ARARAT Trip Report, August 4 - August 9, 2007.

Before the Trip, Preparations.

Anybody that starts from "square one" looking into a climb of Ararat can easily be discouraged. There are several trekking companies that offer scheduled climbs, most often at a fairly high price. Add to this that almost all information talks about Turkish buraucracy, the need to apply for climbing permits long time in advance etc.
I always like to organize my trips as much as possibly by myself. This is not only in order to save cost, but perhaps more because I like to plan things independently. The climb can then also often more easily be scheduled to fit well with other plans and constraints. Although I could climb several mountains without any sort of local support, I often feel that some degree of local help with logistics and services is very useful. Not only in order to make the climb "easier" or "more convenient", but also in order to support a local "tourist industry" as well as getting a more inside experience with local people and their culture. If I bring everything with me from Norway (including dehydrated mountain food etc.), then I could in principle climb the mountain without much interaction with the local community. This would certainly reduce the quality of trips like this one, in a very significant way. Thus, my ideal situation calls for a minimum of buraucracy (red tape), and a flexible local community from where one can purchase whatever services that seems reasonable in order to make a memorable climbing trip. Tailored to plans that I make, not "carved in stone" by a professional "adventure" or "trekking" company.
Unfortunately, the situation described above does not (yet) exist near Ararat. One can only hope that things will improve. I feel pretty certain that the local service we ended up using (Hakan Basboga) would be able to increase its presence and visibility as well as activity volume under such more flexible terms.

Climbing Permit:
After searching quite a bit on the Internet, I decided that our best bet was likely to be a guided trip offered by a local Dogubeyazit service lead by Hakan Basboga. It took a few iterations by email to get things the way I wanted, Hakan is obviously often busy in the mountain and his replies to email were a bit erratic. It is slightly easier to contact him by cell phone, as most of the mountain route has a reasonably strong mobile phone signal. I sent him a 50 percent advance (easy bank transfer) as well as the requested information, in order for him to apply for the necessary climbing permits. All this was done in May, about 2 months prior to our actual climb. Hakan took care of everything that needed to be done and we never saw anything more of this process. Appearently, as long as he has properly informed the Turkish authorities and received a proper reply, nothing more happens. There were no authorities checking that climbers indeed had a permit, however, it seems likely that any climber that ends up in trouble on the mountain may have a problem if the authorities (Turkish army) is called to assist in any form of rescue.
A team from the Czech Republic climbed Ararat about the same time as we. They had just shown up in Dogubeyazit, asked around for a climbing permit and purchased this from somebody in town for Euro 130.- per person. However, there is strong reason to believe that this was "easy money" for whoever collected it and that this party could have faced serious trouble if, for any reason, they would have needed to interact with the Turkish authorities (read: army) while on Ararat.
The climbing of Ararat would be greatly simplified for both climbers as well as tour organizers if this system could be reformed. To make climbers more aware of the specific rules, including the cost structure of the permit would certainly be a first, important step. That is, how much does a permit cost? How much is paid to the Turkish Mountain Association? How much to the government? What is charged by the organizer, in order to take care of these issues? Furthermore, illegal "instant permits" sold in Dogubeyazit should be stopped. The Turkish could learn a lot by just looking south to Iran. Their climbing permit system is extremely reasonable and completely transparent.

