In Turkey, Ice Climbing Finds a Foothold

Brian McKanna on the push to turn northeastern Turkey into an ice sports capital: "Village women stare from balconies that double as haylofts. By their faces, I figure they've never seen a foreigner, much less ice axes and neon North Face jackets."

By / March 2015

Our first day at Turkey’s International Ice Climbing Festival began at 6:30 under a milky dawn. Climbers filed into a small, sky-blue wedding reception hall in the town of Uzundere. Some came from tents along the Çoruh River, others from the newly-built and yet unfinished boarding house downstream, for a simple breakfast of loaf bread, jam, bitter cheese, and hot tea. The wedding hall, just across from an outdoor wrestling ring, was apparently the only venue in town large enough to host all 172 climbers representing 18 countries.

The land of Turkey, and especially the northeastern province of Erzurum, doesn’t land on the bucket list of many mountain climbers. For decades mountaineers have been forced to forgo nearby Mt. Ararat for security reasons. And while quality routes along the Mediterranean like Olympos and Geyikbayırı attract a growing number of sport climbers, the country has lacked the organization and infrastructure fitting a true destination. But that may be changing.

Only one night previous, we crammed into a different reception hall, Ottoman-inspired, in the heart of the city of Erzurum. Inside was an awkward conglomeration of globe-trekking alpinists in colorful gear alongside local white-collared politicians. Across the table from me, the French turned noses at the offering of yogurt soup. Russians didn’t think twice. Meanwhile, statesmen took turns with the microphone, promising to transform this region into a hub for climbing that will charm Europe, Asia, and the world.

Behind all the hobnobbing were two men, Çetin Bayram and Tunç Fındık. Çetin put legs on the event with the financial backing of local authorities. Tunç brought the expertise and many of his international friends. As the forerunner of Turkey’s next generation of climbers, he has traveled the world, summiting ten of the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peeks himself. But he’s simultaneously fixing his energies on developing routes in his homeland. “Eastern Turkey,” he says, “is a mountain heaven.”

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The nearby Kaçkar Mountains offer, in the words of Tunç, unlimited possibilities. There’s alpine climbing, traditional mountaineering, big wall climbing, tour skiing. Add to that the routes he’s setting around Uzundere for ice climbing, dry-tooling, and rock climbing. “These may not be the greatest routes in the world,” he admits, “but they provide endless opportunities.” And with the growing stability in the country, Mt. Ararat is beckoning once again.

Following breakfast, Tunç led our troupe of internationals aboard a bus headed for the festival’s initial day of climbing. Our meandering 40-minute drive ended beside a frosty cow trough in the mile-high village of Uzunkavak (Tall Poplar). We disembarked, collecting equipment and more complimentary loaves of football-sized Turkish bread. Tunç, with anxiety of trying to please a crowd creasing his brow, rallied everyone and excitedly took off down a snowy alley littered with goat droppings.

Village women, cloaked in scarves, stared inquisitively from balconies that double as haylofts. Bricks of cow dung, dried for use as winter fuel, insulate their rickety shacks of sheet metal and unplaned wood. By the looks on the villagers’ faces I would guess they had never seen a foreigner, much less ice axes or neon North Face jackets.

We followed Tunç out of the cluster of houses, across a plank bridge covered in ice and up a hill through feathery snow on what must have been a shepherd’s path. High above a gurgling stream, sweating climbers stopped during the steady ascent to shed gear. The sun intensified. We worried the weather was too warm.

Half an hour later, now at 2,000 meters, the ice fall came into view as our path slipped behind the shade of the surrounding ridge. The air cooled. Approaching the base of the 85m ice fall, I could see climbers strapping harnesses and readying rope around a black pool. The metal music of their tools competed with the sound of water rushing behind the wall and under our feet.

Uzunkavak’s twin falls, named Lucifer and Sarı Gelin (Yellow Bride, after a Turkish folk melody), are just one of many routes set by Tunç, Çetin, and their team for this event. “Back in 2011,” Tunç recalled, “Çetin first invited me out here. At the time, we only knew of one ice fall in this whole area.” Now, they have over two dozen in roughly a 30 km radius surrounding Uzundere. And Tunç is working on a guidebook to more than 100 rock routes, plus the 25 ice routes in the area, ranging from 20 to 300 meters, with grades from WI2-3 (suitable for novice climbers) to WI6+ (suitable for pros).

