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Turkey: Climbing Ararat, the ark way

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TIRED BUT HAPPY: Derek Fanning (left) and Nick Miller on the summit of the magnificent Mount Ararat in Turkey

TIRED BUT HAPPY: Derek Fanning (left) and Nick Miller on the summit of the magnificent Mount Ararat in Turkey

TIRED BUT HAPPY: Derek Fanning (left) and Nick Miller on the summit of the magnificent Mount Ararat in Turkey

Rising above the brown landscape of eastern Turkey, the great snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat is a magnificent sight. It has drawn admiration from passers-by for millennia, including Marco Polo, and has enticed adventurous and brave souls to explore its slopes. The first man to climb it was a German scientist in 1829, doing something that was considered wildly eccentric at the time -- mountaineering.

Because Ararat -- 5,137 metres/16,854 feet -- is a freestanding volcano it dominates the landscape for many miles around. It's a dormant stratovolcano, which means its structure is made up of layers of solidified pumice, tephra, lava, and volcanic ash.

When you walk Ararat's slopes you can see the mountains of Iran nearby, and Kurdish muleteers and shepherds chat away to each other and bid you good day as they zoom past.

They zoom up and down the slopes at speeds that I or most trekkers could never hope to match, in footwear that would have been madness for me to wear -- light plimsoll things which wouldn't have given any grip and would have put me on my bottom in the blink of an eye.

From the slopes of Ararat we looked down on the large town of Dogubeyazit, an ugly place, a place of unfinished buildings and poverty. The guidebooks had told us that western Turkey was affluent and like Europe in ambience, whereas eastern Turkey was impoverished, ignored and North African in atmosphere -- and now we could see that for ourselves.

Along with the poverty and ugliness of the town, the women of Dogubeyazit are a million miles away in their appearance from their counterparts in Istanbul. The women of Istanbul display their beauty unashamedly, as the women of Europe do, whereas in Dogubeyazit they hide themselves behind long coats and headscarves. Travelling from eastern Turkey to Istanbul felt like a release from restrictions, a stepping into a land of freedom, an embracing of liberality.

Dogubeyazit was also inundated with a heavy military presence; the reason was twofold: firstly, we were near Iran and secondly the Turks do not trust the Kurds (the extremist Kurdish organisation the PKK is still active).

On our first day of slogging up the steep, stony flanks of Ararat it was 40C and my shirt was sodden with sweat. As usual the other trekkers in my group were a good distance ahead; as usual I was on my own. I stopped regularly to sit on rocks and drink some of my four litres of water.

As I sat, a lone trekker, an American, approached and we chatted for a short while before ascending the trail once again.

Later that evening, in our base camp, our Turkish guide told me that the American I had met was a Christian Scientist who was looking for Noah's Ark. Apparently, there has been a steady stream of Christian evangelists to the mountain over the years, in search of Noah's Ark.

Camp two, high on the slopes of Mount Ararat, was not a pleasant place to be. The air was thin and the tents were pitched amid a field of boulders.

Negotiating these boulders was time-consuming and had to be done carefully as some were unstable, which could have led to injuries.

There were no toilets up there or any washing facilities.

This was serious mountaineering, where personal hygiene became an important matter, as contracting a stomach bug was all too easy. But the scenery was magnificent, with a gigantic chasm to our right, into which a glacier flowed and down which a very high waterfall descended.

Above this chasm rose the snow-capped summit of Ararat.

Nobody looks forward to summit days on high mountains such as Ararat because they are exhausting, unpleasant and dangerous.

However, it's wonderful when you do reach the summit, and when you have returned safely to camp there's a great feeling of achievement.

To climb Ararat we rose at 12.30am.

I had been lying in my tent for the previous six hours trying to get some sleep but without success. For breakfast all I could manage were a few sips of tea because I knew there was a danger of vomiting if I ate anything.

We set off at 1.30am, joining a queue of about 60 other climbers.

The ascent was a steep, exhausting walk over difficult, rocky, slippy terrain.

Far away beneath us we could see Dogubeyazit with its hundreds of lights looking like a fairy encampment in a fantasy story.

There were millions of stars in the heavens and dawn was four hours away. It wasn't that cold, perhaps 5C.

The climbing was steep, the scree stones were tiring to negotiate, we were at about 14 or 15,000 feet and it was 2.30am. I felt really unpleasant, stopped, leaned over and began to vomit, but it was a dry vomit as my stomach was empty.

This happened a few more times over the next 30 minutes and then, thankfully, it subsided.

At about five o'clock in the morning it became noticeably colder as the wind picked up, becoming quite strong.

I kept going but eventually after 15 or 20 minutes the cold became too penetrating to ignore and I had to stop, and put on more garments.

As I put on a fleece, a slender orange band on the horizon announced the coming of dawn, something you always looked forward to on a summit day.

After half an hour the light had increased to such a level that our headtorches were unnecessary.

A short while later we were putting on our crampons to make the final climb across the snow slopes and up the summit dome.

At 7am I reached the summit, which is the highest point in Turkey, and the highest point of what is a stunning, magnificent mountain.

Sadly, there was a haze on the horizon and one could only see across the brown landscape for about 20 miles.

Two hours later we were back safely in our tents, tired but happy.

DEREK travelled to Turkey with Explore (www.explore.co.uk) where he walked in Cappadocia and the Taurus mountains as well as climbing Ararat. This 15-day trip is priced at €1,390 (land only) which included accommodation, some meals, transport and guiding.

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