We decided to travel rather light, partly since we would use a guide service on Ararat. Pål Jørgen and I brought along personal mountain clothing suitable for high mountains and temperatures down to about minus 10 Centigrade (a single set each). We took sleeping bags and mats, ice axe and crampons (for Ararat). A gasoline burning cooking stove (Primus) as well as some dehydrated food (to be used high on Damavand) completed the list. Two headlamps (since at least Ararat seemed to dictate an early start). We did not take a tent, since one would be provided on Ararat and it seemed clear that we could rent one (if needed) on Damavand. We travelled with two medium-sized backpacks that would pass as hand luggage on the airplanes, plus one large, yellow North Face bag that I bought in Ancourage when returning from Denali last summer. The plan was to keep the yellow bag as a cache for everything not needed, to use the two backpacks as high as high camp, then carry only one common backpack between us on the two summit days. When travelling, our yellow bag weighted 20 kilogram, while our two backpacks were about 7-8 kilogram each.
At the time of our visit, one Turkish Lire (TRY) was about 0.55 Euro, or 4.40 NOK. There are ATMs in most cities and hotels seem happy to take payment in US dollars or Euro. They also readily exchange these currencies at a fairly reasonable (exchange) rate. In larger Turkish cities, one may also pay with major credit cards. In Iran, credit cards cannot easily be used and it seemed pretty clear that we should bring along a sufficently large supply of Euro (all in 20 Euro bills), to be able to pay for all expenses along the way as well as keeping a reserve for unforeseen incidents/trouble.

Day -2, August 3rd. VISA Trouble.

This trip was planned as a two country - two mountain trip, first Ararat in Turkey, then immediately Damavand in Iran. Our tickets had been ordered long time in advance and departure was already 0615 from Bergen Saturday morning. Both of these countries require a visa for Norwegians to enter. In Iran, this must be applied for in the embassy in Oslo, while for Turkey it is really just an extra tax to be paid when entering the country. The Iranian visas had been applied for and we had promptly received the passports returned by mail already in May, we noticed that they even reproduced a picture of the passport holder within each visa stamp.
As I came to work this last day before the trip, I carried the two passports with me since I had decided to make some photocopy backups of these essential documents for extra protection in case something should get lost or stolen during our trip. As I stood by the copying machine shortly before 10 in the morning, something odd caught my attention. The passport number listed in both visas were identical! Upon closer inspection, it became clear that everything in Pål Jørgen's visa was identical to mine except for the use of his picture. This looked like a serious clerical error. I called the Iranian consular section, their phone announced that they only answered phone calls after 1400. Escalation of the effort got me in touch with an emabassy employee that in a most helpful manner assisted in further contact with their consular section. A fax of the appropriate passport page quickly verified my fear, a completely invalid visa had been issued. In fact, it could easily be interpreted as a fake where a valid visa (mine) had been copied into a second passport with a subsequent transfer of the correct picture.
Really bad news, the only way to fix this required a trip to the Iranian embassy in Oslo. Flights? There was a Scandinavian flight leaving Flesland in about 50 minutes - TAXI !!!! I made the flight and by 1400 everything was in order. The bad visa in Pål's passport had been cancelled and a new and correct visa issued. I told them that this had been a rather costly mistake and got some sympathy, but of course, nothing more than "we are sorry"..
On my flight back around 1700, I could see the potential trouble that now had been avoided. Trying to cross into Iran over land at its northern border to Turkey with what looked like a fake visa - no thanks. Thus, I was happy to have discovered the mistake, even literally in the last possible moment. Sloppy office work in the Iranian embassy confusing the data from our two passports back in May had wasted a full day and cost me about NOK 3600 (Euro 450) in extra travel expenses. Every expedition is likely to have some unforseen costs, I hoped we got our share early this time and that everything would go somewhat more smoothly starting tomorrow morning.

Day -1, August 4th. Travel from Norway to Ankara.

Pål Jørgen and I got up around 0500, had a preordered taxi waiting and made the Oslo flight with no incidents.
We continued flying onwards to Munich, then directly to Ankara, arriving there at 1500. In the airport we observed the Turkish "Visa tax" with a smile. You walk over to a counter saying "Visa", the guy immediately asks for 40 Euro (20 each). Upon receiving this, he immediately enters a "visa-stamp" in each passport without even looking at the passport itself. Turkey should end such primitive tax collection practices, there are better ways to collect money from tourists.
I had made a reservation in the airport hotel, located about 5 kilometer from the airport. It looked reasonably empty and a small savings could have been made by just showing up, however, these things are hard to know. We decided to make a quick sightseeing of Ankara and took a taxi to the central part of town shortly after check-in. There was not too much to see, busy pedestrian streets, modern shopping malls. A few parks and a few monuments. Not very much reminding you of a capital city, few large, monumental buildings etc. After a couple of hours we were happy and returned to the hotel by another taxi. The hotel had a nice pool and a sauna where the air had been saturated by "Fisherman's Friend" taste/smell. It took a few minutes getting used to, but probabely cured all symptons of sore throat for anybody entering. Later, we had dinner and enjoyed seeing a Turkish wedding, the hotel hosted the dinner for about 150 people outdoors near the pool. The bride and groom with the closest family were seated on top of a bridge spanning the pool.

