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Text and photos: YAVUZ SARIYILDIZ
Wonderland in the clouds
Glacier lakes on one side, yellow rhododendrons on the other, the Kaçkars offer an inviting natural environment. Leaving Rize behind, we start our adventure through the Ayder, Lower Kavron and Upper Kavron Highlands.
We woke up that day like kids on Christmas morning. Our hearts were in the Kumbet Highlands, but as our destination came alive in our mind's eye we focused on our new route. Filled with anticipation of the climb we were going to make to the Ayder Highland, where we would spend the first night, and to our final destination, the Kaçkar Mountains.
UP TO AYDER
To climb to the Ayder Highland after passing Rize, you first need to pass the two main turnoffs. Çayeli is the first, Pazar the second. Turning south at the Ardeşen fork some 8 km after the Pazar turnoff, you will leave the Black Sea behind you and start up the road to Çamlihemşin, where you can stop briefly before heading up to Ayder. From the Ardeşen fork on, the Firtina River will accompany you on left and right, and after about 22 km you can stop for breakfast or lunch in this lovely Black Sea township. Don't miss this typical local breakfast on the banks of the Firtina, or the corn flour helva they will offer you afterwards. Corn flour helva is a very tasty local sweet that will supply all your energy needs. Made from Ayder honey, corn flour and sweet-smelling fresh butter, this helva will melt in your mouth. With its taste still on our tongues we depart from Çamlıhemşin, strung out along a single street. Flowing down the valleys of the Kaçkar and Verçenik, the Elevit River joins with two streams, and the Palovit and the Ayder, to form the tempestuous Fırtına River, which accompanies us now as we set out once more for the Ayder Highland where we will spend the night.
With the Hala River now on our left now on our right, we pass a trout farm and several waterfalls large and small, all worth seeing, such as the Duygulu Waterfall, and arrive at the 1390 m Ayder Highland after 20 km of indescribably beautiful vegetation. We have finally reached the first stop where our hiking trail into the Kaçkar Mountains begins, and we are filled with anticipation about the climb we are going to make the next day.
A National Park today, the Ayder Highland infrastructure is now complete with adequate facilities for accommodation as well as food and drink. One major feature of this highland is the thermal springs that rise from around 250 meters under the ground at temperatures up to 57C - a heaven-sent boon at that elevation both for those seeking a cure and for others merely seeking to cast off the day's weariness. Any restaurant here is a good bet for sampling the local cold vegetable dishes made with beans or chard, 'guymak' (a hot dish made with cheese, butter and corn flour) and trout. At some of them the local young people entertain visitors with rousing Black Sea folk songs. It was in such revelry that we ended the evening by dancing the horon, dreaming of our climb into the Kaçkars the next day.
CLIMBING THE KAÇKARS
There are two main routes for making a climb into the Kaçkars. Either to cross the Ayder, Lower Kavron and Upper Kavron highlands to the lake district from which you can view the summit, or to to approach Mt. Kaçkar from the south, in other words to reach Olgunlar by passing the village of Yaylalar via Artvin Yusufeli and start your climb from there and then descend again to the Ayder highland in the north. We opt for the first route, starting our Kaçkar adventure from Ayder and leaving the second and more difficult route, known as the Transkaçkars, for next year.
It's a good idea to hire a local guide for a climb into the Kaçkars. The ever-changing weather conditions, particularly the clouds and fog that can settle very rapidly, create the risk of getting lost during the ascent or descent. Since the climb is going to begin from the Ayder Highland, it is customary to start by going as far as the Lower Kavron Highland in the guide's van. On this 1800 m highland 10 km from the Ayder - two and a half hours on foot, 45 minutes by van - there is no possibility of accommodation other than pitching a tent. Its neighboring highland, the Upper Kavron, on the other hand is at an elevation of 2300 meters despite being only 3 kilometers away. The Kavron Highland as well, a national park with approximately 150 highland houses, offers no overnight accommodation. You can however stock your backpack with all the energy-giving provisions you'll need for the Kaçkars at the grocery store and cafeteria. Water is the only thing you really won't feel a need for during the entire climb, because nature here offers you the luxury of drinking to your heart's content from the small but rushing streams that flow all over the place, not to mention the relatively larger Kavron River itself. The Kavron Highland is one of the most beautifully preserved natural environments on the Black Sea and definitely worth seeing. So breathtaking is it that even local folksongs sing its praises:
Oh my lovely Fırtına
More precious by the day
Take care not to
die, my friends
There is no Kavron in Heaven
GLACIER LAKES AND YELLOW RHODODENDRONS
At an altitude of 3937 meters, Mount Kaçkar is one of the world's most important protected ecological regions. The mountain has quite a rich natural plant cover, and many of these plants are also endemic with more than 150 of the plant species that grow in the world found only in the Kaçkars. Yellow rhododendrons, which are found nowhere else in Turkey at an altitude of 3000 m, are arrayed here in all their glory. Lying on a bird migration route, this mountain is also noteworthy for its wild life, being home to bears, wolves, jackals, lynxes and mountain goats, as difficult as it may be to actually come across any. The mountain also harbors a large number of glaciers and glacier lakes. Having their origin in those glaciers, the Fırtına and Hemşin Rivers arise on the east and west of the mountain and, joined by a number of other streams large and small, empty into the Black Sea.
Together with our small crew of five photographers, our climb continues under rapidly changing weather conditions in the footsteps of our guide, Mehmet. Up to 3000 meters clouds continually settle down on us and then lift again to reveal the sun's rays here in the Kaçkars which rarely see a day without rain during the entire year. Later on it rains followed by sunshine again. Despite its being summer, when we reach 3000 meters we are greeted by glaciers and glacier lakes: the Great Sea Lake, the Small Sea Lake, the Nameless Lake. Nine hundred meters immediately above us, the summit beckons and we view it with awe. Since a climb to the summit was not part of our program at the outset, we cannot reach it but content ourselves with photographing its beauty. And the clouds, as if to give us incentive and provide more light for photographing, conveniently disperse from the summit.
As we gaze at the Great Black Sea lake which lies some 200 meters below the point where we are standing, we begin our descent, promising each other that when we return we will make the much longer and more difficult climb known as the Transkaçkars via Artvin / Yusufeli - Olgunlar. Who knows? Maybe next time we'll also make the summit. Leaving this beauty behind is like bidding farewell to a lover. As we turn around and look back, the Kaçkars in all their splendor and breathtaking natural beauty seem to invite us to return.
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