Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Ascent of Ararat
By James Bryce (1838–1922)
From ‘Trans-Caucasia and Ararat’

ABOUT 1 A.M. we got off, thirteen in all, and made straight across the grassy hollows for the ridges which trend up towards the great cone, running parallel in a west-northwesterly direction, and inclosing between them several long narrow depressions, hardly deep enough to be called valleys. The Kurds led the way, and at first we made pretty good progress. The Cossacks seemed fair walkers, though less stalwart than the Kurds; the pace generally was better than that with which Swiss guides start. However, we were soon cruelly undeceived. In twenty-five minutes there came a steep bit, and at the top of it they flung themselves down on the grass to rest. So did we all. Less than half a mile farther, down they dropped again, and this time we were obliged to give the signal for resuming the march. In another quarter of an hour they were down once more, and so it continued for the rest of the way. Every ten minutes’ walking—it was seldom steep enough to be called actual climbing—was followed by seven or eight minutes of sitting still, smoking and chattering. How they did chatter! It was to no purpose that we continued to move on when they sat down, or that we rose to go before they had sufficiently rested. They looked at one another, so far as I could make out by the faint light, and occasionally they laughed; but they would not and did not stir till such time as pleased themselves. We were helpless. Impossible to go on alone; impossible also to explain to them why every moment was precious, for the acquaintance who had acted as interpreter had been obliged to stay behind at Sardarbulakh, and we were absolutely without means of communication with our companions. One could not even be angry, had there been any use in that, for they were perfectly good-humored. It was all very well to beckon them, or pull them by the elbow, or clap them on the back; they thought this was only our fun, and sat still and chattered all the same. When it grew light enough to see the hands of a watch, and mark how the hours advanced while the party did not, we began for a second time to despair of success.  1
  About 3 A.M. there suddenly sprang up from behind the Median mountains the morning star, shedding a light such as no star ever gave in these northern climes of ours,—a light that almost outshone the moon. An hour later it began to pale in the first faint flush of yellowish light that spread over the eastern heaven; and first the rocky masses above us, then Little Ararat, throwing behind him a gigantic shadow, then the long lines of mountains beyond the Araxes, became revealed, while the wide Araxes plain still lay dim and shadowy below. One by one the stars died out as the yellow turned to a deeper glow that shot forth in long streamers, the rosy fingers of the dawn, from the horizon to the zenith. Cold and ghostly lay the snows on the mighty cone; till at last there came upon their topmost slope, six thousand feet above us, a sudden blush of pink. Swiftly it floated down the eastern face, and touched and kindled the rocks just above us. Then the sun flamed out, and in a moment the Araxes valley and all the hollows of the savage ridges we were crossing were flooded with overpowering light.  2
  It was nearly six o’clock, and progress became easier now that we could see our way distinctly. The Cossacks seemed to grow lazier, halting as often as before and walking less briskly; in fact, they did not relish the exceeding roughness of the jagged lava ridges along whose tops or sides we toiled. I could willingly have lingered here myself; for in the hollows, wherever a little soil appeared, some interesting plants were growing, whose similarity to and difference from the Alpine species of Western Europe alike excited one’s curiosity. Time allowed me to secure only a few; I trusted to get more on the way back, but this turned out to be impossible. As we scrambled along a ridge above a long narrow winding glen filled with loose blocks, one of the Kurds suddenly swooped down like a vulture from the height on a spot at the bottom, and began peering and grubbing among the stones. In a minute or two he cried out, and the rest followed; he had found a spring, and by scraping in the gravel had made a tiny basin out of which we could manage to drink a little. Here was a fresh cause of delay: everybody was thirsty, and everybody must drink; not only the water which, as we afterwards saw, trickled down hither under the stones from a snow-bed seven hundred feet higher, but the water mixed with some whisky from a flask my friend carried, which even in this highly diluted state the Cossacks took to heartily. When at last we got them up and away again, they began to waddle and strangle; after a while two or three sat down, and plainly gave us to see they would go no farther. By the time we had reached a little snow-bed whence the now strong sun was drawing a stream of water, and halted on the rocks beside it for breakfast, there were only two Cossacks and the four Kurds left with us, the rest having scattered themselves about somewhere lower down. We had no idea what instructions they had received, nor whether indeed they had been told anything except to bring us as far as they could, to see that the Kurds brought the baggage, and to fetch us back again, which last was essential for Jaafar’s peace of mind. We concluded therefore that if left to themselves they would probably wait our return; and the day was running on so fast that it was clear there was no more time to be lost in trying to drag them along with us.  3
  Accordingly I resolved to take what I wanted in the way of food, and start at my own pace. My friend, who carried more weight, and had felt the want of training on our way up, decided to come no farther, but wait about here, and look out for me towards nightfall. We noted the landmarks carefully,—the little snow-bed, the head of the glen covered with reddish masses of stone and gravel; and high above it, standing out of the face of the great cone of Ararat, a bold peak or rather projecting tooth of black rock, which our Cossacks called the Monastery, and which, I suppose from the same fancied resemblance to a building, is said to be called in Tatar Tach Kilissa, “the church rock.” It is doubtless an old cone of eruption, about thirteen thousand feet in height, and is really the upper end of the long ridge we had been following, which may perhaps represent a lava flow from it, or the edge of a fissure which at this point found a vent….  4
