Gullies, scree-choked and horrible to tackle in summer, in winter are choked with snow which, on good days, is a hard-packed delight to ascend. Then there’s the ultimate prize -- the satisfaction of reaching a wind-scoured summit with a companion or two and enjoying with them the incredible views down into blue-tinged valleys and across to yet more snow and ice-shrouded peaks.
Clambering up winter peaks is not for everyone, of course. If it were it would be as popular as, say, downhill skiing or snowboarding. The cold, discomfort, route-finding problems, specialist equipment required (e.g., ice-axe and crampons) and sheer hard work are enough to put off many -- not to mention the potential risks. And with Turkey enduring its harshest winter for years, many might view it as perverse to deliberately seek out its very coldest places. But the rewards are immense, as I hope the reader will appreciate after reading these few vignettes of winter days in the Taurus.
Beaten back by the Bronze Mountain (Dec. 23, 2011)
With a thick mist enveloping the ridges and snow-filled gullies, cutting visibility to just a few meters, it wasn’t the most auspicious of days to make a first mountain ascent of the winter. Just which line of approach would bring us into the broad gully cleaving the peak’s north face and leading, eventually, to the 2,649-meter summit of Tunç Dağı (Bronze Mountain)? Fortunately, the mist lifted briefly, an interlude that allowed my stepson, James, to spot the route. We plodded relentlessly upward, our progress slowed by the strength-sapping soft snow, and soon we were once more wrapped in a blanket of mist. As the angle of the slope steepened I knew that we were nearing the top. Another half hour or so and we’d be there. Then the snow, hardened by the winds that buffeted the upper slopes, glazed beneath our feet.
I hadn’t expected hard ice in the relatively mild conditions, but now we were faced with a slippery problem. We only had two ice-axes and two pairs of crampons (spiky metal plates climbers strap to the soles of their boots to grip hard snow and ice) between three of us. Equipped with both ice-axe and crampons, I led the way, with James, wearing crampons only, linked to me by a length of climbing rope. New Zealander Dave followed in our steps, armed only with an ice-axe. We made some upward progress, but Dave was finding it impossible to keep his footing on the ice without crampons. Even my dog, Fıstık, who normally romps up the steepest slopes, was skittering alarmingly on the glass-like surface. “You guys carry on, I have to head down,” called Dave, having just slipped and been forced to arrest the ensuing slide with his ice-axe. In these wintry conditions splitting up would have been foolhardy. James and I turned around and, rejoining Dave, we carefully picked our way down to safety. The summit could wait for another day.
Snow resting on cedars (Jan. 12, 2012)
Shafts of bright light pierced the gloom of the forest, illuminating the mist of our breath as we zigzagged stertorously up towards the summit. The boughs of all the trees, first black and red pine, then on the higher slopes, cedar, groaned under the weight of a thick mantle of snow, so heavy in places the normally horizontal branches were forced down at angles of 45 degrees. On this bitingly cold, clear morning the forest was hauntingly beautiful. The sunlight, so welcome after three wet and dismal days, danced with coruscating brilliance on the crystalline quilt of snow, whilst above, the patchwork of sky visible through rents in the pine canopy was of a blue so intense anyone not familiar with a high-pressure Mediterranean winter’s day would think it was artificial. After a three-hour ascent we emerged onto the tree-free summit of 1,834-meter Sırfkatran (Lone Pine Peak), wading thigh-deep through powder snow. My companions, Cemalettin and Üzün (Tall) Ahmet, scraped themselves a sheltered hollow from the snow, and I huddled down with them to enjoy coffee and fabulous views down across snow-crusted forest to our home city and the Mediterranean lapping at its feet.
Positively polar: Kestel Dağı (Jan. 18, 2012)
Around 6 a.m., with the first call to prayer of the day ringing in our ears, we headed out of the still-dark town in a battered pickup. Driving past Konyaaltı meteorological station I was shocked to see the digital display board outside flashing a temperature of 2 degrees Celsius. If the temperature was this low in Antalya, what was it going to be like at the 2,328-meter summit of Kestel Dağı? Even getting to the base of the climb, the hard-scrabble village of Kapaklı, a couple of hours’ drive north of Antalya, proved tricky, with the ice skimming the village road causing the truck’s wheels to spin uselessly.
Eventually, however, we managed to park by the village mosque and, ears burning from the intense cold, set off through a snow-wrapped pine forest of picture post card beauty. Deep powder slowed our progress, but after several days of severe weather brought to Anatolia by the Poyraz, the cutting wind emanating from distant Russia, the day was dawning gorgeously bright, still and clear. Üzün Ahmet, who was introducing me to the mountain for the first time, took obvious delight in my enthusiasm for the expedition, saying in Turkish, “If you are happy, then I am happy.” Once on the upper slopes the going was easier in places, with firm snow underfoot. Best of all, though, were the trees, mainly juniper, so comprehensively rimed with curiously fluted ice-formations that not a centimeter of green was visible. When, after four hours and over a thousand meters of ascent, we finally emerged onto the summit plateau we could have been on one of the poles, as there was nothing in view but gleaming white snow fields beneath an impossibly vivid blue sky.
Hard times on Alabelen (Jan. 24, 2012)
I’d hoped to have a second crack at Tunç, but the road to the base of the climb was so snowed up the truck wouldn’t make it. Instead we opted to try the hopefully less-demanding north face of the Bronze Mountain’s little sister, Alabelen (2,422 meters). The prospects, initially at least, were hopeful, with our crampons gripping gratefully to a crisp crust of snow that easily bore our weight. The weather was changing, however, and with temperatures rising we were soon wading knee deep through glutinous snow the texture of porridge. It was an uphill battle just to get to the base of the peak proper, where we hoped the sheerer slopes would have sloughed off the soft and sticky snow. No such luck, and the steep gully we ascended, a few patches of firm snow apart, fought us to the last.
When finally we reached the summit ridge we were dismayed to find, on the south side, a great raft of grey-white cloud boiling up to meet us. Following the ridge-top for a while I turned to Dave and said, “I reckon we’ve still got half an hour more to the summit.” We looked at the rapidly rising cloud, glanced at our watches (it’d taken over four hours to reach this point) and decided to get down as quickly as possible. It was the right decision, as within minutes we were enveloped in a disorientating white clag. It was hard to tell where the snow ended and the sky began, as Dave discovered when he stepped onto what he thought was snow but was in fact mist, and fell off the snowy lip of the ridge. He dropped a couple of meters and landed on his back. Now we were thankful for the soft snow we’d cursed all the way up -- had it been firm he may have slid down the gully into which he’d tumbled, which dropped away, unseen in the mist, for several hundred meters down the mountain.
Every day in the mountains is a good day
Despite the rigors of the day ascending Alabelen, on reaching the truck safe and sound Dave declared with typical New Zealand optimism, “Every day in the mountains is a good day.” “Yes,” I seconded, with a rather more cynical Yorkshire appraisal “even when it’s a bad one.” But he was right. Particularly when talking about Turkey. On our return to the village of Kapaklı after the seven-hour adventure on Kestel Dağı an old timer emerged from his house to greet us. Despite the fact he was 83 years old and living on his own (his wife was hospitalized with Alzheimer’s), Mustafa insisted on making us a cup of coffee, which we enjoyed sitting on the outside steps of his humble village abode, listening to yarns about his past and watching the sun set over the wintry fields below us. The spontaneous hospitality of rural Turks never ceases to amaze me and makes exploring the country’s beautiful mountain ranges such a pleasure -- especially in winter.