Century Magazine/Volume 48/Issue 2/Across Asia on a Bicycle. A Pause at the Mountain of the Ark
To the eye Ararat presents a gently inclined slope of sand and ashes rising into a belt of green, another zone of black volcanic rocks streaked with snow-beds, and then a glittering crest of silver. From the burning desert at its base to the icy pinnacle above, it rises through a vertical distance of 13,000 feet. There are but few peaks in the world that rise so high (17,250 feet above sea-level) from so low a plain (2000 feet on the Russian, and 4000 feet on the Turkish, side), and which, therefore, present so grand a spectacle. Unlike many of the world's mountains, it stands alone. Little Ararat (12,840 feet above sea-level), and the other still smaller heights that dot the plain, only serve as a standard by which to measure Ararat's immensity and grandeur.
Little Ararat is the meeting-point, or cornerstone, of three great empires. On its conical peak converge the dominions of the Czar, the Sultan, and the Shah. The Russian border-line runs from Little Ararat along the high ridge which separates it from Great Ararat, through the peak of the latter, and onward a short distance to the north west, then turns sharply to the west. On the Sardarbulakh pass, between Great and Little Ararat, is stationed a handful of Russian Cossacks to remind lawless tribes of the guardianship of the "White Sultan."
The two Ararats together form an elliptical mass, about twenty-five miles in length, running northwest and southeast, and about half that in width. Out of this massive base rise the two Ararat peaks, their bases being contiguous up to 8800 feet and their tops about seven miles apart. Little Ararat is an almost perfect truncated cone, while Great Ararat is more of a broad-shouldered dome supported by strong, rough-ribbed buttresses. The isolated position of Ararat, its structure of igneous rocks, the presence of small craters and immense volcanic fissures on its slopes, and the scoriæ and ashes on the surrounding plain, establish beyond a doubt its volcanic origin. But according to the upheaval theory of the eminent geologist, Hermann Abich, who was among the few to make the ascent of the mountain, there never was a great central crater in either Great or Little Ararat. Certain it is that no craters or signs of craters now exist on the summit of either mountain. Put Mr. James Bryce, who made the last ascent, in 1876, seems to think that there is no sufficient reason why craters could not have previously existed, and been filled up by their own irruptions. There is no record of any irruption in historical times. The only thing approaching it was the earthquake which shook the mountain in 1840, accompanied by subterranean rumblings, and destructive blasts of wind. The Tatar village of Arghuri and a Kurdish encampment on the northeast slope were entirely destroyed by the precipitated rocks. Not a man was left to tell the story. Mr. Bryce and others have spoken of the astonishing height of the snow-line on Mount Ararat, which is placed at 14,000 feet; while in the Alps it is only about 9000 feet, and in the Caucasus on an average 11,000 feet, although they lie in a very little higher latitude. They assign, as reason for this, the exceptionally dry region in which Ararat is situated. Mr. Bryce ascended the mountain on September 12, when the snow-line was at its very highest, the first large snow-bed he encountered being at 12,000 feet. Our own ascent being made as early as July 4,—in fact, the earliest ever recorded,—we found some snow as low as 8000 feet, and large beds at 10,500 feet. The top of Little Ararat was still at that time streaked with snow, but not covered. With so many extensive snow-beds, one would naturally expect to find copious brooks and streams flowing down the mountain into the plain; but owing to the porous and dry nature of the soil, the water is entirely lost before reaching the base of the mountain. Even as early as July we saw no stream below 6000 feet, and even above this height the mountain freshets frequently flowed far beneath the surface under the loosely packed rocks, bidding defiance to our efforts to reach them. Notwithstanding the scarcity of snow-freshets, there is a middle zone on Mount Ararat, extending from about 5000 feet to 9000 feet elevation, which is covered with good pasturage, kept green by heavy dews and frequent showers. The hot air begins to rise from the desert plain as the morning sun peeps over the horizon, and continues through the day; this warm current, striking against the snow-covered summit, is condensed into clouds and moisture. In consequence, the top of Ararat is usually—during the summer months, at least—obscured by clouds from some time after dawn until sunset. On the last day of our ascent, however, we were particularly fortunate in having a clear summit until 1:15 in the afternoon.
Among the crags of the upper slope are found only a few specimens of the wild goat and sheep, and, lower down, the fox, wolf, and lynx. The bird and insect life is very scanty, but lizards and scorpions, especially on the lowest slopes, are abundant. The rich pasturage of Ararats middle zone attracts pastoral Kurdish tribes. These nomadic shepherds, a few Tatars at New Arghuri, and a camp of Russian Cossacks at the well of Sardarbulakh, are the only human beings to disturb the quiet solitude of this grandest of nature's sanctuaries.
The first recorded ascent of Mount Ararat was in 1829, by Dr. Frederick Parrot, a Russo-German professor in the University of Dorpat. He reached the summit with a party of three Armenians and two Russian soldiers, after two unsuccessful attempts. His ascent, however, was doubted, not only by the people in the neighborhood, but by many men of science and position in the Russian empire, notwithstanding his clear account, which has been confirmed by subsequent observers, and in spite of the testimony of the two Russian soldiers who had gone with him. Two of the Armenians who reached the summit with him declared that they had gone to a great height, but at the point where they had left off had seen much higher tops rising around them. This, thereupon, became the opinion of the whole country. After Antonomoff, in 1834, Herr Abich, the geologist, made his valuable ascent in 1845. He reached the eastern summit, which is only a few feet lower than the western, and only a few minutes' walk from it, but was obliged to return at once on account of the threatening weather. When he produced his companions as witnesses before the authorities at Erivan, they turned against him, and solemnly swore that at the point which they had reached a higher peak stood between them and the western horizon. This strengthened the Armenian belief in the inaccessibility of Ararat, which was not dissipated when the Russian engineer, General Chodzko, and an English party made the ascent in 1856. Nor were their prejudiced minds convinced by the ascent of Mr. Bryce twenty years later, in 1876. Two days after his ascent, that gentleman paid a visit to the Armenian monastery at Echmiadzin, and was presented to the archimandrite as the Englishman who had just ascended to the top of "Masis." "No," said tbe ecclesiastical dignitary; "that cannot be. No one has ever been there. It is impossible." Mr. Bryce himself says: "I am persuaded that there is not a person living within sight of Ararat, unless it be some exceptionally educated Russian official at Erivan, who believes that any human foot, since Father Noah's, has trodden that sacred summit. So much stronger is faith than sight; or rather so much stronger is prejudice than evidence."
