is a small public garden for village use. There we were to meet with the mayor who wanted to thank us for making a donation to the school. It was all a bit laboured as all conversation had to go through Omer. We were given tea and then tubs of ice cream, not something I would normally eat but it would have been rude not to. Mine was particularly large. I was also presented with a rug made by the village.
Ironically, later that night, I suffered from a bout of the shits, as did a few others in the group. The irony being that we gave funds to renovate the toilets and in return thy gave us the shits!
The next day was another long trek over the Tekkekalesi Pass and down the other side for some distance before turning south and climbing another ridge to then drop into the beautiful Yedigoller Basin. I was still concerned about the health and ability to cope of one of the students so Jenny and I took them and left camp early. Yousef led at a good pace and things looked good to begin with as we reached the top of the pass. As the day wore on the walking became more laboured and by the time we reached camp it was a real struggle. We played word games to distract from the effort. It was a stunning walk with fantastic views from all of the high points. When we were low we were surrounded by magnificent cliff faces and escarpments. When we were high we felt on top of the world. The view down into the Yedigoller Basin was particularly impressive. There are seven lakes in the basin created by the melting snows during the spring and early summer. They are crystal clear and so, so blue. The descent into the basin is steep requiring, as Omer put it, ‘summer skiing’ down the fine scree. On all sides the basin is surrounded by high walls of rock including the massive ridge of Narpazbasi and Direktas, both above 3500m. Camp was situated a few minutes walk from the largest of the lakes and despite the coldness of the water the freshness it provided was well worth the pain.
We had two nights in Yedigoller, giving us a day to explore the surrounding peaks. In the morning most of the group headed up to the Celikbuyduran Pass to then climb Mt. Embler (3723m). It was a steady climb up to the pass but the ascent of the peak was much steeper and a bit of a lung buster. However, the views from the top are well worth the effort. As you reach the top you realise that there is not very much of a summit as it falls away vertically to the other side, allowing you to feel slightly exposed. On the top, wrapped up firmly in polythene and wedged into the cairn, is a visitors book for summiteers to sign, along with a home made banner to hold for photos.
Returning to camp for lunch the afternoon was free, although there was an optional opportunity to climb another peak in the middle of the basin. Most of the group opted to rest, as did I as I am still nursing a foot injury from my exploits on K2 earlier in the year.
The next morning the trek took us back up to the Celikbuyduran Pass, so I left camp early with Ellie and Lucinda to climb Mt. Embler, as they had missed out the previous day.
The student who was ill was not getting any better. In fact they were getting worse. In the morning we had to resort to a pony to get them to the top of the pass. We had to give serious thought to getting them back to the UK sooner rather than later. Although we tried not to use the pony on the descent, we had to as it proved too difficult without. The descent was long and steep, requiring some sections of ‘summer skiing’. It lead into a deep narrow gorge before opening out again, where huge marmot like rocks stood guard over the entrance to the gorge. The campsite at Sokulupinar was a patch of lush green grass amid a barren landscape. When campers are not in residence the grass is watered and provides a good play area for energetic young people.
The following morning we had two students who were clearly unwell and the taxing trek up the Maden Valley was going to be too much for them. I was determined, however, not to give in to them too easily as there was a dirt road taking an easier route to the next camp. The advantage of this route was that if rescue was needed it could be applied much more easily as our two support vehicles would be transporting kit throughout the morning. Louisa and I set off with the two students while the rest of the group went to trek up the harder and more interesting Maden Valley. On our dirt road we were soon overtaken by one of our vehicles taking our kit. It would soon be returning for a second load. Soon after the vehicle passed one of the students began to feel faint and was clearly struggling to put one foot in front of another. We were only about forty minutes out of camp with several hours ahead if us. There was absolutely no shelter but by using Louisa’s sarong, a prickly bush and two walking poles we managed to create a shelter in which to put the two casualties. My umbrella came to good use again. Keeping the girls hydrated we waited for the vehicle to return, but it never came. Unbeknown to us it had broken down on its journey to the next camp. After some time I sent Louisa back to camp to summon help but none came. Louisa, having returned to camp discovered that the second vehicle had gone to a nearby town for supplies. The crew would not allow her to return where we waited as it meant passing the nomad camp with the potentially vicious dogs. So I waited, the students taking advantage of the makeshift shelter and dozing, while I took the full force of the sun. It was while waiting here that my thermometer registered 47C. After four hours, Louisa arrived with the second vehicle, now returned from its resupply trip, to rescue us and take us up to camp at Comce Lake, a lake with an amphitheatre of rocky mountains surrounding it. The rest of the group arrived at camp about an hour later having had a challenging and interesting full day of trekking. Most of them took the opportunity to cool off in the icy waters of Comce Lake.
That night we had some fun in camp. Each day we have nominations for the ‘Muppet of the Day’ award. The winner has to look after an 18 inch stuffed Kermit for 24 hours. Failure to look after him properly can lead to a forfeit being imposed. On this particular day Louisa was the custodian but while some of the group distracted her, others took advantage and kidnapped Kermit. Soon Louisa found a note slipped into her tent threatening that if she wanted to see Kermit alive again she had to ‘play the game’. During the course of the evening a series of instructions relating to the Seven Deadly Sins were posted to her. There were various acts or tasks that she had to perform in order to get Kermit back. Louisa thoroughly entered into the spirit of it as Johnny and James used all of their creative talents in devising the tasks. It caused much hilarity throughout the evening and Louisa’s performance ensured the safe return of Kermit and a deserved round of applause from the group. Needless to say she had suffered enough and did not have to face a forfeit as well.