Mount Ağrı

This is an account of a mountain famous not only for its cold and difficult ascent but also for its millennia-old legends. The summit of Mount Ağrı at the eastern edge of Anatolia welcomed yet another mountaineering team this winter.

It's been eight hours. We are on our way to visit our great-grandfather whom we haven't seen in a long time. Ensconced on his throne at more than 5000 meters, he first chides us a little, and chastises us with his winds. He disciplines us with the cold, Father Ağrı does. Then, arriving in his presence we are treated to a spectacle that confirms all the legends about him. At an altitude of 5,137 meters we contemplate a spectacular landscape from Turkey's highest and coldest peak.

I turn slowly around, my eyes seeking out Süphan, Nemrut, Tendürek, Noah's Ark and the town of Doğubeyazıt. All I can see through the clouds that obscure our last camp at 4,100 meters are the lands of Iran and Armenia. On lucky days when the sky is clear, even the 4000-meter peaks of the Kaçkars in the far north are said to be visible from here. Being at the summit of Ağrı means being on a viewing terrace at 5000 meters; perhaps it also means reaching the end of a journey at every step of which you considered turning back.

Just as I was trying to make up my mind to abandon the warmth of my sleeping bag, I imagined vaguely that I heard an announcement saying it was minus 13 degrees, dress accordingly. “There's a fierce gale out there,” added my tent mate. “Let's get ready in here!” If the person who said it was very cold outside was a trusted mountain climber, you would know right away that he was talking about really low temperatures when he used the word 'cold'. And let us not forget the wind-chill factor, which makes the cold feel even more frigid in a high wind. In the tent's dim light, several pairs of shining eyes seemed to be waiting for somebody to say, “Let's not go today; we can make an attempt tomorrow.” But nobody said it, and the team decision was to go as far as we could. In a rare move, we donned all the clothes we had with us and set out. Under normal conditions, one starts climbing in several layers of thin clothes, in the expectation that one's body heat will do the rest.

Only three days earlier we had been down in the city of Doğubeyazıt. Boarding a plane from our home at sea level, we had begun to inhale air so cold that a person who hasn't yet climbed even 460 meters starts to cough at his first breath. We knew we were in the east from the strong steeped tea that was offered around with plenty of sugar. A little beyond the village nearest to the point where our climb is to commence, we decide at what time we are going to board the back of the truck that will take us as far as the snow permits.

There is an advantage in starting your climb - the walking, that is - from the highest possible point. The ten meters of altitude you gain by riding the truck mean that you will preserve your energy instead of expending it. Tractors or trucks rented from villagers are used on climbs organized not only in Turkey but all over the world.

This must be the best truck ride ever! Leaving behind the village of Eli, the last settlement on the mountain's southern face, we can just make it out amidst the clouds as we look back. Little Ağrı by contrast is completely visible and the cloud cap directly over it must start from the altitude of our second camp, at roughly 4,100 meters.

Beyond the village of Eli, we come to a point where the entire road is covered in snow. Those who have been here before to climb Ağrı notice immediately that the snow cover is not as thick this time. The term 'global climate change' is no longer confined to the pages of academic texts but is now a familiar aspect of every activity in our lives. In other words, slowly but surely the day is coming when even we mountain climbers are not going to find snow on Ağrı.

We are at the point now where we can no longer behave as if we were 'down below', not merely because of the sheer size of the mountain but because it is 3,000 meters above sea level. From now on, we are going to be taking in less and less oxygen at every step. For every breath we would take down in the city, we will have to take several breaths here. And the number of breaths we need to take is going to increase steadily until even the simplest movements are will leave us gasping for air. Until, that is, our bodies adapt to the altitude and we begin to more a little more normally again. And for this we need to drink plenty of fluids and take nourishment at regular intervals, and to spend some time adapting to the altitude. Altitude illnesses such as headache and nausea can make all this more difficult. Different people acclimatize at different rates, and while some people may acclimatize very quickly, others may have to go back down without adapting.

Pitching our first camp at approximately 2,800 meters on the evening of the first day of the climb, our team reaches the second camp, at around 4,200 meters, the following evening. After a day's rest at this point, we will attempt the summit. The last day is reserved for the descent. While every team makes a climbing plan based on its own performance, the key factor here is that the team members' acclimatization periods be about the same. Climbs made on the mountain's southern face are termed the 'classic route' and begin from the township of Doğubeyazıt in Ağrı province. It is advisable that a team that wants to make this climb under winter conditions come prepared with a 4-7 day program. The northern routes, which go through Iğdır, involve more challenging and technical glacier climbs, and require somewhat more detailed  organization in terms of transportation to the mountain. Like other 5000-meter and higher climbs in many parts of the world, climbing Ağrı also requires official correspondence starting a few months in advance as well as local logistical support.

When you reach the summit of this mountain, you'll be standing on top of the famous 'cloud cap' featured on every picture postcard of Ağrı. Since a lot of people join such a climb just to be at the summit, you might think from what is said and written afterwards that the sole purpose was simply to stand for five minutes at the topmost point. The truth is however that the whole process, from your home in the city to the highest point in Anatolia, involves a chain of experiences - from the preparations and training to the team solidarity and myriad unforgettable memories. But you should definitely have a friend along to wake you from your Ağrı trance. For when you return to your tent at 4,200 meters and sip your sugary coffee, the stupendous view aside, there are no words to describe what you will see from the summit platform, where the temperature plummets to incredible lows at sundown.