We had expected, on our arrival in Bayazid, to find in waiting for us a Mr. Richardson, an American missionary from Erzerum. Two years later, on our arrival home, we received a letter explaining that on his way from Van he had been captured by Kurdish brigands, and held a prisoner until released through the military intervention of the Critish consul at Erzerum. It was some such fate as this that was predicted for us, should we ever attempt the ascent of Mount Ararat through the lawless Kurdish tribes upon its slopes. Our first duty, therefore, was to see the mutessarif of Bayazid, to whom we bore a letter from the Grand Vizir of Turkey, in order to ascertain what protection and assistance he would be willing to give us. We found with him a Circassian who belonged to the Russian camp at Sardarbulakh, on the Ararat pass, and who had accompanied General Chodzko on his ascent of the mountainin 1856. Both he and the mutessarif thought an ascent so early in the year was impossible; that we ought not to think of such a thing until two months later. It was now six weeks earlier than the time of General Chodzko's ascent (August 11th to 18th), then the earliest on record. They both strongly recommended the northwestern slope as being more gradual. This is the one that Parrot ascended in 1829, and where Abich was repulsed on his third attempt. Though entirely inexperienced in mountain-climbing, we ourselves thought that the southeast slope, the one taken by General Chodzko, the English party, and Mr. Bryce, was far more feasible for a small party. One thing, however, the mutessarif was determined upon; we must not approach the mountain without an escort of Turkish zaptiehs, as an emblem of government protection. Besides, he would send for the chief of the Ararat Kurds, and endeavor to arrange with him for our safety and guidance up the mountain. As we emerged into the streets an Armenian professor gravely shook his head. "Ah," said he, "you will never do it." Then dropping his voice, he told us that those other ascents were all fictitious; that the summit of "Masis" had never yet been reached except by Noah; and that we were about to attempt what was an utter impossibility.
In Bayazid we could not procure even proper wood for alpenstocks. Willow branches, two inches thick, very dry and brittle, were the best we could obtain. Light as this wood is, the alpenstocks weighed at least seven pounds apiece when the iron hooks and points were riveted on at the ends by the native blacksmith, for whom we cut paper patterns, of the exact size, for everything we wanted. We next had large nails driven into the soles of our shoes by a local shoemaker, who made them for us by hand out of an old English file, and who wanted to pull them all out again because we would not pay him the exorbitant price he demanded. In buying provisions for the expedition, we spent three hours among the half dilapidated bazaars of the town, which have never been repaired since the disastrous Russian bombardment. The most difficult task, perhaps, in our work of preparation was to strike a bargain with an Armenian muleteer to carry our food and baggage up the mountain on his two little donkeys.
Evening came, and no word from either the mutessarif or the Kurdish chief. Although we were extremely anxious to set off on the expedition before bad weather set in, we must not be in a hurry, for the military governor of Karakillissa was now the guest of the mutessarif, and it would be an interference with his social duties to try to see him until after his guest had departed. On the morrow we were sitting in our small dingy room after dinner, when a cavalcade hastened up to our inn, and a few minutes later we were surprised to hear ourselves addressed in our native tongue. Before us stood a dark-complexioned young man, and at his side a small wiry old gentleman, who proved to be a native Austrian Tyrolese, who followed the profession of an artist in Paris. He was now making his way to Erivan, in Russia, on a sight-seeing tour from Trebizond. His companion was a Greek from Salonica, who had lived for several years in London, whence he had departed not many weeks before, for Teheran, Persia. These two travelers had met in Constantinople, and the young Greek, who could speak English, Greek, and Turkish, had been acting as interpreter for the artist. They had heard of the "devil's carts" when in Van, and had made straight for our quarters on their arrival in Bayazid. At this point they were to separate. When we learned that the old gentleman (Ignaz Raffl by name) was a member of an Alpine club and an experienced mountain-climber, we urged him to join in the ascent. Though his shoulders were bent by the cares and troubles of sixty-three years, we finally induced him to accompany our party. Kantsa, the Greek, reluctantly agreed to do likewise, and proved to be an excellent interpreter, but a poor climber.
The following morning we paid the mutessarif a second visit, with Kantsa as interpreter. In as much as the Kurdish chief had not arrived, the mutessarif said he would make us bearers of a letter to him. Two zaptiehs were to accompany us in the morning, while others were to go ahead and announce our approach.
