Why There Are No Toilets on Mount Ararat

By Dr. Amy L. Beam:

A blood-curdling, staccato scream woke me from alpha state at 8:30 in the morning at camp 2.  It came echoing down the mountain from where the last group of climbers was descending from their sunrise summit.  Most had already returned and were resting in their tents.   The sun was now high.  It was going to be a hot July day.  The snowline was melting back at the top border of the rock field immediately above our camp.

Mount Ararat (Agri Dagi) snowline 3200m in March

Mount Ararat (Agri Dagi) snowline 3200m in March ( © Amy Beam)

I could not decipher the word, repeated like an automatic rifle, but there was no mistaking the life or death urgency it conveyed, like an air raid siren . . . either a warning or a cry for help.  Within five seconds everyone had poured out of their tents, zipping their pants up, stumbling into their shoes.   What were they shouting?  Where was it coming from?  Was someone injured?

Other voices from above took up the alarm.  The call cresendoed in volume as it was relayed down the mountainside like an African chorus.  Rock!  Rock!  Rock!  All eyes turned upward, scanning the vast mountain for the rock.  Where was it heading?  Which way should we flee?

Then everyone began pointing.  The Iranian filmmaker shouldered his camera and shouted YES!

Far above, I spotted it tumbling down along the edge of the stream created from the melting ice cap.  It bounced along, gaining momentum and height.  With each bounce, the two-foot boulder rebounded higher until it was flying five feet high like one of those computer-simulated games where meteors are raining down on dinosaurs.   It smashed right where I had brushed my teeth at the stream last night in the dark.  Passing us like one of those Japanese high-speed, levitating bullet trains, it catapulted over the side of the cliff and disappeared into the canyon.  We could hear a mini-rock slide that it triggered.

My heart was palpitating.  I was thinking the inevitable “what if” thoughts of my mortality.   I drew in three deep breaths to quiet my internal trembling.  The filmmaker had captured that once-in-a-lifetime moment on video for his documentary.  Except the flaw with his thinking is this:  falling rocks are not an occasional occurrence on Mount Ararat.  They are a daily occurrence.  Most of them come from the top rim of Red Canyon and cascade over it into the canyon like a stone waterfall, collecting more rocks along the way and raising a cloud of debris.

Rock pile above camp 2 on way to summit  (© Amy Beam)

Rock pile above camp 2 on way to summit (© Amy Beam)

Mount Ararat camp 2, 4200m (© Amy Beam)

Mount Ararat camp 2, 4200m (© Amy Beam)

As you finish your climb from camp one to camp two, the trail skirts the edge of the canyon on your right.  You will often see a rock slide.  Less frequent, but also common, are rocks falling from the rock field above camp two over which one must climb to the summit in the dark.  These rocks normally follow the course of the stream at the far edge of camp two.

Climbers should heed the warning not to cross the stream to go to the toilet behind the six-foot-high wall of rocks.  Not only is it dangerous because of falling rocks, but also because behind that rock wall the snow has turned to a slick ice field on a steep incline.  You must do your squat one-handed while holding onto a rock or risk sliding into the canyon, twenty feet away, to certain death.

Mount Ararat in winter dominates  (© Amy Beam)

Mount Ararat in winter dominates (© Amy Beam)

In a normal winter, after the first snow in late September or October, the ice freezes the rocks into place for the winter.  In March and April the snow begins to melt.  By May, the ice is thawing and rock slides are frequent all over the mountain.  We do not suggest climbing Ararat in May.  The guides and porters do not want to risk their lives.   Yet, there is always some macho cowboy who thinks he is immortal and the laws of the universe will not apply to him.  There is always a local wannabe guide who is so desperate to feed his family, he will succumb to the danger and take you climbing in May, risking everyone’s life.

So where should one go to the toilet?  Face the canyon, turn around, and walk up to the rocks above the tents.  Wear your boots.  The only clearings at camp 2 are for the tents.  The entire mountainside is big rocks and boulders which is why it is called the rock pile.  It is slow- going and easy to twist your ankle.

