Mount Ararat (5137m), locally known as Agri Dagi, is a snow-capped, dormant volcanic cone in Turkey. Ararat is said to be the final resting place of Noah's Ark, but truth to be said, I did not expect to see any boats on the summit.
From Kayseri to Dogubeyazit
After having reached the top of Erciyes, I went on from Kayseri to Erzurum by a comfortable nightbus. The main purpose for visiting Erzurum was to obtain a visa to Iran (Damavand). But after 3-4 hours at the consulate, they said it was impossible, and that I had to do it from home. Quite a waste of time, in other words. But fortunately, Erzurum has more to offer than a hostile Iranian consulate. Right in town there are some great historical buildings, and in winter Erzurum boasts one of the best ski resort in Turkey (Palandoken). But during summer it's really little action in such a conservative town, and Ramadan makes it even worse. After two nights in Erzurum I went on to Dogubeyazit with Ararat in mind, eager to find out if it was possible to climb this mountain without a pre-booked permit.
Obtaining a permit
The bureaucracy around Ararat is not entirely unproblematic. A climbing permit must be applied for at least 45 days in advance through one of the many tour operators in Dogubeyazit. I had of course not applied for a permit, thus I knew my climb would be a dubious affair either alone or in a group. I walked over to one of the most high-profile operators in Dogubeyazit, to see if I at least could arrange transportation into the mountain. This would come at 25 Euro, but with significant risk that a lone western guy like me would be turned around by either the guides on the mountain, the local population or a shepherd dog. The latter is actually not something to joke about, because I really dislike being alone when a flock of shepherd dogs come barking at me. But the shepherd dogs at the foothills of Ararat is fortunately more of the friendly sort, and probably well used to tourists in gore-tex clothing. The worst possible scenario (if somewhat unlikely) is getting caught by gendarmes, without being in possession of the necessary papers. In such a situation it could well be that one must shed hundreds of dollars in bribes, something I have experienced previously in comparable countries. So after a night of considerations, I decided that having immunity of a guided group would be the best option even if the price raised to 280 Euro, excluding food and mule transport.
A bit surprisingly, it turned out that none of the others in my group had a real permit, because all had joined very recently. The French couple paid 300 Euro each, the French guy 400 Euro and the four Armenians about 400 Euro each. A somewhat higher price tag than me, but they had at least full service on the mountain. Four Polish guys I met a few days later had only paid 150 Euro each, but with a different operator. They also, of course, without a real permit. So my impression is that far most of the hikers are in possession of fake permits only, and that all agencies in Dogubeyazit (also the reputable ones) to a greater or lesser extent, operate in this way. The most reputable agency in Dogubeyazit even offered me 20 Euro in tax discount, if no receipt was issued, which I accepted without qualms. But this, of course, I had not gambled on with an unknown operator without credits from Lonely Planet. Because then I had risked to pay for a trip that never came into being.
My trip was as unsupported as it could be, given the circumstances on the mountain. However, with one exception, which was one liter of boiled water per day on the mountain. This was simply because I could not find any gas cartridges in Dogubeyazit. Besides that I was entirely self supported.
The agreement was that I should be ready for pick-up at the hotel at 07:00. But I overslept, and when it knocked on the door at 07:30, I had to get ready in 5-10 minutes. What a stressful and embarrassing start on the trip. The drive took one hour up to 2200 meters elevation, where the horses/mules were ready to take over. There we also met the guide Ahmed, an old and apparently tired Kurdish man with mustache. But he was much more fit than he seemed, and the entire team hiked in good pace up to the summer pastures at approximately 2500 meters elevation. Here we met Ahmed's family, who offered tea and something to eat. Then we continued steeply uphills, and some of us had problems with the pace of the old man. The others, who practically carried nothing, had perhaps expected that a guy (me) with 20+ kg on his back, would slow the group considerably. But this handicap suited me fine, and I easily kept up with the old guide. We passed the normal Basecamp at 3200 meters and continued up to a much more suitable area at about 3300 meters elevation. While the others had to wait for the horses and their packs, I was quick to pitch my tent before the afternoon showers started. After lunch, two of the Armenian guys continued in a frantic pace to 4700 meters above sea level, which in retrospect proved to be a bad idea. I had a very moderate hike up to 3500 meters, where I sat down for one hour and enjoyed the sunset.
