Solo crescendo up Turkey’s Mount Erciyes

08/15/2013

The pull-tab I pried from a discarded sardine can almost fit over the nut that secured the adjustable fittings of the crampons. I needed to widen the right crampon in order that my boot would fit snugly. Otherwise, my painstakingly planned sojourn up Erciyes was going to fall through altogether, or be a very uncomfortable, off-balance hike along its southeast ridge. 

If I had been more vigilant with what I was doing, I would’ve checked the crampons at the gendarme’s before starting the hike up along the ski lift that leads to the inner bowl of this extinct volcano. With a little more adjusting from my knife, I forced the fashioned “wrench” of a pull‐tab over the nut and tried to get it to loosen, but the flimsy tin gave way before the hard steel of the nut and just spun around its circumference without getting any purchase... so much for innovation.

I looked down from the abandoned stone house I had chosen as a proper base camp and thought of the construction crew I had passed on the way up. A walk back down to them without a pack and heavy gear would be worth it if I could get this crampon adjusted to the correct fitting. As it turned out, with but one pair of pliers, they were more prepared for their day’s work than I was for the ascent up Erciyes I had been planning all year. But with the problem solved, I was on my way back to the stone house in a short amount of time and in better spirits.

With things set right and my summit pack ready, I stood outside on the concrete slab, once a room that now served as the abandon house’s “patio,” and looked up at Erciyes. I could see some sort of weather front forming on the other side, coming from the west, and what I thought was the sound of thunder a few minutes later turned out to be just that. Soon, the wind picked up and it began to first hail, and then snow. My apprehension about this climb reignited, but there was little I could do other than go inside where I had collected a small pile of wood to have a fire on the concrete floor. It wasn’t long before sunset, however, when the weather turned again. The skies became clear, the wind died to nothing, and the first star began to show itself over the eastern horizon.

I had come to Erciyes before, a year ago, when a friend with as little knowledge about the mountain as myself suggested we try to get to the top. Under equipped, with a terrible sense of timing and, in my friend’s case, a lack of confidence in his own abilities, it turned out to be a futile attempt at summiting. Frustrated, I swore I would come back the following year. So here I was, alone but determined to get to its crown, with or without a partner. 

June is the perfect month to make an ascent on its slopes, with enough snow to avoid walking on the loose “scree” of rocks that makes progress slow and more laborious, but when warmer temperatures have packed the snow stoutly enough to eliminate the danger of avalanches.

According to Wikipedia, at 3,916 meters—or 12,848 feet— Erciyes is the highest mountain in Central Anatolia, the fifth highest peak within Turkey’s borders behind the dominant “Buyuk Agri,” or biblical Mount Ararat, at 5,317 meters (16,854 feet). In its former life as an active volcano, it’s estimated to have last erupted in 253 B.C. A bronze Roman-era coin likely depicts Erciyes (or as the Romans called it, “Argaeus”) on the reverse side of the Roman Consul Antoninus Pius’s image. 

Erciyes is a mountain high enough that the ancient Greek geographer Strabo heard from those who ascended its summit that both the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south could be seen on a clear day. Its first documented ascent was in 1837, by the English geologist William John Hamilton. In 2005, the Turkish government consulted with Austria to build a ski resort in the area and, after two years of research, the lower slopes of Erciyes were deemed to be the best location for such an enterprise.

Regardless of its history or its recent ski-resort personality, the upper reaches of Mount Erciyes are a mountaineer’s playground. Formidable, but easily-enough accessed, it’s a marginally technical climb that challenges an individual’s stamina and physical condition to their limits. During my previous visit to Erciyes, when I had gotten as far as Horgue Kaya, the prominent rock face that terminates the southeast ridge trail, I was exhausted from both exertion and the elemental forces the mountain throws at you. Prudently at the time, I thought better than to go any farther before turning back to rendezvous with my waiting friend at the base camp. 

A year spent dwelling on the failed attempt had given me more time to plan things better. As the last of my wood was reduced to embers in the fire, these thoughts occupied my mind. I could hear the light patter of something falling on the roof, but was too sleepy to investigate what form the weather had taken.