Pick your rock.  Take your pocket pack of tissues.  In the beginning, I had arguments with my Kurdish partners over providing toilet paper, but finally understand the local culture.  One should never be caught without tissues.  As my partner explained, “It would be a shame for a woman to have to ask a man for toilet paper.  What stupid woman would not carry her own tissues?”

Only a foreign woman, I suppose.  He won this disagreement. It is easier for me to prepare my climbers for the realities of Ararat, than to change local customs. Buy your tissues from one of dozens of six-year-old boys selling them in town for one lira.  It is a nice form of charity which discourages their “money, money, money” begging.

A_squatter (2)In recent years, the guides have gotten together and built a primitive outhouse at camp 2.  They moved some boulders, laid some PVC pipe heading downhill for ten feet, and connected the pipe to a porcelain squatter.  Around this they erected a blue plastic privacy wall on three sides.  They set liter bottles of water next to the squatter hole for “flushing”.  The problem, of course, is that there is no nearby stream and no bathroom attendant.  Which climber feels it is his or her obligation to fill up the water bottles for the next person?  The stream is on the opposite side of camp where that boulder came flying down.

As the season advances, this outhouse becomes, well . . . gruesome, although the guides do make efforts to clean it up with water every day.  I took one look at, could not find a clear spot without feces to place my foot, and turned around to search out a different rock crevice at the outskirts of camp.

I prefer the outdoor wilderness method of doing it just like a bear in the woods.  There are no trees, but you can choose your rock.  Imagine if 3000 people take their dump in one spot without benefit of water.  Mount Ararat takes quite a bad rap on the internet for not having toilets.   One climber’s review on Trip Advisor states:

“High camp is a bit of a shock, it sits on a narrow ridge about 1000 metres below the summit. Space is even at more of a premium up here but by far the biggest and most disgusting problem with high camp is that in all senses of the meaning it is a “s**t hole”. As there are no toilets, there is human waste everywhere and you have to be very careful when walking about not to step in and drag it in to your tent. This is something everyone seemed to be very unhappy about and it needs to be sorted out before Ararat becomes even more popular and the situation gets worse.”

I do feel he over-dramatizes the part about dragging sh**t into your tent. It’s really not that bad. I can’t understand why everyone gets so worked up over human feces, but not a whisper of complaint about steaming horse dung piles and flies on the trails.  For every three climbers there is at least one horse on the mountain, climbing on the same trail.  There’s no one up there following the horses with pooper-scoopers like they have for walking dogs in Hyde Park.  The complaint about toilets does have a psychological aspect to it.

One man returned from the summit and pounced on me because there are no bathrooms.  He must not have read my warnings on the website.  He expected at least a hole in the ground (prior to the outhouse experiment).  He informed me that going behind a rock was the most humiliating experience he had ever had in his entire life. I thought to myself that he was very lucky to have had such a good life. His girlfriend (or maybe his daughter?) arrived with a hard-sided suitcase on wheels for the horse to carry.  I admire both of them for making the summit, but if a toilet is going to be a deal-breaker, you might think about climbing Kilimanjaro instead.

There was a government plan to build two buildings with 25 beds, toilets, and showers at both the lower and upper camp, in 2010, but when excavation was started, someone burned the backhoe and car on the first day, so work was halted.

Burnt out vehicle on Mount Ararat, 2011  (© Amy Beam)

Burnt out vehicle on Mount Ararat, 2011 (© Amy Beam)

Another burnt out vehicle  (© Amy Beam)

Another burnt out vehicle (© Amy Beam)

Now we come to the crux of the issue:  Why are there no toilets on Mount Ararat?  Now I will explain about the real s**t on Mount Ararat.

The conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been going on since 1984.  When young Kurds join the PKK, it is said they “go to the mountains”.   Generally, this refers to the headquarters in the Qandil Mountains between Iraq and Turkey.  However, Kurdish guerillas are also on Mount Ararat.  Numbers vary from 30 to 600 depending on the season and the political situation.  To Kurds they are freedom fighters.  Kurdish civilians are not in fear of Kurdish guerillas.   Every family knows someone who has either gone to the mountains, gone to prison, or gone to her or his grave.