At ten minutes of eleven, on the morning of the second of July, our small cavalcade, with the two exasperating donkeys at the head laden with mats, bags of provisions, extra clothing, alpenstocks, spiked shoes, and coils of stout rope, filed down the streets of Bayazid, followed by a curious rabble. As Bayazid lies hidden behind a projecting spur of the mountains we could obtain no view of the peak itself until we had tramped some distance out on the plain. Its huge giant mass broke upon us all at once. We stopped and looked—and looked again. 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. We had not proceeded far before we descried a party of Kurdish horsemen approaching from the mountain. Our zaptiehs advanced rather cautiously to meet them, with rifles thrown across the pommels of their saddles. After a rather mysterious parley, our zaptiehs signaled that all was well. On coming up, they reported that these horsemen belonged to the party that was friendly to the Turkish government. The Kurds, they said, were at this time divided among themselves, a portion of them having adopted conciliatory measures with the government, and the rest holding aloof. But we rather considered their little performance as a scheme to extort a little more bakshish for their necessary presence.
The plain we were now on was drained by a tributary of the Aras River, a small stream reached after two hours' steady tramping. From the bordering hillocks we emerged in a short time upon another vast plateau, which stretched far away in a gentle rise to the base of the mountain itself. Near by we discovered a lone willow-tree, the only one in the whole sweep of our vision, under the gracious foliage of which sat a hand of Kurds, retired from the heat of the afternoon sun, their horses feeding on some swamp grass near at hand. Attracted by this sign of water, we drew near, and found a copious spring. A few words from the zaptiehs, who had advanced among them, seemed to put the Kurds at their ease, though they did not by any means appease their curiosity. They invited us to partake of their frugal lunch of ekmek and goat's-milk cheese. Our clothes and baggage were discussed piece by piece, with loud expressions of merriment, until one of us arose, and, stealing behind the group, snapped the camera. "What was that?" said a burly member of the group, as he looked round with scowling face at his companions. "Yes; what was that?" they echoed, and then made a rush for the manipulator of the black box, which they evidently took for some instrument of the black art. The photographer stood serenely innocent, and winked at the zaptieh to give the proper explanation. He was equal to the occasion. "That," said he, "is an instrument for taking time by the sun." At this the box went the round, each one gazing intently into the lens, then scratching his head, and casting a bewildered look at his nearest neighbor. We noticed that every one about us was armed with knife, revolver, and Martini rifle, a belt of cartridges surrounding his waist. It occurred to us that Turkey was adopting a rather poor method of clipping the wings of these mountain birds, by selling them the very best equipments for war. Legally, none but government guards are permitted to carry arms, and yet both guns and ammunition are sold in the bazaars of almost every city of the Turkish dominions. The existence of these people, in their wild, semi-independent state, shows not so much the power of the Kurds as the weakness of the Turkish government, which desires to use a people of so fierce a reputation for the suppression of its other subjects. After half an hour's rest, we prepared to decamp, and so did our Kurdish companions. They were soon in their saddles, and galloping away in front of us, with their arms clanking, and glittering in the afternoon sunlight.
At the spring we had turned off the trail that led over the Sardarbulakh pass into Russia, and were now following a horse-path which winds up to the Kurdish encampments on the southern slope of the mountain. The plain was strewn with sand and rocks, with here and there a bunch of tough, wiry grass about a foot and a half high, which, though early in the year, was partly dry. It would have been hot work except for the rain of the day before and a strong southeast wind. As it was, our feet were blistered and bruised, the thin leather sandals worn at the outset offering very poor protection. The atmosphere being dry, though not excessively hot, we soon began to suffer from thirst. Although we searched diligently for water, we did not find it till after two hours more of constant marching, when at a height of about 6000 feet, fifty yards from the path, we discerned a picturesque cascade of sparkling, cold mountain water. Even the old gentleman, Raffl, joined heartily in the gaiety induced by this clear, cold water from Ararat's melting snows.
Our ascent for two and a half hours longer was through a luxuriant vegetation of flowers, grasses, and weeds, which grew more and more scanty as we advanced. Prominent among the specimens were the wild pink, poppy, and rose. One small fragrant herb, that was the most abundant of all, we were told was used by the Kurds for making tea. All these filled the evening air with perfume as we trudged along, passing now and then a Kurdish lad, with his flock of sheep and goats feeding on the mountain-grass, which was here much more luxuriant than below. Looking backward, we saw that we were higher than the precipitous cliffs which over-tower the town of Bayazid, and which are perhaps from 1500 to 2000 feet above the lowest part of the plain. The view over the plateau was now grand. Though we were all fatigued by the day's work, the cool, moisture-laden air of evening revived our flagging spirits. We forged ahead with nimble step, joking, and singing a variety of national airs. The French "Marseillaise," in which the old gentleman heartily joined, echoed and reëchoed among the rocks, and caused the shepherd lads and their flocks to crane their heads in wonderment. Even the Armenian muleteer so far overcame his fear of the Kurdish robbers as to indulge in one of his accustomed funeral dirges; but it stopped short, never to go again, when we came in sight of the Kurdish encampment. The poor fellow instinctively grabbed his donkeys about their necks, as though they were about to plunge over a precipice. The zaptiehs dashed ahead with the mutessarif's letter to the Kurdish chief. We followed slowly on foot, while the Armenian and his two pets kept at a respectful distance in the rear.
The disk of the sun had already touched the western horizon when we came to the black tents of the Kurdish encampment, which at this time of the day presented a rather busy scene. The women seemed to be doing all the work, while their lords sat round on their haunches. Some of the women were engaged in milking the sheep and goats in an inclosure. Others were busy making butter in a churn which was nothing more than a skin vessel three feet long, of the shape of a Brazil-nut, suspended from a rude tripod; this they swung to and fro to the tune of a weird Kurdish song. Behind one of the tents, on a primitive weaving-machine, some of them were making tent-roofing and matting. Others still were walking about with a ball of wool in one hand and a distaff in the other, spinning yarn. The flocks stood round about, bleating and lowing, or chewing their cud in quiet contentment. All seemed very domestic and peaceful except the Kurdish dogs, which set upon us with loud, fierce growls and gnashing teeth.