Day 0, August 5th. Travel to Dogubeyazit.

We had an early morning domestic flight out of Ankara to Agri. This is 1:40 flight heading more or less directly east, reminding us that our destination was about as far east in Turkey as one can get. After landing, we needed to travel about 95 kilometer onwards to the city of Dogubeyazit. This was the first leg of the trip for which I had not made any advance arrangements. It turned out close to perfect. Agri was a rather small place with very infrequent flights. Thus, our arrival was a significant event and busses and vans were lined up outside in order to carry the passengers to their destinations. A nice minibus served Dogubeyazit. We entered and by the time we could start out, the bus was indeed a bit oversubscribed with three passengers sitting in the aisle between the two rows of ordinary seats. The fare was 10 Lire per person, we were on our way by 1030.
We arrived in Dogubeyazit after 1:15, the road was mostly paved but also with sections of gravel. Ararat came into view for the first time. Just like Rainier and other large volcanos, it looms overhead and shows its size, almost 3.5 kilometer vertical rise from the valley floor. We asked directions for hotel Nuh and after a couple of wrong turns we entered the hotel and got our third floor "luxury" room with Ararat view.
We had most of the day at our disposal and decided to see the famous palace Ishak Pasa Sarayi, up in the hillside outside the city. We quickly got a ride by a mini-bus that specialized in taking people there. It turned out to be a very nice are, obviously very popular with the locals on a Sunday afternoon. People had barbeques, they were sitting around and generally having a good time. We decided to work on the acclimatization by making a short hike uphill. The palace was located at the lower section of a valley that extended uphill with really spectacular rock formations along the left (facing uphill) side. We hiked until the trail became more level. A few Kurds had their camp (and animals) partway up this hill. The rocks certainly looked like a good practice area for climbing. From here, we also had a good view back down to the city of Dogubeyazit.
Returning down to the palace, we paid the symbolic entrance fee and walked around the entire castle. High and low, the palace, dating back to the 13th.century, was carefully explored. Good workmanship and many nice details, the construction of this palace must have required substantial resources. The building looked like a combination of castle, church and palace, we agreed that a palace was the most proper description. We ended the active part of the day by walking the 5-6 kilometer back to our hotel. Any party arriving in Dogubeyazit on their way to Ararat, should consider making this trip. One can easily hike to 2500 meter (or higher) and the palace is certainly worth a visit, thus combining history and acclimatization in a perfect way.
A dinner at a local restaurant consisting of local Kurdish specialities made for a very successful completion of our travel. It had been agreed that we should be picked up the next morning around 0700, in order to start our trek to Base Camp. We reorganized our gear, leaving shoes and travel clothing in the yellow bag to be kept at the hotel until our return projected for Friday. A last, evening look at Ararat from our hotel, then early to bed.

Day 1, August 6th. Climb to Base Camp.