Military actions against the PKK generally are scheduled to take place right before and right after the summer climbing season.  The Jandarma calls each guide before any military action to ensure that the last climber is off the mountain.  Neither government nor PKK wishes to interfere with tourists who bring the dollars that put food on Kurds’ tables.  Everyone loves and protects the tourists.  (This explains why those cowboy climbers should never sneak up alone on the mountain.  Either side might mistake them for the other side.)  The PKK stays above the starting point at 2250 meters; the army stays below the starting point.  The PKK policy is that no roads will be cut on Mount Ararat.  This prevents the army from driving jeeps and tanks onto the mountain in pursuit of the PKK.

Equipment jammer

Equipment jammer

Armoured vehicle

Armoured vehicle

Military parade Ankara, 2008

Military parade, Ankara 2008

Military equipment burns after a clash

Military equipment burns after a clash

The KCK summary of military and government contractor equipment destroyed, damaged, or captured in 2012 in Turkey by the PKK includes the following.  Because of reporting methods, some vehicles may have been counted twice. Data is not verified:

  • 11 reos
  • 13 tanks
  • 51 vehicles
  • 1 official vehicle
  • 5 military vehicles
  • 28 armored vehicles
  • 9 hedgehog vehicles
  • 28 scorpion vehicles
  • 7 buses
  • 36 train cars
  • 80 lorries
  • 7 graders
  • 3 excavators
  • 27 bulldozers
  • 5 rock breakers
  • 21 ladle
  • 77 work machines
  • 11 mountdeer type vehicles
  • 1 jammer signal mixer vehicle
  • 1 drone

Mount Ararat is solid rock. Not even a weed grows at the upper camp. In order to build a shelter and proper toilets on the mountain at camps one and two, it is necessary to take heavy equipment up and cut through the rock.  For this, a road must be cut.  In spite of annual requests to the PKK to allow the construction of proper toilets, so far this is not in their game plan.  The fragile peace has held since March 21, 2013, so no statistics of damaged equipment were reported for 2013.

Turkey has a population of over 20 million Kurds, representing 25% of Turkey’s population.  Since it was established in 1984, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish state, which denies the constitutional existence of Kurds as an ethnic minority and had outlawed the Kurdish language until 1991.  Only in the last year, after a 68-day Kurdish prison hunger strike, has the use of the Kurdish language been permitted in courts and government offices.  A large percentage of Turkey’s Kurdish population openly sympathizes with the PKK and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Kurds celebrate Newroz in Amed, March 21 2014 (photo ANF)

Kurds celebrate Newroz in Amed, March 21 2014 (photo ANF)

The Kurdish peace and democracy movement is demanding constitutional recognition of Kurds as an ethnic minority, lifting of the ban on Kurdish-language education in public schools, and changing the anti-terrorism laws under which thousands of activists, journalists, lawyers, children who throw stones at police tanks, elected officials and ordinary citizens are held as political prisoners accused of “associating with a terrorist organization” or “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

For the second year in a row, a census conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that in 2013, Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country.

On March 15, Turkey’s President Gul told the Danish newspaper Politiken “I’m brave enough to admit past mistakes.”  Gul predicts that if the state gives the Kurds “democratic rights,” there will be no reason for guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to “fight anymore”.

“The Kurdish question is about the democratic level. If you raise it, then the problems will fix themselves,” he told Politiken.

It is too bad it has taken 91 years for a Turkish President to arrive at such a universal truth.  Let us hope the Turkish government will take bold steps with great speed toward achieving Kurdish human rights so peace can last and full democracy can be achieved for all citizens of all ethnic groups in Turkey.

Then, maybe one day there will be toilets on Mount Ararat.

Climbers on the summit of Mounr Ararat  (© Amy Beam)

Climbers on the summit of Mount Ararat  (© Amy Beam)

Dr. Amy L. Beam specialized in Information Technology before discovering the beauty of eastern Turkey and hospitality of Kurdish people.  Since 2007, Beam has been organizing tours for groups and individuals to climb Mount Ararat (Agri Dagi), the highest mountain in Turkey at 5137 meters.  Mount Ararat is open and safe to climb in 2014.  She may be contacted at Mount Ararat Trek, amybeam@yahoo.com.

 Article © Amy Beam, 2014

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