The driver couldn’t understand. Not just because of the language barrier, him being Turkish and all, but rather what the two guys were up to. He had just picked them up, complete with large backpacks and skis outside their hotel in Erzincan. Skis? Really? At this time of year? Everyone knows the lifts are closed. But they still wanted to go there, all the way to the base of the ski run, where snow had given way to mud. But hey, he was getting good money, what with them in a hurry to leave. And the language barrier probably helped. Did they know he had overcharged them? Did they know anything? After all, the snow had melted and the lifts where closed…
It was the end of March and we looked up at the brown slope in front of us. The snow had indeed receded several hundred meters higher, giving way to a muddy path. We had decided to approach the Munzur range from the Erzincan Kayak Merkezi ski resort in an effort to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Not certain how things would go if we made our way up the sparsely inhabited valleys on the north side, we wanted to use the ski slopes to access the interior plateau before investigating the principal canyons in the centre. We also hoped that we would be able to start skiing at a lower altitude and not have to carry the gear too far. The Munzur massif is situated just south of Erzincan (pronounced Erzinjan) and runs roughly east to west with steep mountains on the south side and multiple deep canyons running out onto the north. These feed the upper Euphrates, which starts its journey towards Syra, Iraq and the Fertile Crescent. The desire to ski these mountains had been born after seeing some online reports posted by a group of French skiers, and after investigating a bit, it looked like there was abundant snow and multiple interesting ski routes. Apart from the original account there was absolutely no other information to be found. This was of course to fuel our desire to discover the place.
We set off up the track, which zig-zagged between the steep poles holding up the ski lift. We were going to be completely autonomous for the duration of the trip. This meant we were carrying all our alpine gear as well as camping equipment and food for six to seven days. With all the weight we started off slowly, pacing ourselves. The weather was overcast and oppressive, with dark clouds crushing the mountains and making the bags even heavier. The forecast was not much better, with strong wind expected in the afternoon. We didn’t have to wait long. As we hiked higher we became more exposed to the southern gusts, which started to buffet us left and right. Soon we could not walk straight and it started to become a real struggle. We had not even climbed to 2000 metres before it was seriously annoying. Luckily we came across a large patch of snow and looking up we decided to put our skis on. This made it a bit better, as we no longer had them on our bag, catching every blast. It felt like I was reliving Iran and Damavand once again, where strong winds had made it impossible to keep going. At one point I dropped my sunglasses and they were whisked backwards immediately. After retrieving them I set of again, catching up with JB, who had stopped next to one of the ski lift buildings. JB stands for Jean-Baptiste. He’s a friend from Grenoble, with whom I’ve skied on multiple occasions over the years. He has a solid mountain judgement and is thorough with both the preparations and details concerning this type of trip. As I arrived he had made an executive decision “we are staying here”. Although we had only hiked for a couple of hours the weather was getting steadily worse, and at least we could find refuge in one of the small cabins before it got worse. I really wanted to keep going, and felt annoyed to stop so soon, but it was the right decision, The col at 3000 would indeed soon be impassable, if it wasn’t already the case. We got comfortable inside, ready to wait out the gale. As we had our first lunch we discovered that instead of cheese we had in fact just bought half a kilo of butter! Afterwards, we settled down to read and rest, listening to the wind. It got worse over the course of the evening, waking us up a couple of times during the night as the roof shook and trembled with the onslaught.
Next day, after an unsuccessful sortie we were soon back in the cabin. The forecast had not given any improvement for our second day but we had hoped it might change. We had gone up to around 2700 but had decided to turn back. A second day of reading gave way to an early night.
After being cooped up for two days we were eager to be going. SO it wasn’t quite six o’clock on our third day, but we were already on our skis, already to start the long day. The last clouds dissipated and turned a pinkish glow as the sun made its appearance. Hidden from its warmth by the ridge in front, we steadily climbed up to the col that would give us access to the central plateau. After hypothesizing about the difficulty of the pass, it turned out to be a huge opening that gave out onto an impressive view. Finally standing in the sun, we looked across the valley in front of us. A thin layer of fresh snow hid some of the older discoloured base, giving a white glow to the scene. As this thin layer was to melt over the course of the day, the browner snow was to come through, making zebra-like patterns on the ridges. As the terrain looked irregular we studied our next section of the route before descending. Due to the loss of two days, we had abandoned our first objective, which was to climb Akbaba Tepesi, the highest peak of the range. It is right at the eastern tip, and climbing it would have made us deviate from the straight itinerary we were hoping to take, across the plateau. We hoped this would make up for our delay, and without further ado stored our skins and sped downhill.