The festival aimed to show off this ice. It aimed to expose Turkey’s growing youth mountaineering movement to the sport and to more experienced international climbers. Another target was to introduce Northeastern Turkey to the greater climbing world. The goal is to attract comptetitions, possibly even the Ice Climbing World Cup, to Erzurum.

“You just need a start,” Israfil Ashurli told me, “And Erzurum is the best location.” Ashurli is the President of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation’s (UIAA) Youth Commission and a native Azerbaijani. With quality facilities, a history of international sport competition, and a centralized location linking Europe and Asia, he sees no reason why Erzurum should not host competitions in the near future.

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Carlos Teixeira also attended the festival from Portugal. As former chair of the UIAA’s Ice Commission and current competition judge, he was invited to make an assessment of Erzurum’s facilities. Specifically, he came to see the 30m climbing wall that Çetin helped contstruct on the campus of Erzurum’s Atatürk University. “I must say that it’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen,” Teixeira said.

While shards of Lucifer’s ice showered down around us, he told me that he would definitely return to Bern, Switzerland, with the recommendation to promote competitions in Erzurum. As he sees it, Turkey can fill a void. Right now a majority of World Cup competitions are held in Europe. Also in Bozeman, Montana, and East Asia. But Turkey can be a connection, a hinge, between west and east. And development of the sport in the Caucus and Balkan regions will only bolster the commission’s argument for making ice climbing an Olympic sport.

Shortly after we arrived at the falls, the French team took the lead up Sarı Gelin. Romanian, Russian, and Chinese climbers followed. Below, the curious from Uzunkavak began to congregate, mouths agape. Teixeira says these falls are likely grade 4, though they could be considered a 5 because of the warm conditions and melting ice. Regardless of the difficulty, the village men, most in polished dress shoes, alternated between boasting about how they could make the climb no problem and scoffing at the idea of making an attempt at all.

In the meantime, they provided matchless Turkish hospitality to their international guests. Men and boys trudged through the show to the banks of a stream, hauling fire wood and a large, copper kettle for tea. Glasses, spoons, sugar, local blue cheese, and more bread were supplied. Shortly the simple meal, and ensuing conversation between cultures, began.

Maya Sherpa, a Nepalese alpinist, was struck by the overwhelming expression of kindness and friendship. “Look at them,” she commented. “They came all the way out here to make us hot chai, with no gloves, no hats.” Perhaps what makes Turkey a desirable climbing destination is just this. Climbers, Tunç explained, want to see and experience different countries. Diversity, not just in rock and ice, can be its own attraction.

As the first day ended and the sky darkened above us, we made our way back through mounds of snow to the village center. Thirsty cows had to clear the road before we could leave. As we passed a small, one-room schoolhouse, a teacher and some other men we had met that day around the ice fall stepped outside. They beckoned us in to thaw out around a wood-burning stove. It was a warm way to end a cold day. It was yet another plug for the ice falls of Uzundere.

How to Get There: Turkish Airlines and Pegasus offer daily flights to Erzurum from Istanbul with connections around the globe. From Erzurum airport, rental cars are available. Daily buses also run to the town of Uzundere, approximately one hour from the city center.

Where to Stay: Various small hotels and pansions are found in Uzundere. The newest installment along the river and next to the Erzurum highway will be an excellent option once finished this summer. Within Erzurum, accommodations range from 1- to 4-star hotels. The excellent Xanadu Hotel hosted a banquet for the festival’s closing evening.

What to Eat: Erzurum is known for its succulent cağ kebab of lamb roasted over an open fire on a horizontal spit. You can also find the region’s kebab specialty in Uzundere. But try the local favorite of kuru fasulye, a white bean stew with vegetables and chunks of tender beef or lamb.

While You’re There: In winter, find time to enjoy skiing on Erzurum’s Palandöken Mountain. In summer, take advantage of rafting the Çoruh or the equally challenging Fırtına River. EpikEncounter is a new tour company in Erzurum which also organizes cycling tours to the Black Sea, cultural tours of ancient Georgian churches, and Ararat expeditions.


Brian McKanna is a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler.