2359) Climbing Ararat: Then and Now By Philip K. Ketchian

Day One:
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Dogubayazit. I was sitting on pins and needles, on a bench in front of the Isfahan Hotel in Dogubayazit, a drab and sweltering border town of squat cinderblock buildings, whose main industry, as rumor has it, is smuggling, and possessing all the charm of a New Year’s Day hangover. Since early sunrise we had been all packed and ready to go, a last minute glitch had, however, left us grounded for an indefinite period. Elsa and I had flown from Boston and arrived in Van via Istanbul the previous day. From Van we were picked up by the Anatolian Adventures van and driven the 100-mile distance to Dogubayazit. The Isfahan had been known as the Ararat Hotel in the past and is popular amongst climbers; its lobby has been likened to Rick’s Bar in the film Casablanca by some old-time “Ark hunters.” . .

We were waiting for the local military district commander’s signature to the final of the half dozen permits that would clear the way for us to climb the mythical mountain. Sinan, our Turkish guide, was assuring us that it was just a matter of time. It didn’t help to know that I was the problem, or more precisely, my Armenian name was. A senior army general had popped up from headquarters for a surprise inspection, so the otherwise willing local commander had astutely hidden away our passports and permit applications, not wishing to draw undue attention to my name. Our backpacks and duffel bags had been loaded on our van some time ago. The grating sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer filled the air once again.

Waiting on tenterhooks, I was doing my best not to reveal my high state of anxiety. What was I doing here anyhow? How did I get myself in this position? I looked around to note that all my teammates, including Elsa, have had experience climbing mountains significantly higher than this. This was to be my most ambitious climb. As a matter of fact the highest peak that I had climbed to date was a full 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) lower than this one. Even Camp 2, which we would reach on the third day of the expedition, is higher. It was exciting to think that I would be attempting to nod off to sleep at an elevation somewhat higher than I had ever been!

Our team was composed of four climbers: my wife Elsa, two fine English gentlemen—Alan Williams, who had worked in the information technology business and Cliff Jackson, a Baptist minister—and myself. We were most fortunate to have three guides assigned to us; Karl Farkas from KE Adventure Travel in Britain, Sinan Halic, president of Anatolian Adventures based in Istanbul, and Apo Kara, our second local guide. We were also lucky to have Jamal, a climber himself, to serve as the expedition’s cook and quartermaster.

It did nothing to my foreboding when Sinan had amicably tried to assure me that he would personally see that I would get up his mountain. “Our mountain,” I corrected him diplomatically, determined as ever before to summit atop “my mountain,” Mount Ararat. But what if after coming so close I alone was denied this final permit? ... I knew that I must think positive and shake off such defeatist thoughts.

It had all begun in April 2002, when I received a brochure from KE Adventure Travel’s American office in Colorado. KE (for Karakoram Experiences) is a British company that had pioneered some of the first expeditions in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan. The brochure was full of beautiful photos of all the exotic expeditions that they were organizing worldwide. Leafing through its pages my eyes suddenly caught sight of something so familiar to me, Mount Ararat! It stated that the Turkish government had recently lifted its restrictions and once again opened the mountain to climbers, and so KE was organizing their first ever expedition to Mount Ararat the following year in July 2003.

My heart was pounding and I broke out in a sweat. I read and re-read the write-up. I felt it to be a personal invitation especially addressed to me. I recognized this to be my chance. I couldn’t wait to show it to Elsa. What would her reaction be? Later that day, without comment, I brought it to her attention. Her eyes brightened, and her smile widened. She sprang up raising her hands as she exclaimed, “We’re doing this together.” The die was cast; there would be no turning back now.

The following day I called KE Adventure Travel in Colorado and signed us up for the trip. They were interested in our past mountaineering experience, thus the process was set in motion. A list of necessary clothing and equipment was to follow. I recalled a warning Henry David Thoreau issued in the first chapter of Walden, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” I didn’t feel it applied to us because we had almost everything, excluding crampons and ice axes, which we immediately set out to purchase. I pulled out of storage the beautiful brand-new Scarpa heavy mountain boots, waiting for such an occasion. This was just one of a half-dozen different boots I had stocked up on when the Boston distributor went out of business a few years ago. They would require some breaking in. Next I splurged on a pair of photochromatic glacier glasses with variable light transmission adjusting to the intensity of the ambient light, with prescription lenses correcting my astigmatism, and with progressive gradient bifocals. The one-year-plus lead-time would provide ample time to prepare us physically and psychologically for the rigors that lay ahead.

Over the past 12 years Elsa and I have had the pleasure of hiking extensively in the mountains of the Northeast United States, in addition to the mountains in Spain, France, Switzerland, Japan, and Armenia, including Mount Aragats and Mount Azhdahak. We have also deliberately done some climbs in adverse weather conditions in order to gain the necessary experience. This schooled us in selecting the proper foul weather clothing and equipment, and how to use them.

Meanwhile, I searched the available literature for information on the mountain, maps and photos, and firsthand accounts of both successful and unsuccessful attempts. To my disappointment, no good detailed maps suitable for climbing were to be found, and neither KE nor Anatolian Adventures ever supplied us with one. Imagine climbing in this day and age without a proper topographical trail map. Luckily, I had had the foresight over a decade ago to order one (1:200,000 scale) from a publisher in England, which was now out of print and unavailable.

KE sent us its Visitor to Mount Ararat Guide with tips on staying healthy, immunization shots, clothing, footwear, gear, food and drink, and also advice on purchasing mandatory emergency medical and evacuation insurance, in addition to trip cancellation insurance. A list describing the various symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness and its prevention followed.

The Turkish government maintains tight control over the mountain. Ararat had been off limits to climbers until it was reopened in 2002. Individuals wishing to climb the mountain are subjected to a background security check requiring a special-purpose climbing visa, and the issuance of permits from the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, the Ministry of Tourism, the governor of the province, and the commander of the local military police. These procedures can take up to three months. Climbers from Armenia are usually flatly refused. Many Armenians from the diaspora are also often refused. That is why I chose to sign up with a non-Armenian group.

At last, by 11:00, to the relief of all, our final permit was signed and, with our gear packed and ready, we boarded the van. Our driver started up the engine and headed north crossing the two busy downtown commercial streets full of men seated at outdoor cafes drinking tea and coffee, and playing cards or backgammon under a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. The driver negotiated his way between teenage boys pushing carts full of vegetables and fruits, but mostly watermelons. It was high season for watermelons and they were everywhere. I was made aware of that last night when the trucks loaded to their tops rumbled into the wholesale food market across the street from our hotel window in the early hours after midnight.The van made a sharp right hand turn on to the highway, which also marks the northern end of the town and traverses the alluvial plain leading east to Iran. We soon approached the military checkpoint, where Sinan alighted and walked over to and entered the guard booth to present our passports and permits. A Soviet-designed armored combat vehicle was parked conspicuously on the shoulder of the road, ready to intercept any trespasser, its cannon menacingly trained toward the road. The main army base, with American M-60 battle tanks forming its core, was situated nearby. The soldiers peeked into our van but all was well, and we were allowed to proceed on our way. From here one had an unobstructed view of Mount Ararat, its towering peak some 15 miles away as the crow flies (that is if the local birds do fly straight) gleaming in the noon sun, its features, however, fading with the thickening of the summer haze. As beautiful and majestic as the mountain is from the south, there is no question in my mind that Ararat reveals its best side to the north—toward Yerevan.

Soon the van turned left off the highway onto a dirt road heading toward Eli, our starting off point. The desiccated landscape unfolding ahead of us, devoid of trees, was baking under the sun’s merciless rays. No sign of man or animal was visible, only our van speeding up the foothills, kicking up clouds of dust in its wake, and the mounting thrill of high adventure. We reached Eli, which serves as a summer settlement for nomadic Kurds grazing their cattle on the slopes of the mountain. It consists of a few dozen tents and one stone structure.

Our van stopped at what could be construed as the village square. The shepherds were ready and waiting to haul our gear up to Camp 1. The packhorses and donkeys were there too. After unloading the van the Kurds loaded up the horses and donkeys. Lacking saddlebags, they haphazardly secured our duffel bags with pieces of frayed ropes tied together. Then the van turned around and headed back to Dogubayazit.

I took out my GPS unit (Global Positioning System) to measure the elevation. It read precisely 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level. With this reading I calibrated my barometer/altimeter. We headed toward the trailhead. The summit was obscured from this vantage point by a massive lava hillock to our north. Most climbing groups begin their trek from a spot 660 feet (200 meters) higher in elevation.

Shouldering our light backpacks and carrying only water, snacks, and foul weather gear, we headed west along a neglected, long-abandoned dirt road that soon rounded the lava hillock and snaked northward. From here on our trek would follow in a general NNE direction. The summit some six miles away on a straight line and 10,292 vertical feet (3,137 meters), or nearly two vertical miles above us, playing hide and seek among the clouds, loomed as an impregnable fortress. In the Iliad, Homer describes Mount Olympus, the divine abode of the gods of ancient Greece, as tall and shear and protected by clouds and darkness enshrouding the sacred summit, which form the “utmost gates” guarded by the Horae, who open and close the gates only for the immortals, barring passage to ordinary mortals. Ararat is said by the locals to be guarded by the Zone of Spiders, the Zone of Bears, and the Zone of Snakes.

From here on any climber could only rely upon himself. I took a long swig from my water bottle and trudged on.

Mountains have always held a mystique for humans. They have been objects of fear, reverence, and inspiration. We are drawn to mountains for many reasons—economic, scientific, aesthetic, and also adventure. Moreover, they are one of the last patches of wilderness one has to escape from the pressures of modern life.

Barren mountaintops are like islands in the sky, surrounded by a sea of vegetation. John Ruskin, the 19th century English writer and critic, once wrote, “Mountains seem to have been built for the human race as at once their schools and their cathedrals.”

Mountains are often described as majestic and mighty. In the presence of high and unapproachable peaks one tends to feel small and insignificant. The fascination of mountains casts a spell on people, drawing them toward the lofty summits with a veiled promise of adventure and spiritual fulfillment.

Mount Ararat occupies a special place in world civilization, largely due to its mention in the Book of Genesis. “And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters decreased. And the Ark rested in the seventh month, and on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.” Because of the legend of Noah’s Ark, Mount Ararat has become one of the most well known mountains in the world. According to some legends, the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in the vicinity of the mountain.

Mount Ararat, also known as Masis in Armenian, is the most important symbol of our national identity, and of our ancient homeland. Sometimes Masis is used for the taller peak, and Sis for Lesser Ararat. The name Ararat has its origin in the Bible as “r_r_t” without the vowels. Armenians experience the same spiritual relationship vis-à-vis Ararat, as the Japanese with Mount Fuji, the Hawaiians with Mauna Kea, and the ancient Greeks with Mount Olympus. What traveler has not looked up in awe at its majestic form and marveled at its sublime beauty?

Mother Nature’s bestowal of abundant sunlight together with the sparseness of vegetation paint Ararat in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of visual impressions etched in one’s consciousness. Ararat plays an important role in the art, the literature, and especially the poetry of Armenia. And what, after all, would Armenian artists have done without Ararat? Even Henry Thoreau wrote about that, “antique, brownish-gray, Ararat color.”

The glistening peak looms so real and so unattainable, so near and yet so far away.

Ararat is a state of mind...