  It was an odd position to be in: guides of two different races, unable to communicate either with us or with one another; guides who could not lead and would not follow; guides one-half of whom were supposed to be there to save us from being robbed and murdered by the other half, but all of whom, I am bound to say, looked for the moment equally simple and friendly, the swarthy Iranian as well as the blue-eyed Slav.  5
  At eight o’clock I buckled on my canvas gaiters, thrust some crusts of bread, a lemon, a small flask of cold tea, four hard-boiled eggs, and a few meat lozenges into my pocket, bade good-by to my friend, and set off. Rather to our surprise, the two Cossacks and one of the Kurds came with me, whether persuaded by a pantomime of encouraging signs, or simply curious to see what would happen. The ice-axe had hugely amused the Cossacks all through. Climbing the ridge to the left, and keeping along its top for a little way, I then struck across the semicircular head of a wide glen, in the middle of which, a little lower, lay a snow-bed over a long steep slope of loose broken stones and sand. This slope, a sort of talus or “screen” as they say in the Lake country, was excessively fatiguing from the want of firm foothold; and when I reached the other side, I was already so tired and breathless, having been on foot since midnight, that it seemed almost useless to persevere farther. However, on the other side I got upon solid rock, where the walking was better, and was soon environed by a multitude of rills bubbling down over the stones from the stone-slopes above. The summit of Little Ararat, which had for the last two hours provokingly kept at the same apparent height above me, began to sink, and before ten o’clock I could look down upon its small flat top, studded with lumps of rock, but bearing no trace of a crater. Mounting steadily along the same ridge, I saw at a height of over thirteen thousand feet, lying on the loose blocks, a piece of wood about four feet long and five inches thick, evidently cut by some tool, and so far above the limit of trees that it could by no possibility be a natural fragment of one. Darting on it with a glee that astonished the Cossack and the Kurd, I held it up to them, and repeated several times the word “Noah.” The Cossack grinned; but he was such a cheery, genial fellow that I think he would have grinned whatever I had said, and I cannot be sure that he took my meaning, and recognized the wood as a fragment of the true Ark. Whether it was really gopher wood, of which material the Ark was built, I will not undertake to say, but am willing to submit to the inspection of the curious the bit which I cut off with my ice-axe and brought away. Anyhow, it will be hard to prove that it is not gopher wood. And if there be any remains of the Ark on Ararat at all,—a point as to which the natives are perfectly clear,—here rather than the top is the place where one might expect to find them, since in the course of ages they would get carried down by the onward movement of the snow-beds along the declivities. This wood, therefore, suits all the requirements of the case. In fact, the argument is for the case of a relic exceptionally strong: the Crusaders who found the Holy Lance at Antioch, the archbishop who recognized the Holy Coat at Trèves, not to speak of many others, proceeded upon slighter evidence. I am, however, bound to admit that another explanation of the presence of this piece of timber on the rocks of this vast height did occur to me. But as no man is bound to discredit his own relic, and such is certainly not the practice of the Armenian Church, I will not disturb my readers’ minds or yield to the rationalizing tendencies of the age by suggesting it.  6
  Fearing that the ridge by which we were mounting would become too precipitous higher up, I turned off to the left, and crossed a long, narrow snow-slope that descended between this ridge and another line of rocks more to the west. It was firm, and just steep enough to make steps cut in the snow comfortable, though not necessary; so the ice-axe was brought into use. The Cossack who accompanied me—there was but one now, for the other Cossack had gone away to the right some time before, and was quite lost to view—had brought my friend’s alpenstock, and was developing a considerable capacity for wielding it. He followed nimbly across; but the Kurd stopped on the edge of the snow, and stood peering and hesitating, like one who shivers on the plank at a bathing-place, nor could the jeering cries of the Cossack induce him to venture on the treacherous surface. Meanwhile, we who had crossed were examining the broken cliff which rose above us. It looked not exactly dangerous, but a little troublesome, as if it might want some care to get over or through. So after a short rest I stood up, touched my Cossack’s arm, and pointed upward. He reconnoitred the cliff with his eye, and shook his head. Then, with various gestures of hopefulness, I clapped him on the back, and made as though to pull him along. He looked at the rocks again and pointed to them, stroked his knees, turned up and pointed to the soles of his boots, which certainly were suffering from the lava, and once more solemnly shook his head. This was conclusive: so I conveyed to him my pantomime that he had better go back to the bivouac where my friend was, rather than remain here alone, and that I hoped to meet him there in the evening; took an affectionate farewell, and turned towards the rocks. There was evidently nothing for it but to go on alone. It was half-past ten o’clock, and the height about thirteen thousand six hundred feet, Little Ararat now lying nearly one thousand feet below the eye.