Not so was it with the Kurdish chief, who by this time had finished reading the mutessarif's message, and who now advanced from his tent with salaams of welcome. As he stood before us in the glowing sunset, he was a rather tall, but well-proportioned man, with black eyes and dark mustache, contrasting well with his brown-tanned complexion. Upon his face was the stamp of a rather wild and retiring character, although treachery and deceit were by no means wanting. He wore a headgear that was something between a hat and a turban, and over his baggy Turkish trousers hung a long Persian coat of bright-colored, large-figured cloth, bound at the waist by a belt of cartridges. Across the shoulders was slung a breech-loading Martini rifle, and from his neck dangled a heavy gold chain, which was probably the spoil of some predatory expedition. A quiet dignity sat on Ismail Deverish's stalwart form.
It was with no little pleasure that we accepted his invitation to a cup of tea. After our walk of nineteen miles, in which we had ascended from 3000 to 7000 feet, we were in fit condition to appreciate a rest. That Kurdish tent, as far as we were concerned, was a veritable palace, although we were almost blinded by the smoke from the green pine-branches on the smoldering fire. We said that the chief invited us to a cup of tea: so he did—but we provided the tea; and that, too, not only for our own party, but for half a dozen of the chief's personal friends. There being only two glasses in the camp, we of course had to wait until our Kurdish acquaintances had quenched their burning thirst. In thoughtful mood we gazed around through the evening twilight. Faraway on the western slope we could see some Kurdish women plodding along under heavy burdens of pine-branches like those that were now fumigating our eyes and nostrils. Across the hills the Kurdish shepherds were driving home their herds and flocks to the tinkling of bells. All this, to us, was deeply impressive. Such peaceful scenes, we thought, could never be the haunt of warlike robbers. The flocks at last came home; the shouts of the shepherds ceased; darkness fell; and all was quiet.
One by one the lights in the tents broke out, like the stars above. As the darkness deepened, they shone more and more brightly across the amphitheater of the encampment. The tent in which we were now sitting was oblong in shape, covered with a mixture of goats' and sheep's wool, carded, spun, and woven by the Kurdish women. This tenting was all of a dark brown or black color. The various strips were badly joined together, allowing the snow and rain, during the stormy night that followed, to penetrate plentifully. A wickerwork fencing, about three feet high, made from the reeds gathered in the swamps of the Aras River, was stretched around the bottom of the tent to keep out the cattle as well as to afford some little protection from the elements. This same material, of the same width or height, was used to partition off the apartments of the women. Far from being veiled and shut up in harems, like their Turkish and Persian sisters, the Kurdish women come and go among the men, and talk and laugh as they please. The thinness and lowness of the partition walls did not disturb their astonishing equanimity. In their relations with the men the women are extremely free. During the evening we frequently found ourselves surrounded by a concourse of these mountain beauties, who would sit and stare at us with their black eyes, call attention to our personal oddities, and laugh among themselves. Now and then their jokes at our expense would produce hilarious laughter among the men. The dress of these women consisted of baggy trousers, better described in this country as "divided skirts," a bright-colored overskirt and tunic, and a little round cloth cap encircled with a band of red and black. Through the right lobe of the nose was hung a peculiar button-shaped ornament studded with precious stones. This picturesque costume well set off their rich olive complexions, and black eyes beneath dark-brown lashes.
There were no signs of an approaching evening meal until we opened our provision-bag, and handed over certain articles of raw food to be cooked for us. No sooner were the viands intrusted to the care of our hosts, than two sets of pots and kettles made their appearance in the other compartments. In half an hour our host and friends proceeded to indulge their voracious appetites. When our own meal was brought to us some time after, we noticed that the fourteen eggs we had doled out had been reduced to six; and the other materials suffered a similar reduction, the whole thing being so patent as to make their attempt at innocence absurdly ludicrous. We thought, however, if Kurdish highway robbery took no worse form than this, we could well afford to be content. Supper over, we squatted round a slow-burning fire, on the thick felt mats which served as carpets, drank tea, and smoked the usual cigarettes. By the light of the glowing embers we could watch the faces about us, and catch their horrified glances when reference was made to our intended ascent of Ak-Dagh, the mysterious abode of the jinn. Before turning in for the night, we reconnoitered our situation. The lights in all the tents, save our own, were now extinguished. Not a sound was heard, except the heavy breathing of some of the slumbering animals about us, or the bark of a dog at some distant encampment. The huge dome of Ararat, though six to eight miles farther up the slope, seemed to be towering over us like some giant monster of another world. We could not see the summit, so far was it above the enveloping clouds. We returned to the tent to find that the zaptiehs had been given the best places and best covers to sleep in, and that we were expected to accommodate ourselves near the door, wrapped up in an old Kurdish carpet. Policy was evidently a better developed trait of Kurdish character than hospitality.