I woke up at 07:15 and had my own breakfast (Turkish bread with cheese) in the tent, while the others had to wait for their breakfast to be served. I started to walk half an hour before them, and did the 900 meters gain of elevation to Highcamp in approx 2 hours. Even the two fittest Armenians did not appear in Highcamp before 30 minutes later. The rest of the team arrived later, and especially one of the French guys seemed to struggle a lot. After a quick meal, I continued a few hundred meters up the hill, so the sleeping height would be less than the maximum height during the day. None of the others, not even the Armenians had the energy for this. A thunderstorm approached shortly after I was down again, and the ensuing hailstorm left a 2-3 cm cover on the ground. It was a common acceptance in our team to go to the top that night, so we went early to bed. However, it must be added that this program was far in excess of a generally accepted progression in the heights. But everybody seemed to handle the altitude fairly well, and there were no acute symptoms to see.
As agreed, we were awakened at 02:15, and while I enjoyed my breakfast in the tent, the others had to eat their meal under open air, in a shivering cold. Everybody were ready to depart a bit after 03:00, except the French woman who had decided to stay behind because of stomach problems. The old guide started in a frantic pace, and it was just me and one of the Armenians who managed to keep up. The French guys remained well behind, and several times they had to shout to the guide to take it easy. This resulted in several breaks and big frustration for some of us. But progress was still far better than the Iranian/Azerbaijani team which had started almost an hour before us. At about 4600 meters elevation, we had to maneuver us past the 15-20 person big group in steep and rugged terrain. This triggered several rock slides by inexperienced hikers.
When we reached the snow at about 4800 meters altitude, it began to dawn. Yesterday's hailstorm which had left behind 2-3 cm of snow, made crampons redundant. My patience had now come to an end, and I continued non-stop uphill. The others fell off like flies, and only one of the Armenians managed to keep up. But he struggled too, and for some tactical reasons he got ahead of me, probably to slow me down a bit. Since he was carrying a GPS, I found his partnership valuable, and we went together into the dense clouds, which covered the upper part of the mountain. It was with great excitement we reached the top, and we measured the summit to be approximately 5135 meters. The only drawback was the summit cloud which meant no visibility. But we were on the verge of getting over the clouds, so we got some glimpses of the land below us. We stood and shivered for half an hour, before I decided to descend. The Armenian guy, however, had to wait for his friends, and they did not appear before one hour. I passed them on the way down, and it seemed like they just could take some few steps between each breathing pause. I rushed down and was back in Highcamp in less than one hour (07:10), approx 4 hours after we had started.
I was running out of water and walked immediately over to the cook's tent. He had not expected such an early return, so there were no boiling water ready. Thus I returned to my own tent to get some sleep, in a slightly dehydrated state. The time was past 09:00 when I heard a couple of the Armenians. It was time to wake up and get a liter of boiling water. Mixed with my Tang juice powder, that tasted incredibly well. The French guys did not appear before 10:30, after having spent 3 long hours on the descent. One of them walked exhausted into his tent, while the other began to argue with the cook, when he discovered that the camp was about to be taken down. The three French people wished to stay another night at Highcamp, and certainly not walk further down than to Basecamp. But the guide and the cook had already decided to return to Dogubeyazit during the day, even if the itinerary (and price) stipulated a minimum of 3 nights on the mountain. But there was really no choice, we had to pack and start a further 2000 meters of descent. We were down again 17:45, after having waited several hours on the French couple. After another hour in the minibus, I went straight to the nearest kebab restaurant in Dogubeyazit. A meal that did wonders after a long day with nothing to eat but chocolate and dry biscuits.