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Known as 'the Turkish Alps', the sharp peaks of the Aladağ range with their sheer rock faces are a big hit with mountain climbers. The story of our climb begins in the villages of Niğde province and ends at Oksar Tepe.
The Aladağ Mountains offer an ideal setting for nature sports such as the traditional sport of rock climbing as well as winter mountaineering, ski touring and trekking. The area became known for the sport after the German climber Dr. Künne and his native guide, Veli Çavuş, scaled its highest peak, the 3,756-meter. Demirkazık, in 1927. Scaled by climbers from every country in the world today, the region is Turkey's leading center for this sport.
The Aladağ Mountains with their dozens of 3,500-meter-plus peaks and five major valleys overlap the provinces of Adana, Niğde and Kayseri. The area becomes even more scenic between October and May due to its thick snow cover, which attracts mountaineering buffs from all over Turkey during those months.
TIME TO TAKE TO THE MOUNTAINS
When pure white snow covered the high mountains with its magical blanket, my heart, like that of every mountaineer, began to beat faster. The Aladağ Mountains were calling! But winter mountaineering is usually not very easy, entailing certain unique risks: cold weather, deep snow that obstructs movement, blizzards that can reduce visibility to zero and, every climber's nightmare, the possibility of an avalanche. Consequently we waited for conditions to improve, eventually finding the good conditions we sought at the end of January. It was high time to take to the mountains! To reach the Aladağ range, we first had to get to the villages of Çukurbağ and Demirkazık in Çamardı township of Niğde province.
CLIMBING TO THE EMLİ VALLEY
After a five-hour drive from Ankara on a sunny day, the Aladağ Mountains greeted us through the clouds. This was the start of a typical Aladağ expedition. After a restful sleep following a magnificent repast of village specialties and hot steeped tea around a warm stove in the house of an old friend in the village of Çukurbağ in Niğde's Çamardı township, we boarded a tractor the next morning and set off for the the Emli Valley to start our climb. We are going to trek over the highlands to reach the mountain, which is inaccessible to vehicles in winter due to snow. Instead of walking, we have hired a tractor to save time. It's so cold that our faces, hands and feet are freezing.
THE CAMP AT KOCADÖLEK
After the tractor's grinding roar, our ears have a hard time adjusting to the complete silence when we finally start walking. The forest is redolent of the scent of fresh pine, the valley replete with trees hung with snow, and the silence all around turns a person inward on himself. Toting our heavy loads of camping and climbing equipment on our backs, we flounder through the deep snow to our camp in a snowy mountain 'bowl' known as Kocadölek at the end of the Emli Valley. Surrounded here by steep, rocky snow-capped peaks, we pitch our tent on the snow. It's already dark by the time we settle into our canvas home. The air is cold and still, and the thousands of stars twinkling in the black sky overhead are a harbinger of fine weather tomorrow. Finishing up an evening meal of soup and pasta with grilled eggplant cooked on a kerosene stove and washed down with prodigious quantities of tea, we escape to the comforting warmth of our sleeping bags as the temperature suddenly plunges well below zero.
PRECIPICES STEEPER AND STEEPER
We were awake before sunup and ready to set out on our climb. The days are short, and our route is quite long. Consequently we need to make the most efficient use of the daylight hours. As the day's first light illumined the snowy mountains, we began to scale rocks still steeped in the chill of night. Picking our way between the ever steeper but not difficult peaks, we embarked on our route, this segment of which consists of grassy precipitous cliffs with secluded corners of ice-hard snow. The panoramic view widens as we climb to higher and higher altitudes, and the vivid morning sun stains the mountains first pink, then orange!
KEEPERS OF THE MOUNTAIN
Pebbles large and small rain down on us. As we climb higher we understand the reason: a small flock of mountain goats is fleeing as we approach. Poking their long-horned heads out from behind the rocky ridges as we climb, these grey, white-tailed keepers of the mountain bolt the minute they lay eyes on us.
Donning ice crampons and wielding our pickaxes when we reached the hard, icy snow at the end of our rock climb, we continued our ascent. We were negotiating a long snow corridor that was icy hard in places and so deep in others that we sank right in. With the morning sun, the air temperature suddenly shot up over zero. We'd been dying for that in the early morning cold, but, truth be told, we soon started to tire from ascending so rapidly under a scorching mountain sun in the still air. Not only that, but the snow too started to soften as it warmed up, hampering our progress and slowing our pace. On the bright side, the higher we climbed the more panoramic became the view of the whole south face of the Aladağ range spread out beneath our feet.
VIEWING THE YEDİGÖL HIGHLAND
In the early afternoon we emerged onto the mountain's highest ridges and came to a spot where we could view the lofty Yedigöl highland. High and stunningly beautiful, the Yedigöl Highland is a mountain 'bowl' surrounded by rocky walls and mountains and the many glaciers large and small from which it takes its name, 'Seven Lake', a virtual monument to winter's extraordinary desolation.
ARRIVING AT OKSAR TEPE
Step by careful step we arrived at the summit of the snow-covered ridges, which were frozen solid now by the harsh prevailing winds of the previous days. We had made our first winter ascent of Oksar Tepe and our first winter attempt on the mountain's south face! Standing on a remote edge of this natural wonder, forged by nature millions of years ago, we gaze around in admiration. The sun is already sinking towards the west, the air losing its daytime warmth. Night is about to descend on the mountains. The sky's daytime indigo gives way to a pale cerulean, which is followed by red and orange at sunset. As always, the kaleidoscopic play of light and shadow on the mountains leaves me awestruck.
The summit having been reached, it was time to go back down. Our descent was different from our ascent, an easier route. But the deep snow made it slightly harrowing and we descended hacking our way through deep snowdrifts swept in from the west by the north wind over the previous days and deposited on the eastern slopes. Sinking in up to our waists in places, we were ever wary of the threat of an avalanche. When we finally reached the Sıyırma Valley, our knees were about to give out and our bodies were parched from doing battle with the snow. We completed our descend in
a total of ten hours and arrived back at camp as evening cast its long icy shadow. What we needed now was a cup of hot, strong coffee to revive us. And then a good meal to replenish the calories we had burned up, a few stretching movements to relax our cramped, numbed legs, and then a deep sleep in our trusty sleeping bags...