Although we arose at four, seven o'clock saw us still at the encampment. Two hours vanished before our gentlemen zaptiehs condescended to rise from their peaceful slumbers; then a great deal of time was unnecessarily consumed in eating their special breakfast, We ourselves had to be content with ekmek and yaourt (blotting-paper bread and curdled milk). This over, they concluded not to go on without sandals to take the place of their heavy military boots, as at this point their horses would have to be discarded. After we had employed a Kurd to make these for them, they declared they were afraid to proceed without the company of ten Kurds armed to the teeth. We knew that this was only a scheme on the part of the Kurds, with whom the zaptiehs were in league, to extort money from us. We still kept cool, and only casually insinuated that we did not have enough money to pay for so large a party. This announcement worked like a charm. The interest the Kurds had up to this time taken in our venture died away at once. Even the three Kurds who, as requested in the message of the mutessarif were to accompany us up the mountain to the snow-line, refused absolutely to go. The mention of the mutessarif's name awakened only a sneer. We had also relied upon the Kurds for blankets, as we had been advised to do by our friends in Bayazid. Those we had already hired they now snatched from the donkeys standing before the tent. All this time our tall, gaunt, meek-looking muleteer had stood silent. Now his turn had come. How far was he to go with his donkeys?—he didn't think it possible for him to go much beyond this point. Patience now ceased to be a virtue. We cut off discussion at once; told the muleteer he would either go on, or lose what he had already earned; and informed the zaptiehs that whatever they did would be reported to the mutessarif on our return. Under this rather forcible persuasion, they stood not on the order of their going, but sullenly followed our little procession out of camp before the crestfallen Kurds.
In the absence of guides we were thrown upon our own resources. Far from being an assistance, our zaptiehs proved a nuisance. They would carry nothing, not even the food they were to eat, and were absolutely ignorant of the country we were to traverse. From our observations on the previous days, we had decided to strike out on a northeast course, over the gentle slope, until we struck the rocky ridges on the southeast buttress of the dome. On its projecting rocks, which extended nearer to the summit than those of any other part of the mountain, we could avoid the slippery, precipitous snow-beds that stretched far down the mountain at this time of the year.
Immediately after leaving the encampment, the ascent became steeper and more difficult; the small volcanic stones of yesterday now increased to huge obstructing boulders, among which the donkeys with difficulty made their way. They frequently tipped their loads, or got wedged in between two unyielding walls. In the midst of our efforts to extricate them, we often wondered how Noah ever managed with the animals from the ark. Had these donkeys not been of a philosophical turn of mind, they might have offered forcible objections to the way we extricated them from their straightened circumstances. A remonstrance on our part for carelessness in driving brought from the muleteer a burst of Turkish profanity that made the rocks of Ararat resound with indignant echoes. The spirit of insubordination seemed to be increasing in direct ratio with the height of our ascent.
We came now to a comparatively smooth, green slope, which led up to the highest Kurdish encampment met on the line of our ascent, about 7500 feet. When in sight of the black tents, the subject of Kurdish guides was again broached by the zaptiehs, and immediately they sat down to discuss the question. We ourselves were through with discussion, and fully determined to have nothing to do with a people who could do absolutely nothing for us. We stopped at the tents, and asked for milk. "Yes" they said; "we have some": but after waiting for ten minutes, we learned that the milk was still in the goats' possession, several hundred yards away among the rocks. It dawned upon us that this was only another trick of the zaptiehs to get a rest.
We pushed on the next 500 feet of the ascent without much trouble or controversy, the silence broken only by the muleteer, who took the raki bottle off the donkey's pack, and asked if he could take a drink. As we had only a limited supply, to be used to dilute the snow-water, we were obliged to refuse him.
At 8000 feet we struck our first snowdrift, into which the donkeys sank tip to their bodies. It required our united efforts to lift them out, and half carry them across. Then on we climbed till ten o'clock, to a point about 9000 feet, where we stopped for lunch in a quiet mountain glen, by the side of a rippling mountain rill. This snow-water we drank with raki. The view in the mean time had been growing more and more extensive. The plain before us had lost nearly all its detail and color, and was merged into one vast whole. Though less picturesque, it was incomparably grander. Now we could see how, in ages past, the lava had burst out of the lateral fissures in the mountain, and flowed in huge streams for miles down the slope, and out on the plain below. These beds of lava were gradually broken up by the action of the elements, and now presented the appearance of ridges of broken volcanic rocks of the most varied and fantastic shapes.
It was here that the muleteer showed evident signs of weakening, which later on developed into a total collapse. We had come to a broad snow-field where the donkeys stuck fast and rolled over helpless in the snow. Even after we had unstrapped their baggage and carried it over on our shoulders, they could make no headway. The muleteer gave up in despair, and refused even to help us carry our loads to the top of an adjoining hill, whither the zaptiehs had proceeded to wait for us. In consequence, Raffl and we were compelled to carry two donkey-loads of baggage for half a mile over the snow-beds and boulders, followed by the sulking muleteer, who had deserted his donkeys, rather than be left alone himself. On reaching the zaptiehs, we sat down to hold a council on the situation; but the clouds, which, during the day, had occasionally obscured the top of the mountain, now began to thicken, and it was not long before a shower compelled us to beat a hasty retreat to a neighboring ledge of rocks. The clouds that were rolling between us and the mountain summit seemed but a token of the storm of circumstances. One thing was certain, the muleteer could go no farther up the mountain, and yet he was mortally afraid to return alone to the Kurdish robbers. He sat down, and began to cry like a child. This predicament of their accomplice furnished the zaptiehs with a plausible excuse. They now absolutely refused to go any farther without him. Our interpreter, the Greek, again joined the majority; he was not going to risk the ascent without the Turkish guards, and besides, he had now come to the conclusion that we had not sufficient blankets to spend a night at so high an altitude, Disappointed, but not discouraged, we gazed at the silent old gentleman at our side. In his determined countenance we read his answer. Long shall we remember Ignaz Raffl as one of the pluckiest, most persevering of old men,
There was now only one plan that could be pursued. Selecting from our supplies one small blanket, a felt mat, two long, stout ropes, enough food to last us two days, a bottle of cold tea, and a can of Turkish raki, we packed them into two bundles to strap on our backs. We then instructed the rest of the party to return to the Kurdish encampment and await our return. The sky was again clear at 2:30 p.m., when we bade good-by to our worthless comrades and resumed the ascent, We were now at a height of nine thousand feet, and it was our plan to camp at a point far enough up the mountain to enable us to complete the ascent on the following day, and to return to the Kurdish encampment by nightfall. Beyond us was a region of snow and barren rocks, among which we still saw a small purple flower and bunches of lichens, which grew more rare as we advanced. Our course continued in a northeast direction, toward the main southeast ridge of the mountain. Sometimes we were floundering with our heavy loads in the deep snow-beds, or scrambling on hands and knees over the huge boulders of the rocky seams. Two hours and a half of climbing brought us to the crest of the main southeast ridge, about one thousand feet below the base of the precipitous dome. At this point our course changed from northeast to northwest, and continued so during the rest of the ascent, Little Ararat was now in full view. We could even distinguish upon its northwest side a deep-cut gorge, which was not visible before. Upon its smooth and perfect slopes remained only the tatters of its last winter's garments. We could also look far out over the Sardarbulakh ridge, which connects the two Ararats, and on which the Cossacks are encamped. It was to them that the mutessarif had desired us to go, but we had subsequently determined to make the ascent directly from the Turkish side.