Mount Ararat is a snow-capped volcano located some 20 miles south of the border of the modern Republic of Armenia. The peak soars up to an elevation of 16,854 feet (5,137 meters) above sea level, according to the most recent measurements made with precision instruments from satellites in space. This is slightly lower than the previously published height of 16,946 feet (5,165 meters). As a rule, the phrase “Mount Ararat” refers to the higher peak. The smaller cone, Lesser Ararat 12,782 feet (3,895 meters) rises southeast of the main peak. This too has been downgraded from 12,878 feet (3,925 meters). The two peaks are linked together by a saddle about 7,900 feet high. The separation between the two summits is approximately seven miles. The mountain is entirely located in present-day Turkey. It abuts the borders of Armenia, Nakhichevan, and Iran.

Ararat is an extinct stratovolcano that has not erupted in historic times. It was built up gradually in alternating layers of molten lava flows and the buildup of erupted volcanic ash, cinders, blocks, and bombs. Ararat has no visible crater. It was violently shaken by a powerful earthquake in 1840. Tragically, the resulting avalanche of rock, snow, and ice buried the Armenian village of Agori and the Saint Jacob Monastery and Chapel on its northern slope.

The two Ararats straddle the ancient caravan routes, standing proudly alone and towering towards the heavens from the sun-baked Armenian Plateau. Ararat, undisputedly, presents its best side toward Armenia to the north, rising some 14,100 vertical feet from the Arax River. Few mountains anywhere in the world provide such a spectacular view.

In 1254 William of Rubruk, a Franciscan monk returning from Karakoram passed by Ararat. He related the legend of the Armenian monk who, after a number of unsuccessful attempts at climbing the mountain to see the Ark, was visited by an angel who admonished him for his efforts, but out of kindness presented him with a piece of the wood of the Ark. His name was Jacob (Hagop), who was said to be a contemporary and a relative of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, and a monastery was built at that spot on the northern slope at the base of the Agori Gorge. The wood fragment is said to be at the present held in Etchmiadzin.

The Venetian traveler Marco Polo passed through Armenia on his way to China in 1271. About Ararat he wrote: “In the central part of Armenia stands an exceedingly large and high mountain, upon which, it is said, the Ark of Noah rested, and for this reason it is termed the Mountain of the Ark. The circuit of its base cannot be compassed in less than two days. The ascent is impracticable on account of the snow towards the summit, which never melts, but goes on increasing by each successive fall.”

The Dutch traveler Jan Struys passed through the region in June 1670. In the somewhat fanciful account of his experiences published in his book The Perilous and Most Unhappy Voyages, Struys mentions being captured by Tartars to be sold as a slave in Persia. On the way they passed by Ararat. “Mount Ararat is seated just in the parting of Armenia and Medea,” he writes. “It is much higher than either Caucasus, or the famous Taurus, or any other Mountain in all Medea, Armenia or Persia, so far as one can view. It is blew, and dark-coloured Rock.”

He was asked by his captors to visit an ailing hermit on Ararat, to cure him. In his journey up the mountain he describes passing through three sorts of clouds. “The first were thick, misty and dark. The second were cold and like snow, although it was perfect summer in the Valleys, and so warm that the Grapes were very early ripe. The third sort were so cold, that we could hardly endure any longer, and thought verily that we should have grown stiff, and not able to proceed on our Journey. But having now travailed 4 days, we found the Air very temperate and tolerable. We arrived at the Hermits house, which was hewen out of Rock, ...” The hermit presented Struys with a wood fragment from the Ark, and a stone upon which the Ark had rested.

In 1701, the famous French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort traveled to the Ararat region to study its plant life. In his book titled, A Voyage into the Levant, Tournefort writes: “I have never seen such a more beautiful Country than the neighborhood of the Three-Churches (Etchmiadzin), I am strongly persuaded that Adam and Eve were created there.” “All the Armenians kiss the Earth as soon as they see Ararat, and repeat certain Prayers, after having made the Sign of the Cross,” he observed.

He began climbing up Ararat, “... but not without difficulty: We were forced to climb up loose sands,” he wrote. He found little water on the mountain. Buried up to his ankles in loose sand, slipping and sliding he reached a large patch of snow, but fatigue and queasiness forced him to turn back. Tournefort had hoped to discover some antediluvian plants and flowers on Ararat. “M. Struys would have done us a particular Favour, if he had told us where the Anchorites, he mentions resided;... .” he lamented. It was, perhaps, sour grapes that led him to write that, “This Mountain, ... is one of the most sad and disagreeable Sights upon Earth.”

On the other hand, the British envoy James Morier wrote in his book, A Second Journey Through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor ... that in 1810, “...we had a most splendid view of Mount Ararat. Nothing can be more beautiful than its shape, more awful than its height. It is perfect in all its parts, no hard rugged feature, no unnatural prominences, everything is in harmony, and all combines to render it one of the sublimest objects in nature.”

In 1817, Robert Ker Porter wrote about his encounter with Ararat in his book Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia. “It was not until we had arrived upon the flat plain, that I beheld Ararat in all its amplitude of grandeur. From the spot on which I stood, it appeared as if the hugest mountains of the world, had been piled upon each other to form this sublime immensity of earth, and rock, and snow. The icy peaks of its double head rose majestically into the clear and cloudless heavens; the sun blazed bright upon them; and the reflection sent forth a dazzling radiance, equal to other suns.”

Another British envoy Augustus Mounsey whose carriage was stuck in the middle of a river and awaiting assistance was to write of his travels in A Journey Through The Caucasus and the Interior of Persia, in 1872, that “As we were eating our last morsel of pate-de-foie-gras, out came the sun, and Ararats conical summit appeared sharply cut on the clear background, towering aloft the great mystic mountain stood before me in all its symmetrical beauty. The two cones softened, to my eye, its huge masculine grandeur, and gave it the soft charm of feminine beauty: for the lesser one nestles in the bosom of the greater, like a beautiful flower in the breast of a fair lady.”

After waiting a week without luck for the haze to lift, Tsar Nicholas I left saying, “Too bad for Ararat. It will not have seen the Tsar.”

We departed Eli at about 12:45 p.m., followed by the half-dozen packhorses and donkeys. We had been surrounded by curious Kurdish children, who asked for sunscreen, which appeared to hold a special cachet for them, by rubbing their cheeks with their fingers. Our expedition formed an amorphous group of trekkers and pack animals together with their drivers. After we rounded the lava hillock the summit came back into sight, fast-moving clouds were crashing into its upper slopes blotting out the peak, only to clear up soon again. The noontime sun was mercilessly scorching everything in sight. Ararat is totally void of trees. Only an unusual copse of stunted birch trees has existed on the northern slope of Lesser Ararat, at an elevation of approximately 7,750 feet (2,400 meters). I don’t know in what form it has survived today. Passing by the area in the fall of 1996, I was stunned by the glowing orange-red ribbon from a massive conflagration observable in the pitch darkness of midnight in the general direction from where that patch of woods should be, from just across from the border on the Armenian side of the Arax River. It was a spectacular but sad sight; my companion the then Minister of the Environment of Armenia speculated that it had been set ablaze to flush out the Kurdish rebels.

The air was dry, but the temperature was up in the high eighties, Fahrenheit. We stuck to the dirt track for a while, but it continued to deteriorate the higher we went. This road had been built in the 1980s, and we were told that it reached up to Camp 1. But the years of neglect had taken its toll, and the word was that the local Kurds had always viewed it as a sinister plot to rob them of the income they earned hauling the gear of climbers up the mountain. So the harsh elements of the mountain and the alleged covert actions of the locals have contributed to the disappearance of the track in most places. The slope was still very gentle here. We passed by the spot from where in the past the climbers would begin their trek. I was glad to have started off that much lower—there being so much more of “my mountain” to savor. The road eventually bore left and soon totally disappeared, the freshets from the spring snowmelts had washed it away. Only a deep gully ran where the road had once been.

By now the pack animals were opening up the distance between us. They would reach Camp 1 well before us. The clouds over the summit rolled in and out, but we remained constantly exposed to the scorching rays of the sun overhead. This may be one of the disadvantages of the southern route.

From sunrise in the east to sunset in the west it is relentlessly radiating down on you. There is no shade to be found, no escape. James Bryce had also suffered from the sun in 1876, when traversing the lower northern slopes of the mountain en route to camp at Sardarbulakh. His comments on the situation came to mind quite appropriately; “(T)he management… of the bridle and a big white umbrella, required some dexterity. An umbrella and a horse do seem rather incompatible, not only with one another, but with a mountain ascent; but we would willingly have looked even more ridiculous for the sake of some protection against the fiery shower of beams that descended from the cloudless sky.”

The southern route, however, is the only one open at this time. It is well served from Dogubayazit, and it is perhaps, the safest. The route stays clear of the paths of falling rocks, and the steepest and slipperiest slopes. It is also the easiest for the army to monitor. Sinan related how on a previous climb a member of the team had perhaps walked away too far from his tent for some privacy in the middle of the night. The soldiers using night vision devices had detected it and radioed Sinan to call him back.

We were trekking through rock-strewn alpine meadows where the semi-nomadic Kurds bring their flocks of sheep and goats to graze in the summer. Slowly we approached a yayla, one of the temporary summer encampments, where they live with their families. We skirted it to our left so as not to get distracted and to stay clear of the dogs. The little girls came running over to us holding up pretty hand-knitted woolen socks to sell and, of course, motioning for sunscreen. At this rate we could be out of it soon. The gentle slope of our track was deceptive, for we would be gaining some 4,350 vertical feet (1,325 meters) in elevation on this first day.

The higher we climbed the rockier the terrain became. Underfoot was a trail surface consisting of packed volcanic dust and ash, liberally peppered with scree and scoria. The density of the strewn scree increased with the elevation with talus gradually mixing up with the scree. The scree and talus are ankle-twisters lodged unstably on the surface of volcanic dust and ash. One disregards this only at one’s own peril. Huge igneous rocks and boulders are scattered about. Many of them are lava blocks and lava bombs that have been violently ejected out of the crater during an eruption sometime back in prehistoric times. The blocks have irregular sharp shapes, as they were shot out as solid fragments of lava. The bombs have smoother aerodynamic surfaces; they were shot out of the volcano while still molten magma, solidifying and taking shape while falling through the air, or after landing.

Eventually, Elsa, Apo, and I formed a loose group hiking detached from the rest. We, and especially Elsa were taking note of the wildflowers along the route, many quite similar to those we have seen on Aragats and Azhdahak in Armenia. As a matter of fact, the three mountains form a triangle with Yerevan, the Armenian capital, at its center.

We continued on, the slope was becoming only marginally steeper. It had little resemblance to a mountain trail, if not for the summit in the distance above. At this elevation and vantage point the mountain appeared foreshortened and made up of three different parts; the lower flatter green section that we were presently traversing and that continued up to Camp 1; the rocky, “antique, brownish-gray Ararat color” section which resembled a cake in the form of a truncated cone dropped atop the lower green layer; and the upper dome crowned with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream with snow-white fingers streaking down the sides. It beckoned and teased us, now hiding coyly behind a veil of clouds, and then boldly revealing itself in all its beauty.

Some three-quarters of the way en route up to Camp 1 we crossed paths with the returning horses that had unloaded our gear up there. We took some breaks to rest and consume our snacks and water. We were enjoying the trek and the beauty that surrounded us. The weather was hot, but otherwise holding steady.