We went as far as possible before we needed to stop and go back into climbing mode. Starting to climb again, looking for the most efficient path, we had not skinned far before we came across the first tracks. Large, round shaped prints traversed across the slope. They were about 20 cm across and quite deep. A broken cornice showed where the culprit had jumped down from the overlying slope. We had expected to see bear footprints in the valleys, but it was quite a shock to realise that they came all the way up to 3000m. Having just come out of hibernation they would be looking for food, but was there any up here? Apart from us of course! From then on we would keep a good lookout at all times, checking over our shoulder, just in case. Over the course of the next few days we would cross tens of tracks, criss-crossing the mountains. The fact that we didn’t see any actual bears probably indicates that they didn’t want to be seen and were making themselves scarce. Which was good news for us. Leaving the tracks behind we continued to navigate the irregular terrain, up and down the many small ridges and mounds. Most head down into the northern canyons. As we were crossing the plateau from east to west it meant we had to go over each one. We had numbered the principal canyons, starting with number one in the east, increasing towards the west. By midday we had passed the first entrance. The afternoon was spent in the same way, trying to advance as fast as possible. On the downhill we would try and lose as little height as possible, hugging the curvature of the mountain, like the lines on a map. We had been going solid for over nine hours when we decided to find somewhere to camp. Digging into one of the deep snowdrifts we were protected from the wind. A small kitchen was also prepared for melting water. As we started this lengthy task, the sun started to sink behind the horizon. It lit up the peaks to our east, the snow plastered to almost vertical faces. We had almost finished crossing the plateau and were deep in Munzur.
Next morning no bears had called, and our next objective was to find a path between the plateau and the head of canyon number three. To do so a small pass looked promising, but we couldn’t be certain it would be accessible. To get there we kept going west, past a small mine, a few pieces of equipment poking out of the snow. This was the only sign of human activity we were to see during the course of our traverse. The small col is just above a lake, still completely snowed over. Although steep it was not technical and we soon had a good view of the other side. Instead of cutting across at constant height, as we had planned, it seemed easier to ski down and then go up the other side. After the previous day’s monotonous profile, it was refreshing to enjoy a long and aesthetic descent on hard snow that had only started to soften up.
After the previous day’s monotonous profile, it was refreshing to enjoy a long and aesthetic descent on hard snow that had only started to soften up.
From the bottom, where a small canyon opened up to the south, we found a winding valley that took us up to the centre of the massif with no problems. JB was struggling as we made it to top, not feeling very well. Surrounded by several bear tracks we looked down into canyon three, the huge rock faces either side enclosing the valley on either side. It was magnificent and fulfilled our hopes concerning these strange mountains. Although we had hoped to go further the decision was taken to set up camp, and we were soon occupied preparing supper and melting more water. That night JB was quite ill, and I started to look for an alternative route to get out depending on his condition.
The next day things were not much better and he had vomited through the night. With bad weather forecasted for the Thursday (it was Tuesday) as well as JB not feeling well, we decided to make a break for it and follow the itinerary I’d sketched out in the evening. If it didn’t work out we would be forced to backtrack and exit via one of the canyons we had passed the previous day. To start we descended into canyon three, from where a branch would allow us to climb over into canyon number two and from there access a small road. We gained just over 600 m, the weather overcast and uninviting. We were relieved to find that from the ridge the descent looked fine, dropping into a tight canyon. The weather was also a bit better further north, and as we skied down things started to improve. Entering the canyon, the magnificent scenery of the Munzur Dağları revealed itself. Closed in on either side by reddish faces we signed our tracks into the snow. The canyon took us further down, lower than we had expected. As the snow petered out onto a slope of scree and small trees we had come down more than 1400 m in one go. The temperature had risen sharply and as we took off our skis the sun was warm and inviting. I could have gone to sleep then and there. Unfortunately we were still not out of the mountains and needed to keep going, so we loaded skis and boots onto the bags. It took us just under two hours to hike down along the small path until we came out just above a little hamlet. Three or four houses, beehives and a small field. Some sheep sat out in the sun while a man hauled hay onto a wheelbarrow. Crossing a rickety bridge two shepherds came out to meet us, pointing us down the valley.