I was early up and made a quick dash out in town to find some bread and water that we could have for breakfast. We had been woken up by the long and loud "prayer" from the minaret (and strategically placed loudspeakers on street corners) at 0400 sharp. It is quite amazing that the locals can live with this loud and brutal wake up already at 0400. In Marrakech, Morroco the same event took place at 0500, still very early indeed.
The minibus arrived at 0700 and we were soon on our way. Turning left, leaving the main road to Iran near the small village of Eli, the road got gradually more rough. In fact, near a dry river bed the road was bad enough for the driver to attempt a bypass, seemingly equally rough. Most people would say this was a 4WD road, however by slow and careful driving we eventually gained slightly smoother ground as we gained elevation on the very lower slopes of Ararat. A few men with horses appeared around a bend and this was indeed the end of the road as far as a standard minibus was concerned. Further uphill, even the locals understand that a 4WD vehicle is needed. This location has coordinates N39:38.301, E044:14.574, elevation about 2185 meter.
We unloaded the car and had our two backpacks plus a box with provisons loaded onto a horse. At first, the trail cut across and climbed more steeply than the 4WD road, thus intersecting it quite frequently. Subsequently, we left the road and continued along more regular trails. Pål Jørgen first, then the horse with its master followed by me at the end of the group. We walked a bit less than one hour before arriving at a local Kurd family. We were now at about 2500 meter, location N39:39.154, E044:15.108. Man, wife and several children were seated on carpets in their half-open tent structure and it was obvious that we were expected to pay them a visit, drink tea and taste some local specialities. The husband, matter of fact, quickly informed me that he had 7 children, then asked about my children. Two sons did not quite match his family, but seemed acceptable. His wife and several daughters were sitting around. We were told that some of the children would alternate (school?), spending a few days here and a few days in the village below. The next topic of conversation centered a bit on our heavy boots. He spoke no English, but quite reasonable German. After another 10 minutes we said goodbye, I gave my current supply of local coins to one of the children and we continued uphill.
About 30 more minutes and our local guide called for a rest, this time just at the top (2810 meter) of a steeper section of the trail. Pointing to the horse, he indicated that the horse should have a break before we completed the last several hills up to base camp. Soon, we arrived at Base Camp, elevation 3340 meter and location N39:40.705, E044:16.211. Actually, Base Camp has been distributed into several separate camps in the general area. There was quite a large group of tents quite a bit lower than our camp, similarly, a pretty large camp was located a bit further along the trail, somewhat higher than our location. Several more Kurds worked here. A cute boy ran around and spoke to nearly everyone. Our camp was located in perhaps the best place, fairly high, but still quite flat and with natural shelter.
The hike from where the mini-bus stopped to Base Camp took about 2.5 hours including the visit with the Kurds and the other rests along the way. Our guide Hakan came down from High Camp in the afternoon. He had summited that day and felt the need for some rest. He was appreciably happy when I told him that we would prefer to do our acclimatization hike tomorrow without him. In this way, he could get an easy day before going back up with us the day after.
We had about one hour with rain just before dinner, later the sky cleared and we had a nice evening as the stars filled the darkness above us. A group of 53 from Serbia had descended from High Camp. A rather big group, they had travelled from Serbia by bus. A fairly experienced lady, having climbed many mountains on the Balkans, came over for an evening chat. It was obvious that she had got to know Hakan while climbing higher up. We were all quite happy after a delicious dinner followed by soft conversation as the night gradually moved yet another day to past tense.

Day 2, August 7th. Acclimatization Day.

Today was acclimatization day. After breakfast, Pål Jørgen and I set out uphill at 0800. The trail was good and we kept a good pace reaching High Camp in 1.5 hours at 0930. We took a very long rest there with some snacks while watching climbers returning from the summit. Subsequently, we continued uphill to about 4400 meter before returning to High Camp. Everything seemed fine and Pål Jørgen did not hide the fact that he was in excellent shape. We returned down to Base Camp in only 45 minutes.
Around 1700, we had stonger and more rain than the day before. Soon, lightning and thunder added to the show and the tent was a very good place to be. However, at 1830 the weather cleared and the evening turned out just as nicely as the day before. The Kurds wanted to start an evening fire, good idea, but a questionable approach. First logs, then gasoline. Whenever the flames are about to die out, add more gasoline. Supplement with some paper and other burning material. Eventually, the logs started burning unassisted. I had a nice chat with several Kurds belonging to Hakan's team. These Kurds are mountain people, many living in a normadic way on the slopes of mountains across national borders that may seem insignificant and meaningless, decided by politics thousands of kilometer away.