By the time we marched into Camp 1, our tents had been pitched and were ready. It was about 6:30 p.m. The Trango 3000 tent was not very roomy for the two of us, but was quite sturdy. We collected the duffel bags with all our gear packed in them and brought them into our tent. The expedition had also supplied us with a very functional sleeping pad for our sleeping bags. The tent would be our home for the next four nights. Alan and Cliff were doubled up together in a similar tent nearby. Jamal had set up the camp stove and was busy making preparations for our dinner.

This was Camp 1, also known as Green Camp, no doubt, because the immediate area of the encampment was unusually green. Its elevation I measured to be 10,910 feet (3,325 meters) above sea level. It is a large and reasonably level area able to accommodate a few expeditions at a time. A little brook rippled on the western boundary of the camp; it would serve as the source of our water. The water was cool but murky, due to the volcanic dust and ash suspended in it. Pack animals and sheep lingered nearby upstream. The locals had no respect for sanitation.

Everyone was in high spirits. Shuffling about we bunched together and began chatting, commenting on the day’s hike and periodically sneaking glances in the direction of the summit above. A large group of mostly Dutch climbers were camped nearby. Cliff came back to us with the news that all had successfully summitted this afternoon, even though the peak was in the clouds. The news raised our hopes, but didn’t make it any easier for us.

Our soup was ready to be served so we gathered around the tarp spread on the ground. It was delicious; however, with only one camp stove it took a while before Jamal finished preparing the chicken dinner. It was dark by then so we all switched on our headlamps. Desert was watermelons, but this was cut short by a sudden cool rain shower. We all darted into our tents, but fortunately, it was time to get some rest. This development in the weather situation raised some concerns among us.

I had come supplied with Diamox pills, which are often prescribed for preventing Mountain Sickness. It is to be taken twice a day, the instructions, however, stressed it to be begun in the morning. I started it in the evening. Because this was a powerful diuretic, it meant getting up every hour or so, fumbling to unzip the sleeping bag, groping in the dark for my eyeglasses and headlamp, and quietly unzipping the tent flap. Fortunately, there was an exit for each of us on our respective sides. I would then find my boots, and wiggle out of my warm sleeping bag and out of the tent, somehow hoping not to disturb Elsa.

I was immediately immersed into the crisp and crystal clear mountain air. The ink-black sky was clearing up, the stars were out overhead twinkling gaily, and the bright moon was three days past full. Only a few feathery clouds now and then dimmed the spectacular display. The shower had been just a passing event. Thanks to the Diamox, I would witness the progression of the celestial show another half-dozen times. But I was fortunate to be able to return to the tent and immediately nod off to sleep once again.

Day Two: Thursday, July 17

Camp 1. This was our first full day on the mountain. It was devoted to acclimatization. We were awakened at seven in the morning. Breakfast was ready by 8:30 a.m. I took a second Diamox. It was a beautiful clear day. At 9:30 a.m., Karl led us on a warm-up acclimatization hike along the route up to Camp 2. We would climb up to 12,300 feet (3,750 meters). By now I had noticed the 125 foot or so difference in the readings between my altimeter/barometer and GPS unit. The GPS acquires radio signals from up to four special satellites orbiting overhead, which it processes and provides readings accurate up to an amazing 10 to 15 feet. The altimeter/barometer measures atmospheric air pressure, which can drift from hour to hour and day to day. One must calibrate it with a fixed unit located at a known elevation off the mountain. Thus, the GPS unit, employing the most modern high-tech systems, is always correct. Alan was wearing a wristwatch with a built-in altimeter/barometer, so he challenged the accuracy of my GPS unit against his. The only way that we could prove this was to compare the readings of both, standing atop the summit, with the latest official elevation of 16,854 feet (5,137 meters) above sea level.

Our exploratory hike went well, and we returned for lunch by 1 o’clock. The large European team of climbers had packed up and left. Earlier they had complained about some missing clothing and gear, and had suspected it to be the work of the Kurdish camp manager who had a tent nearby. We brought the matter up with Sinan, who assured us that given his relationship with the locals, we could be confident of that not happening to us. Furthermore, Jamal always remains at the camps to keep an eye on things. We had the entire Green Camp area to ourselves today. Karl had been observing our progress, and heeding his advice I quit taking Diamox.

We were learning more about our companions. Alan had been signing up for a different KE expedition for each of the past many years. On the previous year’s expedition he had climbed a 23,000-foot (7,000 meter) peak in Tibet. Cliff had climbed Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya. Karl was an exceptionally experienced outdoorsman. He had wintered three times in Antarctica and was insured for climbing up to 26,250 feet (8,000 meters). Karl’s experience was very important for a successful ascent. Left to our local guides, for instance, the water would be brought to a hasty boil before consumption. But the boiling point of water at Camp 1 is about 198o Fahrenheit (92o Celsius), and 186o Fahrenheit (86o Celsius) at Camp 2. Karl would make sure to add iodine tablets to purify the water. It tasted terrible, but one was much safer that way.

I had had a good man-to-man talk with Apo on the previous day, while hiking up to Camp 1. He told me of his disappointment of having to abort the final push up a 24,000-foot peak in Central Asia in order to hurry to the rescue of one of his injured teammates. We had also discussed matters of life and, of course, women. It was also becoming clear that the fact that Elsa and I went on such expeditions together was a source of admiration and envy for our companions.

Talking to Sinan, I learned about his ambition of becoming the top organizer of Ararat expeditions. He had been a long-distance open-water swimmer, but had since taken up climbing. Sinan was also prepared to bring climbers from across the border in cooperation with tour organizers in Armenia any time the political situation improved. He mentioned having contact with Avarayr Tours in Yerevan. Quite by coincidence, I knew the people at Avarayr Tours. Elsa and I had climbed Mount Aragats in Armenia in June 2001 with the assistance of their guide Andrei Chesnokov. I put in a few good words for my friends at Avarayr.

Later on, Elsa and I took the time out to reflect on the events of the past couple of days and to savor the pleasure of the solitude the mountain affords. We were in good spirits. Fully consumed by the mountain, we felt the rest of the world was all but a distant memory to us. That night without Diamox I slept blissfully like a log.

The exalted moniker of first mountaineer in the modern sense, i.e. having climbed a mountain for no other purpose than to reach the summit, is often bestowed to the Italian poet Petrarch. His claim to be called the father of mountaineering is backed by the fact of a single climb up the 6,427-foot (1959 meters) Mont Ventoux in Avignon undertaken after exhaustive training in 1336. The age of modern mountaineering, however, began in 1786, when on August 9, Dr. Michel-Gabriel Paccard and guide Jacques Balmat successfully summitted Mont Blanc 15,771 feet (4807 meters), the highest peak in the European Alps. At the time this news was comparable to the news of the first landing on the moon in July 1969. This triggered a frenzy of attempted first ascents in the Alps and elsewhere around the world. However, climbing Mount Ararat was considered impossible because it was believed that the summit was a cone of ice too steep to scale. In addition, the Armenian Church considered the mountain holy and the resting place of Noah’s Ark, thus discouraging it from being defiled by human feet.

The Russo-Persian War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Turkmenchai in February 1828, by which the northern half of Mount Ararat was ceded to Russia. This made it safe for travelers to visit the area.

On this occasion, Dr. Friedrich Parrot, a Russo-German professor of physics at the University of Dorpat, in what is presently Tartu, Estonia wrote in his book, Journey to Ararat: “The time was now come for gratification of my long-suppressed aspiration after the mysterious mountain, and a fortunate conjecture presented me with the means conductive to the object I had in view.” Parrot recruited a botanist, a zoologist, a mineralogist, and an astronomer. Parrot was personally interested in the problems of earth magnetism, atmospheric electricity, and temperatures at high altitudes. He received full approval for the project from the emperor Nicholas I, who provided the expedition with a military escort.

Parrot was mesmerized by Ararat since when climbing the Caucasus Range back in 1811, “I stood upon the Kasbeg, during a snow storm, a momentary break in the clouds discovered in the distant south, a high, round, solitary peak—in all probability the silver crown of Ararat.”

After a gruesome 2,300-mile journey they reached Etchmiadzin in mid-September 1829. There they enjoyed a hospitable reception, and as a special honor, Parrot was shown the piece of wood from the Ark, claimed to be the one given to Saint Jacob (Hagop) by the angel.

At Etchmiadzin, Parrot met with the young Khatchadur Abovian, and was very impressed with his intelligence and enthusiasm. At the time Abovian was serving as clerk and translator to Catholicos Yeprem. Fortunately, the Catholicos assigned Abovian to the expedition as interpreter and guide because of his knowledge of Armenian, Russian, Turkish, and Persian.

After the climb, Parrot invited Abovian (1805-1848?) to study at the University of Dorpat. Abovian came to be one of the most progressive intellectuals of the time. Fourteen years later in July 1843, Abovian also accompanied the University of Munich professor Moritz Wagner on the first ascent of Mount Aragats 13,435 feet (4,095 meters) in Armenia.

The Parrot group crossed the Arax River and headed to the Armenian village of Agori situated on the northern slope of Ararat at the eastern foot of the Agori Gorge, also known as the Great Chasm, about 4,000 feet above sea level. It is here according to the Armenian legend, that Noah descended and planted the first vine. The group sat down under the foliage to, “...quench our burning thirst, to our hearts’ content, with the delicious grapes just ripening on Father Noah’s vines.” Later, following the advice of Harutiun Alamdarian of Tiflis, they set up base camp at the Monastery of Saint Jacob some 2,400 feet higher, at an elevation of 6,375 feet, as measured by Parrot.

Parrot was one of the last travelers to visit Agori and the monastery before the disastrous earthquake of May 1840, which violently shook the mountain and precipitated an avalanche of rock, snow, and ice from atop the mountain via the gorge that totally buried both the monastery and the village. None of the over 1,500 hundred inhabitants and monks survived the catastrophe. Only a few people who had been elsewhere out of town survived. In his book Parrot provides us with an invaluably detailed description of the village and the monastery.

The first attempt at climbing the mountain nearly ended in disaster. They started up the northeast slope. Their Armenian guide Sahak, a hunter from Agori was forced to turn back from about 13,500 feet, just below the snowcap for lack of warm clothing. Parrot also had to turn back later in full view of the summit. Descending the icecap, his companion tripped and slid into Parrot knocking him over. Parrot continued sliding down for nearly a quarter of a mile before miraculously coming to a stop just a few feet before the edge of the glacier.

Six days later at the advice of Stepan Khojiants, the village chief of Agori, who also joined Parrot, the ascent was attempted from the northwest side. They managed to reach an elevation of 16,028 feet. The summit was visible from this altitude, but the hour was late.

Though it was late in the season, a stretch of favorable weather encouraged Parrot to make one last attempt. This time he resolved to do things right and to plan using the experience acquired from the previous two attempts. Employing villagers from Agori, Russian soldiers, horses and oxen, they attacked the mountain from the west as in the second attempt. When the terrain became too steep and tough for the pack animals, they were unloaded and sent back. The load was distributed among the party and they continued up the rocky slope. The team made their way as high as the lower limit of the snow cover. Parrot now understood that he must camp overnight as close as possible to the limits of perpetual snow. Here at an elevation of 13,800 feet above sea level they camped for the night. A fire was soon started and Parrot made his favorite onion soup, which he considered warming and reviving in such circumstances. The Armenians were fasting in observance of a church holiday. But all did share the brandy Parrot portioned out to the members of the party.

