Anatolia. Asia Minor. Turkey. A land of myths and legends. Of kings and kingdoms long since forgotten. Rolled over by the slow progression of time. Alexander the Great almost lost his life at the Granicus River in 334 BC. Later, he would cement his destiny by cutting the fabled knot in the city of Gordium that was once home to Midas. Elsewhere in this land lived, at various times, the Lycians, Trojans, Hittites, and Ottomans. In present times, it is a country and people very much misunderstood by those who have never experienced it.
Naturally, I felt drawn to this place that was a crossroads of history, culture, and geography. The old cities and bustling markets fascinated me. However, being a country boy from northern Mississippi, I was especially interested in what I could find in the wilds. During my time in Turkey, I made many forays into nature. Among these were a backpacking trip along abandoned logging roads in brown bear country and a hunt for bezoar ibex in the Taurus Mountains near where the Apostle Paul made his pilgrimage. Those could be stories by themselves. This is a story of endurance and perseverance in the high desert peaks.
Eid al-Adha, known locally as Kurban Bayram, is an Islamic holiday that celebrates Abraham’s devotion to God by being willing to sacrifice his own son. In the end, God stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a lamb instead. The holiday is traditionally celebrated with sacrifices and feasting. This Eid would consist of myself and another American hiking a 45km loop through Aladağlar National Park. The Internet introduced me to a route used as a yearly adventure race. The official website even had the course as a downloadable KML for mapping. This would be the rough outline of our route. It would traverse high mountains, ridges, and valleys. “Great! Should be a decent trip of intermediate difficulty. And pictures of the park show plenty of water and trees. Weather looks clear with lows in the high 40s.” Or so I thought.
I met my friend, Danny, at his apartment and we were on the road. Four hours after leaving Ankara, we parked my bald-tired Renault Laguna at the trailhead near Demirkazik, a tiny village just outside the park boundaries. Walking was easy and we quickly covered about 5km that afternoon. We met few people on the dirt road and once ran into a herd of sheep being guarded by three very ornery kangal dogs. These incredible dogs are smart enough to work together independent of humans and big enough to fend off wolves and bears. Elsewhere, I met kangals that were missing their ears completely. I later learned that shepherds often do this themselves to prevent them from being ripped off by wolves. Due to our late start and a long hike to the next camp we decided to stop near the foot of the mountains and pitched our tent in a clearing used by a local glamping company.
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For those not familiar with the term, glamping is a combination of the words glamorous and camping. It incorporates all the luxuries of modern life but in a tent with usually very little effort on the part of the client. It looks like a modern version of the posh early 20th century East African safari camps but even more egregious.
We spent the afternoon watching semi-domesticated horses on the hillside and built a fire using what little wood was lying around. Dinner was ramen noodles, tuna, and some whiskey. Our tent was pitched next to what would turn out to be the last tree we would see until we got back to the car.
The first full day started early. Oatmeal with protein powder for breakfast and a quick stop at a spring to top off our water. Danny and I walked the road, took a wrong turn, backtracked, and eventually took a footpath that took us up a valley. For the rest of the day, we gained altitude. After leaving the dirt road, the trail turned into little more than a worn line over the boulders periodically interrupted by short stretches of packed dirt. All day we hiked up the valley. Some portions were almost flat while others were vertical cliffs. Around midday, we stopped for a lunch of dehydrated miso soup heated using my homemade grain alcohol stove technology. This little system I made in 10 minutes using a tuna can, hole punch, and foil for a windscreen would prove to be more valuable than the sum of its parts.
Finally, we came to what seemed to be the back of the valley. Though there was a flat place to pitch a tent, this area held no water and we were dangerously low after the day’s work. Ahead of us was a seemingly insurmountable face. At the top, however, the KML showed a checkpoint and possible water source. The decision was made and so we leaned in and kept slogging. This portion gave birth to what would be our motto of the trip. “We’re gonna run out of mountain before we run out of steam,” we kept telling each other. Onward and upward, stopping to take a few sips of our dwindling water and marvel at the sheer beauty of this rugged place. You cannot help but to be awed by country this big. That is what kept us going through the sun, heat, and burning legs. Finally, in the late afternoon, we reached the camp and its freshwater spring. According to my notes, we had covered 12.3km since Demirkazik. The elevation of which is right around one mile. Our camp, according to the topo was 10302ft. Here, we started feeling the effects of altitude. Standing up or moving too fast would result in light headedness, a pounding heartbeat, and shortness of breathe.
It was also about this time we also started realizing our mistakes. While water was so far conveniently plentiful, trees were non-existent. The pictures that we found on the Internet were of the more popular east side of the park while we were on the west. We also realized that we neglected to bring any sunscreen. Our skin was already showing signs of sunburn. However, a better time could not be had. The alcohol stove (something I guess is not the normal cooking equipment for such altitude) still worked wonderfully for boiling noodles at 10k feet. Water and whiskey rounded out our diet as we looked down at the monstrosity we had just surmounted and reflected on the jagged beauty that surrounded us. That night got below freezing, as evidenced by the frozen pool by the spring. So much for upper 40s at night.
The next day was back to the slog. Quickly after breaking camp, we came to a fork. Choosing the harder route, we started to climb the steep side of Emler Peak. After climbing this featureless gravel pile of a mountain for just a hair shy of one year, we peaked out at 12214 feet. The descent consisted of knife edge ridges and scrambling down old avalanche chutes. We hiked through the relatively flat area around Yedigöller (Seven Lakes) before bagging another peak (about 11000ft) and making camp in a grassy clearing by a stream. I couldn’t tell you for certain, but this spot felt the furthest from anything. The sky and stars, unpolluted by the light of man, were brilliant against a landscape that seemed not of this world. At this point, the sunburn that covered everything not protected by shorts and a Tshirt felt like it was on actual fire while simultaneously robbing me of vital heat. I was burning and freezing at the same time.
Our last day proved to be no less interesting. With still another 20km to go, we opted to push through rather than spend another night in the mountains. On this day we scrambled through a veritable hellscape I dubbed the Elephant’s Graveyard. A boulder field making up a confusing labyrinth that I feared we would either wander forever or find some terrible monster of legend that would devour us crispy skin and all. Shortly after the Graveyard, we hit what was probably the most dangerous point of the trip. A near vertical (and I do not use that word lightly) scree slope that would test our bodies and our nerves. Hand over hand we dug our fingers and toes into the mountain to gain enough purchase to lift our tired carcasses another foot. “We’re gonna run out of mountain before we run out of steam.” No sense of relief can match getting off that godforsaken hillside purgatory. Coming down into the next valley we met the most interesting character of the journey. A young teenage shepherd. He rode a donkey and watched over his flock with a couple kangals and an old side-by-side shotgun slung over his back with twine. By the looks of his camp, this looked to be a semi-nomadic operation or possibly long-term arrangements based out of a nearby village. Seeing as my Turkish was fairly passable, he was truly delighted to speak to foreigners in his own language. We traded our extra rations for directions and a little bit of water.
We parted ways down the valley. The hike out was pleasant along a stream bed. We passed one more camp with a spring to top off water bottles one last time. The mountains abruptly ended, and we were back on the plain only a few kilometers from our terminus. We reached the car just at dark and made the drive back to Ankara. We would spend the next couple days nursing sore feet and severe, blistering sunburns. We ran out of mountain before we ran out of steam.