Day 3, August 8th. Move to High Camp.

After a nice morning, we started out for High Camp around 0900. A bit of luxury to have the backpacks carried further up by horse, but this is the deal when being on a guided tour. Pål and I were the only climbers, while Hakan normally would try to have somewhat larger groups. We reached High Camp at 1025, about 5 minutes faster than yesterday. Found a reasonably flat spot between all the rocks and pitched the tent. A bit later, our cook arrived riding on a small, but brave horse. Obviously, he needed a ride in order to get all the way up here. The bigger question is if we really needed him, just to cook us a single dinner. Granted, his meals have been very nice indeed, but the logistical efforts are a bit out of proportion relative to what Pål and I really need in order to climb this mountain tomorrow.
Again, as the afternoon hours started, we had more rain or rather hail. Big hails! The tent has certainly been important given this afternoon pattern. More lightning, but less than yesterday. Then a clearing sky before the night arrives. The summit is clear in the evening light. The small neighbor, Little Ararat, is shining red just before the sun sets. The volcanic rock just across the gully shows its structure, while the shadows grow as we look down below. We can see lights from Dogubeyazit, but also from several Iranian villages. Hakan asked if we should descend all the way to Dogubeyazit tomorrow, or stay a last night in Base Camp. I told him that I would prefer to break the long descent into two days and he immediately agreed. My real consideration was to spend another night above 3000 meter in order to maximize acclimatization for our upcoming Damavand trip. We then discussed tomorrow's starting time. He claims the climb tomorrow will take 5 hours to the summit. I tell him that given a rate of ascent between Base Camp and High Camp of 550 meter/hour (1.5 hours) and adjusting for the higher elevation above us, we will still make the summit in 3 hours. Hakan says that many parties start already at midnight or 0100, then suggests that we start at 0200. OK, the guide should decide, I still know that we will indeed arrive at the summit before sunrise.

Day 4, August 9th. Summit Day.

I woke up at 0145 and we had breakfast served by our cook around 0200. We started hiking at 0215. It is dark, with thousands of stars across the dark sky and a long string of climbers with headlights already on their way up the slopes above us.
We started out with Hakan first and me with the backpack going last. He set up a terrific pace and I was quickly out of breath and pretty miserable. Hakan later explained that he wanted to pass a large group before passing would be even harder. Higher up, Pål took the backpack as well as the lead. I had recovered from the brutal start and felt good (relieved of the pack certainly did not hurt). Before long Hakan shouted ahead: "Pål you are killing me!" It was evident that we all should have our turns feeling the effort this early morning. We kept passing other teams and before long there was only darkness and no more lights up ahead. The rocks were icy and sometimes quite slippery. The rain and hail last afternoon had clearly frozen and partly made a thin film of ice on the rocks. We saw all the lights from Jerevan, the capital of Armenia, down to our left. Such a peaceful sight, there is no sense that these two people should quarrel over this beautiful mountain. They should both be able to share it!
I took the backpack again as the pace slowed quite noticeable. We reached the snow and made a brief stop in order to attach crampons after 1:50. The summit now seemed quite close, but we still had a few hundred vertical meter ahead of us. This time it was finally Pål's turn to feel the combination of effort and thin air taking its toll. He slowed more than he could understand himself, but to me it was pretty obvious that oxygen deprivation finally was about to lower his pace to a gentle walk. The four Czech guys came from behind and passed us, Hakan took advantage of superior acclimatization and was still up front. Just as I had concluded that the remaining hike would be slower, but steady, Pål came up on my right side and said: "Dad, the summit is not that far out, I feel similar to how I feel when passing 2500 meter in a 3000 meter track and field race." Having said this, he charged ahead and quickly caught up with the Czech, then Hakan. We were now at the final, slightly steeper slope and I made a brief pause while laughing when seeing Pål and Hakan running the last few meter to the pole that clearly marked the summit.
We reached the summit at 0445, 2.5 hours from high camp. The sun was still below the horizon, but we could see where it would appear. We congratulated each other and it was revealed that Hakan was 31 years old today. The first time he had climbed Ararat on his birthday. His friend revealed that it would indeed be fun with a birthday party in the village. I had no problems agreeing to this. As a professional guide, Hakan had never hesitated when I told him that I preferred an extra night on descent. We walked along the distinct summit ridge and watched as the sunrise began. Yes, it is nice to see the sun rising from high summits. The gradual transition with the red sun climbing through some very distant horizon clouds. I measured the summit elevation, averaging more than 300 samples in my GPS, it settled on 5132 meter, 5 meter lower than the often quoted 5137 figure. This clearly shows that the 5165 meter elevation that many sources use is wrong. The summit is a snow ridge with no visible rock anywhere. Thus, the precise elevation will change with the seasons and could definitely be influenced by climate change (global warming). Later GPS measurements in Iran suggested that the GPS data may be about 10 meter too high also in this part of the world. This would in fact point in the direction of a true Ararat elevation around 5125 meter.
The sun broke into the blue sky and illuminated everything. The near perfect shape of Ararat threw its shadow far out into the country below us. We felt the warmth and stayed even a bit longer. The weather was really perfect, no wind. Pål Jørgen expressed enthusiasm from looking around, you really get the sensation of being at the top of the world. It is incredibly far down to valley floors and the terrain that extends out below us. The Czechs had sat down near the pole that marks the highest point on the summit ridge. We could now see more people coming up the snow field below us. We slowly started back down at 0525 and reached High Camp at 0645, people were still asleep in several tents! Care was needed in the upper parts of the rocks, the thin layer of ice was even more treacherous on descent than it had been when ascending. When climbing the mountain, besides darkness you always face the rocks in front of you. Descending has its own value, refecting back on the summit, but also enjoying a constant scenery and landscape below you. Looking down at the High Camp below, the first leg in a 3000 meter vertical descent.
Our excellent cook served warm soup and we generally agreed to take a nap in the tent and relax from the early morning adventure. We agreed to start the next leg of descending to Base Camp around 1000. This time came (too) quickly, but we started at 1030 and the walk down was quite pleasant. We walked with the cook. He had a single walking pole that broke and he first politely refused to take my trekking poles, then happily accepted. We reached Base Camp and celebrated with a cold Coke (Pål) and a cold beer (me). Another hour quickly passed before we started walking down to the mini-bus pickup point. The young boy from Base Camp served as our "guide", actually quite useful since the area below Base Camp is pretty full of trails, a mix of climber's trails and Kurdish trails for looking after their domestic animals. The terrain is much more gentle here, meaning that the distance to descend yet another 1200 vertical meter is correspondingly longer. Looking back towards Ararat reveals this, here it looks almost flat, but we are steadily descending. We reached the pick-up point (trailhead) at 1330 and sat down to wait. The mini-bus soon arrived, however, we needed to wait a bit before Hakan arrived, then another 20 minutes for the last horse with luggage. Mobile phones has changed coordination here just as much as we observed it in Indonesia last year. When waiting for this last horse, Hakan simply called to check on its location and estimated arrival time. It was blasting hot here at the 2000 meter level. We all looked for good ways to rest while waiting.
Back in Dogubeyazit at 1515, we first relaxed a bit in the hotel, then went out and had dinner with Hakan at 1800. Later we went to a place near the palace to enjoy more food and music. This time together with the party that Hakan had guided before us, they were still in town. A rather unusual team largely consisting of young diplomats from Ankara. Irish, Belgian, Russian etc. True to good diplomatic tradition, the Belgian and the Russian guy got into an argument leading to the Russian hitting his opponent. Not very civilized, but perhaps a manifestation of human nature. Sadly reminding me that the Turkish and Armenian people seem unable to share the beauty of Ararat together.
This trip continued into Iran in order to also climb Damavand. This part of our trip is described in a separate trip report.
For notes on acclimatization and trip budget, see the end of that report.

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