At the first crack of dawn they set off upward and crossed over the last rocky tracts to reach the lower limit of perpetual snow. The surface was hard ice. Steps had to be cut even into the less steep slopes. They soon reached a steeper section and continued cutting steps and climbed upward. A number of minor peaks lay ahead. “Boldly onward,” Parrot recalls crying out. They were soon to feel the full force of the mountain wind. The highest pinnacle of Ararat was in sight. At last, at 3:15 p.m. on October 9 (September 27, old style Julian calendar), 1829 Dr. Friedrich Parrot and his companions stood atop Mount Ararat.

He described the summit in the following way, “I found myself on a gently vaulted, near cruciform surface of about two hundred paces in circuit, which at the margin sloped off precipitously on every side, but particularly towards the southeast and northeast. Formed of eternal ice, ... it was the austere, silvery head of Old Ararat.” About that final push, Abovian would write: “We had been mercilessly suffering such various difficulties, so when the pinnacle of the mountain appeared not far from us, each person, one after the other, climbing and descending, headed towards that direction not taking any notice, at that moment, of any difficulties and not considering their exhaustion, they were hurrying and hastening to see the spot desired by so many. It appeared as if we were winging up the slope to the sky, towards where the summit was. Our hopeless legs and wobbly knees had gathered momentum and were soaring upward, toward the astonishing aerie.”

Six men stood victoriously atop the true summit on that momentous day; Parrot, Khatchadur Abovian, two Russian soldiers, Alexei Zdorovenko and Matvei Chalpanov, and two Armenian Agori villagers, Hovannes Aivazian, and Murat Poghossian. Parrot was busy conducting experiments. Using a mercury barometer he measured the elevation at 17,210 feet (5,280 meters). This was the highest elevation climbed by man up to this date outside of Mount Licancabur in the Chilean Andes. With a small portion of wine they drank a toast to the patriarch Noah. Abovian picked up a large chunk of ice from the summit and carried it down with him. He saved it in a bottle considering the water holy.

On November 8 (Oct. 27, J.C.), Parrot and Abovian together with the Agori hunter Sahak’s brother Hago, acting as a guide climbed up Lesser Ararat.

It is regrettable, that both Parrot and Abovian had to face skepticism and disbelief of their achievement by some ignorant people and the Armenian Church of the time.

Khatchadur Abovian’s first ascent of Ararat and his subsequent achievements in mountaineering firmly establish him as the father of Armenian mountaineering.

In 1834 the Russian Kozma F. Spassky-Avtonomov, a teacher at a Tiflis religious seminary, was next to attempt the climb. It is said that he wanted to ascertain whether stars are visible from great heights during daylight hours. Being a scholar and interested in astronomy he was inspired by Jacques Balmat’s somewhat fanciful account of seeing the stars at daytime from Mont Blanc.

About catching the first glimpse of Ararat he wrote, “At the sight of the immense mass of snow the mountain is crowned with, from a distance of over one hundred versts, on a straight line, I imagined myself in my wish to climb to the top, as a mindless child wishing to seize the sun’s image in the water.”

Spassky-Avtonomov arrived at Agori on August 13 (Aug. 1, J.C.). There he met with Stepan Khojiants.

He soon picked up two locals to guide him, Hovannes Aivazian who had guided and served Parrot so well, and Heghdar Ghougasian, in addition to the elderly Haroutiun Mkerdich, a pack oxen driver. The village blacksmith fashioned metal four-point strap-on crampons of Spassky-Avtonomov’s design and also a metal tip for his pole. “My Lord! Is it indeed possible that I may reach the summit which, according to the opinion of the eloquent and learned Tournefort, was not trampled by anyone’s feet since Noah!” he thought.

The party left Agori three days later at 3:30 a.m. They elected to follow the same western route that had led Parrot to success on his third attempt just five years earlier. At 3:00 p.m., the oxen and driver were turned back. Aivazian was able to guide them up to the spot of Parrot’s high camp, where the party settled for the night. By 6:00 a.m., after drinking tea, the trio resumed the climb. At the snowcap Spassky-Avtonomov strapped on his crampons, which to his surprise worked very well. They climbed up the steep snow slope when Aivazian shouted out cautioning about the gaping bottomless mouth of a crevasse he was ready to step into. Later Aivazian located the cross that Parrot had erected on the Agori side of the dome, marking the high point of his second attempt at 16,028 feet. Leaving the higher western pyramid to his right, Spassky-Avtonomov headed up toward the eastern peak, recognizing that it is the one visible from Agori, and which the Agori villagers consider the higher peak. Standing atop the peak he searched the cloudless sky for stars. None were visible, as they never are.

After breaking for lunch in the saddle between the two summit peaks they headed toward the main summit. Upon reaching the top of the higher western summit pyramid Aivazian shouted out and pointed that this was where the Colonel (Parrot) had stood. Spassky-Avtonomov brings this forward as yet one more proof of Parrot indeed successfully ascending the true summit, contrary to the suspicions raised by some people.

In October 1831, an official inquiry had been conducted where the two Russian soldiers corroborated Parrot’s account. Aivazian and Poghossian, however, were recorded as stating that, “We were not on the very summit… ,” which the skeptics accepted as proof of their disbelief. But Spassky-Avtonomov correctly opines that this controversy arises from the ambiguity of the translators, and the important fact that the Agori villagers and all observers from the north side of the mountain see the closer eastern summit to be the higher of the two, due to the trick played by the perspective on viewers from below. The difference between the heights is 50 feet (15 meters).

Spassky-Avtonomov, Aivazian, and Ghougasian stood atop the true summit on August 17 (Aug. 5, J.C.), 1834, and were the first and few to ascend both peaks. Most Western chroniclers, however, mistakenly report that he had only climbed up to the lower eastern summit.

All three would suffer heavily from snow blindness. Upon his return he had his son baptized with water brought from the top of Ararat.

Spassky-Avtonomov also mentions a Russian landscape painter he had talked with who had attempted to climb Ararat in 1833. Not having made any preparations, the artist took along with him only a walking stick and a chunk of bread. With no assistance from guides or porters he claimed to have nearly made it to the top, but was forced to turn back because of fatigue, the ensuing darkness, and the oncoming storm. It is believed that the said individual was the artist Vasilev, who was a teacher at the Nersessian School in Tiflis at the time.

One year later in 1835, Karl Berens, an official in the service of the Russian Emperor with a 7th grade civil service rank, on his way from Persia decided to fulfill his lifetime dream to climb Ararat. He also established base camp in Agori where he awaited favorable weather. Berens was to be the last climber to visit Agori before the devastating 1840 earthquake. On his first attempt Berens reached up to the snow line climbing from the northeast slope. Here he came across a five-foot-long pole with Russian inscription on it. Was this the pole left there by Parrot on his first attempt? Berens was able to reach the top of the dome from where the peaks were visible, but was forced to turn back. On his descent he suffered from snow blindness and high fever, just as Spassky-Avtonomov had before him.

Some three weeks later on September 2 (Aug. 20, J.C.), Berens left Agori again for his second attempt to the top. Accompanied by four guides from the village Berens headed up the mountain following the same general route of his initial attempt. They overnighted just below the snow line. Early next morning they resumed the climb and reached the snowcap where Berens protected his eyes with a fine black woolen net. The steps that he had carved out in the ice on the previous attempt were covered with fresh snow. The wind picked up soon and the sun disappeared, and they also became submerged in clouds. Crevasses from one to three feet wide appeared ahead. Berens lost contact with his companions for a while. Reunited, they climbed together and found the cross that Parrot had erected at the high point of his second attempt. The cross was buried in snow with only some seven inches of its tip visible. They also found the lead plate with Parrot’s name and year of ascent nearby. Parrot had reached this spot climbing up from the western side and recorded the elevation at 16,028 feet. Berens took a piece of the cross as a souvenir. The time was late and his guides refused to go any farther. Berens marked four hundred paces toward the summit and planted his own cross and flag there. A bottle of wine passed between them to toast their achievement.

A few weeks later two Russians named Stremooukhov and Zamelenko arrived in Armenia with the intention of climbing Ararat. There is no information as to how successful they may have been.

Herrmann von Abich was a professor of mineralogy at the same University of Dorpat as professor Parrot. He ended up specializing in the geology of the Caucasus. Professor Abich’s goal was to study the geological structure of Mount Ararat, to survey and chart an optimum route up the mountain, and to dispel all doubts that Parrot may not have reached the top. Abich made three unsuccessful attempts to climb Ararat in 1844. During this time he was accompanied by Khatchadur Abovian but each attempt was aborted by violent storms just short of the summit. They did, however, climb Lesser Ararat and spend the night on its summit.

Finally the following year, Abich set up base camp not far from Sardarbulakh at an elevation of about 8,800 feet, the highest point reached by horse. From there his party climbed up and pitched camp at an elevation of 14,128 feet. Early the next morning, they left all excess gear with the three members of the party remaining behind. Climbing to an elevation of 15,480 feet, Abich and his group came across the wooden cross, erected by Abich’s servant Karl Zenka at the highest point that they had reached on their unsuccessful first attempt the previous year. That same cross would be found by the Englishmen Robert Stuart, and Walter Thursby in 1856, leading them to speculate that Abich may never have reached the summit.

Continuing the climb, Abich and his companions approached a massive snow wall, which they successfully circumvented and then climbed atop a ridge leading to a low angle snow slope, which soon led them to the top of the eastern summit. The time was noon August 22 (Aug. 10, J.C.), 1845. Employing a mercury barometer, Abich calculated the elevation at 16,953 feet (5167 meters). Summitting with Abich were his servant Karl Zenka, translator and guide Peter I. Sharoyan a student of Abovian’s, two local Armenian villagers Hounan Martirosian and Simon Sarkisian, a survivor of the 1840 Agori avalanche, from the now New Agori, and also four Russian Cossacks.

In 1846, on September 30 the Englishman Henry Danby Seymour climbed Ararat with two Armenians guides. He would later remark that it was just to “gratify a tourist’s whim.” About the climb he wrote, “My companions were two Armenians and a Cossack officer. I remember that we slept in a woody dell before commencing the ascent in charge of the Cossack guard. We could obtain no porters, and one of the Armenians served as guide. We had to carry all we wanted for our ascent ourselves. I remember I had chickens, &c., fastened round my waist. At the last moment the Armenian who served as guide refused to come because he had no boots. I had to give him my own boots and wear some Persian slippers. The time we could stay on the summit was very short, as the clouds began to gather round us. We reached the plateau on the top and descended, I remember, by a different hollow of the mountain to that by which we had ascended, coming down a tremendous snowslide.”

Seymour had every reason to be nonchalant about the climb, after all his guides were the experienced Khatchadur Abovian, and Simon Sarkisian who had successfully guided Abich the previous year.

In 1850, Colonel Iosif I. Khodzko, a Russian Army topographer organized a massive expedition up Ararat. The goal was to conduct precision topographical triangulation and meteorological measurements. The expedition was made up of a total of 68 persons including: Khodzko, N. Khanykoff, P. Uslar, J. Alexandroff, A. Moritz, and Peter I. Sharoyan; in addition to two Armenian guides from New Agori, Simon Sarkisian, and Hounan Avakian; together with 60 Russian soldiers.

On July 31 (July 19, J.C.), the expedition arrived together from Aralykh at Sardarbulakh to spend the next 10 days making the final preparations for the ascent. Six days later Private Chougounkov was dispatched, in advance of the main group, with two other soldiers to raise a birch stake atop the summit of Ararat. Later on August 22 (Aug. 10, J.C.) the expedition moved up to an area at an elevation of 10,850 feet where they established base camp and set up a meteorological station.

With Sarkisian and Avakian in the van to guide them, on August 25 (Aug. 13, J.C.) the expedition made its way up the eastern slope of the mountain with pack animals hauling the heavy gear and scientific instruments. They followed along the route taken by Abich in 1845. Upon reaching their limit, the pack animals were turned back and the loads transferred to wooden sleds each pulled by six soldiers. Camp was set up at 14,710 feet that evening. The weather was deteriorating, but they resumed the ascent the next morning. They passed the cross left by Abich’s group and stopped for the day at 16,175 feet. The following day Khodzko climbed to 16,520 feet, where they were to spend three days hunkered down waiting out the violent snowstorm raging around them. Finally on August 18 (Aug. 6, J.C.) the storm subsided and by 9:00 a.m. the expedition reached the eastern summit topped with the stake planted by Chougounkov some days earlier. An hour later Khodzko was standing atop the higher eastern summit pyramid where a cross, carried by Sarkisian was soon erected.

Only Khodzko and Sharoyan remained on the summit for the full five days, living in a dugout snow cave lined with carpets. The other expedition members descended to the meteorological camp and returned to the summit as needed. Now blessed with clear weather Khodzko lost no time in conducting his scientific observations and measurements. Khodzko’s precision geodesic measurements put the highest point of Ararat at 16,915 feet (5,156 meters) above sea level. This value remained valid and on all maps for the next century and half! On the snowcap he reported spotting two aurochs during his stay. Khodzko descended to the meteorological camp on August 24 (Aug. 12, J.C.).

Another group of five Englishmen, Major Robert Stuart, Major Alick J. Fraser, Walter Thursby, James Theobold, and John Evans attempted the ascent of Ararat from Bayazit in 1856. This was perhaps the first attempt from the south. They reached 8,000 feet above sea level on horseback where they made camp. Early the next morning at 3:00 on August 12, all except Thursby left camp to begin the climb. Three of the four started climbing up the southern side. Fraser took off in a southeastern direction. Unable to continue the climb Stuart returned to camp. Theobold was subsequently to summit successfully at 1:45 p.m., with Evans at 2:50 p.m., and Fraser at about 3:30 p.m.

Stuart and Thursby left camp the following afternoon of August 13, and climbed to about 14,000 feet where they set up camp for the night. The next day on their way up to the summit they stumbled upon some relics left by a previous expedition. “About 1,200 feet from the summit, we came upon an oak cross that had been fixed there in the rock by Professor Abich in the year 1845; it was in perfect preservation, and the inscription, in Russian characters was still legible.” Stuart wrote. They both eventually reached the summit before 9:00 a.m. “Here I stuck to the hilt in the snow a kama, or short double-edged sword, which we found at the foot of Abich’s cross.” Stuart speculates, “Professor Abich made several attempts, but failed in all, as is proved by the position of the cross,...”

Not being familiar with the history of the mountain, Stuart mistakenly believed that they were the first to ascend Ararat.

Traveling on his way through Armenia in 1868, Douglas Freshfield, one of the great English mountain explorers, wrote in his book Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan, “Ararat burst suddenly into view—a huge but gracefully-shaped mass,…. It stands perfectly isolated from all the other ranges, with the still more perfect cone of Little Ararat at its side. (F)rom a distance and a height well calculated to permit the eye to take in its true proportions, we agreed that no single mountain we knew presented such magnificent and impressive appearance as the Armenian giant.” Also, “(I)n the distance stood Ararat, as usual wrapped in his afternoon cloud, and the two peaks of Aragats relieved against a bright-blue sky. It was a picture one longed to see transferred to canvas, by some painter equal to the occasion.” Freshfield and his companions’ attempt at climbing Ararat was not successful, only one from his party reached as high as about 16,000 feet. However, later that summer they claimed first ascents of Mount Kazbek 16,356 (4,985 meters), and of the lower eastern summit of Elbrus 18,356 feet (5,595 meters) in the Caucasus Range.

In the summer of 1876, the English traveler, historian, politician, and diplomat James Bryce traveled through the region with his friend Aeneas Mackay. In the book titled Transcaucasia and Ararat, Bryce confesses that the highlight of his trip was the ascent of Mount Ararat.

In Tiflis he met with General Khodzko. “From him and his secretary Mr. Sharoyan, I received a valuable suggestion for the climb, which we were thinking of trying, vis. to keep to the rocks rather than trust the snow, and many injunctions on no account to ascend alone. Whatever chance of success you have depends on your sleeping very high up, close to the snows, and starting before dawn to try the main peak,” advised Sharoyan who had ascended Ararat with both Khodzko and Abich.

Bryce took off from Sardarbulakh at 7,700 feet above sea level with his team of Russian soldiers and Kurds at 1:00 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., at an elevation of about 13,600 feet Bryce was left all alone, the last soldier had turned back. The effects of thin air were becoming noticeable. The summit was covered in clouds. To find his way back he began building cairns with stones.

After mounting a series of treacherous slopes he reached the lower edge of the snowcap. With low visibility before him, he began marking his progress by trailing his ice axe behind him. He climbed the peak ahead of him. However, a powerful gust of wind cleared his view to spot another peak a quarter of a mile away. He quickly realized it to be the true western summit, so he ran down the snow valley and climbed up the second peak at 2:45 p.m. on September 12.

A couple of days later in Etchmiadzin, at a meeting with the Catholicos, the interpreter turned to him and stated; “This Englishman says he ascended to the top of Ararat.” “No,” replied the Catholicos, “that cannot be. No one has ever been there. It is impossible.”

Bryce has one of the best descriptions of Ararat. He writes, “The noble thing about Ararat is not its parts but the whole. I know nothing so sublime as the general aspect of this huge yet graceful mass seen from the surrounding plains; no view fills the beholder with a profounder sense of grandeur and space than that which is unfolded when, on climbing its lofty side, he sees the farfetching slopes beneath, and the boundless waste of mountains beyond spread out under his eye. The very simplicity, or even monotony, of both form and colour increases its majesty. …There can be few other places in the world where so lofty a peak soars so suddenly from the plain so low,… and consequently few so grand.”

In 1878, another Englishman George Percival Baker arrived at the Russian army post of Aralik with his father George, and two friends, in addition to a local guide named Boghos. Here the group met up with Simon Sarkisian who had also successfully guided Abich’s, Seymour’s, and Khodzko’s expeditions many years ago. The following day they traveled to Sardarbulakh with an escort of 20 Cossacks and set up base camp. The next morning, with four Cossacks for protection, they headed toward the southeastern slope where they dismounted at about 8,500 feet and began climbing up the mountain.

Reaching an elevation of about 12,000 feet they found a sheltered nook where they rested overnight. Early the next morning, leaving the Cossacks behind, the group followed Simon Sarkisian up a ridge heading toward the cone. After a few hours of tough climbing the senior George Baker, one of the friends, and the by now 90-year-old Simon succumbing to fatigue were forced to turn back. Baker and his second friend pushed on. The duo climbed up scree and up snow slopes to at last reach the top of the eastern summit by 5:00 p.m., August 7.

On the trip downward the friend elected to slide down some slopes to save time and energy. But the effort was to end up in near disaster when he lost control and rolled and tumbled down and was soon lost from view. Fearing the worst and at great risk to his own life Baker set off to find his friend. When he finally did locate him the friend was barely conscious and holding on for dear life on some frozen snow at the edge of a 2,500 foot vertical drop. Baker was able to reach him and safely retrieve him. The friend was cut and bruised from head to foot.

Commenting on this incident, Douglas Freshfield presently the president of the British Alpine Club whose own attempt in 1868 was unsuccessful, wrote; “(T)he mountain is accessible to any traveler with good legs and pluck. Half the climbers of Ararat have come down it faster than they intended, and it is more good fortune than anything else that they have all come down alive.”

On September 6, (Aug. 24, J.C.) 1882, the Russian Cossack cavalry cornet and hero of the siege of Bayazit Ivan Sivolobov, successfully summitted the eastern peak of Ararat. The expedition to Ararat had been organized by the famous Russian writer and traveler Daniil Mordovtsev. They met with Simon Sarkisian who at 94-years old regretted not being able to join them. But Mordovtsev took ill with high fever and remained in Sardarbulakh at the foot of the mountain. Sivolobov who had joined the team at the last minute, was based at the mountain, and was accompanied by two Kurdish guides.

In 1888, another Russian Cossack, captain Raphalovich climbed Ararat together with his regimental doctor Davidson, and Karapet Knuniants, an Armenian resident of Yerevan. The group successfully summitted the eastern peak on August 26.

A group of young Russians, mostly students, made plans to climb the fabled mountain in 1888. They arrived in Aralik on August 21 (Aug. 9, J.C.), and proceeded to New Agori and Sardabulakh. The group broke up in two, with one climbing up Lesser Ararat, and the second heading up the main peak, riding on horseback to 10,200 feet. By late afternoon the second group reached the altitude of 13,200 feet where they made camp. All three climbers Yevgeniy Markov, Sergei Ivanov, and Minai Popov, were suffering from mountain sickness. Sardarbulakh was visible from this vantage point. “How strange fate can be,” Markov wrote about that night, “watching the flickering flame of the faraway campfire (in Sardarbulakh); they are presently sitting on soft rugs, in a roomy tent with delicious steaming dishes in front of them with their glasses filled with wonderful Yerevan wine, …”

The next morning, feeling much better, they resumed the climb, taking with them only food and warm clothing. At 13,600 feet, however, Ivanov succumbed to mountain sickness and was forced to turn back. The climb continued with Markov, Popov, Hairapet Manukian a militia guardsman, and five Kurdish guides and porters. This group successfully summitted the eastern peak some time after 2:00 on August 25 (Aug. 13, J.C.). They fixed a minimum thermometer at a spot a few feet below the summit.

Jules Leclercq, the president of the Belgian Geographical Society was himself planning to climb Ararat in 1890. He met with Markov and Popov after their successful ascent and was eager to take the reading from the thermometer the group had left near the summit. He started off from Sardarbulakh accompanied by an interpreter, three Armenian guides, and five Kurdish porters. That day they climbed up to 12,790 feet and slept under the open air. The following day, suffering from the loss of appetite and a bout of mountain sickness Leclercq, an experienced mountain climber, struggled to reach a maximum altitude of 15,620 feet. He was disappointed for not having the opportunity to reach the thermometer.

Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben were the first Americans to climb Ararat in 1891. It was one of the highlights of their remarkable three-year, 15,000-mile around the world bicycling adventure. At Bayazit they made preparations for the climb, and were joined with Ignaz Raffl, an older but experienced Austrian mountaineer. In their book, Across Asia on a Bicycle they wrote, “No mountain-peak we have seen, though several have been higher, has ever inspired the feeling which filled us when we looked for the first time upon towering Ararat.”

The group took off from Bayazit and trekked 19 miles up to 7,000 feet to overnight in a shepherd’s tent. The next day they continued climbing up the southeastern ridge as high as 11,000 feet to spend a frigid night together. Early the following morning on July 4, all three companions stepped up to the top of the eastern peak.

In 1892, Herbert Gadoux, and I. Wontner Brown visited the eastern summit of Ararat. The Russian Mertzbakher also reached the eastern summit that same year.

In the summer of 1893, the Russian military topographer Andrei Pastoukhoff climbed Ararat together with O. Tamm, A. Ivanovsky, and V. Butyrkin, and also four Russian Cossacks. After overnighting at 13,391 feet and again at about 16,000 feet, the party reached the eastern summit at noon on September 9 (Aug. 28, J.C.), where they awaited favorable weather. Pastoukhoff believed that this peak was only some seven feet lower than the main western summit, this was a common misconception made by many 19th century climbers, when in fact the eastern summit is 50 feet lower. He made topographic observations and set up minimum and maximum temperature thermometers on the summit. He also released three pigeons brought from Etchmiadzin to inform about their success. Pastoukhoff was able to view Mount Aragats, which he had climbed only a week earlier. After resting a day he also climbed up Lesser Ararat. Pastoukhoff was to climb Ararat again in 1894 and also in 1895.

In 1893, during his first of two journeys through Armenia the Englishman Harry H. B. Lynch climbed Mount Ararat. For this purpose, he was accompanied by his cousin, Major H. B. Lynch who was in charge of the camp, and also by the experienced Swiss mountain guide, Rudolph Taugwalder. In the book, Armenia: Travels and Studies, Lynch describes how from Yerevan his party crossed over the Arax River to Aralik on the northeastern foot of Ararat, where they were joined with a Russian military escort. They reached the saddle between the two mountains and made camp at Sardarbulakh, at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. The following morning the climbers left camp without the soldiers, but with two Armenian guides who would accompany them as high as the snowcap.

With another ten Kurdish porters the group made high camp at an altitude of 12,194 feet (3,716 meters), and endured a frigid sleepless night there, below the snow line. Early the next morning, before 6:00, the trio began the final assault up the steep slope with the Swiss guide leading the way. By 11:00, they reached a spot with an inscription on the rock wall left by Pastoukhoff’s companions, Tamm and Butyrkin noting that they had spent the night there only a few weeks earlier! At 14,000 feet they reached the edge of the snowcap. Close to noon as they came up to a 35-degree snow slope, all three linked up together by rope. Shortly before reaching the summit they found a metal plate left by Markov in 1888. At 1:30 p.m., September 19, they had ascended the peak of Ararat.

Willy Rickmer Rickmers climbed Ararat in 1894. He and his companions started off from Aralykh with a group of Russian soldiers. Rickmer Rickmers mentions summiting with a Cossack officer named Pozharski, who was injured on his way down. “Ararat was always a dangerous mountain...” he observes, “… (I)t is simply the centre of a playground where disturbers of the peace frisk with the restorers of order. So the tourist stands an equal chance of finding his insides clogged by the lead of liberty or the lead of the law.”

On September 26 1896, the University of Zurich professor of chemistry Harutyun Abeliants reached the summit of Ararat. There on the rocks and in the crevasses he discovered seven different species of lichens.

In 1897, members attending a Geographical Congress in St. Petersburg Russia were offered an excursion to Mount Ararat. Nearly 30 attendees made this trip and traveled all the way down to Sardarbulakh. However, only three members planned to ascend to the very top. Others opted to climb only partway up, or to climb up Lesser Ararat. Emanuel Stober of Vladikavkaz Russia organized the summitting party with A. Oswald from Switzerland, and Max Ebeling from Germany. The trio left Sardarbulakh with a Cossack escort and made camp at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet. The next morning Stober sped ahead leaving the others behind in his wake. Oswald and Ebeling soon lost contact with him.

Climbing all day they reached the eastern summit by 5:45 p.m., on September 30. The time being late Oswald and Ebeling were forced to overnight high on the mountain at 15,750 feet. The following day they returned safely down to Sardarbulakh, but Stober was nowhere to be seen. Three days later a search party of Cossacks found the frozen body high on the mountain. An examination of the body determined that Stober must have lost his footing and broke his leg at the ankle and lost consciousness. This case appears to be the first recorded climbing fatality on Mount Ararat.

Quite by chance, Lord Warkworth, Henry Algeron Percy was traveling in the area at that same time. This is what he wrote about the incident in his book titled, Notes from a Diary in Asiatic Turkey. “Few, probably, who have seen the celebrated mountain, have not also felt a wish to scale its summit, and to stand on the spot from which the fathers of our race went forth to repopulate the earth. But in our case the lateness of the year put it out of the question to gratify such a desire. The attempt had been made a few days before by a small party, and had resulted in the death of one of their number, who had missed his footing during the descent, and fracturing his leg by the fall, had died of exposure before his companions noticed his absence and went back to search for him.”

In 1902 and again in 1903, A. Yevangoulian organized two Armenian scientific expeditions to the summit of Ararat. They carried scientific instruments to the top and established a meteorological station.

In 1910, Louis Seylaz led a group of climbers up Ararat. They started off from Sardarbulakh. After spending a restless night bivouacked on the mountain they climbed the steep and slippery slope to reach the top of the snowcap from were both summit pyramids were visible. They ascended the eastern summit on August 12, believing it to be the higher of the two. They came across a cairn and a box with thermometers left there by the Yevangoulian expeditions.

Finally in 1912, a large group of mountaineers organized by the Swiss professor Martin Rikli headed toward Sardarbulakh on Ararat. They started up the mountain from the eastern slope together with Dr. Tchakhmakhjian who served as their translator, and also Bishop Mesrop who had insisted on joining them during their visit to Etchmiadzin. At an elevation of approximately 10,500 feet, the climbers established camp for the night. They resumed the climb the next morning. Upon reaching an elevation of about 12,800 feet, two members of the party were forced to stop and descend due to the effects of mountain sickness. Tchakhmakhjian may have been one of the two. If so, she would have been the first woman on record to attempt to climb up Ararat. Fourteen members of the Rikli expedition summitted the eastern peak of Ararat on September 2, in addition to Bishop Mesrop and a Kurdish guide.

The onset of World War I in September of 1914, and the bloody events of the Armenian genocide in 1915-1923, made the area unsafe for any further climbing. At the Kars Conference in October of 1921, the Moscow Treaty was signed where the Soviet Communists handed over large tracts of historic Armenian lands over to Turkey. Thus, the mountain became closed and off limits to climbers.

Interest in climbing Ararat, however, was resumed after World War II. A new generation of climbers and Ark-hunters flocked to the mountain. Many attempted unauthorized climbs ending with mixed results. Christopher Tease was one such example; the young Englishman disappeared while climbing Ararat in August 1965. His body was never discovered. The Norwegian Paul Olav Jernaes lost his life climbing Ararat in 1986. Most recently Asker Baravan, an Iranian climber died at the elevation of about 16,000 feet in July 2005. Additionally, some seven Turkish climbing fatalities have been recorded since 1986.

Others consumed by “Ark Fever” were especially active, some mounting large expeditions and employing high-tech equipment. Summitting Ararat was not their primary goal. The French industrialist Fernand Navarra climbed Ararat in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1969. John Libi of San Francisco participated in eight expeditions from 1954 through 1969. From 1966 to 1974 Eryl Cummings of New Mexico visited Ararat eight times and climbed up it 16 times. John Montgomery, originally from Rochester, N.Y., made his first of seven climbs in 1970.

The 1971 Apollo 15 astronaut and moonwalker James Irwin organized expeditions in search of the Ark. Beginning in 1982, he visited the mountain some six times. In 1983 he was allowed to circle Ararat in an airplane producing some of the most spectacular photos of the mountain. John Morris climbed the mountain some twelve times from 1971 to 1981. Despite the dedicated work of these arkologists and many others, all have returned from Ararat surrounded by controversy and with little to show in their quest for Noah’s Ark.

The modern era of climbing Ararat has been punctuated by periods of stop and go dictated by local political considerations and with climbs far too numerous to list. Many of the climbers have been members of large expeditions organized by international adventure travel agencies.

In 1951, after successfully summitting 18,605-foot Mount Demavend in Iran, two Americans Oliver Crosby, and Hermann Dietrich continued on to scale Ararat. They were forced to turn back, however, some 150 feet short of the summit.

The Englishman Denis Hills who had been teaching in Turkey, was able to climb Ararat in 1957, 1958, and again in 1959. His second climb had been made solo.

In 1968, another Englishman Eric Roberts made an unauthorized first traverse ascending both Greater and Lesser Ararat in four days.

The first recorded winter ascent of Ararat was achieved by two Turkish climbers E. Bozkurt and S. Targan on February 22, 1970.

On August 4 1986, an intrepid trio of climbers from New York consisting of a father and son, Gregory Parseghian and Masis Parseghian, and Hamlet Nersessian successfully summitted the western peak of Ararat. They declared it to be the first Armenian expedition to summit Ararat and released a video titled “Ararat Beckons” of their experience.

Harry Parsekian of Watertown, Mass., who in August 1986 had joined a large European group, went on to summit Ararat just a few days later.

On July 27, 2001, an international group of climbers from five countries, successfully summitted Ararat from the northeast slope.

Day Three: Friday, July 18

Camp 1. I woke up from a restful sleep. Scanning the sky overhead, we observed that all indications were of favorable weather ahead. Jamal had prepared a Middle Eastern breakfast of cheese, sausages, olives, tomatoes, tea and coffee. Elsa and I enjoyed it, but the Brits were not satisfied, they were hoping for breakfast cereals. That is something Sinan will take into account for the next expedition.

The packhorses and donkeys with their drivers were ready and waiting. Once again we would carry only the bare essentials and stuff everything else into our duffels. The sun was up, and the morning haze was lifting. There was no way of predicting which way the weather would turn. Sinan was on the cell phone with his office in Istanbul, where they were expecting the approach of a storm front from the west. That front could be visiting us in another 24 hours. If so, that could spell trouble for tomorrow’s summitting efforts.

We left Camp 1 at 8:15 a.m., heading east. I looked back at the place we had spent the past two nights. It had been a pleasant and comfortable stay. It was abandoned now save for the lone tent of the local camp manager. After walking a short distance to the east, we turned left and followed in a general northward direction. Soon the trail began to steepen. The surface was covered predominantly with talus interspersed with scree. Volcanic blocks and bombs were also more numerous. Very little greenery emerged from between the rocks. The sun was gaining height and strength. We continued upward carefully planting our feet on stable ground. I had taken along some Powerbars and was carrying an ample supply of water into which I had mixed a good measure of powdered Gatorade, which made the iodized water somewhat palatable.

A young shepherd boy just seeking human contact came along, followed by his dog. The dogs are very fierce and protect the sheep from wolves and thieves. The number one advice for travelers in this region is to stay clear of the dogs and the flocks they are guarding, and not to wander between the two. The dog was fitted with a hefty collar with inch-long steel spikes protruding from it. But this time judging us as harmless it generously posed giving us a special photo-op. The same advice holds for the shepherd dogs in Armenia. This is something that travelers have cautioned about even centuries ago. In this regard Parrot writes the following, “Savage dogs, often of formidable size, dispute the passages with every stranger, who, in the Tatar quarters, especially if he be Christian, is exposed to serious danger from his fellow man: as we ourselves had afterwards good reason to know upon many occasions.”

The first half of our climb followed the same ground we had covered on our acclimatization hike the day before. Having started later, our pack animals caught up with us. The Kurdish drivers were not a happy bunch. The terrain was hazardous for the horses and donkeys; one misstep could injure the animal and make it useless to its owner. The drivers were shod in worn street shoes with holes in the soles. The soles of another had separated from the rest of the shoe. Overcoming the language barrier, I inquired whether they were Yezidis. The Yezidis are across the border in “Russiya,” I was told. I pointed out that they smoke too much to be good for their health. They answered me that their lives were not worth living, so what did it matter anyway?

We resumed our climb. Patches of snow were appearing around us between massive basalt boulders scattered about helter-skelter and outcrops of lava. Once we climbed clear of the ridge blocking our view toward the east, the outline of Lesser Ararat materialized into view for the first time. Only about seven miles distant it was an impressive sight. Its steep symmetric flanks and summit were clear of snow. About Lesser Masis Bryce wrote; “If Great Ararat is the most majestic, Little Ararat may claim to be the most elegant of mountains: the eye is never tired of its beautiful lines.”

We soon came up level to the top of Lesser Ararat’s summit cone and continued our upward climb. Looking south, the valley far below appeared like a hastily unfurled earth-colored carpet, and was just beginning to be obscured by the morning haze. I was feeling strong with no noticeable ill effects from the altitude. We stopped for a break; everyone appeared to be in good cheer. The rest stops gave Elsa and me an opportunity to exchange notes and impressions. We would also compare what we experienced and saw with our previous climbs. We were also very pleased with the excellent camaraderie, which had developed between our team. The mountain was casting its magical spell on us all.

Onward and upward we climbed, the summit speckled with ice and snow loomed high above. The site of Camp 2 that Sinan had pointed out to us had been visible for some time now from below. The higher we climbed the steeper it became. Though the absence of Puds (Pointless ups and downs) on the trail was a welcome relief. The patches of snow became larger and more frequent. We reached Camp 2 sometime past noon.

Camp 2, also known as High Camp, was a compact area situated on a rocky ledge at an elevation of 13,600 feet (4,150 meters) above sea level. The surface was made up of one- and two-foot size irregular shaped igneous rock. We pitched our tents seeking out the more level and smoother surfaces. We were the only expedition here and so were able to occupy the best sites. Anyone coming later would have to settle for some uncomfortable sites. But today we would be alone.

There was no water to be found at High Camp. The source of our water would be the snow patch above and left of the camp. Jamal would collect it and melt it on the stove for our needs. Ararat is a very dry mountain. The vast amount of snow and ice melt disappears inside the porous mass of the mountain, leaving the surface bare and dry.

Immediately above us to the north was the steep escarpment up that we planned to begin climbing tomorrow morning. To our east, however, was the chasm, a 500-foot wide and 150-foot deep ravine that originates up high some 3,000 feet above us at the end of the glacier that hangs down from between the western shoulder and the true summit. Along the near side of the ravine a long tongue of snow stretched down from the glacier above and ended a bit below us. The far eastern wall was vertical and almost appeared man-made. It was just beginning to catch the first rays of the noonday sun.

I began to realize that this was the highest I had ever been. Higher than Aragats, Mauna Kea, and Fuji that had served as training grounds for us. Elsa had also done Kilimanjaro 19,340 feet (5,895 meters), so this was not new to her. I was carefully monitoring my reactions to the altitude, but the air was noticeably colder here. How would I sleep tonight? The summit was visible from here, but hard to distinguish. We milled around familiarizing ourselves with our surroundings. I took Elsa along to get a closer and better view of the chasm. It was much smaller than the Great Chasm, also known as the Agori Gorge that dominates the landscape of the northern face and is visible from the Armenian side, and gets its beginnings from the massive northern Abich I and Abich II glaciers atop the dome. This was a moraine slope and, nevertheless, impressive on its own and made up of volcanic rubble. Certainly, it was not a safe route to be climbing up the mountain.

Later that afternoon, we were startled by a loud boom, which was followed by a number of crashes and a series of reverberations. Was this a thunderclap indicating the approach of inclement weather? Cannon fire would be more like it, but certainly not here. The sky was clear but the boom repeated itself again less than an hour later. We swiftly ran to the edge of the gorge in time to observe the rocks bounding down the ravine and gaining speed on the way. It now became clear that as the afternoon sun hits the far west-facing vertical chasm wall, which is made up of a mix of compacted volcanic ash, cinders, and rocks all cemented together with ice, the heat of the sun melts the binding ice along the outer surface of the wall, thus loosening and destabilizing it and causing it to collapse in even slices one at a time. This action would continue till the wee hours of the night when the water would refreeze and make the wall solid once again. From where we stood there was no concern, we were safe, another good reason for employing experienced guides.

Meanwhile, darker clouds were gathering above us, raising some concern for tomorrow—summit day. It became prematurely dark and looked like snow. Ararat, after all, makes its own weather. Any adverse weather could negatively impact our summitting efforts. Fortunately, in due time the heavy threatening clouds moved on and Camp 2 was alit once again in the late afternoon sun. Perhaps then, tomorrow would turn out okay. We came together for an early dinner consisting of macaroni soup, and macaroni. The evening air was full of expectations. The evening shadows were lengthening until they stretched out to Lesser Ararat, and the last oblique rays of the setting sun illuminated the uppermost tip of Greater Ararat. We huddled all together for a late tea, chatting and having fun. It was an enchanting atmosphere.

My thoughts drifted to Parrot, who some 174 years earlier had also camped overnight not far from here, about which he wrote so succulently. “It was a delicious evening which I spent here, my eyes at one time set on my good-humored companions, at another on the clear sky, on which the summit of the mountain was projected with wondrous grandeur, and again on the gray night, spreading in the distance and in the depth beneath me. Thus I became resigned to the single feeling of peace, tenderness, love, thankfulness, submission—the silent evoking of the past, the indulgent glimpse of the future; in short, the indescribable delightful sensation which never fails to affect travelers at great heights and under agreeable circumstance;... I lay down to rest under a projecting rock of lava, while my companions still remained for a long time chatting round the fire.”

The wind was picking up and we had to prepare tomorrow’s clothing and gear necessary for summitting. That done, Elsa and I huddled under the starlit sky in anticipation of the upcoming experience and to remind each other of the pact that we had made earlier—to continue climbing if one of us was unable to go any further. Only in case of an emergency would the other remain with the disabled party. Of course, with three guides in our expedition it would be expected that at least one would remain to provide assistance. Another loud boom and crash reminded us of the collapsing chasm wall. We returned to our tent in anticipation of an early morning start. The wind had picked up. I noticed that the guy wires needed tightening, and I added a few more rocks to anchor the tent. I wiggled into my sleeping bag, as we settled down for another night and nodded off into sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night I became aware of the strong gusts of wind noisily shaking our tent and it was cold. I pulled the zipper of my sleeping bag up to the hilt. I have rarely felt more at peace with myself and the world than now. I soon drifted back to sleep.

Day Four: Saturday, July 19

Camp 2. Karl’s wake-up call pierced through the frigid mountain air like a bolt of lightning. Switching on my headlamp I took a peek at my wristwatch, it was exactly 3:00 in the morning and pitch dark. Reluctantly I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag. Despite the early hour I felt well and rested. Elsa and I began packing our backpacks with the clothing and gear necessary for summitting. First we must put on the base layers and the mid layers, which were a constant: they would be worn all day. Into the backpack went the additional outer layers and the waterproof/windproof breathable Gore-Tex mountain parka and pants in addition to the shell to be worn over my warm Polartec gloves during the final approach. The Scarpa heavy mountain boots I had saved especially for today. This is in sharp contrast to the early mountaineers. Following the modern practice, every item of my clothing, save for the woolen socks and leather boots were fashioned of man-made synthetic materials. The ice axe and crampons were secured to the outside of my backpack.

Tea was ready. Jamal had boiled it in preparation for our alpine start, so we slurped it up with great pleasure. Back home one would have questioned the sanity of anyone partaking of such an unappetizing iodine concoction. At this time in the season, the snow was anything but pure. Tea is the mountaineer’s friend; it staves off the effects of mountain sickness. However, as for breakfast—there would be none. I threw a few extra Powerbars into my pockets. We were allotted a bottle of lukewarm tea for the trip, so once again my Gatorade mix with replacement minerals would save the day.

This was it, summit day! Everything one has done in preparation for this event must be applied in order to succeed in scaling to the top of this formidable mountain. By the time we were ready to go it was 4:00 a.m. We bunched together at the northern end of High Camp all full of hope and expectation. The sky above was clear, and the eastern horizon had just begun to brighten. Sunrise was another half hour away. The crisp alpine air was freezing. We headed toward the trailhead. Our local guides showed us the way. Sinan took his place in the van and we followed in single file. I made up the rear. The sky had brightened up just enough to make our headlamps unnecessary.

And so our climb had begun. The steep initial portion of the trail had been visible from camp. Nevertheless, the shock it rendered to my entire system, after only a few steps, came as a surprise and left me gasping for breath. After a few seconds’ pause, I resumed the lung-busting climb only to have the same repeated again. The air was frigid with a stiff wind blowing from the southeast. The tents down below appeared very cozy and inviting. Elsa came down to inquire how I was doing. I assured her that it would be fine if only I could catch my breath. Struggling, I climbed a bit higher, putting some distance between Camp 2 and myself to make any turn back that much more difficult.

Finally, as I reached the top of this section some 300 feet above the camp, I sat down for a break and to catch my breath. There could be no turning back; I had to do a better job of regulating my pace and breathing. I had passed the 4,200 meter (13,780 foot) elevation marker set up by the local climbing club, which from here on would mark our way at 100 meter (330 feet) intervals of vertical elevation.

The eastern sky had brightened considerably by now. The outline of Lesser Ararat was materializing through the morning haze. Recognizing this to be a totally new ball game, I took my time to steady my breathing, and resumed the climb to suit my personal pace. I was determined to summit and no steep, rocky and windy trail was to deter me from achieving my goal. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Easier, of course, said than done in this situation. Apo had some encouraging words to say and advised us to think about something else, more pleasant. I, for one, was unable to think about anything else. How, after all, could I be doing that when here I was on Ararat fulfilling my dream? I resolved to concentrate on Ararat and nothing else, and to climb at my own pace, all the while relishing the situation.

One of the advantages of living in Belmont has been the nearby Belmont Hill. It has served us well in our training. Taking the steepest route it gains 165 vertical feet (50 meters) over a quarter of a mile. Walking up and down a number of times keeps us in shape in between forays into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Therefore, Elsa and I often measure out our climbs in terms of the number of “Belmont Hills.” Reading my altimeter I count out the number of “Belmont Hills” done and the number remaining ahead. This would be no different, for we both needed the encouragement. Twenty “Belmont Hills” was on today’s menu. I would call out the numbers, wait for it to sink in with Elsa, and as we usually would do, shout out together, “It’s a piece of cake,” followed by “facil,” the Spanish for, “It’s easy,” which is what we were usually told when asking questions in the mountains in Spain.

As the dawn sun peeked over the horizon, it lit up the vast plain far beneath us, simultaneously casting a huge pyramidal-shaped shadow projecting toward the western horizon. This phenomenon was the shadow cast by the enormous bulk of Ararat. Making certain to remain properly hydrated, I sipped alternately from my tea bottle and Gatorade. I made up the rear of the procession, requiring the others to make stops at certain intervals to allow me to catch up. But no one was complaining, they, too, appreciated a break. I had settled into my own pace and was doing much better.