*        *        *        *        *
  Not knowing how far the ridge I was following might continue passable, I was obliged to stop frequently to survey the rocks above, and erect little piles of stone to mark the way. This not only consumed time, but so completely absorbed the attention that for hours together I scarcely noticed the marvelous landscape spread out beneath, and felt the solemn grandeur of the scenery far less than many times before on less striking mountains. Solitude at great heights, or among majestic rocks or forests, commonly stirs in us all deep veins of feeling, joyous or saddening, or more often of joy and sadness mingled. Here the strain on the observing senses seemed too great for fancy or emotion to have any scope. When the mind is preoccupied by the task of the moment, imagination is checked. This was a race against time, in which I could only scan the cliffs for a route, refer constantly to the watch, husband my strength by morsels of food taken at frequent intervals, and endeavor to conceive how a particular block or bit of slope which it would be necessary to recognize would look when seen the other way in descending….  8
  All the way up this rock-slope, which proved so fatiguing that for the fourth time I had almost given up hope, I kept my eye fixed on its upper end to see what signs there were of crags or snow-fields above. But the mist lay steadily at the point where the snow seemed to begin, and it was impossible to say what might be hidden behind that soft white curtain. As little could I conjecture the height I had reached by looking around, as one so often does on mountain ascents, upon other summits; for by this time I was thousands of feet above Little Ararat, the next highest peak visible, and could scarcely guess how many thousands. From this tremendous height it looked more like a broken obelisk than an independent summit twelve thousand eight hundred feet in height. Clouds covered the farther side of the great snow basin, and were seething like waves about the savage pinnacles, the towers of the Jinn palace, which guard its lower margin, and past which my upward path had lain. With mists to the left and above, and a range of black precipices cutting off all view to the right, there came a vehement sense of isolation and solitude, and I began to understand better the awe with which the mountain silence inspires the Kurdish shepherds. Overhead the sky had turned from dark blue to an intense bright green, a color whose strangeness seemed to add to the weird terror of the scene. It wanted barely an hour to the time when I had resolved to turn back; and as I struggled up the crumbling rocks, trying now to right and now to left, where the foothold looked a little firmer, I began to doubt whether there was strength enough left to carry me an hour higher. At length the rock-slope came suddenly to an end, and I stepped out upon the almost level snow at the top of it, coming at the same time into the clouds, which naturally clung to the colder surfaces. A violent west wind was blowing, and the temperature must have been pretty low, for a big icicle at once enveloped the lower half of my face, and did not melt till I got to the bottom of the cone four hours afterwards. Unluckily I was very thinly clad, the stout tweed coat reserved for such occasions having been stolen on a Russian railway. The only expedient to be tried against the piercing cold was to tighten in my loose light coat by winding around the waist a Spanish faja, or scarf, which I had brought up to use in case of need as a neck wrapper. Its bright purple looked odd enough in such surroundings, but as there was nobody there to notice, appearances did not much matter. In the mist, which was now thick, the eye could pierce only some thirty yards ahead; so I walked on over the snow five or six minutes, following the rise of its surface, which was gentle, and fancying there might still be a good long way to go. To mark the backward track I trailed the point of the ice-axe along behind me in the soft snow, for there was no longer any landmark; all was cloud on every side. Suddenly to my astonishment the ground began to fall away to the north; I stopped; a puff of wind drove off the mists on one side, the opposite side to that by which I had come, and showed the Araxes plain at an abysmal depth below. It was the top of Ararat.  9

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