The alarm I had set for 4:30 didn’t need to wake me up, as a pre-dawn glow began to filter into the room. The swallows in their nest attached to a concrete wall inside the house stayed quiescent, but kept an eye on me as I pulled myself out of the sleeping bag and went outside. A snow had fallen during the night and a light sprinkling of fresh dust covered the lower slopes. The sky was cloudless and the snow-bound upper reaches of Erciyes made a distinct profile against a firmament changing from a dwindling grey to a pale blue.

A half an hour later I was heading down the trail that leads to the lowest portion of the southeast ridge that would take me up to where the snow began. It took me two hours to plod up the scree that never allows you proper footing, keeps you off balance and ever checking an uncertain step on any given rock that might roll one way or another. Scree is the worst. It’s often dusty, makes progress slow and difficult, and it put in my mind the question as to why I was doing this at all. At the top, I slid off my daypack to fetch water and some trail mix. I was already exhausted, but finally reached the snow, where it was time to put on crampons and keep the ice ax palmed, if to use for nothing more than added balance.

With some anxiety, I looked at the upper ridge in the distance. Sitting atop the “Straights of Satan,” the distinct snow chute one has to climb to reach its crest, it curves like a hammock attached to Horgue Rock on one end and reaches up towards the summit on the other. The tendrils of a cloud were beginning to wrap around the craggy pinnacles that stood like sentinels watching me in turn from their perches, as if they had a mind to wonder whether I was going to make it that far. Below, the mountain road between Kayseri and Develi cut like a vein across a remote landscape.

For the next three hours I traveled the spine of the southeast ridge, on which the trail goes only one way: towards Horgue Rock. It would be nearly impossible to get lost on its path as the slopes on both the right and left dramatically angle down to allow panoramic vistas of the Anatolian plateau. When I finally made the approach to Horgue, I felt like a matador who had just stepped in to the ring to meet the bull he was to make his stand against. It’s the place where I turned back the year before, where I left a goal unfulfilled and retreated under the ponderous feeling of defeat that comes from a lack of serious planning. 

Horgue Rock is the Rubicon of Erciyes that, once you traverse beneath its imposing face onto the Straights of Satan, seals the commitment you’ve taken to see this journey through to the end. The inordinate amount of time it took me to get onto the sloping channel to which the devil lends his name was punctuated by half-certain footholds where the crampons failed to fully grab. With each step, I planted the ice ax for more confidence and eventually made my way out onto the vertiginous snow field of Satan’s Straights with its heeling incline.

The way up was an exercise in patience. Every three or four footholds I kicked into the snow to stopped me in order to catch my breath. I had been sucking as much oxygen into my lungs as I could since the very beginning of this journey hours before, but I could feel my body was being taxed with hidden costs in this sustained effort to keep it going upward. I planted my ax deep and stopped to take stock of my ascent. Without realizing it, I was in a cloud. My immediate environment took on the sensation of being contained within a pearl, an opaque landscape of swirling mist against a white descent that disappeared below me. The shadowy forms of rock in attendance gave my surroundings a mythical quality that provided the feeling I had suddenly become a welcome guest in a place few are inclined to visit and was now being offered a secret to be held in confidence. 

I could see the crest not far above me. Some time later, the last 10 yards were covered by grabbing a secure hold on the snow with my ax on hands and knees, and I could only do so much but roll on my back as I reached the upper ridge. I only wanted to lie there and rest for as long as needed to recover from the hour and a half it took negotiate my deal with the devil. I closed my eyes and began to doze off when I felt the snowfall on my face.

Once on the upper ridge above Satan’s Straights, it’s another 25 minutes or so to the summit. As I reached the terminal point of my seven-hour journey, openings in the clouds gave me glimpses of the world I had left below. I thought of the people down there doing the ordinary things they do every day: crossing the street, ironing their clothes, having a conversation in a cafe, opening a door... I’d like to think that someone stopped for a moment then and there, and looked up at the ever-present crown of Mount Erciyes to make a promise they know in their hearts it’s best to keep.

 

Stephen Chmelewski lived in Bolinas for 18 years and has been a contributing writer to the Light. He is currently an English teacher at a university in Gaziantep, Turkey near the Syrian border.