Higher and higher we climbed. The route was steep and rocky. Down below Ararat’s shadow was shrinking, and the rising sun was illuminating the top of Lesser Ararat. Standing much higher, we were able to look down onto its top. We were climbing up a ridge, the standard route up from the south. Though covered with boulders and talus requiring careful planting of the feet, it was a relatively safe trail. To the east on our right hand side was the continuation of the chasm, somewhat narrower and snowier here. To our left was a terrain speckled with patches of snow, with rocks and boulders of all sizes and shapes scattered about. Our trail was snow free. Immediately above us was the western shoulder where the permanent snowcap began.

We were gaining altitude, all were quiet, everyone consumed with their own thoughts. We had been concerned about Sinan who had undergone surgery on both his knees just a few weeks earlier. We had advised him to remain in Camp 2, but he would not heed to it and was determined to climb together with us. He was doing remarkably well. On and up we climbed, one “Belmont Hill” after another, and breaking a personal altitude record with every step. I was feeling good by now and regaining my confidence. There was absolutely no vegetation at this elevation, only charcoal-black-colored rocks. The sun was rising high, and wispy light clouds were crashing into the snowcap above. All was quiet. I was concentrating on the business at hand, namely summitting.

We were slowly approaching the snowcap, the region of perpetual snow and ice. Somewhat to my surprise we soon reached the western shoulder, from here on we would be trudging over this huge mass of snow and ice, which began at approximately 16,000 feet (4,900 meters). We were atop the vast dome of Ararat where it is relatively flat, but totally exposed to the elements from all sides. To the east some three-quarters of a mile distance was the true western summit of Ararat. And two-thirds the way up to the summit was a steep stretch to be negotiated but otherwise no major obstacles were visible. We set down our backpacks in preparation for the final assault.

Our guides were huddled together assessing the situation. I overheard bits of the conversation such as: danger, high winds, ice, etc. One of Karl’s tasks in Antarctica had been the measurement of wind velocity. Here, by observing the clouds speeding by the peak, he estimated the wind as being too high for traversing the ice field safely without being knocked over. He was actually considering turning us back! Sinan and Apo were not agreeing with his conclusions, but in such a situation Karl would have the last word. He, after all, was the one ultimately responsible for the safety of the KE team.

I felt my heart sink and my blood boiling, to have come so far and to turn back at this point was totally unacceptable to me. I was prepared to face the additional risk, indeed if there was any, to forge ahead toward our ultimate goal. Waiting for the final outcome, I devised a strategy of my own. I believed that having built a solid relationship with Sinan and Apo, I was in a position to request them to guide me, and most probably Elsa too, the remaining way to the peak. This was not too farfetched, for others this mountain was just another pile of rocks and ice.

For me, however, this mountain symbolized the spirit and essence of my nation and forbears. Sinan and Apo understood that and, putting any differences we may have aside, they had of their own volition assured me that they would personally see to it that I did summit. Thus, I waited for Karl’s final decision. I reached into my pocket for a last chance Powerbar; 19th century climbers carried meat lozenges, and I washed it down with a generous amount of Gatorade. There would be no chance for such luxuries from here on.

After some minutes of nervous anticipation, Karl gave us the signal to go. He had lowered his estimation of wind velocity to a manageable 40 mph with gusts exceeding 50 mph. I quickly began putting on the extra clothing needed for this final stretch. An extra vest, waterproof and windproof shell pants and gloves. Karl assisted me with strapping on my crampons.

Once we were all up and ready to go, Karl separated us in two groups. He would lead all four of us from the KE team, while Sinan and Apo would make up the second group. The five of us were short-roped together for safety, six feet apart, with Karl in the lead, followed by Alan, Cliff, Elsa, and myself taking up the rear. The idea was that if any one of us were to trip or fall for any reason, then the other four sensing the tug on the line would immediately throw themselves down, holding the ice axe across the chest, and thrust the pick end into the snow or ice, thus arresting any downward sliding.

One common hazard to avoid was getting a sharp crampon point caught in one’s pant leg or boots, a frequent cause of high mountain accidents. Such an incident had occurred recently on Ararat on July 12, 2001. A climber who had made a solo ascent to the summit had his crampon caught on his way down. He had hit his head on some rocks and slid into a mound of snow. A rescue team found his body a few days later. The body had to be lowered down to about 13,300 feet (4,050 meters) for evacuation by military helicopter. Sinan and Apo were to follow on a parallel course down slope and to our right, forming our last line of defense, with the intention of catching and arresting the fall of anyone helplessly sliding down the slope.

We stepped onto the snowcap. The surface was granular nevé the size of M&M candies. The spikes of my 10-point crampons dug deeply and securely into the snow. With ice axes held in our left upslope hand for balance, and maintaining a reasonably taut rope between us we began the climb in the direction of the summit. We were all silent. The roar from the howling wind made conversation impossible. The only communication we had was to tug on the rope. One tug meant stop, and two was for go.

After some 15 minutes of trudging over the snowcap, we climbed over to the top of the dome from where one would have been able to view the landscape on the north side of Ararat. On a clear day one would have been in a position to see Yerevan some 30 miles away, Mount Aragats 55 miles away, Mount Azhdahak 50 miles away, and Lake Sevan 60 miles away, i.e. most of Armenia.

On this day, however, the entire horizon was covered in an impenetrable gray-white carpet of undercast made up of haze and clouds. Nevertheless, I did not give up and carefully scanned the horizon once again. This time I spotted what I had been searching for. One had to know where and what to look for. But there they were almost due north and only visible because of the late morning sun’s rays reflecting against the sharp pyramidal-shaped peaks of Mount Aragats piercing through and rising above the undercast. This brought me down to reality. Now I knew that the undercast topped off at about 13,000 feet.

We were making slow but steady progress traversing the first half of the snowfield, which was not as steep as what was to come. I was feeling fine. I could not detect any signs of mountain sickness. My breathing was steady and rhythmic. One at a time I lifted my cramponed feet and methodically planted them down ahead of me. Firmly gripping my ice axe, I dug the point in step into the snow and ice. At this elevation the atmospheric pressure is half of that at sea level. The same applies for the oxygen, but there is no need for supplemental oxygen. Fatigue and the effects of altitude were noticeable. For the first time, inexplicably, I felt optimistic and confident of being able to make it all the way to the top.

We plowed steadily ahead, one step at a time. Watching every step, I lifted my altimeter/thermometer to take a reading of the elevation and temperature. The face had gone blank, it had frozen up on me. I estimated the temperature to be in the high teens in Fahrenheit. My GPS was functioning well, so I was getting accurate elevation readings. We were shortly approaching the steeper section of the climb. Sinan had mentioned it to be a 45-degree slope.

The bright noon sun was drenching the pristine white snow, blurring out the features atop the broad dome of the mountain. My dark glacier glasses were providing me with good protection from the reflected light and UV rays. I did not need my protective goggles. The going was good: I counted a couple of crevasses, actually inch-sized crevices in the glacier. Soon I felt the slope steepening considerably, we were rapidly gaining height. Feathery light clouds were scudding past us. It felt brutally cold. Onward and upward we climbed, never pausing, never taking a break. I never lost sight of the summit up ahead, and like a hypnotized zombie attracted by a mystical force, I followed my companions in lock step. With just a little more effort and few more steps, all of a sudden we reached up to the very top. The summit of vaunted Mount Ararat!

We raised our ice axes high to the sky and cheered. Elsa and I embraced and kissed. She had always understood what this moment would mean to me. Now I was on top of the world! This was a personal victory. A dream harbored inside me since I caught sight of the mountain for the first time decades ago. Ararat is a constant, a symbol representing the heart and soul of a proud nation, a witness to the pain and suffering of its sons and daughters.

I turned around to enjoy the 360-degree panoramic view. The view was cosmic—the blue-green sky above, the white inhospitable permanent snowcap underfoot, the thick undercast which covered all evidence of planet earth existing below—all conspired to impart a sensation of standing on a mythical Ark broken free of its anchor and floating on a sea of clouds, while traveling through an uncharted boundless universe.

This was the true peak of Ararat. A single three-foot high steel rod was planted on the peak which, I suspect, marked the elevation, but its board was missing, either blown away by the powerful winds or adorning someone’s trophy wall. Parrot and Abovian had stood on this very spot 174 years ago. I looked around, we were standing atop a squat pyramid dropping precipitously toward the southwest, but could not match the shape of the peak to Parrot’s description, too much time had passed for that. We lined up for photographs. Satisfaction was visible on everyone’s faces.

There were no distractions, only the infinite sky above. I experienced the sensation of being suspended weightlessly in space. An astonishing joy welled up in me, but I could not put it in words. This, I felt, is the meeting place of heaven and earth. It would be days later, during an interview with Boston Globe reporter Erica Noonan that I was able to define the exhilarating experience: “It was like standing in the center of Armenia... I thought, that this is what it is like to be one with my land and my people.”

The wind was whipping around us, dropping the wind-chill factor to unbearable levels. I noticed that everyone had kept their extra clothing on and zipped tight. Understandably, we all remained roped together for security. I realized that toasting our success with a little bottle of Armenian cognac that I had hauled up for this occasion was out of the question. However, Alan and I had a chance to compare our elevation readings. Sure enough, his readings were off by some 200 feet.

My nose and fingers were going numb, and I began to shiver. I would have loved to remain here all day but that was obviously an impossibility. After some 25 minutes of bliss, our guides declared it to be time to turn back. We were to maintain the same order on the descent as on the ascent. This meant that I would be in the lead. Reluctantly I faced west and headed down. Sinan and Apo took up their position ahead and down slope to us. We traversed the snowcap in the opposite direction. I looked back to bid a final farewell to the peak. Putting down one cramponed foot after the other was becoming a habit. A heavy dark cloud had appeared on the far western horizon. Was this the upcoming storm that they had warned us of from Istanbul? I felt a tug on my rope and stopped. It was Karl, they were freezing, he shouted over the wind, was it possible to pick up the pace? Reluctantly I complied, descending the snowcap was uneventful. We headed toward the end of the perpetual snow line and found the spot where we had left our backpacks. Here we put away our crampons and ice axes and took off some of our extra clothing.

Stiff-legged and weary, I began descending along the same trail that we had climbed up that morning. The going was slow. I had to watch every step. The stiffness that I was experiencing in my legs created difficulties negotiating the loose scree and talus. Elsa was offering her assistance, but I suggested she continue at her own pace. I would just take my time. I slipped and fell backwards a few times. Apo handed me his hiking pole hoping to ease the pressure off my knees. I reached Camp 2 later than the rest. It had been transformed into a beehive of activity. A large group of climbers had settled in. It was a group of some 20 Slovenians with a sizable crew of local guides and support staff. How they all fitted in this confined space I don’t know. I was dog-tired. Our plan had been to pack up and overnight at Camp 1, but I was able to convince the group to remain overnight at Camp 2, and make the long trek back to Eli the next day. With the climb successfully over, I was relaxed in body and mind. I was in a state of euphoria and enjoying every minute of it. I also cherished the opportunity to spend another night so high up on “my mountain.”

Elsa and I sat down on a rock to savor a hard-earned mug of warm tea together under the lingering rays of the setting sun that bathed the peak above in pomegranate-colored alpenglow. High Camp was abuzz with the activity of the expedition prepping for tomorrow’s climb. The mountain followed its own inner rhythm. I felt relief and gratitude that in the end it had been kind and receptive to us. We moved closer to each other. The now familiar crash and roar from the rockslide in the chasm was just background music to our ears.

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Volume 71, No. 52, December 24, 2005

Armenian Weekly