Following up this southeast ridge we came at 5:45 p.m. to a point about eleven thousand feet. Here the thermometer registered 39° Fahrenheit, and was constantly falling. If we should continue on, the cold during the night, especially with our scanty clothing, would become intolerable; and then, too, we could scarcely find a spot level enough to sleep on, We therefore determined to stop here for the night, and to continue the ascent at dawn. Some high, rugged crags on the ridge above us attracted our attention as affording a comparatively protected lodging. Among these we spread our carpet, and piled stones in the intervening spaces to form a complete inclosure. Thus busily engaged, we failed for a time to realize the grandeur of the situation. Over the vast and misty panorama that spread out before us, the lingering rays of the setting sun shed a tinge of gold, which was communicated to the snowy beds around us. Behind the peak of Little Ararat a brilliant rainbow stretched in one grand archway above the weeping clouds. But this was only one turn of nature's kaleidoscope. The arch soon faded away, and the shadows lengthened and deepened across the plain, and mingled, till all was lost to view behind the falling curtains of the night. The Kurdish tents far down the slope, and the white curling smoke from their evening camp-fires, we could see no more; only the occasional bark of a dog was borne upward through the impenetrable darkness.
Colder and colder grew the atmosphere. From 39° the thermometer gradually fell to 36°, to 33°, and during the night dropped below freezing-point. The snow, which fell from the clouds just over our heads, covered our frugal supper-table, on which was placed a few hard-boiled eggs, some tough Turkish bread, cheese, and a bottle of tea mixed with raki. Ice-tea was no doubt a luxury at this time of the year, but not on Mount Ararat, at the height of eleven thousand feet, with the temperature at freezing-point. M. Raffl was as cheerful as could be expected under the circumstances. He expressed his delight at our progress thus far; and now that we were free from our "gentlemen" attendants, he considered our chances for success much brighter. We turned in together under our single blanket, with the old gentleman between us. He had put on every article of clothing, including gloves, hat, hood, cloak, and heavy shoes. For pillows we used the provision-bags and camera. The bottle of cold tea we buttoned up in our coats to prevent it from freezing. On both sides, and above us, lay the pure white snow; below us a huge abyss, into which the rocky ridge descended like a darkened stairway to the lower regions. The awful stillness was unbroken, save by the whistling of the wind among the rocks. Dark masses of clouds seemed to bear down upon us every now and then, opening up their trap-doors, and letting down a heavy fall of snow. The heat of our bodies melted the ice beneath us, and our clothes became saturated with ice-water. Although we were surrounded by snow and ice, we were suffering with a burning thirst. Since separating from our companions we had found no water whatever, while the single bottle of cold tea we had must be preserved for the morrow. Sleep, under such circumstances, and in our cramped position, was utterly impossible. At one o'clock the morning star peeped above the eastern horizon. This we watched hour after hour, as it rose in unrivaled beauty toward the zenith, until at last it began to fade away in the first gray streaks of the morning.
By the light of a flickering candle we ate a hurried breakfast, fastened on our spiked shoes, and strapped to our backs a few indispensable articles, leaving the rest of our baggage at the camp until our return. Just at daybreak, 3:55 a.m., on the 4th of July, we started off on what proved to be the hardest day's work we had ever accomplished. We struck out at once across the broad snow-field to the second rock rib on the right, which seemed to lead up to the only line of rocks above. The surface of these large snow-beds had frozen during the night, so that we had to cut steps with our ice-picks to keep from slipping down their glassy surface. Up this ridge we slowly climbed for three weary hours, leaping from boulder to boulder, or dragging ourselves up their precipitous sides. The old gentleman halted frequently to rest, and showed evident signs of weariness. "It is hard; we must take it slowly," he would say (in German) whenever our impatience would get the better of our prudence. At seven o'clock we reached a point about 13,500 feet, beyond which there seemed to be nothing but the snow-covered slope, with only a few projecting rocks along the edge of a tremendous gorge which now broke upon our astonished gaze. Toward this we directed our course, and, an hour later, stood upon its very verge. Our venerable companion now looked up at the precipitous slope above us, where only some stray, projecting rocks were left to guide us through the wilderness of snow. "Boys," said he, despondently, "I cannot reach the top; I have not rested during the night, and I am now falling asleep on my feet; besides, I am very much fatigued." This came almost like a sob from a breaking heart. Although the old gentleman was opposed to the ascent in the first instance, his old Alpine spirit arose within him with all its former vigor when once he had started up the mountain slope; and now, when almost in sight of the very goal, his strength began to fail him. After much persuasion and encouragement, he finally said that if he could get half an hour's rest and sleep, he thought he would be able to continue. We then wrapped him up in his greatcoat, and dug out a comfortable bed in the snow, while one of us sat down, with back against him, to keep him from rolling down the mountain-side.
We were now on the chasm's brink, looking down into its unfathomable depths. This gigantic rent, hundreds of feet in width and thousands in depth, indicates that northwest-southeast line along which the volcanic forces of Ararat have acted most powerfully. This fissure is perhaps the greatest with which the mountain is seamed, and out of which has undoubtedly been discharged a great portion of its lava. Starting from the base of the dome, it seemed to pierce the shifting clouds to a point about 500 feet from the summit. This line is continued out into the plain in a series of small volcanoes the craters of which appear to be as perfect as though they had been in activity only yesterday. The solid red and yellow rocks which lined the sides of the great chasm projected above the opposite brink in jagged and appalling cliffs. The whole was incased in a mass of huge fantastic icicles, which, glittering in the sunlight, gave it the appearance of a natural crystal palace. No more fitting place than this could the fancy of the Kurds depict for the home of the terrible jinn; no better symbol of nature for the awful jaws of death.
Our companion now awoke considerably refreshed, and the ascent was continued close to the chasm's brink. Here were the only rocks to be seen in the vast snow-bed around us. Cautiously we proceed, with cat-like tread, following directly in one another's footsteps, and holding on to our alpenstocks like grim death. A loosened rock would start at first slowly, gain momentum, and fairly fly. Striking against some projecting ledge, it would bound a hundred feet or more into the air, and then drop out of sight among the clouds below. Every few moments we would stop to rest; our knees were like lead, and the high altitude made breathing difficult. Now the trail of rocks led us within two feet of the chasm's edge; we approached it cautiously, probing well for a rock foundation, and gazing with dizzy heads into the abyss.
The slope became steeper and steeper, until it abutted in an almost precipitous cliff coated with snow and glistening ice. There was no escape from it, for all around the snow-beds were too steep and slippery to venture an ascent upon them. Cutting steps with our ice-picks, and half-crawling, half-dragging ourselves, with the alpenstocks hooked into the rocks above, we scaled its height, and advanced to the next abutment. Now a cloud, as warm as exhausted steam, enveloped us in the midst of this ice and snow. When it cleared away, the sun was reflected with intenser brightness. Our faces were already smarting with blisters, and our dark glasses afforded but little protection to our aching eyes.
At 11 a.m. we sat down on the snow to eat our last morsel of food. The cold chicken and bread tasted like sawdust, for we had no saliva with which to masticate them. Our single bottle of tea had given out, and we suffered with thirst for several hours. Again the word to start was given. We rose at once, but our stiffened legs quivered beneath us, and we leaned on our alpenstocks for support. Still we plodded on for two more weary hours, cutting our steps in the icy cliffs, or sinking to our thighs in the treacherous snow-beds. We could see that we were nearing the top of the great chasm, for the clouds, now entirely cleared away, left our view unobstructed. We could even descry the black Kurdish tents upon the northeast slope, and, far below, the Aras River, like a streak of silver, threading its way into the purple distance. The atmosphere about us grew colder, and we buttoned up our now too scanty garments. We must be nearing the top, we thought, and yet we were not certain, for a huge, precipitous cliff just in front of us, cut off the view.
"Slowly, slowly," feebly shouted the old gentleman, as we began the attack on its precipitous sides, now stopping to brush away the treacherous snow, or to cut some steps in the solid ice. We pushed and pulled one another almost to the top, and then, with one more desperate effort, we stood upon a vast and gradually sloping snow-bed. Down we plunged above our knees through the yielding surface, and staggered and fell with failing strength; then rose once more and plodded on, until at last we sank exhausted upon the top of Ararat.
For a moment only we lay gasping for breath; then a full realization of our situation dawned upon us, and fanned the few faint sparks of enthusiasm that remained in our exhausted bodies. We unfurled upon an alpenstock the small silk American flag that we had brought from home, and for the first time the "stars and stripes" was given to the breeze on the Mountain of the Ark. Four shots fired from our revolvers in commemoration of Independence Day broke the stillness of the gorges. Far above the clouds, which were rolling below us over three of the most absolute monarchies in the world, was celebrated in our simple way a great event of republicanism.
Mount Ararat, it will be observed from the accompanying sketch, has two tops, a few hundred yards apart, sloping, on the eastern and western extremities, into rather prominent abutments, and separated by a snow valley, or depression, from 50 to 100 feet in depth. The eastern top, on which we were standing, was quite extensive, and 30 to 40 feet lower than its western neighbor. Both tops are hummocks on the huge dome of Ararat, like the humps on the back of a camel, on neither one of which is there a vestige of anything but snow.
There remained just as little trace of the crosses left by Parrot and Chodzko, as of the ark itself. We remembered the pictures we had seen in our nursery-books, which represented this mountain-top covered with green grass, and Noah stepping out of the ark, in the bright, warm sunshine, before the receding waves; and now we looked around and saw this very spot covered with perpetual snow. Nor did we see any evidence whatever of a former existing crater, except perhaps the snow-filled depression we have just mentioned. There was nothing about this perpetual snow-field, and the freezing atmosphere that was chilling us to the bone, to remind us that we were on the top of an extinct volcano that once trembled with the convulsions of subterranean heat.
The view from this towering height was immeasurably extensive, and almost too grand. All detail was lost—all color, all outline; even the surrounding mountains seemed to be but excrescent ridges of the plain. Then, too, we could catch only occasional glimpses, as the clouds shifted to and fro. At one time they opened up beneath us, and revealed the Aras valley with its glittering ribbon of silver at an abysmal depth below. Now and then we could descry the black volcanic peaks of Ali Ghez forty miles away to the northwest, and on the southwest the low mountains that obscured the town of Bayazid. Of the Caucasus, the mountains about Erzerum on the west, and Lake Van on the south, and even of the Caspian Sea, all of which are said to be in Ararat's horizon, we could see absolutely nothing.
Had it been a clear day we could have seen not only the rival peaks of the Caucasus, which for so many years formed the northern wall of the civilized world, but, far to the south, we might have descried the mountains of Quardu land, where Chaldean legend has placed the landing of the ark. We might have gazed, in philosophic mood, over the whole of the Aras valley, which for 3000 years or more has been the scene of so much misery and conflict. As monuments of two extreme events in this historic period, two spots might have attracted our attention—one right below us, the ruins of Artaxata, which, according to tradition, was built, as the story goes, after the plans of the roving conqueror Hannibal, and stormed by the Roman legions, a.d. 58; and farther away to the north, the modern fortress of Kars, which so recently reverberated with the thunders of the Turkish war.
We were suddenly aroused by the rumbling of thunder below us. A storm was rolling rapidly up the southeast slope of the mountain. The atmosphere seemed to be boiling over the heated plain below. Higher and higher came the clouds, rolling and seething among the grim crags along the chasm; and soon we were caught in its embrace. The thermometer dropped at once below freezing-point, and the dense mists, driven against us by the hurricane, formed icicles on our blistered faces, and froze the ink in our fountain-pens. Our summer clothing was wholly inadequate for such an unexpected experience; we were chilled to the bone. To have remained where we were would have been jeopardizing our health, if not our lives. Although we could scarcely see far enough ahead to follow back on the track by which we had ascended, yet we were obliged to attempt it at once, for the storm around us was increasing every moment; we could even feel the charges of electricity whenever we touched the iron points of our alpenstocks.
Carefully peering through the clouds, we managed to follow the trail we had made along the gradually sloping summit, to the head of the great chasm, which now appeared more terrible than ever. We here saw that it would be extremely perilous, if not actually impossible, to attempt a descent on the rocks along its treacherous edge in such a hurricane. The only alternative was to take the precipitous snow-covered slope. Planting our ice-hooks deep in the snow behind us, we started. At first the strong head wind, which on the top almost took us off our feet, somewhat checked our downward career, but it was not long before we attained a velocity that made our hair stand on end. It was a thrilling experience; we seemed to be sailing through the air itself, for the clouds obscured the slope even twenty feet below. Finally we emerged beneath them into the glare of the afternoon sunlight; but on we dashed for 6000 feet, leaning heavily on the trailing-stocks, which threw up an icy spray in our wake. We never once stopped until we reached the bottom of the dome, at our last night's camp among the rocks.
In less than an hour we had dashed down through a distance which it had taken us nine and a half hours to ascend. The camp was reached at 4 p.m., just twelve hours from the time we left it. Gathering up the remaining baggage, we hurried away to continue the descent. We must make desperate efforts to reach the Kurdish encampment by nightfall; for during the last twenty-seven hours we had had nothing to drink but half a pint of tea, and our thirst by this time became almost intolerable.
The large snow-bed down which we had been sliding now began to show signs of treachery. The snow, at this low altitude, had melted out from below, to supply the subterranean streams, leaving only a thin crust at the surface. It was not long before one of our party fell into one of these pitfalls up to his shoulders, and floundered about for some time before he could extricate himself from his unexpected snow-bath. Over the rocks and boulders the descent was much slower and more tedious. For two hours we were thus busily engaged, when all at once a shout rang out in the clear evening air. Looking up we saw, sure enough, our two zaptiehs and muleteer on the very spot where we had left them the evening before. Even the two donkeys were on hand to give us a welcoming bray. They had come up from the encampment early in the morning, and had been scanning the mountain all day long to get some clue to our whereabouts. They reported that they had seen us at one time during the morning, and had then lost sight of us among the clouds. This solicitude on their part was no doubt prompted by the fact that they were to be held by the mutessarif of Bayazid as personally responsible for our safe return, and perhaps, too, by the hope that they might thus retrieve the good graces they had lost the day before, and thereby increase the amount of the forthcoming bakshish. Nothing, now, was too heavy for the donkeys, and even the zaptiehs themselves condescended to relieve us of our alpenstocks.
That night we sat again around the Kurdish camp-fire, surrounded by the same group of curious faces. It was interesting and even amusing to watch the bewildered astonishment that overspread their countenances as we related our experiences along the slope, and then upon the very top, of Ak-Dagh. They listened throughout with profound attention, then looked at one another in silence, and gravely shook their heads. They could not believe it. It was impossible. Old Ararat stood above us grim and terrible beneath the twinkling stars. To them it was, as it always will be, the same mysterious, untrodden height—the palace of the jinn.
- Eight years before the first recorded ascent of Ararat by Dr. Parrot (1829), there appeared the following from "Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, and Ancient Babylonia," by Sir Robert Ker Porter, who, in his time, was an authority on southwestern Asia: "These inaccessible heights [of Mount Ararat] have never been trod by the foot of man since the days of Noah, if even then; for my idea is that the Ark rested in the space between the two heads (Great and Little Ararat), and not on the top of either. Various attempts have been made in different ages to ascend these tremendous mountain pyramids, but in vain. Their forms, snows, and glaciers are insurmountable obstacles: the distance being so great from the commencement of the icy region to the highest points, cold alone would be the destruction of any one who had the hardihood to persevere."