We continued north, hoping someone at the next village would be able to give us a lift. As we passed the first house, a huge dog looked at us and barked lazily. Hoping he wouldn’t come over we kept going. Suddenly another hound ran across from the other side. He was wide awake, was as tall as my chest and barked furiously It was one of the famous Turkish Kangals. The collar was covered in two inch spikes that stated his business. We later found out that as well as bears, wolves also roam at night, looking for easy mutton. Fortunately we walked past with without it deciding to eat us. We had not gone far before a pick-up rolled around the bend. We quickly made signs to slow him down, and made the driver understand we wanted a lift. Throwing our gear into the back we were soon bouncing down the pot-holed road. Communication proved difficult and our destination was imprecise. All we could make out was that we were the subject of several phone calls, as our driver excitedly explained he had picked up a couple of tourists. After several unsuccessful attempts to understand where we were going or making our wish to be dropped at the station understood, we finally stopped. Looking up all was suddenly clear. We had been delivered to the provincial army and military police barracks. Our driver smiled and after unloading our bags we were gesticulated towards the group of soldiers who had come outside. They invited us inside, past the helmeted guard with his machine gun, to sit down at a small table in the courtyard. Our passports were swiftly demanded and whisked away. We were kindly asked to sit and served some tea. We soon found ourselves answering questions about or trip, including if we had seen anything or anyone suspicious.
The questions were translated by a smiling soldier who was the only one who could speak English. The interrogation was led by a stern man in plainclothes, who had the look of an intelligence officer
The questions were translated by a smiling soldier who was the only person who could speak English. The interrogation was led by a stern man in plainclothes, who had the look of an intelligence officer. He asked to go through our pictures and spent some time on the phone giving our details to be checked. We were also told to empty our bags and then served some more tea. Nothing seemed amiss, but were made to wait. People came and went from the table, the only constant presence being our translator, who explained he had learned English travelling in Rumania. As the hours dragged by, the soldiers called over their dogs, both Kangals and Rottweiler’s. The dogs were well behaved and kept us occupied for a while. By this point we had been there for several hours. Suspecting I had caught the same stomach bug as JB I was terrified I would start to vomit. Just as soon as it seemed we would be able to leave, it was announced that the province general was coming to visit and he would like to meet us. This meant waiting some more while he inspected the barracks and met with the other officers. We continued to chat with the soldiers, as they asked questions of our travels. As it got late we were informed it was supper time, and the troops carried our gear indoor. We were invited to eat with them, and were soon holding a steel tray, standing in line as canteen sized pots were carried in. Prayers were recited by all and we were served with several scoops and sat down. The food turned out to be really good, consisting of aubergines with meat, rice with herbs and crushed wheat, and well as some sweet dough for desert. As we finished our meal everyone stood to attention: the general was there. He came over and indicated he would like to speak with us. We promptly headed back outside and served hot drinks (Nescafé for us this time!). The general explained the region was dangerous and that they had never heard of anyone coming across the mountains on skis. There were even drones for surveillance. It was clear the mountains are out of bounds… He went on to thank us for waiting and was very polite. As a van rolled up some more soldiers jumped out and handed him a bag. It was a present for us: Turkish Delights and rock salt, from Kemah, the village up the valley. An honour indeed! With that we were finally free to go, and were helped to load everything into a taxi. After several pictures we waved goodbye and started the drive towards Erzincan.
We had not gone far before we had to slow down for a large checkpoint. Huge cement walls decorated with sandbags cut off the road, and a machine barrel looked down at us from the pillbox. The taxi driver rolled down his window to answer the guard’s questions, who was looking at us. Even though we couldn’t understand his response was quite clear:
“I don’t know who these two smelly foreigners are, but they just shook hands with the general and half the military up at the base, so I think they are ok! I you don’t believe me just call them!
The soldier spoke into his radio and a few seconds later was waving us through. Flying along the road at high speed, we could just make the mass of the Munzur range to our left, the white peaks hidden in the darkness…
The mountains in the Erzincan region have massive potential. Not just the Munzur range, for there are many summits further north and east, all the way to Erzurum. Because they are not too high they are completely snowless in the summer months, they are therefore accessible to sheep herders or for mining activities. This means that they are not completely unexplored, although there are probably not many people that go there, especially with the supposed risk of terrorist activity. In winter it is a completely different story: on the upper parts there was more than two metres of snow, making any travelling impossible without the right gear. Even though, like many places, skiing has developed in Turkey over the last few years, it still has a long way to go. There may be some small ski slopes, but there is no real infrastructure and the towns are not well prepared for tourism. Even Erzurum, which is reputed for being host to the junior Olympics, does not come across as a particularly sport driven community. Concerning the ski touring culture, even though we did meet a great guy from Ankara who was interested, there doesn’t seem to be much of a community. This means there are probably many itineraries that have still not been skied and infinite possibilities for new routes. Unfortunately with the current political instability, and as we experienced ourselves, autonomous travel is quite complicated and maybe impossible due to the authorities. With the unpredictable situation in middle-east and Turkey’s on-going politics it will maybe be some time before the access to these beautiful mountains becomes possible.